“Gray thought of this?” Hikaeda asked.
“Gray is a bundle of ideas,” Ranon said dryly.
Powell had given Gray his own little space in the Steward’s office to stash all his notes about possibilities for Eyota in particular and Dena Nehele in general. Only the knowledge that every available person was going to be helping with the harvest this year, and the need to get the shops finished up and stocked with merchandise, kept Gray from trying to add one more thing to the list of projects to be accomplished before winter set in.
They moved away from the wall and ended up standing near the table and chairs under the big tree.
The joyful shout was the only warning he had before he turned and ended up with his arms full of Sceltie. Coughing from the dust that rose up as Khollie smacked into his chest, he said, “What have you been doing?”
*The females were cleaning Shira’s den. I helped.*
The tail banging against him with enthusiasm raised more dust.
“You used your tail as a dust rag, didn’t you?”
*Yes! Shira says you need to wash my tail before I’m allowed in the house.* Khollie squirmed as he tried to lick Ranon’s ear.
The tail wasn’t the only thing that needed to get washed.
Ranon’s face heated as the other men watched with amused interest. He hated himself for feeling the tiniest bit of shame, but that didn’t change the truth. Khollie was different. There was a sweetness to him that wasn’t about his being younger than the other Scelties, or just a trait of personality. He’d seen children who had a similar kind of sweetness. They weren’t the same as other children. Weren’t quite right.
Not that Khollie wasn’t a bright boy. He was. He needed things explained carefully, but only one time. And he did wear a Tiger Eye Jewel.
But if Ranon had to be a Sceltie’s human, why couldn’t it have been someone like Keely or Darcy or, Hell’s fire, even Darkmist? Catching sight of the Opal-Jeweled Sceltie Warlord Prince had made Ferall stop and stare.
Darkmist made hardened warriors sit up and take notice. Khollie, the homely little patchwork dog, just amused them.
Elendill shifted to the left, giving Ranon a clear view of his brother Janos—who was bent over double with his arms wrapped around himself. Laughing.
But the boy straightened up quickly enough and headed over to them.
“Come on, Khollie,” Janos said. “Ranon has to stay with the other humans, so I’ll help you wash up.”
*I owe you,* Ranon said as Khollie jumped out of his arms and whapped him in the face with a dusty tail.
*You do,* Janos agreed.
Not a youth anymore, despite being eighteen,Ranon thought as he watched Janos and Khollie walk to the house.And much changed even from last summer.
One of the reasons for those changes walked out of the house. Reyhana wore a long, simple summer dress and sandals.
Ranon heard Janos’s sharp command that stopped Khollie from a joyful leap. He watched the way his brother went down on one knee to be closer to the cowering dog’s height and pointed to Reyhana, who nodded as if agreeing with Janos’s words. He watched Khollie straighten up, no longer afraid once he understood that Janos’s sharpness had been intended to protect him from doing something wrong—like jumping into Reyhana’s freshly bathed arms.
And he saw the way Janos looked at Reyhana, saw the brush of fingers against her hand when Janos rose to take Khollie to the laundry room for a bath.
A hard choice for a young man who burned for more than a few kisses and petting. Reyhana was the Shalador Queen with the most potential in her generation, and it would be a couple of years or more before she would have her Virgin Night. It would cost Janos his life if an imprudent coupling damaged the girl in any way.
But he knew what it was like to be young and have a woman hold your heart. After all, Shira had been sixteen when he’d fallen in love with her.
Reyhana walked toward them, and Ranon watched for the moment when the other men picked up her psychic scent and realized she was a Queen. And he wondered why the men tensed, especially Hikaeda and Ferall.
“Gentlemen,” Reyhana said, tipping her head in a small bow.
Ranon made the introductions.
“Lady Reyhana,” Ferall replied as the men gave her a matching vow.
“We have about half an hour before the meal,” Reyhana said. “Would you like to sit out here and have a glass of ale while you wait? It’s a lovely spot when there’s a breeze like there is today.”
“That would be welcome,” Ferall said.
Reyhana turned her head, her eyes having the distant look the Blood sometimes had when they communicated on a psychic thread.
“Are you staying here?” Rikoma asked her.
“Yes. I have the privilege of working as part of Lady Cassidy’s court to learn Protocol and the Old Ways of the Blood, as well as the rights and duties of a Queen and court. It’s very exciting to be a part of this new beginning for all our people.”
Elendill looked past her shoulder. “You have many servants here?”
Reyhana laughed softly. “The Queen’s court acts as a training ground. We have a butler, a housekeeper and her assistant, and a cook. The footmen and maids are all young people from the village who want training in domestic service. They get training; we get extra help.”
“There aren’t many aristo houses anymore that need servants,” Hikaeda said.
“No, but there are boardinghouses and inns,” Reyhana said. “And there are people like Prince Spere and Prince Haele who share a cottage in the Queen’s square rather than having the whole court living here. Being members of the First Circle, their residence is cared for by the servants here, but there are others who would be willing to pay to have some cooking and cleaning done. Aristo houses are not the only places that need such skills.”
Reyhana’s face, like her voice, shone with enthusiasm. Hearing a sound, she looked behind her, then looked at the men. Her green eyes twinkled with good humor. “Please step aside to leave a clear path to the table. The girls are still getting used to being around Warlord Princes, and they get nervous. But they’re getting better and drop fewer things. We’ve only had one broken glass this week.”
Birdie, who was now assistant housekeeper and assistant trainer of maids, carried the pitcher of ale. Copper, a village girl in training, carried the tray of glasses.
Watching Copper’s hands shake as she glanced at the men and crept after Birdie, Ranon held his breath. Then pitcher and tray were on the table and both girls were retreating back to the house.