Kermilla, however, felt the punch in Ferall’s words. “No, she didn’t leave her people,” she snapped. “She didn’t have any. She wasn’t Queen enough to hold on to her court!”

“Kermilla,” Theran said in soft warning, touching her wrist again.

Kermilla pulled away from him. “And where is Cassidy now? Here in the capital city? No. She’s in some cow-dung village that belongs to a people the rest of you would rather pretend don’t exist.”

“Hold your tongue, girl,” Ferall snarled. “You don’t know us. Any of us. Especially the Shaladorans.”

“I know Cassidy is a country girl from a trademan’s family who can’t talk about anything except livestock and crops and wouldn’t know how to sit at a table with a true aristo if all your lives depended on it.”

Theran’s heart jumped in his throat. Thank the Darkness these men didn’t know about Cassidy’s connection to Sadi and his wife. Those two were as aristo as you could get.

“Her manners are as rough as her face, and neither is fit for polite company,” Kermilla finished, her chest rising and falling impressively as she sucked in air.

Correne snickered. “Back in her old village, they called Freckledy the ‘spotted draft horse of Queens.’ ”

A tense silence shrouded the table for a long, long moment.

Then Ferall looked Theran in the eyes and pushed back his chair. “We’re done here. There’s nothing more to say.”

Ferall walked out of the room, followed by the other three Warlord Princes.

Stunned, Theran didn’t move for several heartbeats. Then he ran after them and caught them at the front door.

“Ferall, wait.” He grabbed the other man’s arm.

“There’s nothing more to say.” Ferall pulled out of Theran’s grasp.

“She’s young and high-spirited.”

“Too young,” Ferall said. “She should have slapped that little bitch down for insulting the Queen like that. And if people in her old villagedid say that about Cassidy, who told Correne about it so that it could be slung around here?”

“Probably one of Kermilla’s escorts,” Theran snapped. “They’re here too, and they come from Dharo.”

“A court takes its temper from its Queen,” Ferall said. “And what was at that table tonight is not something I want ruling my village. Good night, Theran.”

He let them walk away. There was nothing else he could do.

No, he thought as he closed the door, therewas something he could do. But he would wait until Kermilla retired for the evening. Maybe he’d even wait until tomorrow when things settled down a little more.

Hell’s fire, Ranon thought when he led the horse out of the Coaching station stables and ran into Ferall and the other three Warlord Princes. Could his timing be any worse today?

“Ferall,” he said, then nodded to the other men.

“More personal business?” Ferall asked.

Ranon shook his head. “Queen’s business in the town.” Meaning, it wasn’t the business of anyone who lived in the mansion.

Ferall hesitated. Actually looked uncomfortable. “Does the Queen have any objections to visitors in her home village?”

What an odd question. “No objections at all,” Ranon said.

“Would it be all right if the four of us came by a week from today to take a look around?”

Something was going on. Too bad he didn’t know what it was—and couldn’t afford to care. Not tonight. “I can’t promise Lady Cassidy will be available, but I’ll make sure I’m there. Why don’t you come by in the morning?”

“We’ll do that. Good evening to you, Ranon.”

The other Warlord Princes followed Ferall into the Coaching station. Wasn’t any reason for them to hire a Coach to ride the Winds back to their homes—unless they wanted that time to talk among themselves before going their separate ways.

“That’s a worry for another day,” Ranon muttered as he mounted the horse. Good thing they hadn’t seen him leaving the Coach he’d brought. There would have been questions about that—and about Burne and Haele being with him if they’d been spotted by the other men.

He kept the horse at a walk, waiting for his Brothers in the court to catch up. When they did, the first thing Haele said was, “What was Ferall doing in town?”

“Not our business,” Ranon replied.

“You know better,” Burne said. “Ferall is a savage fighter, even beyond what you’d expect from the Opal. And it’s said he’s the eyes and ears of a half dozen Queens in the Province where he lives.”

Like me,Ranon thought. The Shalador Queens hadn’t left the reserves for a few generations. That had kept at least some of them safe from the twisted Queens. But that didn’t mean they hadn’t been aware of what was happening in the rest of Dena Nehele, because there had always been men who reported back to them.

And some of those men had paid for being a Queen’s eyes and ears by losing their eyes and ears—and tongue.

Ranon said, “Maybe we’ll have a better idea of what Ferall was doing here today when he comes to visit us in a week.”

Haele swore softly. They respected Ferall as a man, but hewas a savage fighter. The thought of Ferall being in their village for any reason that wasn’t peaceful was a reason to sweat.

Don’t borrow trouble,Ranon thought.We’ve already got plenty.

They didn’t speak again until they reached the craftsmen’s courtyard and found it empty.

“Are we ahead of time?” Burne asked as he scanned the surrounding buildings and the street.

“No,” Ranon replied. “And if we were late, someone would have waited.”

“Unless they decided not to come,” Haele said.

Not likely.

Lord Rogir rode up a minute later.

“Those Warlord pricks found out where Weaver’s family lived. They tried to force their way in. My wife and daughter were there. I figured if we worked in teams and used some Craft we could get the households packed up faster.”

“Is everyone all right?” Ranon asked.

Rogir nodded. “My wife threw shields around the room where the females were and held on long enough for me and two other guards to arrive. We forced Garth and Brok to leave, but they’ll be back.”

“Won’t matter,” Ranon said. “Where is everyone?”

“Weaver’s wife and daughter are with mine at our house. Weaver and his son took off with their wagon, heading on the south road. They’ll reach his brother’s place by morning. I sent one of my men with them. Tanner almost has his family and tools packed up. His wife is also with mine. He and his sons are taking the wagon and heading out to his cousin’s place. Potter and two other families are still packing up. They’ve agreed to go to the Dairyman’s place.”

Tags: Anne Bishop The Black Jewels Science Fiction