“Mother Night. Couldn’t he sidestep taking the pup?”

“Not after I tied a pretty ribbon around the puppy’s neck and gave her to Marcus’s daughter to play with while he and I took care of some last-minute business.”

When Rainier finally stopped laughing, he agreed to take the job. He wasn’t sure what he was agreeing to do, but he was damn sure his days would be interesting.

Lucivar watched the Eyriens as they entered the big front room of the communal eyrie. Hallevar and Kohlvar entered first, followed by Rothvar, Zaranar, Tamnar, and Endar. He’d excused Endar’s wife from this meeting, asking her to help Jillian look after the children who had been left at Nurian’s eyrie. After all, she’d hear about this from her husband soon enough.

He picked up a sense of puzzlement in Hallevar and his companions, especially after Eyriens from the northern camps walked in, but there was no wariness in the men he worked with the most, no worry that he’d found out about some less-than-honorable activity.

Falonar came in with Nurian. He was full of hot impatience and likely pissed off because he knew no more than the others about why this meeting had been called, despite being Lucivar’s second-in-command.

Nurian hurried up to the table Lucivar had set up at the back of the room.

“Prince, am I really needed for this meeting?” she asked. “There are still a lot of people who have that stomach illness, and I promised the Riada Healers that I would help them by making more of the tonic.”

“This won’t take long,” he said—and wondered if the tonic would be made after she heard what he had to say.

The last group to arrive were the women from the settlement near Doun. They hugged the wall, watching the men from the northern camps with an uneasiness that made Lucivar wonder if there had been “visits” he should have known about or if this was just the fear that had come with them from Terreille. He also noticed the way one of them gave Kohlvar a timid smile of greeting—and the solemn, respectful way the weapons master tipped his head in acknowledgment.

When the last man had stepped into the room, Lucivar called in the leather case and took out the papers. A few papers were placed on the right-hand side of the table; the rest went on the left.

“It’s come to my attention that many of you are no longer content to live in Ebon Rih,” he said, using Craft to make sure his voice carried to everyone in the room. “And I’ve been reminded lately that I’ve neglected one duty as the Warlord Prince who rules here.”

“More than one,” someone muttered near the back of the room.

He ignored the remark, but he caught Falonar’s quickly suppressed smile of satisfaction.

That smile made him choose words that would act as a fast, clean break. “Besides the Eyriens who came to Ebon Rih last summer, there are a couple of you who still have time to serve on the contracts you signed with me. The rest of you have fulfilled the emigration requirement of service and no longer have to serve me in order to remain in Kaeleer. You are free to seek service in a Queen’s court or find another kind of work. If you stay in Ebon Rih, you will be required to pay the tithe in both labor and coin the same as anyone else who lives here. If that is not acceptable to you, you’re free to leave. You have seventy-two hours to tell me if you’re staying in the valley I rule.”

“What about wages?” one of the men from the northern camps asked.

“You’ll receive what is due to you up to today,” Lucivar replied. “After that, my financial duty to you is done. From now on, I only pay the people who work for me. That’s all. You’re dismissed.”

Stunned silence.

“What in the name of Hell are you doing?” Falonar finally asked with lethal control.

“What every other ruler in Kaeleer has already done,” Lucivar replied. “What I didn’t do and should have—released everyone who has fulfilled their emigration contract.”

“You kept us on to have cheap labor,” one of the men shouted.

“I kept you on because I’d mistakenly thought you were content to live here,” Lucivar snapped. “Since that’s not the case, there is no reason for you to stay—and there is no reason for me to continue to support you. And since you all did damn little to earn your keep, I wouldn’t call you cheap labor.”

“You should have paid us more,” the man argued. “We’re Eyriens, not some Rihlander drudges.”

“Ebon Rih belongs to the Keep, and it tithes to the Keep. As the ruler of Ebon Rih, I receive part of that tithe, which I distributed to all of you equally. What you got is the same as what I kept for myself. Are we clear on that? I shared with you what came to me from this valley. Since what I can give you isn’t enough, you need to look elsewhere.”

“Look where?” Falonar asked hotly. “Do you know how many Eyriens are struggling to survive because the Queens severed those contracts ?”

“Probably every Eyrien who had refused to see that the Shadow Realm is not Terreille, who refused to see that the Queens are not going to bend for a race that is coming in from another Realm. If you want to live here, you adapt to the way the Queens rule Kaeleer—or you end up dead. The bitches you all ran from are gone, purged from the Realms. If you don’t like it here, go back to Terreille. If you don’t like the way I rule Ebon Rih, then leave.”

Lucivar paused, tightened the leash on his temper. “I’ve said all I have to say. Now you all need to decide what you’re going to do.”

“I’m not going to pay a tithe to that half-breed bastard,” a rough voice said.

Lucivar focused on the sound. The man thought he was hidden well enough by the crowd? Fool.

“Pay him to live here?” the man continued, laughing harshly. “He should have been grateful that any of us were willing to take a shit in his little valley.”

“That’s enough!” Hallevar shouted.

No room to maneuver for a one-on-one fight, and there were women in the room who could get hurt. Not that there weren’t other ways to kill a man. One blast of Ebon-gray power would burn out the bastard’s mind. But that wasn’t the Eyrien way of meeting a challenger.

Lucivar whistled sharply. “Yes, that’s enough.” He pointed at the man. “You. Get out of my territory. And take everyone who feels the same way with you.”

The man looked around at his comrades. “You think you can take all of us?”

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