“You’ll notice there is a shield around the edge of the tray,” Reyhana said. “It won’t help anything if the tray is dropped, but it does prevent a wobble from tipping a glass off the tray.”

“Did you think of that?” Rikoma asked.

“No, Vae did.”

The men laughed, and Ranon guessed that had been Reyhana’s intention. Warlord Princes were lethal predators, and they were used to being feared. Being given an opportunity to laugh with a woman was a moment both appreciated and prized.

Reyhana went back into the house. Hikaeda poured the ale and passed the glasses. For a few minutes, the men looked at the gardens and spoke little.

Then Cassidy walked out of the house. Like Reyhana, she wore a long, light summer dress, but her hair had been put up in a simple knot at the back of her head.

She had just reached Ranon when . . .

“Cassie!”

*Cassie? Cassie!*

Cassidy crossed her eyes and made a face as Gray and Vae caught up with her.

*Hat, Cassie!*

“No,” Cassidy said. “If I put a hat on now, the hair will fall down, and it’s too hot today to have it down.”

*Gray, tell her!*

Coming up on Cassidy’s left side, Gray nodded to the men. He wore a plain white shirt and black trousers—and his Purple Dusk pendant and ring.

There was nothing challenging about a man wearing his Jewels, and there was nothing special about the clothes, but Ranon felt a curious tension in the other men.

Gray gave the men a conspiratorial smile as he looked each of them in the eyes. That smile included a mischievous wink when his eyes moved to Hikaeda. Then he called in a parasol, opened it, and held it over Cassidy.

When she did nothing but look up at it, Gray said politely, “Are you going to take the parasol, or should I hold it for you?”

“You’re spending too much time with somebody,” Cassidy muttered as she took the parasol. “You’re getting too good at this.”

“Do you want to hit me?” Gray asked.

“I’m thinking about it.”

Cassidy and Gray smiled at each other—and those smiles had enough heat to take everyone by surprise. Including Ranon.

“Gentlemen,” Gray said, “if you would join us, the meal is ready.”

He raised his right hand, an escort’s gesture. Cassidy placed her left hand over his in automatic response—like a Queen would respond to her First Escort or Consort . . . or her husband.

Cassidy and Gray walked back to the house. Ranon started to follow, then realized the others weren’t coming with him.

Hikaeda stared at nothing. “We were friends,” he said softly. “Before he was taken and hurt so badly, we were friends. I never thought . . . It’s good to see him again. It’s good to see Jared Blaed.”

Hikaeda headed for the house, followed by Rikoma and Elendill. But Ferall still lingered.

“Something wrong?” Ranon asked.

Ferall shook his head. “I want this for my own village, for my own Province.”

“Then come inside,” Ranon said. “There are people around the table who can help.”

“Yes,” Ferall said softly, “I think maybe there are.”

CHAPTER 23

TERREILLE

Ranon gave his horse its head and caught up to Burle before the man reached the landen community.

Something had surprised Lord Rogir when he stopped at the community to see how the cleanup and repairs were coming along, and anything that would surprise a senior guard was something Ranon wanted to check out for himself—especially when Cassidy’s father was about to ride into that community.

Ranon rode through the arched gateway ahead of Burle, then reined in, understanding Rogir’s surprise.

Lilly Weaver and JuliDee had been staying with Rogir’s family since the flight from Grayhaven. Lilly and Rogir’s wife had worked together to clean up the senior guard’s household. Other women in the village had also pitched in to give two other cottages a good scrubbing. One cottage went to Lord Brandon and his wife, and the other was to be a general residence for the unmarried guards. After that, the women had been driving out to the community to start cleaning up the attached row houses.

Now there were several wagons parked close to the houses and many unfamiliar faces—and there was James Weaver, hugging his wife.

Rogir stood off to one side with a couple of his men, watching the reunion. Deciding that was the best choice for an explanation, Ranon guided his horse over to the men and dismounted. James, spotting him, gave Lilly one more hug and joined them.

“You made good time,” Ranon said. “I don’t think all the houses are ready to be occupied.”

“Lilly says they have three that are clean and in good order,” James said. “Mostly good order. Lilly wanted to know about—”

*Puppies!*

Ranon stiffened. So did Rogir. Burle just climbed off the wagon and headed over to them as Wynne, a Sceltie with a pure white head, and black-f aced Duffy jumped out of the wagon.

Burle looked at Ranon and shrugged. “They wanted to come.”

*Puppies!* Wynne wagged her tail at the smaller landen children.

Then Duffy froze for a moment before shooting straight up into the air to hover well above the buildings. His tail began wagging so hard the motion knocked him sideways as he shouted, *Sheep!*

Oh, shit,Ranon thought.

“You outrank the rest of us,” Rogir said.

The man didn’t have to sound so damned cheerful—and relieved—about it. Of course, Keely had taken up residence with Rogir’s family. Having enough experience now trying to deal with just one, the man could be somewhat forgiven for not wanting to deal with a pair of Scelties.

“Duffy, come down now,” Ranon said.

*They havesheep !*

And may the Darkness have mercy on them. “Duffy,” he said firmly.

Duffy dropped out of the air so fast, Ranon was sure the dog would hit the ground. But he came to a stop an arm’s length from the ground and gently floated down the rest of the way.

“What did your lady want to know?” Burle asked.

Looking a little apprehensive, James pulled his attention away from the Scelties. “There isn’t an ice chest that she could find in the kitchen area.” He sounded apologetic. “It would help our food last longer if we could purchase some ice.”

Burle frowned. “There are cold boxes, and each of them have a small freezer inside the main box. I checked them out, and they’re all in good working order. Need a good scrubbing, of course, but if that’s been done, they’re ready for a cold spell.”

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