“I met four Warlord Princes who were just coming into town as I was leaving. I think all four of them come from the Heartsblood River Province.”

Recruiting, Talon thought bitterly. Trying to woo enough Warlord Princes to support Kermilla and form a court in the spring that would be strong enough to challenge Cassidy’s—and break Cassidy’s court in the process.

But he’d known when they left Grayhaven that Theran wanted Kermilla to rule and Cassidy’s court would break when Cassidy’s First Escort, the man who had brought her to this land in the first place, walked away. And the reason he said nothing then was the same reason he would say nothing now: Gray.

The man Gray was becoming might be able to serve in a court, or at least fill an empty space and keepthis court intact. He wanted to give the boy as much time to season as possible before that decision had to be faced.

“You hear anything else, I want to know,” Talon said. “I’ll make sure the Steward is aware that we may be looking at a fight come spring. But it doesn’t go further than the three of us. You understand me?”

“Yes, sir, I do,” Ranon replied.

“Get some food and head out,” Talon said. “Take Burne and Haele with you. And take the biggest Coach you can handle from the Coaching station here.”

Ranon paled. “You’re talking about a fast retreat. Take the most vulnerable and run. Leave the stronger to pack up what can be saved before the enemy takes notice. You can’t believe Theran would attack women and children, landen or otherwise. Youcan’t believe that.”

He didn’t believe it possible of the boy he’d raised, but he wasn’t so sure of the man anymore. With Kermilla holding the leash, he wasn’t sure what Theran would do.

“How many times have you seen someone poised to run who didn’t survive long enough to find safe ground?” Talon asked. Ranon paled even more, which told him the man had seen firsthand what had happened to some of those people. “I don’t care if you stuff them into a Coach and move them on the Winds or have them on the road in wagons, but you get those people out of Grayhaven tonight.”

Talon released the Sapphire lock and dropped the aural shield.

Looking dazed, Ranon walked out of the room.

Talon sank in a chair and rubbed his maimed left hand over his face.

So Theran was recruiting. And either Kermilla was making an ambitious assumption because she was living in Theran’s house—and sharing his bed?—or he had told her he was going to try to make her the Queen of Dena Nehele.

Damn young fool. With Cassidy, they had a real chance to bring Dena Nehele back to what it had been. If Theran let a pretty face dazzle him stupid, he could ruin this for all of them.

Before that happened, he, Talon, who had been Jared and Lia’s friend, would spill whatever blood needed to be spilled. Even if he had to tear his own heart out in the process.

I still think he’s a good man, but he’s not a good leader. He’s proving that every time he doesn’t stand against Kermilla and defend his people. So I promise you this, Lia. I won’t let your bloodline destroy your people, no matter the price.

Having made that promise, he rose and went out to the stables to join Gray.

Theran leaned back to let the servant he’d hired for a thief’s wage remove his plate.

The dinner wasn’t going well. That wasn’t Kermilla’s fault. She was doing her best to entertain these men, but he should have realized Warlord Princes who had spent most of their lives being both predator and prey in the ongoing fight to protect what they could of Dena Nehele wouldn’t have much interest in the conversation of a twenty-one-year-old woman they couldn’t bed.

They were polite. He couldn’t fault them for their manners. They even extended the courtesy of showing interest they clearly didn’t feel. At least, it was clear to him.

They were also getting pissed off at Correne’s catty remarks. The girl wasn’t liked in her own village. In fact, she was one of the young Queens the Warlord Princes were vehemently opposed to seeing rule even the smallest village. That she seemed to be trying to compete with Kermilla for the men’s attention—and the fact that Kermilla was taking the bait and blatantly flirting—wasn’t lost on these men.

“Kermilla has been helping the Queens in the northern Provinces re-learn the aspect of their power that nourishes the land and benefits the harvest,” Theran said, laying his hand lightly on Kermilla’s wrist.

She gave him an arch look, and for a moment he thought she might say something imprudent. Then she slipped her wrist out from under his hand and smiled at Ferall.

“Yes,” she said. “I was shocked to learn that my Sisters had forgotten such a basic part of what makes a Queen a Queen.”

The skin around Ferall’s eyes tightened.

Kermilla added hastily, “So I was, naturally, pleased to be of some small service to them.”

“You haven’t set up a court yet?” Ferall asked.

“Silly man, of course I have a court.” Kermilla gave Ferall a dazzling smile. “I rule a Blood village and a landen village in Dharo.”

“So who has been taking care of the Queen’s duties there while you’ve been visiting Theran here?”

Anger flashed through Theran. Had Kermilla heard the criticism in that question?

Kermilla put aside the flirtatious playfulness as easily as she might put aside a shawl. She gave Ferall a look at the Queen beneath the young-woman banter. “Dharo is an old Territory with a strong web of Queens. The village I rule can be run very well by my Steward and Master of the Guard for the time being. I am kept apprised of what is happening there and would return home in an instant if I was urgently needed.” She placed her hand on Theran’s arm. “I am not negligent in my duties, Prince Ferall, which is what you are implying. But a village that is well established requires little supervision from its Queen, so I offered to stay and give Theran whatever assistance I can in repairing the damage that has been done to his people.”

Her speech warmed Theran’s heart, but Ferall seemed less impressed. He gave Theran a hard look and said, “I thought that’s why Lady Cassidy came here. I thought that’s why we all agreed to have her as the Queen. And she didn’t leave the people she’d promised to rule in order to ‘give assistance.’ ”

Where was that anger coming from? Theran wondered. Nothing Kermilla said should have offended Ferall that much. Unless he wanted to be offended for some reason?

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