That evening only emphasized the differences between the two women. Kermilla might be younger, but she was far more aristo and sophisticated. Which made it difficult when the town, and the remaining aristo families, had so little to offer.

“No, this is something else,” Theran said. “Some Queens have arrived to learn that Queen’s Craft of using power to enrich the land.”

Kermilla rolled her eyes. “Oh.That. Every Queen knows how to do that.”

“No, they don’t. The Queens here have forgotten. They need someone to lead them, to teach them.”

She gave him a sexy pout that always made him wonder what her mouth would taste like, but there wasn’t time for distractions.

“Cassidy offered to show them,” Theran said.

“Then let Cassidy show them,” Kermilla snapped. “She always liked digging in the dirt.”

Theran hesitated. He couldn’t make promises, couldn’t give her assurances yet, but hecould hint strongly enough that she wouldn’t mistake his meaning. Not after the other hints he’d given her.

“A Territory Queen needs to be a strong leader, needs to teach the skills that will benefit the people.” He stopped walking and looked at her intently so she would understand this was important. “When Cassidy’s contract ends next spring, the Warlord Princes will need to select another Queen to rule Dena Nehele. They’ll take the opinions and preferences of the Queens who are here today into account.”

He waited.

Several seconds later, her eyes widened. “Oh. Isee . Well then, since Cassidy isn’t here to perform her duties, I will be happy to assist you, Theran. It would be a shame if my Sisters made a journey here for nothing.”

He smiled, relieved. “Exactly.”

Surreal took his face between her hands and smiled. “You have a penis, and it makes you strange. Try not to be an ass on top of it.”

“I’mnot an ass,” Gray muttered as he watched Cassidy explain to another group of Queens the different ways of using their power to enhance the crops in a field.

“Are you still snarling about that?” Ranon asked, also keeping close watch.

“You’d be snarling too if she’d said it to you.”

“Probably,” Ranon replied, smiling. Then he sighed. Gray heard so much relief in that sound.

“Last one,” Gray said. “Then we can go home.”

They had fought it out for hours after Surreal and Rainier left. Powell had tried to keep things courteous, but it felt like yelling was the only way to bridge the gap between what Cassie wanted to do and what the court was willing to let her do.

In the end, neither side was happy, but the compromise was something they could all live with.

Thirty villages in five days, spread over the three Shalador reserves and the two southernmost Provinces. Fifteen Blood and fifteen landen. Cassie had insisted that the landens be included.Every man had been opposed tothat— until Vae nipped Ranon in the ass. So Cassie, backed by Vae’s teeth, had won that part of the argument.

Gray hadn’t fought in the landen uprising. Hadn’t seen the bodies in the burned villages. Hadn’t found what was left of people he’d loved. But he understood why the other men had argued. It had been hard for the Warlord Princes especially to watch Cassie open a vein and fill that small offering cup to benefit landens.

But after the first landen village, they all understood why she had fought to do this. The landens were hostile and wary—and sure that a Queen’s presence meant pain. Mother Night, the looks on their faces when they realized Cassie and the Queens who came with her were doing something that would benefit their village and increase their crops so they could pay the tithe and still feed their children through the coming winter.

“You can’t erase generations of suffering and two years of war in a couple of hours,” Ranon said quietly. “But, sweet Darkness, Gray, the people in this village won’t look at the Blood the same way the next time we ride in.”

Because of the Queen with hazel eyes and sunset hair.

The Queens walked the field, dipping into the barrels of water that floated behind them and sprinkling the ground with water enhanced with their blood and power. First and last plant in each row got a dipper full of water. Gray could already see a difference in the first rows that had been given the Queens’ touch.

A gift. A part of what it meant to be a Queen. The ritual cup of blood made the water richer and nourished the land faster, but power alone could be released into the water or directly into the land. The results weren’t as dramatic, but it was less physically demanding for the Queen and something they could do often without endangering themselves.

Learning about that option had almost started another quarrel between him and Cassie over her first careless release of power. Probably just as well that Surreal and Rainier had already gone home before he found out about it.

“I’m glad there’s a way the Queens can use their gift without spilling their own blood,” Gray said.

“Shira is pleased about that too,” Ranon replied. “She wasn’t happy about Cassidy opening a vein every time to siphon some power into the land. The men who serve can accept blood being given once a year in a ceremony when the rest of the time it’s just the Ladies releasing a bit of power into the land or water.” He paused. “Even using restraint and letting other Queens demonstrate, Cassidy has drained herself more than she should have.”

“Well, she’s going to go home andrest for a day,” Gray said, feeling his temper sharpen at the thought of her collapsing again.

Ranon snorted. “Good luck getting her to do that.”

Gray closed his eyes and began counting. “Her moontime is coming. Shehas to rest during those first three days. It’s arule. ”

He could feel Ranon watching him.

“And that fussing thing,” he said, opening his eyes enough to keep track of Cassie. “That first time, Lucivar said something about being allowed to fuss during those days, but I wasn’t paying attention.”

He heard Ranon try to choke it back, but the laughter burst out.

“Hell’s fire, Gray,” Ranon said when he was able to speak again. “You’re turning into a pain in the ass.”

Something inside him shifted, settled. Felt solid—and right. He looked at his friend and said, “No, I’m turning into a Warlord Prince.”

Kermilla lay back on her bed and smiled.

The Queen of Dena Nehele. She finally understood what all of Theran’s circling had been about. He wanted to know if she was interested in ruling Dena Nehele after Cassidy’s contract ran out. He didn’t want Freckledy; he wantedher.

Anne Bishop Books | Science Fiction Books | The Black Jewels Series Books