Cougar had lived most of his life in a Sidhe court, though he’d only been in this particular one for the past thousand years or so. He knew it was never a good idea when the King or Queen of the court decided to hold an audience that included every single court member.
No one ever denied any Sidhe King or Queen anything – it was too easy to be cast out of the court, or stripped of what little powers remained to the fae, or to be consigned to the court torturer. No, the Queen had demanded a full court, so everyone was there, though Clay had gruffly informed them that they, and all the guards, were supposed to stand in their teams arrayed behind the throne.
Cougar didn’t like the fact that he was on display. Nothing good ever came from being on display.
The Queen’s Guard was split into squadrons of four, three soldiers and one leader. Since the Sidhe were always fighting, always traveling Underhill searching for ways to spy and one-up the other courts, smaller teams that were versatile and quick to move made more sense. Their rival court – because every court had a specific rival court – had kept the King’s Guard as one unit, like a battalion.
(Their rival court wasn’t exactly all that great at the spy game, but the court of the Sun King [self-titled, though he came from a line of light deities and it could be understandable where the name came from] was also home to many powerful fae who hadn’t lost as much of their power as other fae had in the transfer to the Americas.)
So they were arranged in their groups, Clay at the front of their group of three, behind the throne, and Cougar did his best to keep his resting face from twitching into something else. To the left of them, Wade stood at parade rest, his team stock-still behind him, though Jensen was rocking back and forth on his heels. Not a lot, not noticeably, but the subtle shift of weight caught Cougar’s eyes. To the right of them, Davis was also at parade rest, but not as stiff-looking as Wade. Devon, in Davis’s team, caught Cougar’s gaze and his eyes were – dead. Terrified.
Then again, their Queen was sadistic and terrifying. Standing behind the throne didn’t bode well; Cougar could understand Devon’s fear. All of the guard had learned how sadistic and cruel their Queen could be when she wanted to display something to the court.
The entire court was gathered, and waiting, and Cougar knew better than to start to shift and fidget, the way the other nobles of the court were doing. When quiet whispers began to spread through the kitchen, however, the doors to the left of the throne hall were thrown open and Queen Nadia, Mistress of Blood and Shadow, strode in. Her black lace dress, sparkling with studded diamonds, spider-webbed over dusky skin and set off her cat-green eyes. Thick black hair tumbled over bare shoulders, and she was startlingly tall – over six feet, even ignoring the skyscraper heels she wore with ease.
Behind her trailed her son, Prince Maxwell, wielder of Bone and Breath. He was, if anything, more sadistic than his mother, and Cougar thanked all that was holy in the world that his squad was not assigned as the Prince’s personal guard, since the guard was technically the Queen’s. The Queen sat down in the throne, out of Cougar’s line of sight – her back was to them, the guard arrayed out like the fans of a peacock’s tail – and next to her was her son.
Then, Aisha walked into the throne room.
Aisha was a fall from grace – the Queen’s sister had become enamored of a human and had a child by him. Aisha was the Queen’s niece technically, but had been banished from the Sidhe court.
Cougar could almost feel the entire attention of the room center on her.
She looked beautiful, short – human blood always seemed to shorten the fae, which is why Cougar was also short – brown hair in a high topknot that brushed against the back of her neck. Her golden eyes were sharp, and her entire body was tightly honed to improve her skills. Because of her watered fae blood, she had never been registered with power aspects. This had led to many of the fae trying to kill her, remove her from her path to the throne. She was a constant reminder that fae-marriages alone did not result in children; a human was still the most reliable route to procreation.
That she was back meant she had been invited back by the Queen, and Queen Nadia had never rescinded an order of banishment before.
Aisha dropped into a deep curtsey, perfectly executed besides the fact that she was in a formal, cutting tuxedo. Cougar had to admire her balls – the Queen notoriously hated anything that looked ‘strange.’
After a few moments, the Queen’s voice cut across the dead-silent courtroom. “You may rise, Princess of Old Blood and Flesh, and take the seat to my right.”
Cougar didn’t suck in his breath the way most of the nobility did; Aisha had apparently come into her own, gaining two power aspects as most of the royal family did (he himself only had one; Sight). And she not only had two power aspects, but powerful aspects. On top of that, she was formally recognized as a princess, part of the royal family.
As Aisha rose and confidently strode over to the smaller throne to the right of the Queen’s throne, Queen Nadia said imperiously, “I have grave news to tell to the Court of Shadows. I have found out that I am infertile.”
Not even fear of the Queen could keep the shocked whispers from circulating through the court. Since Queen Nadia was the Queen of the court, and the palace Underhill was attached to and flowed through her, it meant that all of the members of the court would be pretty much unable to have children themselves.
After a few minutes, letting people chatter, the Queen raised her voice again, cutting through the noise. “I do not wish to hamper this court in any way. So I will step down as your Queen, and you will have a new leader. Either my son, Prince Maxwell, or my niece, Princess Aisha, will take the throne. They have already submitted to human testing that verifies their virility and vigor, so that you need not worry about having the same problem in your next leader. In four days, they will duel here before you, and the winner of the duel will ascend the throne and become your ruler.”
“Queen Nadia,” Lord Doyle rumbled.
The court turned to look at him, and Cougar slid his eyes to the side to eye the lord. He was the head of his own faction in the court, and many of the stronger nobles in the court were in his House and followed his lead.
“Why would there be such a duel, my Queen?” he asked. “You have a clear blood heir to the throne, whom you have assured us does not have the flaw of infertility. Why bring a half-human here to rule us?”
“If you are so sure of fae superiority, Lord Doyle,” the Queen said, voice scathing, “then there should be no worry about her.”
Lord Doyle shifted, and he was not easily shut down, nor was he intimidated by the Queen considering he was nearly her equal in power. “It is not that, my Queen. I fail to see the need in the first place. In the four days between now and the duel, the court is unprotected, and the seat of power will be empty. The Court of Shadows Underhill will not fade, not in the way lesser fae do, but it will not prosper, either.”
“Since you speak plainly, Lord Doyle, I too shall speak plainly. Our rival court has been on the move. There are spies within my court, and I have on reliable authority that a direct transfer of power may open up my son to assassination attempts. I want an assurance that the ruler put on the throne is powerful in a military as well as personal aspect. Thus, the duel will assure me that a powerful and vicious fighter has taken the lead of this court and will protect you with the best we have to offer.”
It didn’t sound like the full story, and Cougar made a mental note to question Clay – as the head of their squad, it was more likely he had a clearer picture than the one being painted before them now – but Lord Doyle didn’t seem comforted. “You mean you doubt your son’s skill at magic?”
“I doubt he is the strongest in this room. I have witnessed my niece’s power firsthand, and if she is the better choice, I do not want to hamper this court through outdated prejudices that would prevent a powerful candidate from sitting in this spot.” Queen Nadia’s voice turned dark, and the shadows began to shift unnaturally – a sure sign her anger was mounting. “Do you dare question my motives? Do you doubt my ability to continue to defend this court until after the duel?”
It looked as if Lord Doyle would continue arguing if he could, but his wife, at his elbow, tugged his ear closer to her and murmured to him. The distraction kept him from continuing his disagreement verbally, and when it was clear he would not continue speaking, the Queen sliced her gaze over the rest of the court.
“Do any others dare doubt my decision?” she said, teeth bared.
No one breathed.
After a few seconds, she stood. “My decision is final. In ninety-six hours, we will reconvene here for the duel.”
“My Queen,” Princess Aisha murmured.
The Queen turned to face her, and Cougar could see his Queen’s face for the first time tonight. It was old, in a way he’d never seen her before, and at the same time the harshest he’d ever seen it. “My niece?” she asked, in a deceptively calm voice.
“My esteemed cousin has his own guard. For these four days, would it be presumptuous of me to request a guard for my house in the city?”
It was a smart question. No one would be happy with the princess’s new status, and she also had to worry about assassination attempts. The prince had protection in his private quarters, because no one could be on their guard one hundred percent of the time.
The Queen eyed her for a moment before waving a dismissive hand. “My guard is here. Barring the squads that my son has as his personal guard, you may pick any two squads for these four days to guard your residence.”
Turning back to the court, the Queen nodded. “I will retire to my chambers, but do not let my absence hamper your gathering. A feast will be served in the next thirty minutes. You are welcome to stay for it. My guard, you will remain until my niece picks two squads, and then you may retire as well.”
The head of the guard, Avery, bowed his head. He was the Queen’s right-hand man, and her current consort – she bed-hopped, and Cougar had never been happier for his mixed blood than when he realized the Queen never slept with anyone less than pure-blooded fae.
The princess rose and stepped behind the thrones to eye the many squads – all fifteen of them – arrayed out like flowers for her choosing.
“Leader Wade,” she said, meeting Wade’s cold gaze.
After a few seconds, Wade dropped his gaze. “My Princess?”
“You were in my mother’s guard, before she died.”
Her mother had been killed – assassinated – and the Queen had been furious. The guard had suffered deeply for that failure, and then for the failure to find the assassin. In the end, the squads in charge of the Princess Illya’s safety had been broken up, reassigned, and demoted so far down the chain of command that even the best among them had still not regained their position in the pecking order some twenty years later.
Princess Aisha had been taken in by the Queen, but there had never been any falsehood or trickery in it – it was clear that the Queen hated Aisha’s very existence, and the Prince had taken advantage of that by nearly killing the Princess multiple times. Cougar himself had once intervened to prevent such a death, and when Aisha had turned seventeen, she had challenged her cousin to a duel.
She brought a gun, with cold iron bullets.
Prince Maxwell had nearly died that day, and the Queen had banished Aisha from ever showing her face in the Court of Shadows Underhill again.
And now, ten years later, she stood before their ranks as their princess.
Clay stiffened in surprise. “My Princess?” he asked.
“You are my first choice. Your men can handle being around cold iron?”
It was clear that the question was not actually a question; they either went with her to protect her or risk the wrath of the torturer and the Queen. All Clay did was bow his head and murmur, “As my Princess desires.”
She met his gaze shrewdly, and Cougar had the nervous feeling that she’d inherited more from the Queen and the Prince than just their bloodline. But before he could dwell on it, she turned to Clay’s left. “Leader Wade.”
Cougar just barely kept his face from twisting into a scowl. Wade was a bully, a clear supporter of the Prince, and Rina his devoted follower. With Wade on guard duty, there was as much fear as an assassination coming from inside the house as much as outside.
Pooch tilted his head in Cougar’s direction, and Cougar dipped his head ever so slightly. They would keep an eye on Wade, and Wade’s group. Rina, Jolene, and Jensen were powerful fae, but they were not close friends. Jensen, though, Cougar knew by reputation – he was the only one of the guard with a direct line into the human world, the one most familiar and comfortable with cold iron. Jolene and Rina had been in Princess Illya’s guard as well, along with Roque, Pooch, and Clay. They had all known Princess Aisha as a young child. Cougar had not been as close, not had as much interaction. He’d been a favored guardsman – favored, but not really. He had too much other blood in him, human and lesser fae that led his ears to be pointed, his pupils to be slits. He was, however, a vicious and fearsome fighter, descended from ancient spirits that hunted for centuries. His patience outstripped even the eldest of the nobles in this court, and he’d been assigned to Clay’s squad when the Princess Illya’s guardsmen had been broken up. Cougar knew that he just needed to wait for the traitors to make their move; he and Pooch would be waiting.
“I would have you as my second choice. We will leave for my residence shortly; be at the east Underhill gate as soon as you are able.”
“As my Princess commands,” Wade murmured.
With that, Princess Aisha turned on her heel – and she was wearing heels with her impeccably well-designed suit – and stalked out of the courtroom, past Prince Maxwell. The Prince watched her go, and Cougar could smell the hatred pouring off of the Prince. Then Prince Maxwell turned and exited through a side door, leaving the guards to return to their posts – all except the two squads Princess Aisha had picked out.
For a brief second, Jensen caught Cougar’s eye, and there was something deep there, something wild and fierce and deadly. Then Jensen blinked and he looked affable and easy again, light-hearted and unable to hurt a fly.
Cougar didn’t know any other fae who could look so weak as well as Jensen could. It simultaneously raised his hackles and intrigued him.
“Losers, let’s move out. Gather your possessions – it looks like we have a four-day stint of trying to keep Princess Aisha alive.”
Roque growled under his breath. “It’s beneath us to have to babysit a half-breed.”
Pooch and Cougar both lifted an eyebrow at him. The guardsmen were not as pure as all that; many of them had goblin or fairy blood, sometimes human or even beast. Roque was of old, noble blood, as was Clay, but easily half of all guardsmen could not make that same claim.
Clay grunted. “It doesn’t matter your personal feelings, Roque. Our Princess has demanded our service and we obey. She may very well be our next Queen.”
“You can’t tell me that you saw nothing wrong with the Queen’s announcement,” Roque muttered.
“Be that as it may, it is not our place to speak of it,” Clay snapped.
Seeing as Clay was easily the first to buck authority – he’d gotten into a lot of trouble with Queen Nadia regularly, because he had an easy, almost nonthreatening way of disrespect that meant he never quite crossed the line to outright death-penalty-punishment area, but torture? Oh, Clay was familiar with the Queen’s brand of punishment, and the tender mercies of the court torturer – to see him restrained now, unwilling to say anything, meant there was something deeper going on here that none of them had picked up on, and to find out what he knew they’d just have to wait for him to tell them.
Cougar followed behind Pooch to their squad’s rooms, listening as Roque tried (unsuccessfully) to get Clay to explain himself.
In their quarters, Pooch picked up his duffel and lifted an eyebrow at Cougar. “You got anything to say about this?” he asked quietly.
Cougar huffed out an almost inaudible laugh.
“Yeah, well, there’s not much to stay out of if the royals insist on getting us involved.”
Cougar sucked at a tooth, a soft sound that was both derisive and questioning.
Pooch grunted. “I’ll keep an eye on Wade. You keep an eye on Rina.”
“Jensen?” Cougar murmured.
For a moment, Pooch did nothing except stare at Cougar strangely. “Jensen?” he repeated finally, both eyebrows lifted. “You think Jensen is someone we have to watch for?”
Cougar met Pooch’s gaze challengingly.
“Cougar, he’s the least threatening of any of us. He hasn’t been in a duel in centuries, he was the personal pet of the Queen before she took on Avery as her current consort, and he is the least subtle liar I’ve ever seen.” Cougar started to open his mouth, but before he could say anything, Pooch continued irritably, “And I know we can’t lie, but we sure as fuck bend the truth – all except him, who can’t do it to save his life.”
Cougar heartily disagreed, but there wasn’t much he could do in the face of Pooch’s absolute dismissal. There were other fae, of course, who let their strength lie in opponents underestimating them, but none were as good at it as Jensen. If Pooch hadn’t noticed, it just meant Cougar needed to keep extra sharp eyes on the blond giant with spiked hair and lens-less glasses.
When they had stepped to the east gate, with the minimum necessary traveling necessities, they weren’t the first – Cougar and Pooch had got there before Roque and Clay, but Jensen and Jolene were already there, Jolene squatted down and digging around in her bag, Jensen leaning back against the wall. Jolene looked up, raising an eyebrow at the two of them, and huffed. “You two packed up quickly. Your leader and their second-in-command also slow?”
Pooch got that dopey grin on he always got when he looked Jolene’s way. In different squads, and being part of the guard, made it hard for any kind of romance to happen (particularly since the Queen took it personally if the guard was not one-hundred-percent focused on her one-hundred-percent of the time), but Pooch kept his hopes eternal. It helped that Jolene had never directly rebuffed any of his overtures. Hell, maybe this four-day guard work would give the two of them a chance to talk it out without actually disobeying the edict from their Queen to focus on her exclusively. “Hey, Jolene.”
Cougar rolled his eyes. Pooch had no game; it was a good thing Jolene wanted to be caught, otherwise Pooch would have struck out before.
While Pooch attempted to continue conversation with Jolene, Cougar folded his arms and looked down the hall, waiting for their leaders and their Princess.
“You’re Cougar, amirite?”
Cougar slanted his gaze to the left, where Jensen was leaning against the wall.
“There’s a lot about you I know, but quite a lot I don’t, so I’d like to rectify that. I mean we gotta figure each one out, because you know as well as I do there’s something fishy about all of this, and if our job really is to keep Princess Aisha from being assassinated, we all know there are easier ways for Prince Max to make her dead. So the question that really stands out, in my mind, is how am I going to pass the time for four days in a house where all I really need to do is set up a ward and walk around in a circle once every four hours?”
Cougar knew of Jensen, of course, and knew that the guy liked to chatter, but he hadn’t realized how much.
“There’s more to bodyguarding than that, and you know it, Jensen.”
Cougar turned to watch Clay come out of the shadows, Roque looming behind him, followed by Princess Aisha, Wade, and Rina. Immediately, Jolene and Pooch were at attention, and Cougar had his head bowed deferentially. Jensen, the idiot, was meeting her gaze head-on, eyes curious. Cougar wasn’t sure what this crazy son of a bitch was thinking, but he wasn’t going to get dragged into it.
Princess Aisha paused, staring at each one for a moment before fully facing Jensen. “You knew my mother.”
“I did,” he replied easily. “I remember you, too, my Princess. It is good to see you back among your fellow fae.”
She let out a sharp hiss of laughter, and then she strode past him to the gate, thrusting her palm forward. The gate readily slid open with a soft chime, and Cougar blinked in surprise. Sure, Underhill responded to all of the court member’s magics, obeyed them more or less with little difficulty, but the chime – welcoming and even gleeful – was new, something he’d never heard before.
He didn’t get any time to really ponder it; outside the hill was the Manor. It was a building designed at one point to hold horses and human slaves, but at this point it held the PR team for the Court of Shadows and the cars that transported fae on the (rare) occasions they needed to be somewhere other than their Hill. It was late in the evening, enough to need the lights of the Manor even for those of them that had night vision.
Turning her head to look them over, Princess Aisha said indifferently, “I hope one of you knows how to drive, otherwise this will be uncomfortable for you. My house, though with enough space to hold all of you provided you share rooms and space, does not have room for a limo.”
Pooch inclined his head. “If my Princess pleases, I know how to use a motor vehicle.”
“I can drive, but you knew that, as well. Will you be driving your own car, with us following?” Jensen asked.
This man was really looking for trouble, Cougar guessed, because Wade stepped up behind him. Now, Jensen was a big man, tall even for a fae, broader than most fae, with muscles honed from more than two thousand years of existence as a warrior, but Wade was as tall and broader, in a way that made Cougar antsy. “Apologize to your Princess for your insolence, liesmith,” Wade growled.
With an easy smile, Jensen bowed deeply. “My apologies, my Princess.”
Princess Aisha looked them over before turning on her heel dismissively. “I will drive my car. You will follow in your own cars.”
Jensen grinned lopsidedly and moved to one of the SUVs stored in the Manor’s garage. It was easy to tell which one of the cars was Princess Aisha’s; it was white, humble, and vivid in the midst of all the blacks and greys of the court’s official cars.
(Queen Nadia was big on themes and color matching.)
Jensen opened the door and smirked at Cougar. “We will speak anon,” he said in a dramatic voice as Wade shoved himself into the passenger seat and Rina and Jolene piled into the back. “Do tell your man to keep up; she hasn’t provided us with an address, after all.”
Cougar let out a little huff of air and turned to join the rest of his team in a second car. Clay had also claimed the passenger seat, though his fingers were clenched on the door’s handle and the armrest. Roque seemed uneasy, but not as terrified as Clay. Cougar did not bother to watch the route – he would always be able to find Underhill should he need to, and there were more important things to talk about. Catching Roque’s eye, he spread his hands and tilted his head.
Snarling a little under his breath, Roque kicked the back of Clay’s chair. Clay, clutching on for dear life, as he was absolutely not okay with being in automobiles, cracked open an eye to glare at Roque from the corner of his gaze.
“Explain the amount of shit we’re in,” Roque growled.
Clay squeezed his eyes shut again, but obligingly said, “From what I can tell, and what the head of the guard has let slip to the leaders, Aisha demanded to be reinstated to the court, and strong-armed the Queen into allowing her. The Prince was as stunned as the nobles were at the announcement, but the threats on the princess’s and the prince’s lives are actual threats. I don’t know if the princess has been living in the city all this time, or if she moved back specifically. I don’t know what prompted the princess to decide to return to the court. There aren't just rumors that the court of the Sun King is planning to attack; there is a definitive threat. He knows our court is going through upheaval and is looking to capitalize on it.” Clay fell silent, and there were a few moments of silence, and then Clay sighed. “But it is true that the queen has recently discovered that she is barren. For how long she has been barren, no one knows, least of all her, but just by stating her abdication aloud, the scent of the magic Underhill has changed. The gods know how many children died stillborn or were never conceived because her status affected us all. If she had formally declared her consort the king…”
He trailed off, and Pooch cleared his throat. “Was Avery formally tested?”
“All of the guard that she used as consorts she had tested. All of them were found fertile,” Clay sighed.
Cougar took time to process this as Pooch followed the other two cars down a small side street, the street lights barely illuminating the shadows and darkness, to a modest-looking home, quaint and almost petite. It was a two-story house, the small drive barely big enough for the three cars to fit. The princess emerged first, slicing through the air like a shark, heading straight for the doorway, followed almost immediately by Jolene and Rina, who had emerged first from the cars. After unlocking the door, the princess murmured under her breath and then turned around to face the eight of them. “Leader Clay, you will be acting as my head of guard. Divide your men up as you please. I have basic-level protections around my house, but it is not military grade. Do any of you have experience creating wards?”
“Ah, my Princess, Leader Wade is skilled in the creation and holding of wards around troops in field. This should be easy for him to do. He’s very good.”
The group turned to look at Jensen’s guileless ice-blue eyes. Cougar, however, immediately slid his gaze past Jensen to Wade and saw the look of absolute murder in Wade’s eyes – gone in a flash. Then Wade was smiling, bowing his head. “Jensen is correct, my Princess. I am quite good at wards.”
“Then you will not be on watch tonight; Head Leader Clay, you will allow him time to set the wards and then give him time to rest and recuperate.”
Clay inclined his head. “As my Princess wishes. Of course.”
With a nod, the princess strode inside, and Cougar filed in after her. She ignored them all to walk straight up; Clay stood, commanding everyone’s attention, and then squared off in front of Wade. “I didn’t pick this, Wade, and I recognize your strength and skill. That being said, I have a job, and I will fulfill it. Will we have a problem here?”
Wade smiled. “I’d rather not be the one in charge if this fails. By all means, let the Queen’s wrath fall upon your head.”
For a second longer, Clay kept his gaze fixed on Wade, and then he returned the smile. “Go ahead and start setting forth the wards, and then come in. You’ll bed down with Roque, wherever Roque gets placed. The rest of us, do a thorough sweep; Jolene, Rina, and Pooch, you three take the upstairs, scope entrances and exits, rooms, and any potential security issues. Roque, Jensen, and Cougar, you’ll be with me. We’ll take the downstairs and the garage, the backyard – anything that will be included in the ward. Once we get an overview of the building and what’s available, we’ll divide up areas. Jolene, Rina, you’ll bed down together; Pooch, you’ll bed down with me; and Cougar, you’ll bed down with Jensen. Is everyone clear?”
“Clear, Leader,” Jolene and Pooch returned without hesitation – Cougar inclined his head immediately. Jensen merely smiled when Clay fixed his gaze on him, and Rina nodded curtly.
Cougar immediately took the right, fingering the guns in his holster as he moved through the floor plan, taking in the wide, large windows that looked out to the side of the house.
“Certainly didn’t get this house with security in mind,” Jensen murmured behind him, and Cougar turned to see that the other male had a sword at his hip as his eyes roamed over the room. “Also, what do you notice is a problem here?”
Cougar frowned at him.
“Not a chatty Kathy? That’s okay – I can talk enough for the both of us. Look at the mantelpiece, there. This is the kitchen, with no dirty bowls, nothing drying in the drying rack. That little counter there – completely bare. Absolutely no personal touches. That says something about her, or about how long she’s been here. She’s either a psychopath or hasn’t been living here long. And look!” Jensen bent down, opened the dishwasher. “No dishes here. The fridge – ah, there’s some food. Not a lot; mostly juices. Oh, some carrots too. Who knew? Ah, but ice cream in the freezer.”
Now that Jensen was mentioning it, Cougar realized he was right – there were no personal touches. Even in the guards, where they had forfeited their personal lives to guard the Queen and maintain some of their old magics, they still managed to personalize a little; a picture or book, flowers or small pieces of art. There was nothing here.
“Says something to the fact that she came here with an agenda. I wonder just what she had on Prince Maxwell, that forced our beloved Queen to consider her as a feasible leader of our court. Then again, you have to wonder what happened with Prince Maxwell to make him fall so far from grace.”
“Do you ever shut up?”
Roque’s voice was a rumble or thunder in the room as they completed their half of the house, moving from the kitchen to the living area. Jensen almost looked startled, but if there was one thing Cougar was learning about this man, now that they were working so closely together, it was that Jensen kept utmost control over everything he did.
Clay came around the corner, his gun in his hand. “We ready for outside?”
Cougar followed Clay and Roque out the back door, where Clay and Roque moved over to the garage and Cougar and Jensen moved through the backyard. In the corner, Wade was walking around the edges of the property, face twisted in concentration.
Cougar looked at Wade, and then turned to Jensen, lifting an eyebrow at the man.
A serene smile curled the edges of Jensen’s lips, but there was a viciousness there, too. “Ah, yes. Honestly, if anyone is going to assassinate the princess, it would have been him to let them in the house. I have my suspicions about others, but he has always been close friends with the prince, and is not happy with this turn of events. Now, however, since he’s charged with creating the ward, he has to make sure that none of his buddies break the ward, otherwise he’ll be held responsible for the princess’s death. One less worry on our hands, eh?”
Cougar found himself intrigued and interested in spite of himself, and ducked his head.
“I have my moments of brilliance,” Jensen murmured, but he was pleased, voice soft and deep.
The rounds made, the guards reconvened in the front of the house. Jolene stated plainly, “There are four rooms or living spaces upstairs, two large closets, and two bathrooms. The bathrooms have small, high-set windows – easily defensible – and the closets have no windows at all. The master bedroom is slightly exposed, but there are traces of personal wards there, so she’s been warding her bedroom specifically. There is another bedroom – guest, we assumed – a work space, and an open area that has minimal furnishings beyond a couch and a small table.”
Clay grunted, considering the group of them and then summarized, “Downstairs, four main areas and one bathroom, plus three doors. One of the areas is a living space: two couches and an armchair. The bathroom has no windows and is easily defensible. One door leads to the backyard, which has no dips or swells, no hiding corners, and the property’s wooden fence is being reinforced with wards as we speak. The second door leads to the garage; no hiding places in there, minimal storage and boxes. The last door is the front door we used to walk up the front path.”
Putting his hands on his hips, Clay sighed. “The downstairs is not as easily defensible as the upstairs, but with the wards we’ll make it work. Have you guys any preferences in shift division? Each shift will be six hours long.”
“Red-eye,” Jensen said promptly. “I can do any, obviously, but I prefer the red-eye shift.”
Clay met his gaze evenly, holding it for a few minutes, before Cougar let out a huff of air and gave Clay a short nod.
“If you’re sure,” Clay said, turning to the other groups.
“We’ll take the afternoon, or first night,” Roque volunteered. “Wade’ll need a break since he’ll probably be up for a while, still, setting those wards.”
Pooch glanced briefly at Cougar before saying lightly, “I’m cool with the first morning shift if you are, Clay.”
“You two okay with the afternoon shift?” Clay asked Jolene and Rina.
It was a smart idea to stick the two unknowns later in the day, when it was more likely that some of Clay’s team would be around to keep an eye on the situation even if it wasn’t their job to walk the grounds. Roque could keep an eye on Wade, and Cougar could keep an eye on Jensen the way he thought he needed to anyway.
“Right.” Clay nodded. “See if there’s bedding around. If not, make it work. Jolene and Rina, you’re later in the day – take the workspace. Roque, you’re also not needed until later, so go ahead and take the guest bedroom. Make sure Wade gets the bed when he gets up; wards take it out of a person. Pooch, you and I will take the living area upstairs, and Cougar and Jensen, you’ll take the living area down here. Your shift starts in pretty much an hour, so go ahead and secure the area, start your walk-around. The Princess is in her room?”
“Wasn’t too happy when we walked through her room, so yeah, we’re pretty sure she’s asleep. Even if she isn’t asleep, she’s behind her wards. They’re personal, and not very strong,” Jolene said. “Still, it’ll keep her safe while the outer wards will alert us to anything coming in.”
Clay folded his arms. “We easy?”
“Yes, Leader,” Jolene, Pooch, Rina, Jensen, and Roque chimed – Cougar nodded sharply.
“Then dismissed. We only need to do this for four days.”
“You think I don’t see what you’re doing, but I find it interesting you stick Roque with Wade and consider that an effective enough watch.”
Cougar blew out air through his mouth and fixed skeptical eyebrows in Jensen’s direction.
“I’m just saying, Roque was never one to enjoy having impure blood around him. He’s got a really black-and-white worldview, you know?” Jensen said, eyeing the windows and, through them, Wade. “You put the girls on the easiest shift because they both weren’t from your team. You’re watching me right now.”
Cougar snickered. “You’re watchable.”
“It speaks!” Jensen crowed, turning around with a grin. “I thought maybe your serpent stole your tongue or something.”
Cougar’s eyebrows popped up in surprise.
Now Jensen looked mildly embarrassed. “Ah. Yeah, I – well. You know who I was to the queen, right?”
Tilting his head in confusion. “Consort?”
“No – no,” Jensen said, so vehemently that Cougar was stepping forward, putting a hand on Jensen’s arm. Most consorts were chosen without their input, and Cougar should have known differently than to imply otherwise.
After a deep, steadying breath, Jensen shook hard and bit his lip. “No. I was – I am – or, well, I don’t know anymore. But I was the Queen’s Left Hand.”
Cougar inhaled sharply before he could control his reaction. The Left Hand was the Queen’s spymaster, someone who reported to the Queen any threats to the court’s safety. Jensen’s knowledge made more sense, now. But—
“You don’t know,” Cougar murmured.
“Excuse me? What don’t I know?” Jensen asked, recovered enough to talk normally again.
Cougar released Jensen’s arm and made a vague gesture to the whole house.
“Ah. No, you’re right. My Queen received a missive about two weeks ago, written on heavy paper, not sealed. It passed all checks for possible traps, and after receiving it, she went into the city. Then she came back, and told her Head Guard to go into the city. I knew she had brought in a special guest to Underhill, someone she had needed to alter the Underhill’s settings to the doors and magic. But no… our dear Princess Aisha’s return threw everyone except perhaps Avery for a loop.” Jensen smiled crookedly. “The Queen was… unhappy that she was caught unawares.”
For a while longer, as Jensen poked around the cupboards in the kitchen and moved about, familiarizing himself with the layout, Cougar watched Wade through the window, putting things together. “You are telling me this.”
“You asked,” Jensen said distractedly. “You know, there’s not even peanut butter in the pantry. How could you not have peanut butter? Don’t get me started on the state of her canned food collection.” Then Jensen paused and glanced at Cougar. “Ohhh, you mean why am I telling you about something that’s supposed to be super-secret? Because either power transfers to our princess, and maybe I’ll keep my job, maybe I won’t – or power transfers to our prince, and I lose my head.” He smiled guilelessly, though his eyes were hard and dangerous. “Whichever one, I’m set on trying to figure out where you stand. You’re the only one of Clay’s team I can’t place allegiance-wise, and that makes me antsy.”
Cougar lifted on skeptical eyebrow at Jensen.
After a few minutes, Jensen sighed and moved over to the window seat, fingers dancing nervously on his sword. “And, it’s not like it’s a secret anyway. You could have asked anyone. I’m sure Leader Clay knew, and the princess must have had some idea as well. It’s not something I have to keep to myself.”
“You are one who enjoys mystery,” Cougar said dryly, but his words didn’t touch on the fact that he was genuinely intrigued. Jensen might have put on a show, but it was a damn good one, and Cougar had always been fascinated by the deadlier aspects and manifestations on the guard. Was Jensen trying to flirt with him? It sounded so, but Cougar was admittedly not the chattiest person.
“I am not sure if that’s a point in my direction or not,” Jensen said wryly, though his eyes moved over every position he could see nearby.
Cougar grinned, slow and easy, letting his gaze travel over Jensen’s body – enough to have Jensen staring in astonishment and for Cougar to know that his attention was not unwanted.
Well, well, well.