Guine Sanele clicks her nails together quietly. The rose paint coating them hides the snake’s tooth beneath the ring finger of her right hand, but nothing can disguise the dangerous glint in her eyes. “I’m going out, Prince.”
Blaen claims to be a Warlord Prince who served her, but the reality is much more complicated. When he gives her a lazy smile and croons, “No, Lady, you are not,” she knows they’ve reached the complicated part of that relationship.
Rather than fight a losing battle with a male who has already dug in his heels, the Rose Jeweled Queen changes tacks. “If I stay cooped up in this place any longer, I’ll go mad,” she declares.
This place is the Sanele mansion in Bidea, owned by Guine’s grandmother Lisabina. Because she is also the strongest Black Widow in Dena Nehele and the leader of the Hourglass Covens, there are several other witches in residence, along with the servants necessary to keep such a place running smoothly. She spent the last three days cooped up behind its walls and is tired of it—raised as a nomad travelling from village to village with her grandmother, having a formal place of residence is still unusual to her. Being confined to that place of residence has been all but intolerable.
Blaen doesn’t budge. “Just because you can wear your Jewels doesn’t mean you aren’t still vulnerable, Guine,” he tells her patiently.
She tries not to sound sulky, she really does. “I don’t care.”
“You had better,” Blaen says, voice suddenly grim. “You’re a Queen.”
“I am well aware of that, Prince,” she snaps, though it is true she spends most of her time trying to forget that part of her nature.
He ignores her, overriding her protest with his deeper voice. “Since you have no Court, you’re more vulnerable than you should be.”
Her eyes go cold. “You know why I refuse to set up a Court.” He cannot help but be aware of the tangled web that prophesied her death on the day twelve men formally pledge their service to her.
This time, he focuses on her and acknowledges the statement. “Yes, and I approve. But that isn’t my point,” he tells her silkily. “You have no Court. This is Dena Nehele. Simply being a Queen here is a dangerous thing and you can’t afford to tempt fate. Only your grandmother’s reputation protecs you, and her health is slowly failing. You have one Warlord—” somehow, his expression doesn’t twist with distaste as he mentiones the other male the Queen in her claims “—and one Warlord Prince devoted to your safety. That is all. You Jewels may not outrank Dacia’s, but you are a Black Widow from a powerful family. Your… work… provides you with a measure of insulation from assassination attempts but I will not stand idly by while you wave your vulnerabilities under the nose of every male we pass on the street whether you are truly vulnerable or not. Not while Gavril Conta is ruthlessly devoted to securing his Queen’s rule.”
She wouldn’t point out that she knew all that. She wouldn’t. “Are you done?”
She sighs. “Fine,” she muttered with ill grace.
“Then we’re agreed,” he says. With a placating smile, he calls in a deck of cards. “What would you like to play?”
Queen and Warlord Prince practice the Eyrien game of hawks and hares for nearly an hour before they are interrupted by a knock. Guiine watches Blaen’s temper snap to the killing edge before he reins it in. Only then does she test who is outside her door with a tendril of her Birthright White power. “Come in,” she calls.
A servant enters carrying a silver tray overflowing with food. It is a small platter by the cook’s standards, so Guine represses her instinctive snarl. The woman—the staff knew better than to send a male into Prince Nacul’s presence while he is attending to his vulnerable Lady—sits the tray down on the table out of the way of the game before unobtrusively exiting the room.
Blaen doesn’t bother trying to convince Guine to eat, though she is sure it had been he who requested the tray on a psychic thread. It is the kind of thing he would do. Still, they barely pause in their card game, continuing to play out their hands as though nothing had happened. Guine’s is garbage but she has a feeling that Blean’s is just as bad. She is so focused on winning that she barely notices and does not glare when he picks up one of the sandwiches and eats it in two quick bites.
When her stomach grumbles she doesn’t think twice about choosing one of the small stuffed pastries she loves and popping it into her mouth. The cook had developed the recipe on her own, and the savory herbs flavoring the cheese are truly delicious—an opinion that Blaen does not share, but he had probably requested them for her sake. Out of belated habit, she tests the plate for poison, now that she’d accidentally acknowledged it was there.
Standing so abruptly she bangs her knee against the table and hurries to a wastebasket. She hates to do it, but she sticks two fingers against the back of her tongue and vomits.
“Poisoned,” she gasps once she has emptied her stomach. To reassure the badly worried Warlord Prince beside her, she says, “I’ll be fine” and stood, wiping her mouth.
That is all he needs to know, and this time, when he rises to the killing edge, he has no desire to rein it in. She feels him snap a shield over the platter and then he is gone from her side, striding toward the door with murder in his eyes. He leaves the room without bothering to open the door, passing through the wood like a ghost. Through the physical shield he has placed around the room—trapping her there—she hears him roar for the servant who had delivered the food. Their wineglasses on the table clink delicately agaist one another. He had used craft to project his voice through the entire mansion.
Mother Night, she thinks, closing her eyes. *Don’t kill anyone, Prince,* she sends to him in a psychic thread, distaff to spear.
*Why shouldn’t I?* he snarls back in a tone so icy-hot she flinches, though she knows his cold rage was on her behalf.
*This is my grandmother’s house,* she informs him gently. *Any punishments are hers to give.* Besides, she is fine. She sensed the poison in time and her Black Widow metabolism will have no trouble burning up whatever remains. Whoever had slipped the women’s bane into those pastries, she knows, would soon be in much worse shape.
The thought of the Hourglass Coven’s leader exacting justice for her granddaughter’s being poisoned shakes some of the murderous intent from Blaen’s psychic scent. It is replaced with satisfaction.
“Mother Night,” she whispers, feeling shaky.
The cook, the housekeeper, and the servant stand before their elderly Black Widow employer. The cook trembles, the servant is pale, and the housekeeper’s lips are dangerously thin and white. Guine sits quietly flanked by the two men who serve her, albeit informally. Both bristle with protective outrage. Since she is perfectly safe and hadn’t even been harmed, she leans her knee against the leg of the Warlord to her left and puts her hand on her Warlord Prince’s forearm. It calms them, but not completely.
“What, exactly, happened,” Lisabina demands. She looks at the housekeeper, as the witch in charge of the household and all of its servants, as she asks the question. The servants and kitchens are, ultimately, her responsibility, and it would be inappropriate to circumvent her authority.
“I’m not entirely sure,” the woman says, and her voice is strained. It is obvious that she is displeased by this fact.
The Black Widow looks to the cook but says nothing. The cook, who wears no Jewels and has only a shaky grasp on basic Craft, gulps, but she answers the question. “I made the stuffed pastries Lady Guine likes,” she says, acknowledging her responsibility. “But I certainly didn’t poison ‘em! I like working for the Sanele family, having so many Black Widows underfoot doesn’t bother me a whit,” she declares stoutly despite her obvious fear. “Me maw was a Black Widow, and so’s my sister-in-law.”
“We know,” Lisabina says, her eyes lightening with a touch of humor.
Now it is the cook’s lips who thin as she realizes it was not her skill alone that earned her such a plum—if stressful—position.
The servant girl needs little prompting to convince her to speak. “I couldn’t have poisoned the pastries,” she protests. “I just carried ‘em.”
Now her eyes rest on the Warlord Prince who has attached himself to her granddaughter, and thus, to her by proxy, for she is the matriarch of their branch of the family, small as it may be. He still vibrates with the aftereffects of rage, but he knows that he must answer her silent question. “I ordered a plate of food from the kitchen,” he bites out. “Lady Guine needed to eat something. A bit after it arrived, I ate a sandwich. I didn’t test it for poison because it came from this kitchen—” it is a trust he will no longer extend after today “—but suffered no ill effects. Lady Guine had a pastry. Seconds after she put it in her mouth, she ran to throw up. She told me it was poisoned. I shielded the pastries, shielded the room, and gathered everyone involved here.”
Lisabina nods and finally looks to her granddaughter, the young Queen she treasures but wishes was not one of the rare Black Widows with a dual caste. She would be safer that way, as today proves.
“I tested the platter out of habit,” she admits. “There was aconite in all of the pastries. I threw it up to save myself the effort of fighting the effects.” She does not say whether or not she thought she might have succeeded. Blaen disapproves when she admits vulnerabilities, and approves even less when she shares what she can survive, believing it encourages her enemies into more effective attacks. She does not dispute this wisdom. “There was aconite in the pastries.” She does not use the common name of the plant, which blooms in winter, but rather the term Black Widows use for the poison it can be made into. “A fatal dose if I had eaten enough. The bitterness was masked by the other flavors of the dish.”
“We grow winter women’s bane in the gardens,” Lisabina observes mildly. “I believe it has been harvested recently.” She pauses, as though focusing on an exchange taking place on psychic threads. “Crina was responsible and is on her way.”
The middle-aged Black Widow arrives within moments. Her mother is one of Lisabina’s most trusted confidants. She is a large woman despite the Jewel she wears and shows up out of breath. “It’s missing,” she admits before she has completely regained it.
Lisabina’s eyes grow cold and distant and the very air is laced with her displeasure. “How could you let that happen?” she wants to know. Every Black Widow is taught to keep her supplies vanished, or in a safe, protected place.
“I don’t know,” she stutters. “I remember using it two days ago. I needed ginger to detoxify some of the supply enough to use in a tonic—”
The cook groans, cutting her off. “You’re the one who asked where we got our herb containers, aren’t you?” she demands. “You left a cut up, poisonous plant in my kitchen in the same kind of container my herbs are in? Someone could have been killed!” She is too outraged to hold her tongue in such powerful company.
Lisabina’s expression has not warmed. “Someone almost was.”
The cook gulps. The Black Widow has better self-control.
Both are banished from the mansion—but the cook is given references.
Not even the Black Widow’s mother objects.