As entertaining as that was—when you weren’t the human involved—right now, he needed to take a good look at these cottages and see if his idea would work.

When he finished inspecting the second cottage, he stood out front, shaking his head and smiling. Lloyd had brought the horse and cart.

“Thanks, boys,” he said as he climbed into the cart. They stood aside and waited until he’d given the horse the signal to walk on. Then they raced back to the stables, and he headed for a meeting with the village elders.

Kermilla slipped up to her room. She and Correne hadn’t gotten around to shopping, but they’d still had a delightful afternoon once they’d met Garth and Brok, two Warlord brothers who weren’t much older than Kermilla. They had gone to a dining house and talked and laughed for hours, while her two escorts sat at another table looking bored. Having older, experienced men serving in the court meant she didn’t have to work as hard to rule her territory, but it was so much more work to hold their interest when she had to deal with them day after day. These young men hung on to every word she said—and they werehers. She’d felt that strange pull when she saw them—the same pull she’d felt when she first met Theran.

After making plans to meet up tomorrow to shop, she and Correne had returned to the mansion and the dull company waiting for her there. But she’d had so much fun with her new boys, she really would pay attention this evening when Theran droned on about what Dena Nehele needed.He officially ruled the town, but he seemed to think she should be doing as much as if she were already the Queen—without the compensation! Well, he did tell her she could put things on account against the tithes, but some of the merchants were getting that tight look in their eyes that meant these people didn’t know how to show their loyalty to a Queen any more than the people in sheep-shit Bhak did. Which was fine for Freckledy—she had never had any style—but not for a Queen who wanted to be recognized in aristo social circles.

Kermilla opened her door and froze.

That dumb bitch Birdie, the “Queen’s maid,” was holding a bottle of scent Kermilla had acquired during her last shopping trip. Holding the bottle—and frowning.

“What in the name of Hell are you doing?” Kermilla demanded. She strode over to the dresser and yanked the bottle out of Birdie’s hand.

“Cleaning the room, Lady, like I always do,” Birdie stammered, taking a step back.

“I told you before I don’t like my things smeared with someone else’s psychic stink,” Kermilla said, her voice cold and hard. “You use Craft to raise everything on the dresser and tables when you dust them.Craft, you useless bag.”

“But I only wear the White, Lady,” Birdie said. “I only use Craft to help with heavy lifting and the like, so I’m not drained when my work is done. Lady Cassidy—”

“I’m not Cassidy, and as long as you work in this house, you’ll do things the wayI want them done. And if you can’t getthat through your head, the only way you’ll earn a living is by using what you’ve got between your legs! Is that clear enough?”

“But—”

One word. Kermilla heard it as a challenge—and no White-Jeweledservant could be allowed to challenge the Queen.

You’re still a guest here.

Remembering that had her putting temper and not power behind the open-handed slap. The blow still knocked Birdie to the floor.

“Get out of my room,” Kermilla said.

Whimpering, Birdie got to her feet and stumbled from the room. Shaken, Kermilla looked at the bottle of scent. The girl probably didn’t know what that small, paper-thin stone disk on the bottom of the bottle meant, but Kermilla was certain Theran would be furious if he discovered how she was stretching her income.

She didn’t want Theran angry with her. For a little while she’d flirted with the possibility of falling in love with him, but those feelings had faded before they began. Still, shedid like the man, and she didn’t want him so upset that he would tell her to leave. After all, she needed his support to become Queen of Dena Nehele.

EBON ASKAVI

The Keep. The Black Mountain. A place where a man was surrounded by stone and dark power.

But a strangely comfortable place, for all that. A place where a man could lower his guard and truly rest, knowing there was something else here that was watchful—and aware.

Ranon prowled around the sitting room where the Seneschal, that strange-looking female, had put him to wait. A human shape, but she wasn’t human—not with that face or the sibilant way she spoke. He’d bet his life on it.

The door opened, and he turned.

The woman’s exotic face, framed by golden hair, was a little too thin, but still beautiful in a way that tugged at his male interest—especially because she seemed unaware of the streak of dirt that accented one sharp cheekbone.

Then he looked into those sapphire eyes and felt his heart skip a beat. He was totally committed to serving Cassidy, and he loved Shira with everything that was in him. But if this woman asked it of him, he would crawl through fire or over knives—and never ask why she required it of him.

He needed no introduction to know he was looking at Jaenelle Angelline, the Queen who was Witch, the living myth.

Now he understood what kind of woman could hold the hearts of men like Lucivar Yaslana and Daemon Sadi.

I belong to her in the same way I belong to Cassidy.And if Jaenelle demanded it of him, he would turn away from everything else he held dear in order to serve her.

“Lady.”

“Prince Ranon?”

“Yes.” He’d been nervous about meeting her, but he hadn’t expected to respond to her likethis . As he continued to look into those sapphire eyes, he realized she felt that bond too.

“I’m theformer Queen of Ebon Askavi, Prince Ranon.” Her voice held both amusement and warning.

Former?A word said for the Queen’s pleasure—and believed by no one except, perhaps, the Queen herself. But he understood that she neither wanted nor expected him to turn away from Cassidy and the loyalty he felt for Shalador’s Lady.

“I brought the reports and letters.” He called in the message sack and set it on a nearby chair. “Reports are probably a bit lean. Cassidy has been working hard. But not too hard. We’ve insisted she take rest days, but there’s no point having a rest day if it’s going to be spent writing reports, is there?”

Hell’s fire, he was babbling.

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