*Of course he wants you,* Vae said. *But he is male and human, and sometimes he gets confused. Don’t you?*
Ranon glanced at Khardeen.
*There is only one correct answer,* Khardeen said. *So take the kick in the balls, apologize to your little brother, and assure him that he can live with you.*
*Is there any other choice?*
*Not if you want to stay healthy. Darkmist is a year older than his little brother and isn’t someone you want to tangle with,* Khardeen said.
Darkmist? Ranon scanned the Sceltie faces. The dogs were a variety of colors, but there were three that might fit the name—if the name was meant to fit. Two were a silver-gray and white, and the third . . .
Pewter and white with black speckles on the face. And an Opal Jewel.
Warlord Prince.Ranon stared at the dog who matched him, caste and rank. Then he swallowed hard and went down on one knee, aware he was putting his throat a lot closer to all those sets of teeth.
“What’s your name?” he asked, tentatively extending a hand to the homely little dog.
Woeful brown eyes looked at him, but the tip of the tail gave a hopeful little wag. *Khollie.*
“Well, Khollie, Vae is right. I am confused. I’ve never seen so many Scelties, and I guess I didn’t realize . . .” What? Then inspiration struck, and with a silent apology to his beloved, he added, “You can help me take care of my mate.”
More tail wagging. Woeful began to lighten to happy as Khollie slipped his head under Ranon’s hand for a pat.
*You have a mate? I will help you!*
Suddenly his arms were full of chin-licking, tail-wagging dog—and he really hoped Shira was going to forgive him for siccing a Sceltie on her.
“Vae, why don’t you show Ladvarian and Khollie where Khollie will be staying,” Khardeen said. The mild tone didn’t make the words any less of a command.
Crisis over, the Scelties scattered to continue their sniffing exploration of the cottages and vegetation near the Queen’s Residence, leaving the two humans alone.
Khardeen said nothing, giving Ranon time to regain some balance and think.
“It won’t be that bad,” Khardeen finally said. “A month from now, you won’t remember what it was like to live in a village without Scelties.”
What a terrifying thought. But it was remembering the look in Darkmist’s eyes and thefeel of the dog that had Ranon watching the way they moved, spreading out from the Residence. Too orderly. More like a troop of warriors spreading out to get the most information about a place in the least amount of time. Which made him wonder about the twelve dogs that were going to be living among his people—and made him remember a comment that almost passed by his notice.
“You said Ladvarian was First Circle in the Dark Court?”
“Yes,” Khardeen replied. “He was one of Lady Angelline’s escorts.”
Ranon looked Khardeen in the eyes. “He was trained to fight?”
“By Lucivar Yaslana, the Demon Prince, and the High Lord, among others,” Khardeen said softly. “In turn, Ladvarian trained each of the youngsters who have come here. Don’t underestimate Darkmist, Ranon. A Warlord Prince is a Warlord Prince, whether he stands on two legs or four, and Mist has received the best education when it comes to knowing what to do in a fight.”
“And they’re all going to live . . . ?” Ranon looked at the Queen’s Residence.
“Oh, they’ll work that out. I suspect most of them will come back here for the first few days. Then they’ll find their own place in the village—as well as their special humans.”
Thank the Darkness.
He was not a coward. He knew that about himself. But the thought of living in the same house with more than two Scelties made his knees weak.
“About Khollie,” Khardeen said. “Do you have any brothers?”
“One. Younger by ten years.” Could he extend Khollie’s “help” to Janos as well?
“Do you remember what it’s like to talk to a four-year-old boy?”
“Then you should have no trouble.” Khardeen gave him a sharp smile. “Just think of Khollie as a bright four-year-old boy, and you’re the older brother who needs to explain things to him so that his behavior doesn’t cause trouble for him or the people around him.”
Great. Just what he needed when there was already so much to do—a furry baby brother.
Khardeen called in a large metal trunk that immediately began to sweat in the heat, along with a large metal canister. “Here’s a cold box of meat for them. And that’s the oatmeal that is made into a gruel as part of their feed a couple of times a week.”
“Vae doesn’t eat that,” Ranon said. Although, now that he thought about it, some mornings the porridge bowls left on the table looked a little too clean. Like someone had licked them clean.
“Well,” Khardeen said, looking toward the house. “It’s time we were heading back. I’m expected for dinner at the Keep.”
Ladvarian, Vae, and Khollie came trotting out of the Residence—using Craft to pass through the door, Ranon noted. Which meant he wouldn’t need to get up in the middle of the night if the dog wanted to pee.
Ladvarian gave the two youngsters a lick on their muzzles. Khardeen tipped his head, said good-bye, and the two Warlords headed back up the street to the landing web.
Then Khardeen stopped and turned to face Ranon.
*There was that second thing to tell you,* he said. *Lady Cassidy’s report will go to the Keep three days from now?*
*You’re to be the messenger.*
*Because the Queen wants to see you.*
No doubt aboutwhich Queen was commanding his presence. No doubt at all. And no question that he would obey that command.
*I’ll be there.*And may the Darkness have mercy on me.
He watched them until they were out of sight. Then he felt a flash of frustration and temper. He looked to his right and saw one of the Scelties—a witch by what he could sense—staring at empty air, gently wagging her tail.
A moment later, Archerr dropped the sight shield that should have kept him hidden and strode over to Ranon, quickly followed by Shaddo, who was trailed by his two boys.
“Hell’s fire,” Archerr said as the witch trotted away and a Warlord headed toward them. “What good is a sight shield if a dog is going to smell you and let everyone know you’re there?”
“Not much,” Ranon said. But damn useful if an enemy was trying to sight shield to get close enough to attack. With two Scelties living at the Residence, they were less likely to have any unwelcome company showing up to bother Cassidy.