“It’s good to be home,” she said—and wondered if she would recognize the inside of the place. After all, she’d been gone five days and had told Powell he could do pretty much as he pleased.

“Those cottages across from the Residence weren’t occupied when we left,” Ranon said, studying the street while offering Shira a hand. “Shaddo and Archerr must be back.”

The door of the Residence opened. Talon stepped out and strode over to them.

The way he looked her over—as if assessing a warrior he’d sent out on a difficult mission who had finally returned—she wondered how many reports, and complaints, the Master of the Guard and Steward had received in the past five days.

“Shaddo and Archerr are back?” she asked.

“They are,” Talon replied. “Lady Shira, tomorrow will be soon enough, but I think a visit from the court Healer would be in order for both families. Those people have not had an easy time.”

“Should I go over and welcome them?” Cassidy asked.

“No.”

The finality of that statement shook her.

“Tomorrow afternoon is soon enough for them to have an audience with the Queen,” Talon said.

“Surely we don’t have to be so formal—” She swallowed the rest of her protest. It was clear Talon thought there was reason for that formality.

“Powell has worked out a schedule of afternoons when you are available to give audiences,” Talon said.

“Afternoons?” Cassidy stammered. “Audiences? Hell’s fire! I thought Powell was going to rearrange the furniture, not my life!”

“Did you?”

The amusement under the dry words made her take a step back. “Is tomorrow morning soon enough to go over my social calendar?”

“I think so,” Talon replied.

“Good. Then there’s enough time for a quick bite to eat before I meet Lord Yairen for my drumming lesson.”

“No.”Ranon backed away from her, his dark eyes filled with fear. “No, he can’t do that.”

Staggered by his distress, she said nothing as he strode down the street toward his grandfather’s house. Then she turned to Shira.

“Yairen offered to teach you?” Shira asked, her voice breaking as tears filled her eyes.

“Yes. When Ranon brought me back here, Yairen stayed with me and we talked. He offered to teach me the drums. He said drums were a woman’s instrument because they were the sound of the land’s heartbeat. Shira, why is Ranon so upset? Is it against Shaladoran customs to teach an outsider?”

Tears spilled over. Shira shuddered with the effort to maintain some control. “We weren’t forbidden music or stories or dances as long as they were from Dena Nehele—or Hayll. But anything that came from Shalador, that came from the hearts ofour people was forbidden. Ranon’s grandfather is a Tradition Keeper of Music. He taught people how to play drums and the flute. He wasn’t as skilled with the fiddle and only taught the basics. But he defied the Queens who ruled here and taught the Shalador drum rhythms and the Shalador songs. So they broke his hands as punishment. And when his hands healed the first time, he continued to teach the music of our people. So they broke his hands again. The third time, the Queens’ Healers made sure the fingers healed wrong so that Yairen could no longer play. Ranon was a small boy the last time Yairen’s hands were broken. But, somehow, Yairen still taught Ranon to play the Shalador flute—and taught him the songs of our people.”

Cassidy stood frozen while Shira dried her eyes and the men shifted uneasily.

How much trust had gone into what she’d thought was Yairen’s friendly offer? How much fear had ridden alongside that trust?

“I want all the Tradition Keepers in this village here within the hour,” Cassidy said quietly.

“Cassie . . .” Gray began.

She raised a hand, cutting him off. Then she looked at her Master of the Guard. “See that it’s done, Prince Talon.”

She walked into the Residence. Powell took one look at her face and swallowed whatever greeting or comment he intended to make.

She went up to her room, blind to whatever changes had been made in her absence. All she could see was the fear on Ranon’s face before he walked away.

Cassidy stood in the street in front of the Queen’s Residence. The Tradition Keepers stood before her in their shabby best clothes. Filling the streets around them were the people of the village.

“Lord Yairen.” Cassidy used Craft to enhance her voice. She wanted everyone who had come to stand witness to hear her words.

Yairen stepped forward, standing tall. “How may I serve the Queen?”

“I have just learned today that your people have been forbidden to play the music that was born of Shalador, that you have been forbidden to perform the traditional dances, or teach the young the stories of your people. Is this true?”

“It is true, Lady,” Yairen said. “All have been forbidden for many generations.”

“But the Tradition Keepers have remembered these forbidden things?”

Yairen hesitated. How many times had one of the Keepers been cornered into answering a question that would condemn them?

She didn’t have an actual psychic link to Ranon, but his psychic scent was filled with distress. Wouldn’t know it to look at him, standing cold and arrogant with the rest of her First Circle, but the worry that he might have misjudged her was eating his heart out.

“Some things have been lost,” Yairen finally said, “but those of us who are the memory of our people have held on to enough.”

Cassidy nodded. “In that case, as of this hour, the music of the Shalador people will be taught and will be played openly. The dances of the Shalador people will be taught and performed openly. The stories of the Shalador people will be taught and told openly. The Queens in the Shalador reserves will be given a written decree so they will know these words are true. But it will be up to the Tradition Keepers to return Shalador’s heart to its people. This is my will.”

Silence.

Finally one of the Tradition Keepers raised his hand. “Does this mean we can perform the circle dances this autumn?”

“Yes,” Cassidy replied.

Another silence.

Then Yairen pressed one of his crippled hands to his chest. “Our hearts are too full for words tonight.”

Cassidy swallowed hard. “Then return to your homes. We will speak more of this tomorrow.”

She took a step back, a clear signal this audience was over.

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