“It’s all right.” Daemon gave him a soothing pat.

“Dinner is almost ready,” Lucivar said. “Apparently Mrs. Beale figured a few people would want to turn in early tonight, so dinner is being served early too.”

“A good decision on her part,” Daemon said. “Come on, Gray. Maybe some food will help.”

Help what? He’d have to chew it, wouldn’t he? What help was that?


“In a minute,” he murmured. “Just give me another minute.”

Gray pushed himself to a sitting position, catching the blanket as it slid off his legs. He still felt tired, but he was much better for taking that minute to rest before dinner.

“Good evening.” Daemon closed the book he was reading and set it on the table next to his chair.

“Guess I’m still a little groggy.” Gray tried to tidy his hair by running his fingers through it. “I didn’t see you there. Is it time for dinner?” He looked to one side, then the other. “Wasn’t I sitting in a chair before? How did I end up on the sofa?”

“Boyo, it’s closing in on midnight, and the rest of us had dinner hours ago. You’re on the sofa because Lucivar and I couldn’t keep you awake long enough to get you any farther. We figured you’d sleep just as well there as anyplace else we could carry you.”

Gray braced his head in his hands. Weeks of studying, working, traveling to the Keep and to SaDiablo Hall for training. “I failed, didn’t I?”

“You didn’t remember the part about the First Escort being able to insist on rest breaks, but I figure you’ll learn that Protocol fast enough for self-preservation if for nothing else. As for the rest, Lucivar and I agree that the only thing you’re lacking is the finesse that comes from experience. And that you will learn by working beside your Queen.”

Gray raised his head. “Really?”

Daemon smiled. “Really. In fact, I have this for you.” He called in a sheet of paper and used Craft to float it over to Gray. “The High Lord wrote it out, so you can be sure the Protocol is exact for retiring a man from a dominant position in a court and giving that title—and the duties that go with it—to someone else.”

He stared at the words but didn’t try to read them. “When do you think Theran will tell Cassie?”

“The first day of Winsol is a week from now. Unless he’s a complete bastard, he’ll wait until the celebration is over and people are settling into the routine of winter days. He can’t wait much longer than that to start gathering the men who will form a First Circle, but the moment he does more than try to feel out who might be interested in serving Kermilla, every Queen and Warlord Prince is going to know about it—and Cassie will hear about it. That’s whenshe should make her declaration of whether she’s going to stay or leave. After that, a lot depends on which Queen the other Queens and Warlord Princes are willing to have rule over their lives.” Daemon stood up. “Come on. We’ll warm up the food Mrs. Beale set aside for you. Then you can get a bit more sleep and be on your way in the morning.” He paused. “My advice is to forget about all of this and enjoy the days of Winsol.”

Gray’s stomach rumbled. He got to his feet, feeling awake enough to be enthusiastic about food.

“There is one other piece of advice I could use,” he said.

Daemon raised an eyebrow. “And what is that?”

“What do you buy a Sceltie for Winsol?”



Theran fanned out the gold marks. Twenty ten-marks. He’d rarely seen gold marks. The silver marks were easier to come by when the rogues sold game to folks who couldn’t afford to buy meat from the butcher’s shop. Easier to come by and not as noticeable when spent. Usually only aristos—or the twisted Queens and their First Circles—had enough income to use gold marks.

Talon had given him twenty ten-marks for his twentieth birthday—the first and only time he’d held that much spending money. It still felt like a fortune.

After deducting the expenses for the town treasury and the Grayhaven estate, he figured he would have four hundred gold marks as an annual personal income from the town’s tithes. He’d need a few new clothes in the coming months and there would be the expense for the occasional evening’s entertainment, but he knew how to live lean. Hell’s fire, he’d been doing it his whole life. That’s why he had decided to give his Lady half of that income as a special surprise.

Kermilla walked into the sitting room. “The bastard butler said you wanted to see me.”

“He’s not a bastard, Kermilla,” Theran said. “You know it’s unkind to insult a man by saying he has no father.”

She rolled her eyes. “Then let’s say it describes his temper and attitude if you don’t want to besmirch whatever bloodlines he can claim.” Then she saw the gold marks and her breath caught.

He almost reconsidered what he was going to do, but maybe her recent bitchiness was a sign of frustration. There was little society in the town and less public entertainment that she felt was worthy of her notice. And she seemed to find his efforts at lovemaking less and less enjoyable—so much so, he’d stopped asking for sex and decided to wait for her invitation.

“What’s that?” she asked, eyeing the gold marks.

He held them out. “This is for you.”

She took the fanned marks and counted them twice. “Two hundred gold marks? Theran, where did you get this?”

He shrugged and smiled, warmly pleased by the light in her eyes. “I know there hasn’t been much money and the income hasn’t arrived from your village’s tithes. Winsol starts in three days, and I thought you’d enjoy doing a bit of shopping.”

She’d been hinting hard enough that the failure of her Steward to send the income owed to her was making it impossible for her to buy any gifts for her family or to select the expected gifts for her Steward, Master of the Guard, and Consort—or to buy anything for him.

The gift itself wasn’t important. It was the fact that Kermilla wanted to give him one. He hadn’t had a gift from a woman since he’d left his mother when he was seven years old.

“Oh, Theran!”

Kermilla threw her arms around him and kissed him with enough heat to fire his blood. Before he could get another good taste of her, she backed away, wagging a finger at him while she smiled playfully.

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