What he faced was so much worse.

There was a chilling blankness in Gray’s eyes, and Ranon couldn’t shake the conviction that what was under that blankness was a violence that even the Blood would find shocking. There was a smoldering fury in Shira’s eyes, and he hoped with everything in him that he wasn’t the target.

He brushed lightly against the first of her inner barriers—and found nothing comforting.

*My first loyalty is to the Queen, remember?* he asked her.

She didn’t respond, but he sensed a little less tension in her. He didn’t blame her for being angry. All he’d told her was that he and Cassidy were leaving the mansion and she should inform Gray so he wouldn’t be searching for her and alarm the First Circle. Of course, Shira and Gray had assumed Cassidy would be with him when he returned.

The other men looked a little pissed off at being summoned so early in the morning. Except Powell, who sat quietly, staring at his hands—especially at his left hand, which a Queen had broken because he cared more about people who needed food and clothes than about the Queen’s purse.

Then Talon entered the room and put Sapphire shields around the room and a Sapphire lock on the door.

“All right, Ranon,” Talon said. “You were very specific about who should attend this meeting—and who should not. We’re here. Now talk.”

He heard temper that was chained—but not for long. Not if he said the wrong thing. Talon outranked all of them, had centuries of fighting experience, and had locked them all in a room with the strongest predator in Dena Nehele.

Had lockedhim in a room with the strongest predator.

“I took Cassidy to Eyota, to the boardinghouse,” Ranon said.

Gray snarled and took a step toward him.

Powell raised his head and stared at him.

He didn’t want to turn his back on Talon, but Gray was the more volatile threat, so he faced the Warlord Prince who had been a friend—and might now be an enemy.

“She was going to leave us, Gray,” he said quickly, wanting them to hear him, to know why he made this choice before someone’s temper snapped the leash. “She was going to leave all of us. When I went up to her suite to check on her, her trunks were packed. She was going back to Dharo.”

“She wouldn’t leave without telling me,” Gray said too softly as he took another step toward Ranon. “She wouldn’t leave without me.”

“I had to get her out of here, get her hidden so she would feel safe. I promised to come back and tell you, and I have, Gray. As soon as I got her settled at the boardinghouse, I came back. To talk to you. All of you.”

“You should have talked to us first,” Talon growled.

“Maybe I should have.” Ranon turned enough to address Talon and still keep track of Gray. “But she was focused on getting out of this house. I did what the Queen needed, rather than what the court required.”Sweet Darkness, please let Talon understand the difference.

“She’s sick,” Shira said, her voice oddly hollow. “She tried to hide it, but there’s so much pain in her it’s like a poison. She knew I could feel it. That’s why she stopped coming to me for help. She didn’t want anyone sensing that pain.”

“As Steward, I must censure Prince Ranon for not informing the Master of the Guard that he was taking the Queen away from the protection of her escorts,” Powell said quietly. “However, I also applaud the speed in which he acted on the Queen’s behalf—and on the court’s behalf. And I’m wondering if, despite the reason it came about, this might not be a good thing.”

They all turned toward Powell.

“How so?” Talon asked.

Powell pulled on one earlobe. “From the day she formed her court, Cassidy has been hobbled by Theran’s resistance to every attempt she has made to be a Queen to our people. He brought her here, so we have deferred to him, letting him dictate what she could and could not do. But I, for one, would like to see what Cassidy can do as our Queen without those hobbles.”

I’d like to see that too,Ranon thought.

“So,” Powell said. “Are we moving the Queen’s residence to the boardinghouse? If that’s the case, some work will need to be done to some of the rooms.”

“Is that what we’re talking about?” Archerr looked at Ranon. “A permanent move to a Shalador reserve?”

“I don’t know,” Ranon replied, feeling the need to tread carefully. “I just wanted to get her away from Kermilla and those Dharo bastards so Cassidy could rest without having that bitch in her face every time she turned around.”

“Why haven’t we booted Lady Kermilla out of Dena Nehele?” Shaddo asked.

“Or buried her,” Spere said.

“Because she’s a Queen from Kaeleer and a guest in this house,” Talon said. “And despite the pain her presence causes Cassidy, Kermilla hasn’t done anything to justify execution.”

“However, Kermillawas involved in something that harmed Cassidy back in Dharo,” Powell said. “Something that made her feel she was less of a Queen.”

“The whip that drives Cassie,” Gray said softly.

“Gray?” Ranon said just as softly. The blankness faded from Gray’s eyes, replaced by a steely anger.

“When I went up to the Keep to talk to the High Lord, he said the whip that drives Cassie was shaped before she arrived in Dena Nehele—and left scars. That’s why she drained herself too much and got hurt. She was trying to prove she could be a good Queen.”

“I think we all have a good idea now whose hand held that whip,” Talon said, his voice rumbling like icy gravel.

“All the more reason to keep Lady Cassidy away from this house while Theran’s guest is in residence,” Shira said.

Talon looked at Powell, who nodded.

“All right,” Talon said. “We’ll go to Eyota, and we’ll go with the assumption we won’t be coming back to Grayhaven, whether we stay in that village or not. And we have to move fast.”

“Yes,” Powell said. “It would be best if we depart before Theran realizes Cassidy is gone. And it would be best not to leave any of the court’s records behind.”

A long beat of silence.

“What are you saying?” Ranon asked.

“That for a Queen who rules a small village in another Realm and is supposed to be a guest, Lady Kermilla is asking inappropriate questions about the tithes a Queen here could expect.” Powell looked at Talon, whose mouth thinned to a grim line.

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