It was annoying how Gray remained impassive in the last hours before Jaenelle's arrival. Cassidy's mind, so calm during weeks of preparations, seemed to have forgotten all the reassurances she'd said and repeated to her Court for the last fortnight. Now that the countdown had dwindled down to mere hours, she found that she'd become a veritable bundle of nerves.
She eyed Gray, who laughed, relaxed, at one of Ranon's comments.
One day ago, her lover had still been wearing himself thin as he inspected every inch of the Grayhaven grounds. To the servants' amusement, Gray had spent entire afternoons studying every curtain, every frame and vase that could be found in the public rooms, and more than once he'd sneaked into the rooms meant for their guests and continued the scrutiny with such zeal that poor Elle had complained to her Queen that the housekeeping duties were being stolen from her. Cassidy's resulting speech about trusting the reins of the house to the experienced staff hadn't fallen in deaf ears, thank the Darkness, but instead Gray had focused on other details. He'd poured all that energy back into the gardens, weeding, planting and singing to the plants he knew to be her favorites. Once she'd heard him whisper to the boulder adorned with blue river that he'd take care that it looked lovely for when Lady Angelline came to visit.
Cassidy hadn't had the heart to put a stop to his obsession.
Theran appeared half convinced that Gray's eagerness was preferable to whatever haunted his own eyes. He hadn't opposed her when she presented her proposal to invite Lady Angelline and her husband, and his silence on the matter had allowed the other males to voice their true opinions. Cassidy could still remember their collective paleness the morning she had shared her idea about opening further bridges with Kaeleer. The rest of Terreille was in the same or worse shape than Dena Nehele; commerce routes were open, but their neighbors had little to offer and less to pay for Dena Nehele goods. Kaeleer could be an option, one that deserved to be studied. Anyone but Sadi, had been the unsaid plea. But Daemon Sadi was the Warlord Prince of Dhemlan, married to the woman who had ruled Kaeleer for years and who'd freed the three realms from Dorothea's influence, the same woman who had chosen Cassidy for her current position. Not to deal with Sadi when they had such direct access to him, was a mistake.
The First Circle had been hesitant, the memory of Lucivar's visit would not be erased, the rumors about the High Lord and his sons were still whispered across the Realm in hushed, scared voices. But the SaDiablo family had helped Dena Nehele, and after several hours it was decided that, if the Queen wished to issue a formal invitation, the First Circle wouldn't deny her.
Which had left Theran balling his fists until she dismissed the meeting. No matter how many times Cassidy tried to put him at ease, the memory of those first encounters with Daemon Sadi had Theran scowling at shadows and muttering into a glass of wine when he thought nobody would notice. Either that, or he walked from one room of his ancestral home to another, with little of the purpose that Gray showed and more like he needed to move less his own thoughts devoured him. For the last two weeks, Theran's green eyes had followed his cousin's bubbling enthusiasm with jealousy; but last night after dinner, they had narrowed in a mix of concern and alarm when Gray had announced his plan to nurse the rose bushes into full bloom overnight. At last, Theran had snapped out of his dark mood long enough to drag Gray into his private rooms for a talk - Cassidy hadn't been privy to the details, but Gray had woken up in a good, well-rested mood, and while still preoccupied with last minute details, his attention had been focused on his Queen.
Just in time for the Queen to discover that she'd been holding back an avalanche of jittery feelings.
Cassidy had woken up to the realization that she, Cassidy of Weavers Field, once Queen of Bhak and Woolskin - villages barely bigger than SaDiablo Hall - was expected to host and entertain the most prominent couple of the SaDiablo family. A whimper had escaped her, having forgotten that she was not alone. Poor Birdie had abandoned her daily tasks and rushed over to ask if she was feeling well; the girl had been so scared at Cassidy's weak nod that she'd called the court Healer in a panicked psychic thread.
Next time, Cassidy would make sure that her maid used a distaff thread. Shira had come tearing into her bedroom, yes, and close at her heels Gray and five members of the First Circle had followed. It had taken a few bites from Vae to convince them to retreat back to their own rooms. Theran, used to Vae's form of discipline, had been the last to leave, not without giving her a considering glance and a polite nod even as the dog attacked his shin again. Gray had claimed his right as unofficial Consort, and Vae had reluctantly allowed him to stay before she trotted after Theran to 'make sure Cassidy's males knew how to welcome the Queen'.
Cassidy had felt sorry for the First Circle, but she had also remembered that those same males composed her First Circle. She was the Territory Queen in Dena Nehele, and as such, it was her right and her duty to open her doors for a Sister and friend.
Convincing Shira that it had been the anxiety getting to her had taken less than five minutes; the other woman had nodded in understanding and sent Birdie to the kitchen for some herbal tea.
Convincing Gray had taken until lunch time. He had kept himself at close distance until she'd snipped at him, and even then he hadn't moved more than a room away, pretending not to watch her as he gave his own set of orders to the gardeners. In that past few months, he had learned when not to intrude in her personal space; but the look in his eyes was a threat that, were she to feel the least bit indisposed, the overbearingly protective side of a Warlord Prince would be unleashed upon her.
By evening, with an array of fresh roses arranged around the mansion, Gray was sitting in animated conversation with Talon, Ranon and Archerr. Most of the other First Circle males lounged around, some trying to focus on a slow game of cradle, some reading a book but so distracted they seldom flipped a page. All of them stole glances at the wall clock, fidgeting more as the hands closed in to the appointed time.
Cassidy had been sitting next to Gray, sipping a cup of wine as she let the quiet laughter and camaraderie wash over her; but as the hour advanced, her nerves railed against her. Was her Court ready for this step? Had she rushed the invitation? Would one of these men rub off Daemon the wrong way? Or, Sweet Darkness, should Jaenelle be displeased with any of her choices.... Cassidy knew she wouldn't inspire any confidence if she kept pacing across the sitting room, but she couldn't stop. Would the rooms be to their taste? Even during her stay at the Hall, she'd never seen Jaenelle's rooms. Vae had given her approval, yes, but Vae was a dog. What did dogs know about human bedrooms? A second later, Cassidy thanked the Darkness that she hadn't broadcasted that thought - Vae would have forgotten that she was the Queen and nipped her for it.
She let out a nervous laugh at the picture, continuing her pacing and wringing her hands harder with each pass. She noticed Talon turning toward her, opening his mouth to, no doubt, offer some comforting piece of advice. But he cut himself off at Gray's small shake of his head.
Cassidy felt so out of shape that she'd meet Talon's good intentions with a growled response. The last thing she needed was a sulky Master of the Guard as the first impression of her Court.
"Sit down again, Cassie," Gray told her when she walked past him.
She sniffed at the offer, her loud steps echoing as she paced back to the other side of the room. Behind her, she heard his small sigh, as well as felt the undercurrent of male amusement misting up cautiously. In the Dark Court, someone would already have poured cold water on her, or teased her until her temper showed in the open and she could work through it. In Dena Nehele, the men were just starting to feel secure enough to share their natural reactions with their Queen.
Amusement was a sign of healthy behavior in her Court.
Now she only had to stop herself from baring her teeth in instinctual female displeasure.
Gray patted the seat next to him when she came back closer. "Cassie?"
The voice that had soothed her insecurities now acted like sanding paper on already raw temper. Cassidy snapped toward Gray and treated him to a soundless growl.
Careful not to smile, he reached for her hand.
Cassidy narrowed her eyes. Annoying male. There he was, enjoying the drinks and food meant for their guests. Meanwhile, she was fretting that the Coach she'd sent to welcome them would not be satisfactory. After all, during her apprenticeship, she had seen the size of the Coaches kept on SaDiablo grounds.
"You need to sit down and relax."
Her "No." was a hiss.
Not three months ago, her First Circle would either have cringed or sneered back at her. Now, they gave a condescending look between her and Gray, most of them with an open smile when Gray tugged her closer so he could drop a kiss on the back of her hand.
This just wouldn't do, Cassidy thought. For months, she had fought so that the men would take her as more than a foolish, weak woman. They had acknowledged in public that her word was their law and that their swords were hers to command. The last six months had been a slow process for all of them; they were learning what it was like to be under a true Queen's leash, and she was coming to terms with the fact that she did hold that leash. The basic trust that would be encountered in any Kaeleer court, that women would be protected and the men would be respected, was a day-to-day work with various degrees of success.
But she had been succeeding. Hence the invitation sent to SaDiablo Hall; Cassidy would never have chanced it if the Court continued as shaky as in its beginnings.
She stared at the hand that had caught hers, then at Gray's tranquil eyes.
And smiled back.
To hell with whatever the others thought of their exchange, let them know her an enamored woman. She had proved her worth as a Queen, and if they thought her a besotted fool, then it was a good thing that they approved of the object of her foolery.
Talon broke the silence, simulating a sharp cough that tried to disguise a chuckle. The Master of the Guard's example was one the other men felt comfortable following. As a general cough filled the room, Cassidy wished for Vae's presence. The temperamental Purple Dusk witch would have no qualms to snarl at the men in Cassidy's stead.
But Vae had yapped at Theran until he agreed to take her out for walkies. Though, by the speedy way Theran had surrendered to the Sceltie's demand, Cassidy suspected that Vae had proposed the exercise so that her human could relieve some of the nervous energy that'd possessed him ever since the date of the official visit had been set, and that had gotten worse as this last day progressed.
They must be on their way back to the mansion already. Vae would never miss the Lady's entrance, and time was running short. In fact....
*The Lady is coming! The Lady is coming!* Vae's joyful psychic shout swept through the sitting room, bringing the hush of conversation to an end.
Cassidy didn't notice she'd tightened her hand around Gray's until his own closed gently around hers. "Well." Her disgruntlement passed as she observed that, at the Sceltie's voice, every male present had straightened and tilted their head to the side as if expecting further instruction. Vae was as good a trainer as she boasted.
Having found some amusement in the so far deplorable evening, Cassidy had no protests as Gray rose and settled himself at her left. Their hands still joined, he walked her to the foyer. "Let's welcome our guests, Lady," he said, his grin at the formal address impossible not to imitate.
Cassidy turned around to check that the others were following. Powell had joined in, looking worn out after another evening in his study. The communication between the Territory Queen and some of the Province Queens, especially those that hailed from Shalador, had grown from a hesitant tickle to a steadier flow, and it fell to Powell to sift through those letters and consider possible answers before presenting them to his Queen. Her Steward was still wiping the ink from his fingers as he placed himself behind her and next to Talon. The triangle was not yet complete, but the First Escort would join them at the main entrance, dragged by canine teeth if necessary. Shira and Ranon were the next in line; the Healer had come downstairs in her finest clothes, and her brave smile was the less anxious expression in the group trailing after her.
But even the Healer's smile trailed into nothing at Vae's next announcement: *The Lady isn't happy.*
Indeed, a wave of female annoyance hit the building, so strong that most of them froze in sudden panic. "Mother Night," the others whispered.
And may the Darkness be merciful. Cassidy wanted to reassure them again. Judgment over Dena Nehele had been passed, and Jaenelle and her husband came not to evaluate the Court but to share a week with them and discuss some mutually benefiting ventures. However, with scant minutes before their arrival, and such a gut-twisting reminder of their guests' power, whatever Cassidy said wouldn't beat down generations of blood-soaked tales of the Sadist, or the reverent fear the myth of Witch created in the Blood's heart.
But none of the men abandoned the room. Instead the First Circle turned as one to their Queen for guidance, and the Queen found the strength to smile and lead them to the meeting point.
"Can't be that bad," Gray whispered.
Such optimism. Having met Jaenelle once, maybe he assumed that Lady Angelline's moods couldn't be worse than Cassidy's.
Cassidy gave a tight nod in response, and hoped that her Court had the chance to see Jaenelle's sweeter side before the storm hit Grayhaven.
"Stubborn male," Jaenelle muttered at the dark-haired man seated across from her in the Coach. That was the gentlest epithet she had used since they arrived at the landing place in Terreille; no, ever since they had left SaDiablo Hall.
Like on every other occasion his frustrated wife resorted to calling him names, Daemon reached out to take her hand and gave it a soft little pat. Instead of the usual indulgent, despairing half-smile, now he got a full show of teeth. "My darling," he returned with a fond smile, "You spend too much time with the cats."
Jaenelle's snarl would have made Kaelas proud. "I can't believe I married such an obstinate pig."
That was a statement to which Daemon was happy to grin in response. "Me neither."
In Blood society, marriage was the one association between man and woman where both were equal, disregarding Jewel or caste. The boundaries that existed between Queen and Warlord Prince, Black and Twilight Dawn-once-Ebony, were put in the background of a married couple.
Earlier that evening, Jaenelle had commented on what a novel experience it would be to walk at his left during a court introduction, regardless of how informal that introduction was supposed to be. The powerful males around her, from Saetan to each one of the boyos, always maneuvered themselves to her left, announcing to the world that their power was to her service. She had never thought much of that custom, and now she was curious about what the reversal would feel like.
She had expected Daemon to make some caustic comment about the new attitude of Cassidy's Court, maybe that he hoped they'd advanced enough in their Protocol studies to understand the difference. Instead, her senses had been assaulted by a surge of annoyance from the Black. When bright golden eyes had fixed on her, and her husband wondered in his sweetest voice what she was talking about, Jaenelle had understood that she'd unwittingly placed herself in the middle of an uphill battle.
Several hours later, the same man who had made his life's goal to cater to her every whim, had become an opponent that refused to capitulate in the slightest.
"We can consult Saetan," he'd purred when she had threatened to postpone their trip until he saw reason. "I promise to abide by Father's decision."
Jaenelle had given a small cry of exasperation. Saetan would side with Daemon. Stickler to Protocol that he was, her adopted father would glare at her, ignore all her protests that she was no longer their Queen, and inquire in that patient voice why in the name of Hell she wanted to break the status quo. As if she and her First Circle hadn't broken Protocol a thousand times in the past.
"It's not as if we haven't done it before," she thought aloud as they crossed the Grayhaven gates. There was an immediate shift in the atmosphere, and Jaenelle looked outside the window and breathed in the slow change in the land, the quiet disbelief that the years of suffering had ended and the shyness as it came back to life.
"Have we now." The incredulous sentence returned her to their argument. Daemon had raised an eyebrow and was staring at her, his demeanor as puzzled as if she had just announced that she was allowed to putter about in his private kitchen. "When?"
"Just last month. In Glacia!" She turned back to him. "I remember because Karla was just as defying of Protocol when she came running down the stairs to welcome us, and she did a double take when she noticed our position."
Daemon scoffed. "That's when we're visiting friends. The coven and the boyos - Hell's fire, Jaenelle, anyone in Kaeleer knows better than to make assumptions, no matter how we place ourselves when we walk into a room."
"Well, then. Cassidy is from Kaeleer." Jaenelle crossed her arms over her chest, glad to have caught him in his own words. "She was part of the Dark Court, even."
"But Cassidy now lives in Terreille." The last word was a menacing roar. When it came to the Light Realm, Daemon's rage knew no bounds. They'd discussed Cassidy's invitation for days, had sought out Saetan and Lucivar for advice. In the end, it had been Daemon's choice, and Daemon had chosen to confront his demons in the friendliest site that blasted Realm had to offer. More calm now that he saw the understanding in his wife's eyes, Daemon continued, "Those fools at Dena Nehele wouldn't know a good Queen even when one is shipped into their precious Territory. They almost lost her, their last chance to survive. They know the Sadist, though." Graceful as a cat, Daemon slipped into the seat next to her, brought her hand up to his lips to kiss the fingers and then settled them around the Black Jewel that hung from his neck. "They know who am I, and what I have done. They've heard enough stories to know that I wouldn't cleave my power but to the Queen that deserves it, and they'll get the message across even if I have to glue myself to your left side for the rest of the week."
Such sincerity couldn't but touch a woman's heart, even when the woman was a annoyed wife. "Couldn't you have explained that before?" she asked, still somewhat irritated. The slow smirk that appeared on her husband's face hadn't been expected. Even though Daemon wasn't a feline, he resembled a proud Arcerian cat after a successful hunt. Her sapphire eyes narrowed, even as she caught from the corner of her eye a crestfallen Theran accompanied by an air-walking, tail-wagging Sceltie. "What have you done, Daemon?"
The Sadist knew all kinds of mental games. Daemon knew how to moderate that knowledge to suit his everyday needs. He shrugged, almost boyishly, and moved closer to kiss her cheek before whispering, "I figured a taste of your temper would hammer it in for these fools." He grinned. "I'm not the one they must be most careful not to upset."