“Normally it would be done that way,” Rainier said. “But, Prince, your reaction to these letters—and they are only letters—is exactly why no one else is willing to make a choice. No one wants to be held responsible for whatever Queen ends up living on your doorstep—especially if she proves to be too friendly a neighbor.”

Daemon took in a deep breath and blew it out.

“If I were you, I would put those aside,” Rainier said. “When I spoke with Sylvia’s First Circle yesterday, they said they had been talking to a particular Lady about becoming Halaway’s Queen and were hopeful that she would accept. She’s supposed to give them her answer today.”

“She’s one of these?” He pointed to the stack of letters.

“I don’t know, but judging by how much care they were taking in what they said, they want this particular Queen.”

“If they feel that strongly, I’ll certainly make an effort not to interfere, as long as the Lady doesn’t think ruling Halaway means having access to my bed,” Daemon said as the study door opened and Jaenelle walked in.

“That might be a problem,” she said cheerfully. “Rainier, the Prince and I need to talk.”

Rainier looked at her, then at Daemon, and limped out of the room as fast as he could, closing the door behind him.

Jaenelle settled in the visitor’s chair and smiled at Daemon. “Sit down, Prince.”

His stomach clenched, but he obeyed.

“Sylvia’s First Circle asked me to take her place as the Queen of Halaway,” Jaenelle said. “This morning I accepted and signed a five-year contract.”

Daemon’s jaw dropped. “But ... you don’t want to rule. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard you say that over the years.”

She looked embarrassed. “Apparently, what I say and what I do are not the same things, and I’ve been the only one who hasn’t noticed that.”

Oh, shit. Who was the fool who told her?

“Ladvarian says that Scelties and Queens are meant to herd. It is our nature, and denying our nature is foolish. When I ruled Kaeleer, that was a heavy burden, even with all the other Queens to help me. And after I was hurt, it took me a long time to heal, and my becoming well was the most important thing. And I had a mate, and it was also important that I spend a lot of time with him and play. But now it’s time for me to work again, and officially ruling the small village right next to my home won’t be much different from what I already do. Or so says the Sceltie.”

He couldn’t think of one thing he dared to say.

“As much as I’d like to kick his furry ass for what he said, Ladvarian was right. It’s time for me to have my own flock again.”

“A new court?” he asked.

She shook her head. “Sylvia’s First Circle doesn’t belong to me in the truest sense, but they’re good men who are committed to Halaway, and we’ll work well together to take care of the village and its people.” She hesitated. “And they’re willing to accommodate the things Sylvia and I want for Mikal and Beron.”

Ah. Now he was hearing a reason that made sense. Then he remembered something about Sylvia’s First Circle that made him brace involuntarily for pain. Jaenelle was a Queen—and no matter who their husbands might be, Queens had privileges.

“Consort?” he asked.

She gave him a sharp look. Her voice was equally sharp. “The Warlord Prince of Dhemlan does not become the Consort of a District Queen and serve in her court—no matter who she is. Hopefully my husband will be willing to escort me to formal functions when required.”

“Which will leave an opening in the Queen’s Triangle.” There would be plenty of men who would come sniffing around once Jaenelle became Queen, for ambition’s sake if for nothing else.

She fluffed her hair. “I was thinking of asking Rainier to stand as First Escort to fill that side of the Triangle. I didn’t think you would object, since you already treat him as your stand-in when you can’t accompany me to an event.”

He felt his face heat even as he felt the ache around his heart ease. “It’s not that I don’t trust you.”

She smiled. “I know. For all the strength and power of your caste, Warlord Princes have their weak spots. On occasion, because you love so deeply, you will feel insecure. That is as much a part of your nature as ruling is a part of mine. As long as you remember that I love you, we’ll be fine.”

He nodded and searched for a way to step back from discussing her new court. “What about Mikal and Beron?”

“Ah. Mikal is easy. We’re doing a little decorating of the guest bedroom in Tersa’s cottage so that it will be Mikal’s room.”

“And Tildee’s,” he added.

“And Tildee’s. In exchange for being allowed to live with Tersa, Mikal has promised to do his assigned chores and his schoolwork and not try to smudge the truth with Tersa the way he sometimes did with his mother, because doing that would upset Tersa’s hold on the mundane world. Since you are the patriarch of the family and he is now officially family, he answers to you, and any discipline that may be required comes from you.”

“Good to know,” he muttered. “And Beron?”

“That’s trickier,” she hedged.

“Why? He can live here with us. There is plenty of room.”

“He doesn’t want to live here with us.”

Daemon sat back, crossed his legs at the knees, steepled his fingers, and raised one eyebrow in polite query.

“I see,” Jaenelle said. “The nervous husband is gone, and the Prince is back.”

He waited.

“The Queen’s residence is Beron’s home. He doesn’t want to leave it. Not yet. And there are advantages to letting him stay there. For one, I won’t be living there—not most of the time, although I will have a suite of rooms and will stay overnight on occasion. With my husband.”

Daemon’s lips twitched.

“Having Beron stay there also means that I’ll be able to justify keeping on the whole staff, since there will be someone in residence.”

“A boy his age living alone? I don’t think so.”

“He’s not a boy. He’s an adolescent youth who is almost old enough to attend school on his own.”

“Almost old enough isn’t old enough.”

She narrowed those sapphire eyes.

He tapped a finger against his chest. “Patriarch of the family, remember?”

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