If that was the case, she would find the strength to let him go with grace. But after he was gone, would she be able to hide the heartache well enough to escape the pity of her own court?
Dena Nehele Queens rode the trails through the Tamanara Mountains in secret and in silence. Some had made this journey many times over many years. For others, it was the first time they had dared to give anyone this much trust.
Each of them had the list of trails to follow. Their escorts knew the exact time they had to pass the checkpoints on the trails. Miss the time, and you had a choice: turn back or die. There was no leniency or mercy in the spells that protected the mountain trails—and in this time and place, there was no mercy in the Sapphire-Jeweled Warlord Prince who created those spells year after year, generation after generation. He was the assurance that the Queens who had gathered twice a year to talk with each other were safe from the ones who had ruled.
When they reached the meeting place, they left horses and escorts behind and entered the clearing alone. Many embraced, relieved to see familiar faces again. But no one asked for a name. They never asked for a name. Even if they lived in neighboring villages and knew each other, they did not acknowledge such things, or ask about children, lovers, or parents.
Too many had been tortured to death over the years for them to leave all caution behind.
When the last Queen who chose to make the journey entered the clearing, the Sapphire shields went up around them—protective shields, sight shields, aural shields.
Witchlight and warming spells made them comfortable. They called in stools, benches, or chairs. Then, safe within the Sapphire shields that would hide them until dawn, they shared their knowledge of their land and their people.
“It was a good harvest. The best we have had in many years. There will be enough food this year for everyone. The Craft the Rose Queen called the Queen’s Gift made the difference.”
“Harvests were not so good in the north. The Other Queen was not as generous with her time. She wears a stronger Jewel than the Rose, but I do not think she is as skilled in her Craft—or as caring of the people.”
“There was trouble in Grayhaven. Some people moved away because of the Other Queen’s presence.”
“I heard the Rose Queen allowed a community of landens to settle close to her home village. They are courteous and hardworking. They come to the Blood village for supplies and for social events. They show great respect for the Rose.”
“Warlord Princes who have gone to the Rose’s village have been impressed by the work being done, and by the feel of the village. Fear no longer creeps through the streets. Even Ferall was impressed.”
“Jared Blaed has healed.”
A stunned silence.
“I have heard that too. And that he is the Rose Queen’s lover—by choice. He is becoming a strong leader, and it is said that he knows some very powerful men in Kaeleer.”
“There is a rumor in the north that the Rose Queen will leave when the spring flowers bloom and the Other Queen will take her place and rule Dena Nehele.”
“That one wants much and offers little.”
“The south has not heard these rumors. There is no sign that the Rose intends to leave. Her court is strong and gathers strength around itself.”
“I have heard the rumor too. Theran Grayhaven wants the Other to rule and will give her our land.”
“There was some . . . strangeness . . . about the way the Rose departed from Grayhaven and ended up with the Shaladorans. It is speculated that it had something to do with the Other Queen.”
“The Rose has brought a young Shaladoran Queen into her court for training. The girl is learning the Old Ways and Protocol. She is respectful and performs her duties well. And there is real affection between the girl and the Rose.”
“The Other also had a young Queen as a companion for a while. Many of the Warlord Princes had strong reservations about the girl’s behavior and her ability to be a good Queen. After seeing her with the Other in Grayhaven, they are of one voice—they will not tolerate her setting up a court in Dena Nehele, not even in the smallest village. They say the girl embraces too much of what was hated in the Queens who were purged by the witch storm.”
“The Other chose such an undesirable Queen for a companion and yet Theran Grayhaven wants her to rule the rest of us?”
“In the Rose, Ranon has found a Queen for his people. If the Other tries to take Dena Nehele, he will fight such a change.”
“Will Jared Blaed?”
Throughout the night they talked—and sometimes they cried. At the first whisper of dawn, the Sapphire spells began to fade, so they vanished their stools, benches, and chairs. They drew the power that had fueled the witchlight and the warming spells back into themselves and prepared for the journey out of the mountains.
As they made their way back home, they thought about the things that had been said, and they all knew one thing: the Black Widows had been right. Come spring, Dena Nehele would either embrace a hopeful beginning—or face a terrible end.
A warm hand rubbed his leg just above the knee.
“What . . . ?” Gray opened his eyes. They must have been closed because now he could see Daemon crouching in front of the chair he’d collapsed into when he walked into Daemon’s study.
“Drink this,” Daemon said. “It’s a warm tonic. It will help put some bone back in your legs.”
“Where did the old bone go?”
Gray tried to focus on the blurry mug floating in front of him. Too much effort. He let his head fall back against the chair and stared at the ceiling. It wasn’t doing anything. He liked that. A lot.
He was so damn tired. He had never ever, in the whole of his life, been this tired.
How did these mendo this every day?
“Gray, did you remember any part of the Protocol that dealt with the First Escort arranging rest periods for the Queen and her escorts?”
The dry humor in Daemon’s voice told Gray he’d missed something.
“How’s he doing?” Lucivar’s voice. He sounded amused too. “Looking at him, I guess it’s good Jaenelle doesn’t have as much energy as she used to.”
Gray had spent one whole morning and afternoon acting as First Escort to Jaenelle Angelline. He whimpered at the thought of her having more energy.