He shook his head and raised a hand, indicating he didn’t want a response.
A moment later, Ranon walked into the room—and Talon walked out.
*Talon,* Cayle said. *We’ve got the horses loaded in the livestock Coach. Haele and Burne are at the station. Everyone else is gone.*
*Then go,* Talon replied. *I’m last man out.*
*See you in Eyota.*
*Yes, you will. May the Darkness embrace you.*
Standing outside the Grayhaven mansion, Talon watched the sun rise—and felt the light begin to drain the power from his demon-dead flesh. Smarter to stay here until sundown, but once he delivered his message, it would be best for all of them if he left. He’d need fresh human blood, not yarbarah, by the time he reached Eyota, but now he knew how to ask for it without feeling shame for what he was taking from the living.
He walked the hallways, delaying the moment when he would reach the family wing. Servants were already stirring. Dryden and Elle would be in the kitchen with Maydra, having a simple breakfast while the three reviewed the day’s schedule. Birdie, who mostly looked after the rooms of the Queen, Steward, and Healer, gave him a sleepy smile as she passed him in a hallway. She was shy as a rabbit when she first came to work here a few weeks ago, but was getting braver because the Queen she served treated her with respect.
“Birdie,” he called before she disappeared around a corner.
“Prince Talon?” She returned, looking uncertain since he’d never asked her for anything before.
He called in a half sheet of paper and the stub of a pencil, and wrote, “The Queen’s residence has moved to Eyota, a village in the eastern Shalador reserve.”
He folded the paper into quarters and handed it to her. “Give that to Dryden.”
“Yes, sir.” Birdie started to leave, then hesitated. “Sir? Do you think Maydra should make up a tray for Lady Cassidy? The Lady’s stomach has been a mite tender, and maybe a peaceful breakfast would help.”
A stab of guilt. The Warlords and Warlord Princes who had lived in the Tamanara Mountains had swept into villages to get supplies, visit friends and family, and hunt down the men who willingly served the Queens they viewed as enemies. Then they swept out again, back to their guarded camps in the mountains, leaving the villagers behind to endure the Queen’s grace.
What would being at Kermilla’s beck and call do to a girl like Birdie?
“Lady Cassidy won’t need a tray this morning,” he said. “Don’t forget to give that to Dryden.”
“No, sir. I’ll do it right away.”
He watched her go, a spring in her step. There was no spring in his. He needed to finish this task and get out.
When Theran answered the sharp rap on the bedroom door and blocked the view into his room, Talon wondered if there was someone with him—and who it might be.
“The Queen’s court is no longer in residence,” Talon said. “The Queen’s court now resides in Eyota.”
Theran’s eyes remained sleepy and blank a moment too long. And that moment too long told Talon everything he needed to know about Theran’s loyalty to Cassidy—and also confirmed another truth that had been hidden under his own strength and the Grayhaven name: Theran didn’t have that subtlesomething that made a man a true leader.
Theran’s face darkened with anger. “Why should we move there and inconvenience everyone?”
“Everyone being your guest?” Talon asked with a mildness that hid heartache and anger.
“Kermilla, yes, but the court as well. Why should we have to pack up just because Cassidy is acting like a spoiled child?”
Talon snarled. “Be careful what you say, boy. You’re talking about the Queen.”
“So you expect me to leave my family’s home and go live in a Shalador reserve?” Theran snapped.
“You’re not welcome there.” He said the words because they were true.
Theran’s eyes widened. He looked stunned, hurt.
“This is how it’s going to be, Theran. Trust that I mean everything I say.” No response but wariness. At least the boy had sense enough to be wary. “You will remain as First Escort so that the court remains intact. You promised to serve Cassidy for one year. That promise was witnessed by the most powerful men in all the Realms. But they aren’t here. I am, and I will hold you to that promise. What you do the day after that contract is fulfilled is your own business, but you will do nothing to break this court. If you do, I will kill your whore.”
“Kermilla isnot a whore!”
“In exchange for keeping your oath of service, you will rule the town of Grayhaven on the Queen’s behalf. All the tithes from the town will be your income to do with as you please. Half should go to the treasury, but no one is going to ask for an accounting of your expenses.”
“Talon, you’re making a mistake.”
He heard a hint of panic in Theran’s voice. Good. The boy was finally understanding that he no longer had the support that had always guarded his back.
“While she stands on Dena Nehele land, Kermilla will be confined to this town,” Talon continued. “The Queen ordered Kermilla out of her Territory. You disregarded that command and made her your personal guest. The shame is on the rest of the First Circle, and especially me, that we let you do that. Because the fault is ours as well as yours, we will not raise a hand against Kermilla while she remains in Grayhaven. However, by sunrise tomorrow, every Warlord Prince in Dena Nehele will know she is considered an enemy of the Queen and tolerated only so long as she remains in the town under your rule. The moment she steps beyond that line, we will deal with her as we have dealt with every other enemy.”
Theran looked shocked. “Kermilla is the Queen we should have had. She’s the one who should have been here from the beginning, not Cassidy. I know you have to fulfill your contract with the court, and I respect that, but don’t turn your back on the Queen you can serve next spring.”
Sadness filled Talon. He’d faced this moment before with friends, but he had never felt this bitter. And now that he felt the bond that drove a Warlord Prince to serve a particular Queen, he finally understood why good men had served bad Queens—and had become twisted because of that service. He could only hope that the bond Theran felt broke before something in Theran did. “Kermilla is your Queen, isn’t she? Something about her calls to you to cherish and protect.”
“She’s the right Queen for Dena Nehele. For all of us. If you’d just take the time to get to know her . . .”