After seeing Julien sharpen the cook’s knives one afternoon, Theran made sure the man was never alone with Kermilla or Correne.

“When did this arrive?” Theran asked.

“I found it early this morning on the table where visitors’ calling cards are left,” Julien replied. “You were already gone, so I put it in the butler’s pantry to avoid upsetting the other servants. I meant to give it to you when you returned this morning, but you left so soon after . . .”

So Talon had been here last night. Had he still been home, or had he been riding the Winds to return one problem to her home village?

If he’d been home, if Talon had slipped in and out of here without even trying to talk to him . . . that was as much a warning as the box.

“Is Lady Kermilla in?” Theran asked.

“She’s in her room. She seemed distressed when she returned from the village. She wants to speak with you, but Lords Trae and Jhorma have requested an audience before you talk to the Lady.”

“Send them in.”

He waited until Julien was out of the room before breaking the seal and opening the paper. Simple words with nothing wasted—and an unflinching and unforgiving judgment.

Garth and Brok disobeyed the Queen and went into the landen part of town. For that alone, they would have been exiled, as the Queen commanded. But they went to the weaver’s home intending to rape the wife and little girl. This I know as fact.

They are forfeit.

No signature. There never was a signature on a note like this, but he recognized Talon’s writing.

A quick knock on the door. Then Jhorma and Trae walked into the room.

“Lady Kermilla had a disturbing experience today,” Jhorma said. “A Warlord mentioned something about ‘courtesy fingers,’ but wouldn’t explain further.”

Theran pointed at the box. “You can open it.”

Leaving the box on the desk, Trae raised the lid. Then he stumbled back, swearing.

“When a man was hunted down and executed by a Warlord Prince, his ring finger and his ring, drained of power, were sent back to his family.” Usually the hunt was done because the bastard’s offense had been “forgiven” by a twisted Queen. But one way or another, the people of Dena Nehele got justice—and the fingers were an assurance that no one needed to worry about the bastard coming back to hurt them again.

He wasn’t going to share that part with the men who served Kermilla. That would tell them too clearly what Talon thought of her, and they might try to convince her to go back to Dharo and her safe little village.

“Mother Night,” Jhorma said softly. “I didn’t meet them. I gathered from Bardoc that those two were little pricks, but surely escorting a Queen traveling in a questionable part of town shouldn’t warrant execution.”

“It didn’t. This did.” Theran handed the paper to Jhorma—and watched the man pale.

“Can you verify they tried to do this?” Jhorma asked.

“Talon wouldn’t have executed them if he wasn’t sure of their intentions.” And he would have been sure after he ripped open Garth and Brok’s inner barriers and got the truth from their own minds.

No, Talon would have been certain even before he took that action. The confirmation from their own minds before the execution was only a formality.

“They were hers.” Trae looked sick and confused. “She’d gone to meet them and found out Talon had taken them away. On the ride back here, she kept saying he had no right to touch a male who belonged to her.”

They couldn’t belong to her.Theran’s stomach rolled.Not the same way I do. She couldn’t mean that. How could I belong to a Queen who would claim men capable of raping a child? Trae’s mistaken. Or he’s lying. He has to be.

“Are we talking about Prince Talon, Lady Cassidy’s Master of the Guard?” Jhorma sounded wary.

“Yes.” Theran’s stomach rolled again. He knew exactly why Talon had left the fingers here instead of on their father’s doorstep—because he, as the ruler of this town, should have exiled Garth and Brok for breaking the Queen’s command.

“Do you have anyone who could deliver this to the Warlords’ family?” Trae asked.

Theran shook his head.

“Then I’ll do it for you.”

Theran looked at Trae with grudging respect. He’d thought of Kermilla’s escorts as useless appendages, unwanted chaperons who restricted what he could say to his lover—and to the woman who should rule his people. But these men were First Circle. If they’d been home, they would be taking care of the business of the court, just like Cassidy’s First Circle did.

Offering to take the box to the Warlords’ father was a kindness he hadn’t expected from Kermilla’s present court.

“Take Laska with you,” Jhorma said. “There has been enough death over a foolish decision, and I don’t imagine anyone reacts well when they receive one of those boxes—unless they’re truly relieved to receive it.”

“Thank you.” Theran nodded at the paper Jhorma still held. “You can give him that too. He should know why his sons were forfeit.”

As soon as Jhorma and Trae left, Theran called in a bottle of brandy. He had downed his first large glass before Kermilla stomped daintily into the room.

“Did Trae tell you about the dreadful thing that happened in town today?” Kermilla put her hands on her hips and looked stern. “You should tell Talon he has no business interfering with this town.You rule here.”

“Garth and Brok are forfeit, Kermilla. There is nothing anyone can do about that.”

“You have to do something! They’re mine, Theran. They’re—”

“Dead.”Hell’s fire. He hadn’t meant to be that blunt.

She paled. Pouring more brandy in the glass, he guided her to a chair. “Drink this.” He waited until she chugged the brandy. “I’m sorry, Kermilla, but Garth and Brok are dead. They were executed.”

She gasped for air, then wailed, “Why?”

He pulled up a footstool and sat in front of her. “They went to a landen’s house with the intention of raping the wife and daughter. That’s unforgivable, even here where we’ve forgotten so much of the Old Ways of the Blood.”

“They wouldn’t do that,” Kermilla protested.

She didn’t believe them capable of that obscenity. She hadn’t realized what kind of men they were when she’d claimed them. Thank the Darkness for that. “They did.”

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