“I’ll do better,” Kermilla said in a subdued voice. “I promise.”

He kissed the back of her hand, then said with all the conviction he could put in his voice, “We can have a good life, Kermilla. It’s just going to take time and work.”

Nodding, she pulled away from him gently and left the room. She didn’t join them for dinner that night, which he didn’t think odd, but he did regret that her door remained locked to him when he tapped on it later that night.

And he tried not to think about the sounds he’d heard a moment before he knocked. Sounds an aural shield could have politely hidden if she hadn’t wanted anyone to hear.

Sounds that indicated she’d found consolation with someone else that night.



Standing in the doorway of the dining room, Dryden announced, “Princes Ferall, Rikoma, Elendill, and Hikaeda have arrived. I have put them in the visitors’ parlor.”

Ranon almost spit a mouthful of coffee across the table. “They’re herealready ?” When he’d suggested they come in the morning, he hadn’t expected the four men to arrivethis early.

Wiping his mouth with a napkin, he pushed away from the table. “Thank you, Dryden. I’ll be there in a minute.”

“It will be fine, Ranon,” Powell said. He was the only other person left at the table.

“Will it?” Not knowing if Ferall now served Kermilla and was here as her eyes and ears made Ranon edgy. That uncertainty had gnawed at him ever since he’d agreed to this visit.

“They’ll see what they want to see. Show them the village. Show them the people. That’s all you can do. I’ll inform Maydra that we will have four guests for the midday meal.”

“Where is Cassie?” Ranon asked.

“I believe she went upstairs to change clothes.”

Ranon hurried to the visitors’ parlor. The four men hadn’t taken a seat. When he walked in they were doing a slow prowl around the room, looking a little baffled.

“Good morning,” he said.

Ferall nodded, as did Rikoma and Elendill. Hikaeda smiled and said, “Have we come to the right place, Ranon? When we arrived at the landing web and asked for the Queen’s residence, we were directed here.”

“Used to be a boardinghouse, so it has a big dining room and kitchen, several parlors, and sufficient bedrooms and bathrooms for the Queen and some of her court, as well as rooms for special guests. Also has enough land for a big kitchen garden, herb garden, and flower gardens, plus some ground Gray says will suit the honey pears.” Ranon shrugged. “It’s not a typical building for a Queen’s residence, but it pleases Lady Cassidy.”

As they took another look around the room, Ranon felt his shoulders tighten, even though feeling defensive was foolish. The furniture was old but clean and polished. The room had the scent of a place that was cared for. And the fact that the Queen wasn’t buying new furniture to impress visitors while the people were still struggling to have enough clothes and a decent pair of shoes was something her court would not apologize for. To anyone.

Footsteps. Female voices.

Cassidy suddenly appeared in the doorway wearing shortened trousers and a shirt that looked like she’d rescued it from the rag bag. Probably the same rag bag where she got the cloths that were stuffed into the bucket she was holding.

“Ranon, Dryden said . . .” She looked at the other four men in the room and her hazel eyes widened. “Oh, Hell’s fire. Is thattoday ?”

“It appears we have come at an inconvenient time,” Ferall said stiffly.

“No, you haven’t,” Cassidy said, stepping farther into the room. “No. My apologies, gentlemen. We’ve had several families come to the village, and we’ve been working to get them settled into their new homes. Between that and the work in the shops and trying to get the Healing House and Shira’s residence set up, I lost track of the days.”

“Cassie, if we’re going to get the last rooms in the Healing House cleaned out properly so Shira can start working there, we’re going to need—Oh.”

Another tall, big-boned woman with a long, plain face, freckles, and red hair stepped into the room.

“Gentlemen, this is my mother, Devra.”

Four Warlord Princes tipped their heads in a respectful bow.

“We are honored by the introduction,” Ferall said.

“Cassie, give me the bucket.” Devra wrapped her hand around the handle. “You’re needed here. Besides, you’ve been working too hard lately.”

“I have not.” Cassidy tightened her own grip on the bucket.

“Yes, you have. Even your father thinks so.”

“Haven’t been working any harder than the rest of you.”

Devra narrowed her eyes. “Daughter, you fell asleep in the middle of drum practice last night. That should tell you something.”

“We promised to work only half a day today,” Cassidy protested.

Devra gave him a stern look. “Ranon.”

He raised his hands in surrender. “No. With all respect, Devra, I amnot getting in the middle of this.”

“When we made this appointment with Ranon, he did tell us that the Queen may not be available,” Hikaeda said.

“See?” Cassidy said, trying to tug the bucket out of Devra’s hand. A futile effort.

Ranon sent out a psychic call for help. He’d already learned that when Cassidy and Devra squared off to argue about something, there was only one person in the house who was willing to step in and deal with two stubborn women.

*Cassie? Cassie!*

Vae appeared in the doorway and looked up at Cassidy’s back. Or more likely, at Cassidy’s ass since that was Vae’s preferred spot to nip.

*Ranon will talk to the other males and show them male things.*

Cassidy pressed her lips together, and her face turned bright red. Devra just looked interested. All five Warlord Princes squirmed.

*You will work with Shira and Devra. Then you will eat. Then you will not work. It is time to work now. Shira is waiting for you.*

Vae trotted off, no doubt to wait at the back door.

“If you will excuse us,” Devra said tightly, “it is time to work now. The Sceltie said so.” She walked out of the room.

“It was a pleasure to see you, gentlemen,” Cassidy said. She hurried to catch up to Devra.

No one said anything for several moments.

“You called the Sceltie to deal with the Queen?” Elendill asked.

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