“He said I did.”

His breath caught. That tone of voice should not come from a girl Jillian’s age. That level of hatred should not be in a girl Jillian’s age. She should not have experienced anything that would put a knife-edge in her voice.

Because he knew two women whose voices sometimes took that same edge, and because he knew why that edge was there, he had to ask.

“Jillian, are you a virgin?”

Her mouth fell open in shock, and because of her silence, the word rape hung in the air between them. She hadn’t been broken. He was sure of that. Jaenelle and Surreal hadn’t been broken either by the violence of rape, but they both carried emotional scars.

“Jillian?”

She didn’t answer. Then she jumped when the wood cracked under his hands.

“I am,” she said quickly. “I am!”

He released the table and stood up. “If I ask a Healer to look at you, will she tell me the same thing?”

“Yes, sir.”

Thank the Darkness for that.

He’d been rising to the killing edge, and he took a moment to pull back and regain control.

“All right, witchling. Listen up.You are going to school. Maybe with the Rihlander children, maybe not, but you are going to school. Weapons training will be considered an extra. As long as you keep up with your studies, I will see that you get training in bow, sticks, and knives. You shrug off one, you lose the privilege of the other. We clear on that?”

“Yes, sir!”

“Next, you do not get strapped by anyone but me. Ever. If someone thinks you’ve misbehaved to the point of deserving it, the charge will be brought to me. If I decide you do deserve that punishment, I will wield the leather. We clear on that too?”

“Yes, sir.”

“If someone else tries to strap you or hurt you in any way, what are you going to do?”

“Kick him in the balls.”

Lucivar blinked. Swallowed a tickle in his throat. Damn tickle. Felt like a laugh. “After that.”

Jillian pondered for a moment. “Come to you?”

“That’s right. Although you might consider just getting away and coming to me first. If he deserves it, I will hold him while you kick him in the balls.”

She gave him a bright smile. Probably thought he was teasing her. Probably just as well to let her think that.

“Anything else I should know?” he asked.

She shook her head. “Does this mean Nurian and I can stay in Ebon Rih?”

“That’s what it means. She’s going to work for me as a Healer, and—”

“And I can work for you by helping Marian take care of Daemonar.”

He laughed. “Fair enough. Now get home before your sister frets about this chat.”

“Yes, sir.”

A bright smile. Clear eyes. Didn’t take much to set Jillian’s world right and give her a sweet wind under her wings.

He would do his best to make sure things stayed that way.

Surreal cleared the table and stacked the dishes on a tray. The Tavern didn’t open until late morning, but apparently these two men came in once a week at this time to have a quiet breakfast of whatever was available while they talked business for an hour. They’d been startled to find her instead of Merry, but they were quite happy with the casserole, chicken, and coffee she put on the table. And even though they kept a running tab here, they’d left a generous tip. She wasn’t sure whether that was to thank her for letting them have the breakfast or for not tossing them out in the snow.

Smiling, she set the tray on the bar, took a step back, and extended her arms.

Her body flowed, slow and easy, in a series of moves she’d seen Jaenelle make with practice sticks no longer than her arm. This wasn’t training for an Eyrien weapon. These moves belonged to the Dea al Mon.

As she completed the last turn, she saw Falonar watching her from the doorway.

What was he doing at The Tavern? He knew she was staying here, so unless he was looking for a ripping fight, why in the name of Hell would he come to see her?

“Every time you pick up an Eyrien weapon, you mock my race,” he said.

My skill with weapons was one of the things that used to intrigue you. At least until we got better acquainted. “And here I thought I was just honing my skill with a knife. Besides, those moves weren’t created for an Eyrien weapon.” She swung herself over the bar. “We’re not officially open yet, but I can give you a cup of coffee.”

He walked up to the bar. “I suppose you’re pleased with what happened today.”

She filled two mugs with coffee. “The gossip hasn’t reached me yet, so I don’t know if I’m pleased or not.”

“Lucivar is pushing the Eyriens out of Ebon Rih.”

“All of them, or just the ones who think having a c**k entitles them to food, shelter, and sex whenever they want it?”

Anger flashed in his eyes.

She sipped her coffee and watched him. She had been attracted to the arrogant Eyrien Warlord Prince who had shown some respect for her skills—attracted enough to let her heart as well as her body get tangled up with him. But the Falonar she’d first known wasn’t the same man as the one staring at her now. She wouldn’t have slept with this man unless she was planning to drive a knife between his ribs while he came.

She assessed him as a client. As prey. A man could hide his true nature—and true feelings—for only so long, and she was finally seeing what desperation and ambition had hidden for almost two years.

Falonar hadn’t changed because living in the Shadow Realm had soured him somehow; he’d just gotten comfortable enough to slip back into being what he had been before coming to Kaeleer.

“I’m trying to remember that you’re not tainted,” she said quietly.

“What?”

“You survived the purge two years ago, so whatever corruption is in you didn’t come from your association with Prythian or Dorothea or Hekatah. Maybe it’s simply what you are because you’re an Eyrien aristo.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Don’t you?” She set her coffee aside and leaned on the bar, looking friendly and vulnerable. She was neither. “It must have pissed you off when you came strutting into the hunting camp as a boy and realized there was a half-breed bastard there who was stronger and better than anything you could ever be. He should have groveled in front of you, grateful to lick your boots. Instead he looked you in the eyes and not only told you he was better than all of you; he showed you he was better. Must have choked you to have to compete with him and never win—at least not fairly.”

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