Ranon said nothing. It was one thing for him to deny the truth about the Shalador courts once. That was an instinctive effort to protect his people, and probably something he’d been doing since he was a boy. But denying it twice would mean lying to her and that would be a break in trust.

“I have met the Shalador Queens, Ranon,” Cassidy said, “and I’m sure their courts arevery official. But not obvious to an outsider who expects a Queen to have a big house and lots of frills and ruffles.”

*Which is Ranon?* Shira asked. *A frill or a ruffle?*

Cassidy couldn’t hold back the quick burst of laughter that had all the men looking from her to Shira and back again.

Shira kept her head down and her hands folded in her lap. She would have looked demure if she could have stopped smiling.

“The point, gentlemen,” Cassidy said, not daring to look at any of them yet, “is that this court’s living accommodations should follow the arrangements that are typical for a Queen living in a small village.”

“You don’t rule a small village, Cassidy,” Powell said respectfully. “You rule the Territory of Dena Nehele.”

“Morghann is the Queen of Scelt—a Territory in Kaeleer. She lives in a small village not much bigger than this one. The only member of her First Circle who lives with her is Khardeen, the Warlord of Maghre. And the only reason he lives there is because he’s her husband as well as her Consort. Their house is divided between family and court. There are offices for her and the Steward, a smaller office for the Master of the Guard, a large meeting room, and a room where the First Circle can gather to relax, plan, or do whatever is needed. There is a large dining room that can accommodate the whole First Circle for a meal—or be used for social functions. The rest of the house belongs to the Queen and her family.”

“Then where does everyone else live?” Gray asked.

“In the village,” Cassidy replied. “And that’s what I’m proposing we do here.”

“It’s not safe.” Half the Circle growled that opinion—including Ranon.

“This is what I had in mind.” Cassidy raised her voice in order to be heard above the growls and mutters. “Talon and Powell will reside here with me. So will Gray, Shira, Ranon, and Reyhana since a young Queen training in a court requires a chaperon, and that is one of the duties of the First Circle. There are several cottages on this street and nearby streets that look abandoned, and they’re all close enough to the stable we’re using for the horses. If the village elders have no objections, the rest of the men can take up residence in those cottages.”

“In Kaeleer, why don’t those men want to stay close to their Queen?” Gray asked.

“Most of them have families,” Cassidy replied. “For the First Circle, their work is the court. They’re paid from the tithes. They have families. They have expenses. They have a life just like everyone else in the village.” She looked around the table. “You’ve never seen this, have you?”

Talon didn’t respond, but the rest of them shook their heads.

“Ranon, you must have seen this in the Shalador villages where the Queens lived.”

“I can’t say,” he replied. “The Queens’ safety depended on the rest of us not asking too many questions.”

“A Queen is entitled to a private life too,” Shira said.

Suddenly no one was looking at Cassidy—or Gray.

Powell cleared his throat. “Well, if such living accommodations are customary in Kaeleer, we can . . .”

“I have a wife,” Shaddo said suddenly. He stared hard at the surface of the table. “I have two sons. There’s no formal marriage contract. We couldn’t risk it.”

“Risk it?” Cassidy asked.

“The other Queens used to hold a wife or child hostage to try to force a Warlord Prince to surrender and subject himself to being controlled by a Ring of Obedience,” Talon said grimly. “Half the time, if the man gave in, the woman or child was killed anyway.”

“Mother Night,” Cassidy whispered. No wonder these men had been so wary of her.

“My oldest son will have his Birthright Ceremony this autumn,” Shaddo said. “Soli wasn’t going to acknowledge the paternal bloodline.”

“But your son would be considered a bastard,” Gray said. “He’d have no social standing.”

“But he’d be alive,” Shaddo said.

“Where are they?” Talon asked.

“A village close to the western border. A little north of the western reserve, actually,” Shaddo replied.

Cassidy swallowed tears, and her voice was huskier than usual because of them. “Shaddo, your wife should not be without her husband, and your sons should not be without their father. Unless the village elders have some objection, there is no reason why they can’t be here with you.”

Twelve men studied her, and she knew they heard the tears she couldn’t quite hide.

“The elders won’t object,” Ranon said. “But thisis one of the reserves. I doubt we can offer the kind of life they’re used to.”

“Any of those cottages is better than what they’re living in now,” Shaddo said.

“I have a sister,” Archerr said. “She has three children, two boys and a girl. Their village was burned during the landen uprisings. They survived because they weren’t home that day. They’d been out picking berries, and when they saw the smoke, they hid. She’s doing the best she can, but she needs some help to make a new start for herself and the children.”

And neither of you mentioned these women and children in the weeks since the court was formed?Cassidy wanted to rail at them for not speaking sooner. She couldn’t because she knew exactly what Lucivar and her cousin Aaron would say: defend and protect. For Shaddo and Archerr, the best way to protect the people they loved wasnot to bring them to her attention.

Until now.

“Shaddo, if you want, take one of your Brothers in the court to help you get your family packed and moved here. While you’re in the west, you can deliver messages to any of the Queens you can contact. Powell and I had sent messages about using the Queen’s Gift to help the land. The Ladies should be told where they can find me if they need instructions. That goes for you, too, Archerr. Powell, you’ll be responsible for converting the rooms the court needs for offices and gatherings.”

Cassidy took a deep breath and let it out in a sigh. Now the fight began. “The rest of you will assist me.”

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