*Boy puppies!* The black-and-white Warlord with a splash of white on his muzzle and tan markings on his face raced toward Shaddo’s boys.
Shaddo swore mildly but didn’t interfere with the meeting. Then he swore with more heat when his wife Soli stepped out of their cottage.
“Shaddo? What’s going on? Is it all right for the boys to be out?”
The Sceltie turned toward the sound of her voice and froze. Dog and woman stared at each other.
Soli smiled. “Aren’t you the sweetest boy?”
The human boys were abandoned in a heartbeat. The Sceltie launched himself into the air and ended up sitting in front of Soli, with one paw raised to shake—floating on air waist high.
“Hello, there,” Soli said, holding the paw while she petted and cooed. “What’s your name? Where did you come from?” She frowned a little. “You’re Darcy from the Isle of Scelt?” She looked up at Shaddo, her eyes full of wonder. “He talks?”
*I talk,* Darcy said proudly. *But only to my special humans.*
“Hell’s fire, Shaddo,” Archerr said, choking back a laugh. “That sure looks like love at first sight to me. I think you just adopted a furry boy-child.”
“Who isnot going to be sleeping in our bed,” Shaddo growled. But there was resigned humor in his eyes as he watched Soli introduce the dog to the boys. “He’ll keep her company, so yeah, looks like I’ve got another boy.”
“Who is already trained to fight,” Ranon said quietly.
The humor drained out of the other two men.
He nodded in response to the unspoken question. “It’s one step removed, but some of that training is courtesy of Lucivar Yaslana—and one of the Scelties is an Opal-Jeweled Warlord Prince.”
“Mother Night,” Archerr said softly.
“Once Talon rises, we all need to talk about this. For now, you two pass along the all clear, especially to Gray so he knows it’s safe for Cassidy to come back to the Residence. I’ll try to explain this to the village elders.”
Shaddo said, “Who would send us a pack of warriors?”
Ranon felt a knot of tension ease as he answered the question. “The same person who understood why we needed Cassidy.”
Gray led the newest member of the household out to the corner of the yard that sheltered the pots containing the twelve honey pear seedlings. Going down on one knee, he waited for the Sceltie to join him.
Compared to Vae, who had more self-assurance than a dozen people combined, Khollie seemed so . . . breakable. Or maybe the dog was still feeling bruised by Ranon’s initial rejection and was afraid of being sent away.
“Come here, Khollie,” Gray said gently.
Woeful eyes. Hopeful tail-tip wag.
“See these?” Gray pointed to the pots. “These are honey pears. They are very special trees. You do not pee on them.”
*I did not pee on the little trees. Only the big trees.*
“I know you didn’t pee on them”—yet—“but I want you to understand that wenever pee on these trees.”
“Yes, humans too. These trees are very, very special, and we all have to protect them.”
The head came up, the ears came up, and the tail began wagging in earnest. *I will help you protect the little trees when I am not helping Ranon protect Shira.*
“Who’s protecting what?” Ranon asked, carrying a mug of coffee in each hand.
*Ranon!* The shout went out on a common psychic thread. *Do not pee on the little trees or Gray will bite you.*
Oh, the look on Ranon’s face.
Gray bit his lip to keep from laughing until Khollie trotted off to check the boundaries of his and Vae’s personal territory, which was the land that belonged to the Residence.
“Do you think there is anyone in the surrounding cottages who didn’t hear that?” Ranon asked in a strangled voice.
“No.” Gray’s voice broke with the effort not to laugh. “I thinkeveryone on this street and the next two over knows not to pee on the little trees.”
“Shit.” Ranon handed him one of the mugs.
“He bruises easily,” Gray said quietly. “His feelings, I mean.”
“I figured that out, Gray. Not soon enough, but I did figure that out. It just takes a lot longer to fix the damage than to do the damage.”
“Do you think they made a mistake with him? Maybe he’s too young to be away from people who understand Scelties.”
Ranon shrugged. “Doesn’t matter now. He’s here. Would you want to be sent home from your first assignment?”
Gray looked away, feeling his own heart ache a little.
Ranon swore. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean . . .”
“Never had a first assignment—or any assignment. My training stopped when I was fifteen.”
“Do you want to resume that training?” Ranon asked.
Gray nodded. He’d spent a lot of time thinking while he’d worked in the gardens here. “I want to be able to protect and defend. That’s what I was meant to do. I grew up being told I was Theran’s blade, and I was educated to protect the Grayhaven line—until I was captured.”
“You were Theran’s blade, and now you want to be Cassie’s blade. Is that it?”
“Yes, that’s it.”
They sipped their coffee and watched Khollie and Vae flush a rabbit out of the kitchen garden and herd it right into Darcy’s jaws.
“Now what?” Ranon asked as the three Scelties snarled at one another for a minute before Darcy and Vae each grabbed a rabbit leg and the three dogs trotted away with their kill. “Khollie and Vae want the rabbit for us, and Darcy wants the rabbit for Soli.”
“They’ll take it to Cassidy, who will figure out a way for both households to have some of the meat so all three Scelties will be happy,” Gray replied.
“The duties of a Queen.” Ranon drained his mug. Then he sighed. “I came out here to ask a favor.”
“Actually, there’s something I wanted to ask you too.”
“All right. Mine. Shira is supposed to take a last look at the cottages she was interested in. Something about this is making her unhappy, but she won’t talk to me or Cassidy about it. I was hoping, if you attached yourself as her escort, she might talk to you. I’d go with her and try again to find out what’s wrong, but I have to go to the Keep today. I’m just waiting for Cassidy to finish a letter to her mother before I head out.”