Empty rooms, cleansed of psychic scents and memories.

It had been Luthvian’s house for a lot of years, a place Saetan had built for her as a courtesy to the woman who had borne him a son. A Black Widow and a Healer, she had earned her living teaching Craft to the girls in Doun, as well as being one of the village’s Healers.

Never content, she hadn’t appreciated the house or the man who had built it for her, had never appreciated the son who would have loved her if she’d shown him any affection instead of hating him for the very things her own bloodline had given him—the wings and the arrogance inherent in an Eyrien male.

She had died in this house, killed by Hekatah SaDiablo shortly before Jaenelle unleashed her full power and cleansed the Realms of the tainted Blood.

A young Warlord named Palanar had also died here at Hekatah’s hand. He’d been at the service fair, along with many other Eyriens, hoping for a better life. He’d barely had a taste of that future before it had been taken away from him.

The only consolation was that Hekatah and Dorothea SaDiablo had finally been destroyed and couldn’t take anyone’s future away again.

Lucivar released his breath in a white-plumed sigh.

Land and house no longer held any memories of those deaths, or the violence that came after, but he did—and always would.

He didn’t bother to circle the house. If something needed fixing, he wouldn’t see it in the dark. So he tramped through knee-deep snow to the corner of the property where a stand of trees whispered forest. Dark, bare limbs entwined with the night sky until it looked like stars were caught in the branches.

His house now, one of the properties his father had assigned to his care after Saetan stepped back from the living Realms and retired to the Keep. He could sell it. Hell’s fire, he could burn the damn thing to the ground and no one would challenge the choice.

Maybe that was why he could keep it.

He sensed Surreal’s presence the moment she took the first step onto this land, but he decided not to notice until she told him she was there.

“Do you have any happy memories connected to this place?” Surreal’s voice came out of the dark a few heartbeats later, enhanced by Craft to reach him.

“None, actually,” he replied, also using Craft. “Luthvian and I rarely remained civil to each other through a whole visit.”

“Then why keep it?”

“The house belongs to the family. I’m responsible for it.”

“Doesn’t have any sentimental value to me. I could lob a ball of witchfire through a window and give it enough power to burn this place from attic to cellar.”

He laughed softly as he turned toward her. “Thanks for the offer, but I’m going to keep the place intact for the time being.” He tramped back to the house, where she waited.

“Why?” She sounded genuinely curious.

“It’s a good, solid structure that was built as a Healer’s House. Plenty of land with it for gardens. Doun could use another Healer.”

“So you’re thinking of renting it to a Healer?” Surreal asked.

He shrugged, then said quietly, “Or maybe find a teacher with backbone and heart and turn it into a residence for children who need a safe place.”

He shifted, not comfortable talking about an idea he hadn’t voiced to anyone else, not even Marian.

“So,” Surreal said. “You want to tell me why I’m staying at The Tavern?”

“Because I’m saving the guest room at the eyrie as punishment if you start whining about the training you need,” he replied.

He studied her face, then opened his inner barriers enough to get a taste of her psychic scent.

Hunter. Predator. Assassin. That surprised him—and intrigued him.

“If you don’t like it, you’re free to choose another place,” he said, watching her carefully.

“Those stairs aren’t going to be easy on Rainier’s leg,” she said.

“He can float up and down them the same as he’s been doing at his residence in Amdarh.”

“All right, Yaslana. Let’s stop dancing. Is there some reason you want a knife under Merry’s roof?”

He blinked. Took a step back. “How in the name of Hell did you come up with an idea like that?”

“Tiger Eye and Summer-sky running a very public business. You wandering in at least once a day. Makes me wonder if Merry and Briggs need that kind of protection. Makes me wonder if you wanted protection there that wouldn’t be so obvious.”

It was tempting to agree, tempting to let her run with that idea. But if he did that, sooner or later the truth would bite him in the ass.

“It’s not like that. Lady Shayne doesn’t eat at The Tavern, but if there was trouble there, her court would know about it and take care of it.” He huffed out a breath. “Look. I’m scorned by some because I don’t rub elbows with the aristos in Riada—or anywhere else for that matter. But the truth is, when I’m among those people, I am the Warlord Prince of Ebon Rih. Aristos never forget that, so I can never forget that. But when I walk into The Tavern, I’m Lucivar. I get teased; I get scolded; I get sent on errands. I sit at a table with a bowl of stew and the bread I’ve picked up from the bakery for Merry and hear the village’s gossip—who needs help, who needs watching. I hear about families in the other villages in Ebon Rih. I hear all the things an aristo wouldn’t and the Queens’ courts probably don’t. And if I hear something I think Shayne needs to know, I will tell her.

“More than that, Merry and Briggs are friends. And lighter Jewels notwithstanding, they would fit in with Jaenelle’s First Circle. Because of that, I thought you and Rainier would be comfortable there. If that’s not the case . . .” He shrugged. Marian had voiced the concern that Surreal and Rainier both ran in Amdarh’s aristo society and might not like The Tavern. Maybe his darling hearth witch had been right about that.

“So you drop by every day that you’re home to keep an eye on the village and listen to the talk that might alert you and Riada’s Queen to a problem?” Surreal asked.

“Sure.”

“What a boot full of shit.”

He stiffened. “I beg your pardon?”

She let out a hoot of laughter. “You’re like a damn Sceltie who’s handpicked his own flock, and Merry is one of the sheep. Sure, you run errands and put up with being scolded, but I bet you know when her moontime is supposed to start each cycle, and you get bossy when you think she’s working too hard. I bet you’ve even stood behind the bar and served drinks with Briggs after pushing her upstairs to take the nap you decided she needed.”

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