“Ranon, give me a hand,” Gray said when they reached the stairs.
“If he puts his hands on my ass and pushes, I’ll punch him,” Cassidy said.
“That’s not much of a threat when you can’t keep your eyes open long enough to see him,” Gray said.
“I can . . .”
Thattone of voice coming from Gray woke her up.
Something in those green eyes. Something that warned her this was one of those times a smart woman yielded to male sensibilities.
“Are you going to swear at me?” she asked.
A slow smile, male and satisfied, because the question told him he had won. “I’m thinking about it.”
So she had a bath. She had toast and scrambled eggs. And she asked one question.
“Is there anything I need to know about today?”
Shira pulled back the covers on the bed. “Not today.”
She got into bed and let the world slip away for a few more hours.
“I took the liberty of composing a note on the Queen’s behalf, and asked Spere to deliver it to the Keep,” Powell said.
Ranon frowned. “Why alert them that there’s trouble?”
“To avoid the potential for more trouble. And to prevent the messenger coming from Kaeleer from delivering Cassidy’s correspondence at Grayhaven. They’re going to know sooner or later. I thought it better to make the move sound matter-of-fact.”
Ranon glanced at the clock on the mantel. Where in the name of Hell was Talon? Yes, he was the last man out, but riding the Sapphire Wind, he should have arrived right behind them.
Janos tapped on the door of the room Powell was using as a temporary office until they worked out the logistics of having a court take up long-term residence in a building that wasn’t meant to hold a court.
“A messenger arrived with this,” he said, holding out a wax-sealed note to Ranon. “It’s for you.”
He broke the seal. Simple message. “ ‘Gone to ground,’ ” he read. “ ‘Will join you this evening. Talon.’ ”
“A prudent decision,” Powell said.
Ranon placed a hand on Powell’s shoulder and smiled. “So was sending that message to the Keep.”
They had a good court. They had a good Queen.
Now they needed to do whatever it took to keep both.
“What do you make of this?” Daemon asked, handing the paper to his father.
Saetan called in the half-moon glasses and read the message. Twice.
“It’s very carefully worded,” Saetan said. “Too carefully worded.”
He had the same impression. “First time we’ve received a message from Cassidy’s Steward. Do you think there’s trouble?”
“Almost certainly. And just as certainly, they don’t want us asking questions right now about why the Queen has suddenly changed her residence from a mansion in Dena Nehele’s capital to a boardinghouse in a small village located in a Shalador reserve.”
Daemon frowned as he stared at the note. The report Cassidy had sent after her return from Eyota had been too brief for his liking, but he’d sensed nothing from her words that couldn’t be explained by simple fatigue. Now . . .
“Has she gone back to Eyota to fix a problem, or has she left Grayhaven to get away from one?”
Handing the message back to Daemon, Saetan removed his glasses and vanished them. “Let’s see what Cassidy says in her next report. What she doesn’t say about this move will be as revealing as what she does say.”
Daemon vanished the paper. “I’ll ask my second-in-command to deliver the next batch of letters to Cassidy.”
He smiled dryly. “Surreal. She’s decided she’s going to work for me.”
“As far as I can figure out, whatever she damn well pleases. She hasn’t told me exactly what I’m paying her for this privilege, only that I’m going to be outrageously generous. I can send her and Rainier to Eyota. Between them, they’ll find out everything we need to know.”
“Speaking of everything we need to know, I understand Jaenelle and Ladvarian went to Scelt to talk to Morghann and Khary. Do you have any idea why?”
“No,” Daemon said, “and I’m not asking.”
Saetan smiled. “My darling, you’re not only becoming a wise man, you’re becoming a smart husband.”
The evening after their return to Eyota, Cassidy drank the restorative brew Shira had made for her and listened to the men argue, discuss, and sometimes snarl as they tried to figure out how to shoehorn a court into the boardinghouse. And that wouldn’t do at all. It would be like having too many guests crammed into her mother’s house at Winsol—fine for a few days when everyone was feeling cheerful and accommodating, but not something she would want to live with permanently.
Which meant drawing a line and refusing to let them shift it.
“Gentlemen,” she said quietly.
Gray was the first to focus his attention on her; Ranon was a close second, followed by Talon and Powell, which forced the others to swallow their opinions so they could hear what she had to say.
“A court is formed when twelve males make the commitment to serve a Queen and offer her their strength, their skills, and their loyalty. There is nothing in any book of Protocol that says they have to live with her. In Kaeleer, most Queens who rule a District—which is anything from one to a handful of villages—don’t live in a home large enough to accommodate the whole court.” She smiled at them.
Twelve men frowned at her. So did Shira—and Reyhana, who had returned to Eyota to be of service to the Queen of Dena Nehele.
“Ranon, do the Shalador Queens live in houses large enough to accommodate their whole First Circle?” Cassidy asked, hoping he’d give her the answer that would help make her point.
“There are no official courts in the Shalador reserves,” Ranon said. “The Queens merely help the elders keep the people under control so they will not offend the Province Queens or Territory Queen.” Then he stopped, and his expression revealed a man torn between loyalties.
“What you mean is, in order to protect the Queens and the men who were loyal to them, the Shalador Queens have no official-lookingcourts that might have been viewed as a challenge,” Cassidy said gently. “A Queen who can’t form an official court has no more power than any other witch because the court is the instrument by which she rules.”