“She’s dead, Kermilla. She enraged a Warlord Prince who was visiting friends for Winsol and he killed her, right on the main street in full view of half the village.”

She couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe. “Why?”

Theran took her hands. The warmth of his hands showed her how cold she’d become, chilled to the bone by his words.

“She wasn’t liked or trusted by the Warlord Princes who lived near her village,” Theran said. “Whatever leash had kept some of her behavior under control disappeared after her visit here. She’d been shopping and stole some items. Didn’t even try to be subtle about it. A boy who was in the shop with his older brothers saw her and told the merchant, who then reported her to the village guards. She claimed that the merchant should give her those things as ‘gifts’ because she was a Queen.” He snorted softly. “Which just proved she’d been tainted by the bitches who had ruled here before.”

She didn’t realize she’d been whimpering until he made soothing noises.

“I’m sorry, Kermilla, but it’s important that you know what this girl was like. You have to understand that befriending her and being influenced by her the way you were is going to make it harder for the Warlord Princes and Queens to trust you. They aren’t going to tolerate having that kind of Queen rule in Dena Nehele. Not again.”

She didn’t speak. Couldn’t speak.

“She had to reveal everything she had taken. Because of her age, the humiliation was deemed sufficient punishment. But the next day, she attacked the boy when he was out with friends . . .” Theran closed his eyes. When he opened them, they were filled with grief. “The village council didn’t give me the details. I can find out if you need to know. But they called in Healers from neighboring villages to help the village Healer. Even with that much skill, not all of what she did to the boy can be healed. He acted with honor—and he’ll never be the same because of what she did.”

What kind of people are they to kill a Queen over some stupid boy?

“The Warlord Prince who was in the village hunted Correne down and executed her on the main street.”

She swallowed against the sickness clogging her throat. “What did they do to him? What did they do to the bastard who killed a Queen?”

He gave her a queer look. “Nothing. He did the same thing he’d been doing his whole life—eliminating an enemy who had no honor.”

She pulled her hands out of his. “I don’t feel well. I’m going up to my room to rest.”

“Of course.” He stood up and held out a hand.

She didn’t want to touch him. Wasn’t sure she could stand to touch him.

She’d known the males here could be brutal. After all,every Warlord Prince was brutal. Maybe she hadn’t wanted to see that Theran wasn’t any different from the rest of them.

She looked into his eyes and saw grief for the boy, who was still alive, and no regret—none at all—for Correne’s death. Did she really want to live among these people? Could she survive among these people?

She stood up, avoiding his hand. Somehow, that didn’t surprise him.

He opened the door for her. She walked out of the study.

Theran’s dismissal of Correne’s death troubled her, even scared her—but it didn’t scare her half as much as seeing the dark pleasure in Julien’s eyes and knowing that pleasure was there because he’d heard the news.

CHAPTER 31

TERREILLE

Cassidy hurried into the meeting room. Gray was finally home, and she wasn’t sure if she was relieved or angry. A hasty message saying he’d been delayed but would be home before Winsol hadn’t soothed her, not when he’d been so vague about these required meetings with the High Lord—and not when Jaenelle’s response to her inquiries was a gently worded message that still translated to “It’s none of your business, Cassie.”

“Gray, are you all right—”

He grabbed her, twirled her, hugged her breathless—then kissed her in a way that made her dizzy and more than a little self-conscious since her whole First Circle was watching them.

“Sorry I’ve been gone so long.” Gray’s green eyes blazed with happy excitement, and he didn’t look sorry at all. “I asked Daemon for a favor, and then he wanted me to wait and bring along a special delivery for you. I couldn’t say no.”

“Gray, stop bouncing,” Ranon said.

“Sorry.” Gray grinned. “I’m just glad to be home. The SaDiablos are wonderful people, but they’re exhausting to be around for any length of time.”

“Try spending four months with them,” Cassidy muttered.

Gray hooted.

“When my boys get like this, I take them to the park and make them run around until they’re almost too tired to walk home,” Shaddo said. “Think that would work with him?”

“No.” Gray looked around the room—and then looked under the table. “Where are Vae and Khollie?”

“Outside,” Shira said.

He shrugged out of his coat. “Good. Ranon, would you put an Opal shield around the room and a lock on the door?”

Cassidy felt tension ripple through the room. “Is there a reason for this, Gray?”

“I don’t want Vae and Khollie joining us right now,” he replied.

At least he was starting to settle down, Cassidy thought as everyone gathered around the table.

“I did some shopping while I was in Kaeleer,” Gray said.

Cassidy frowned. “I thought we agreed that we would buy our gifts from local shops, and anything we bought that came from Kaeleer we would purchase at Merchants.”

“We did agree, but there were some things we wouldn’t be able to make in time. Not this year, anyway.” Gray ran a hand down her arm, silently asking her to understand. “I asked Daemon to take me to Scelt. We spent a day in Maghre. I met Lady Fiona and Shadow, the Sceltie Warlord who is her inspiration for the Tracker and Shadow books. I know he’s the inspiration because he told me. Several times. We also spent some of the afternoon with Lord Khardeen. And I bought some things.”

An odd assortment of toys and other things appeared on the table.

“I got these brushes for Lizzie, Wynne, and Keely. See? Their names are etched into the wood. And these,” Gray brushed a finger over the top of several small containers, “have nail paint that can be used safely on Sceltie nails as well as girl nails.”

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