Four Queens who began ruling at a young age—as soon as they had made the Offering to the Darkness, in fact. Each one was capable of great compassion—and of being totally ruthless. Saetan watched them, certain that in these few seconds of silence they had reached an agreement of how they would work together to achieve a desired resultwithout crossing that unforgivable line.

As curious as he was about what had passed between Sabrina and Jaenelle, he was equally certain that hedidn’t want to know what the four Queens had decided to do. And maybe, if he was lucky, he wouldn’t have to know. After all, he was supposed to be retired from the living Realms.

And the sun might shine in Hell tomorrow.

*Coward,* Daemon said softly on a Black spear thread.

A hint of humor, of relaxation. The Queen’s weapon would not be needed tonight.

“The Warlord who acted on Kermilla’s orders came from Dharo?” Sabrina asked thoughtfully.

“That’s the assumption, since he didn’t come from Dena Nehele,” Jaenelle replied.

“And the body was brought back to Kaeleer,” Saetan said. When they all stared at him, he lifted an eyebrow. “Draca opened the Gate for them. If you think anyone is more qualified to decide who may use the Gate here at the Keep, then you can take it up with her.”

Jaenelle was the only person who might be able to challenge Draca’s decision and overrule the Seneschal about who could or couldn’t use the Gate. Since she seemed to have no objection, the rest of them backed away from any criticism they might have had.

“How many men are in Kermilla’s First Circle?” Karla asked.

“Twelve.” Sabrina stared at Karla. “She had the same twelve men who had been Cassidy’s First Circle.”

Karla’s lips curved in a wicked smile. “Then Kermilla’s court is broken, isn’t it?”

“Technically, yes,” Saetan said. “But no court that’s sound breaks because of a death, even when there aren’t more than twelve males in the First Circle. The court continues for a few days, sometimes even weeks, while the Queen considers the men in the Second Circle and decides who will be invited to fill the opening in the First Circle.”

“I don’t think she has a Second Circle, Uncle Saetan,” Sabrina said. “The First and Second Circles are paid with the Queen’s tithes. Cassidy didn’t need more than her First Circle to work exclusively on the court’s behalf, so she didn’t have anyone in her Second Circle except youngsters who were with her for training and court polish. I know she paid them because Darlena, the Province Queen who rules that part of Dharo, had been impressed by Cassidy’s generosity as well as by the number of requests she received from youngsters of all castes who were willing to serve in a small village court because of that generosity. Darlena also noticed how many of those youngsters retracted their requests when they learned that Kermilla now ruled Bhak instead of Cassidy. So I don’t think the current Queen of Bhak has anyone who can fill the vacant place in her court.”

“Which means the court is broken,” Aaron said.

“Not yet,” Jaenelle said quietly, looking at Sabrina.

Sabrina tipped her head. “If her court doesn’t tell me, I can pretend not to know.”

Aaron swore but did nothing else because he, like the rest of them, knew there was a reason Jaenelle wanted some things to be ignored.

Even if she chose not to tell any of them the reason.

“There was an interesting miscalculation when the summer tithes for Bhak and Woolskin were sent to Darlena’s Steward,” Sabrina continued. “It was swiftly corrected, but Gallard had never made that kind of miscalculation when he served Cassidy.”

“Tried to short the Province Queen of her rightful share of the tithes?” Khary asked.

Sabrina’s smile was sufficient answer. “I think my Steward and Darlena’s should personally collect the autumn tithes from a few of the District Queens and review their court accounts.” She looked at Jaenelle. “Don’t you think? That would be a fair warning to a Queen who had been granted a provisional year to prove herself—especially if she truly wanted to retain those villages as her territory.”

“Who gives a piss about being fair?” Lucivar growled.

Saetan felt his temper rise, but before he could respond, Daemon said mildly, “We all give a piss about being fair when it buys needed time.”

Lucivar stopped prowling and stared at Daemon. “Oh.That kind of being fair. All right, fine. But someone should still go to Dena Nehele and explain to that bitch that a young Warlord can’t be snatched off the street just because he has four legs and fur.”

“That’s been taken care of,” Jaenelle said.

“By who?” Lucivar demanded.

“By someone who can explain things even better than you.” Jaenelle smiled at Lucivar.

Lucivar took a step back and resumed his prowling.

After a few moments of uneasy silence, Khary said, “There might not be much we can do about Kermilla right now, but I can go to Eyota tomorrow and bring Khollie home.”

“I don’t think you can take Khollie anywhere without a fight,” Jaenelle said.

Khary gave Jaenelle, then Morghann, a hard stare. “He’s delicate. You bothknow that. And Ranon didn’t want him in the first place.”

“What was true then isn’t true now. Ranon needed some time to gain clarity in his feelings.”

Khary made a rude noise. “He’s—”

“One of us,” Jaenelle said quietly.

Silence as the men took a long moment to assess the implications of that statement.

One of us,Saetan thought. Those three words told him a great deal about Ranon—and explained even more why Jaenelle had avoided telling him any details about her meeting with the Shalador Warlord Prince. Damned hard to insist that you were a “former” ruler when a newly met Warlord Prince recognized a bond with you that could hold him.

When Gray had recognized her asthe Queen, Jaenelle had slid around facing the truth that she wasn’t a former anything by arguing that Gray was confused by his developing sense of being a Warlord Prince. But there was nothing wrong with Ranon that she could use as an excuse.

Which made this particular meeting even more interesting.

“What Circle?” Khary finally asked.

“Second,” Jaenelle replied.

Meaning, if the Dark Court still officially existed, Ranon would have been accepted into the Second Circle. Not as intimate a companion as someone in the First Circle, but those who served in the Second were still close enough—and trusted enough—for confidential assignments and direct service to the Queen.

Anne Bishop Books | Science Fiction Books | The Black Jewels Series Books