Cassidy’s smile widened until her muscles ached. “That’s an excellent idea.”

“The guards who have families may want to look at the available cottages within the Queen’s square,” Archerr said. “From a tactical point of view, having more trained fighters within that ground is better for all of us.”

“Agreed,” Talon said.

“So we should pick a couple of cottages?” Powell asked.

“You will not,” Cassidy and Shira said.

Powell blinked.

“The women will choose their own homes,” Cassidy said firmly.

Powell blinked again, apparently not sure if there was any safe ground at the moment. “Very well. We will charge rent?”

Cassidy started to deny it, but Ranon said, “That’s fair. The village is giving the land and buildings to the court to do with as you please. That doesn’t mean letting anyone beyond the First Circle live here free. Cassie, if you don’t want to keep the rent as income for yourself or the court, it could go back into the village treasury. Or you can offer the cottages as part of the wages the guards receive from the village treasury or the tithes.”

Cassidy chewed on her lower lip. Too much to think about.

“Why don’t we work out those kinds of details later?” Powell suggested.

Gray looked up from a rough sketch of the village and the available buildings. “Ranon, what’s this place beyond the village?”

Ranon braced his hands on the table and leaned to see the sketch better. “Used to be a kind of tradesman’s school. I think. My grandfather might remember when it was last inhabited.”

“Would it work for craftsmen?” Gray asked. “It looks like a walled community that has a considerable bit of open land attached to it. And it’s a couple of miles beyond the rest of the village.”

Ranon nodded. “It was far enough out to be vulnerable to attack. I think that’s why it was abandoned.”

“We don’t have to worry about attacks now,” Gray said. “How about offering this place to the landens?”

Cassidy saw something flicker in Ranon’s eyes when Gray said they didn’t have to worry about attacks. “You think the landens would be at risk if they lived so close to us?”

“No,” Ranon said quickly. “In fact, this might be a fair compromise. They’ll have a place that is their own, but it’s close enough for them to come into the village for market day and other supplies. There’s enough land attached to the place for them to graze their livestock as well as grow some crops beyond kitchen gardens. Only one big barn, but it was built to hold all the animals in the community, so it might do for them for this year at least.”

“So we’re agreed on what we can offer?” Cassidy asked, looking at her First Circle and waiting for their nods of agreement. “In that case, Ranon, go back and talk to them.”

“I’ll draft letters of passage,” Powell said. “That way if the landens are stopped along the way, the Blood will know they’re traveling at the Queen’s command.”

“Good idea,” Talon said. “Ranon, see if the guards who don’t have families to settle would be willing to ride escort for the landens.”

“I’ll ask,” Ranon said.

“Gray, get a couple of horses saddled,” Talon said. “I want to take a look at these places, and I want you to come with me since you’ve been looking at these buildings more than the rest of us.”

“Yes, sir.” Gray vanished the sketch, gave Cassidy a smile, and left the room.

“I think that will be all, gentlemen,” Powell said. “If you would come to my office, we’ll discuss tomorrow’s duties.”

Powell had a knack for being a Steward, Cassidy thought as the men except Ranon and Talon left the room.

“Cassidy, Reyhana, and I have drum practice tonight, so I think Maydra prepared a stew for dinner,” Shira said, looking at Ranon. “I’ll see if it’s ready so you can have a quick meal before you head back out.”

“Before you go,” Ranon said. He called in a box, set it on the table, and nudged it toward Cassidy. “I picked up some chocolates for you Ladies.”

Cassidy stared at the box, then let out a whoop of laughter. “You reallywere nervous about this report, weren’t you?”

Looking completely baffled, Ranon said, “Huh?”

“The last time I saw a box of chocolates this size was when my father had done something to piss off my mother and was trying to work his way back to the sweeter side of her temper.” Cassidy looked at Ranon more closely. Hell’s fire. The man wasblushing.

*You hit the target dead center that time,* Shira said on a distaff thread. She hurried out of the room.

Ranon was strong, brave, as arrogant as any other Warlord Prince, and wouldn’t back down from a fight. But he had shy spots when it came to living with women, and he wasn’t always sure of how he should behave.

Then again, maybe he did understand how some things balanced other things.

She picked up the box, thanked him, and left the room.

Shira was waiting for her.

“Do you think this is in proportion?” Cassidy asked, lifting the box.

Shira frowned at the box. “In proportion to what?”

“To whatever Ranon thought would hurt so much that I would need this much consolation.”

Talon used Craft to close the door. Then he put an aural shield around the room and a Sapphire lock on the door. The last wasn’t to keep Ranon in as much as to keep everyone else out.

He studied the Shaladoran’s back. Stiff. Tense. Waiting for the Master of the Guard to make the first move.

“Tell me what you wouldn’t tell her,” Talon said.

Ranon turned around.

Hell’s fire. How had the man managed to hidethat much anger?

“Theran has given his . . .Lady . . . free run of the town. The Warlord brothers who hurt the landen girl?She brought them with her to the landen part of town—and then threatened the guards when they stood by our Queen’s command. I gather she’s been stealing from some of the merchants. And she has the expectation that, come spring, Cassidy is going to be gone andshe is going to be the Queen of Dena Nehele.” Ranon’s hands curled into fists. “And sincethat expectation was the reason Cassie ran in the first place, I wasnot going to tell her about the rumors.”

Talon frowned. Landens, guards, and merchants were all looking to leave the town? To him that added up to more than rumors. “What else?”

Tags: Anne Bishop The Black Jewels Science Fiction