“Oh, yeah,” Ranon replied. “Some days I think if we’d had Vae planning tactics, we could have defended our people even better than we did.”
Ferall laughed softly. “Well, let’s get on with these male things we’re supposed to do.”
“What would you like to see?” Ranon asked.
All the humor in their faces faded away. Ferall said, “Whatever you choose to show us.”
A careful phrasing, but Ranon knew that what wasn’t shown would be as important as whatwas shown. In Ferall’s place, he would have paid attention to both. “Are you all comfortable with doing some walking?”
“Then let me show you what the Queen’s presence has done for Eyota.”
He began with the Queen’s square, introducing them to Shaddo’s wife, who was standing outside the family’s cottage with a look of grim amusement on her face.
“Shaddo already left to do a circuit around the village,” Soli said. “Do you need him?”
“No,” Ranon replied. Since she looked like she was edging toward a hissy cat mood, he added, “Anything I can do for you?”
“Thanks, but it’s been taken care of.”
Since he knew whatthat meant, he led a retreat that didn’t look hasty for all its speed.
“Problem?” Ferall sounded amused.
“Not for us,” Ranon replied.
“Then who?” Rikoma asked.
The answer came trotting up the street.
“For Eryk and Eliot, Shaddo’s sons,” Ranon said.
The boys were moving smartly, with Darcy trotting right behind them.
“Ranon!” Eryk rushed up to the men. “Tell Darcy we weren’t doing anything wrong! We were just playing at the pond in the park!”
Darcy growled and lunged at Eliot’s heels, giving the boy good reason to scramble past his older brother. *Soli wants you home.Now. *
“Did your father give you permission to go to the pond—or the park?” Ranon asked, already knowing the answer.
“He didn’t say we couldn’t,” Eryk said.
“Your mother wants you home,” Ranon said. He owed it to Shaddo to keep his expression stern and his voice firm, but damn, he wanted to laugh.
*Home!* Darcy said.
Eryk glared at Darcy. “Just wait until I have my Birthright Ceremony. You won’t be so bossy then!”
*I will still have sharper teeth.*
Hard to argue with that,Ranon thought. But he would have to mention that comment to Shaddo tonight. He wasn’t sure Eryk’s Birthright Jewel would end up outranking Darcy’s, but the boy couldn’t be allowed to use power to hurt someone in his family—even if that family member had four legs and fur . . . and sharper teeth.
He and the other men continued down Autumn Road, passing the house where Lord Rogir and his family were settling in. Several girls were in the front yard, jumping rope. Or more precisely, two of the girls were swinging the rope and Keely was jumping over it.
He didn’t stop. The girls were still uneasy around strangers, and Keely, despite looking like a live furry toy at the moment, had appointed herself the Protector of Young Females living in the Queen’s square and wouldn’t hesitate to attack if proper introductions weren’t made. And he really didn’t want to take time for the kind of proper introductions—with thorough sniffing—that Scelties deemed necessary before letting an unknown get close to their humans.
“That was another Sceltie?” Hikaeda asked. “How many are there?”
“Feels like hundreds some days, but there are twelve of them, plus Vae,” Ranon replied. And in a village that only held a few hundred people, the odds werenot in the humans’ favor.
He took the men down a few other streets. The occupied houses were carefully tended. Not many people visible, but there was still a sense of energy and purpose, of work being done with good heart.
His people had always had heart. Now there was also joy.
“You lost people,” Ferall said quietly, tipping his head to indicate the empty houses.
“Here in Eyota, most of the families who are gone were lost before the purge and the uprisings,” Ranon replied. Meaning most had been slaughtered by the twisted Queens who had been encouraged to eliminate the Shalador people.
“I’m sorry,” Ferall said.
“We survived, and now we have hope.”
Ferall gave him an odd look, but they turned onto the main street, and his guests stopped. Just stopped.
Anyone who farmed was with his animals or in his fields, getting ready for the harvest that would begin in a few more weeks. And many craftsmen of all kinds were in their own shops working. But the first impression for someone who hadn’t been watching this carefully planned frenzy grow on a daily basis was that every male who was old enough and strong enough to lift and carry, and every person who had some skill with tools—or wanted to learn to have skills, regardless of gender—was on the main street, scurrying in and out of buildings.
“Mother Night,” Elendill said.
Calling in the watch his grandfather had given him for his twentieth birthday, Ranon opened the cover and checked the time. Then he vanished the watch. “This will quiet down right about . . . now.”
Sure enough, Burle stepped out of one of the buildings. In a Craft-enhanced voice, he hollered, “Break!”
All the pounding, sawing, clattering noises stopped. People came out of various buildings and headed up the street.
“Elders’ Park is being used as a rest station,” Ranon said. “There is food and water there, and one or two of the elders are there each day to listen to the people or answer questions.”
“Hell’s fire, Ranon,” Hikaeda said. “How are your people able to do this?”
Ranon took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He heard the envy in Hikaeda’s voice—and worried about Ferall’s silence. But they needed to know why this prosperity was starting here.
“This is the Queen’s home village, and it is because of her that we have been able to make certain business connections that will be able to benefit all of Dena Nehele in time.” He paused. “Gray has become friends with Daemon Sadi and made a deal with him: in exchange for Prince Sadi owning a few businesses here in Eyota, the court was given a loan for supplies the people in Dena Nehele will need, especially this coming winter.”
A shocked gasp from all four men—and a hint of fear. Just hearing Sadi’s name had that effect on most men.