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  • Shalador's Lady(Black Jewels,Book 8) by Anne Bishop


    Ranon stepped out on the terrace behind the Grayhaven mansion, closed his dark eyes, and raised the wood flute to his lips. Then he hesitated while a lifetime of caution warred with the hope he felt because of Lady Cassidy, the Queen who now ruled the Territory of Dena Nehele.

    Because there was hope, and fledgling trust, Ranon took a breath and began to play a greeting to the sun—a song that had not been heard outside of the Shalador reserves for many, many years. Even there, it had not been played openly.

    His grandfather had taught him this song and every other song the Tradition Keepers had held on to since the Shalador people fled the ruins of their own Territory generations ago and settled in the southern part of Dena Nehele. The people had thrived there and put down roots, respecting the traditions of Dena Nehele but never forgetting their own—and hoping, always hoping, that someday they would have a Territory of their own again.

    It had been good land once, and a good place to live when it had been ruled by the Gray-Jeweled Queens. Then Lia died, and Dena Nehele’s decline began. Queens who were backed by Dorothea SaDiablo, Hayll’s High Priestess, gained control within a couple of generations. Dorothea hated the people of Dena Nehele for holding out against her for so long, but she hated the Shalador people even more because of Jared, the Red-Jeweled Shalador Warlord who had been husband and Consort to Lia Grayhaven, the last Gray Lady to rule Dena Nehele.

    Because Dorothea hated Jared’s people, her pet Queens ground away a little more of what was uniquely Shalador with each generation. The boundaries of the reserves where the Shaladorans had settled were whittled away until now they struggled to grow enough crops to feed themselves. The Shalador traditions were forbidden. The dances, the music, the stories—all were taught in secret and at great risk.

    His paternal grandfather was a Tradition Keeper of music. A strong, quiet man, Yairen had been—and still was—a respected leader in Eyota, the village where Ranon had grown up. He was also a gifted musician who believed it was his duty to teach the young how to play the songs that had shaped the Shalador heart.

    The Province Queen who controlled that reserve broke Yairen’s hands as punishment for teaching the forbidden—and then broke them twice more. When they healed the last time, Yairen could barely hold a flute, much less play one. But he still taught his grandson, and he taught him well, despite the crippled hands.

    So this music had been a secret for most of Ranon’s life. Even when he admitted to playing the flute, he never played within the hearing of anyone he couldn’t trust—and even then, he rarely played the songs of Shalador.

    Did the Queen he now served understand how much trust was required for him to stand here and play the music of his people? Probably not. Lady Cassidy had recognized his reluctance to play, but not even Shira, the Black Widow Healer who was his lover, understood how deeply fear and hope had twined in his heart these past few days as the flute’s notes floated on the air and became a part of the world. Yes, he was afraid, but the hope of something new and better was the reason he stood here, in a place that had been a stronghold for the twisted Queens, and played music that had been forbidden.

    As one song followed another, Ranon let his heart soar with the notes and fill with a joyful peace.

    “How long do you have to spend serenading the little green things before you can have breakfast?”

    He opened his eyes and lowered the flute. The peace he’d felt a moment before vanished as Theran Grayhaven stepped out on the terrace.

    He and Theran didn’t like each other. Never had. But he detected nothing in the question except polite interest.

    “A quarter of an hour.” Ranon glanced at the hourglass hovering in the air next to him. Judging by how much sand was in the bottom of the glass, he’d played twice that long. “Gray says it will help the honey pear trees grow.”

    “Does he really think they’ll wilt and die if you don’t stand out here playing music?” Theran asked as he studied the thirteen pots that were sheltered by the raised flower beds that formed the terrace wall.

    Ranon’s heart gave a hard bump at the thought of any of the little honey pear trees dying, but he wouldn’t admit to anyone how much the living symbols of the past meant to him.

    Jared had brought six honey pear trees to this land. One of them had been planted here at Grayhaven for Lia and had remained in the gardens long after it died as a mocking symbol of the Gray-Jeweled Queens who had once ruled. But that dead tree had hidden thirteen honey pears, carefully preserved. Lia had hidden them; Cassidy had found them as the first step to locating the Grayhaven treasure. Because of that, those little trees were a thread of shining hope that linked the past and the present.

    “Doesn’t matter what Gray thinks,” Ranon replied. “It is the Queen’s pleasure that I play the flute each morning for the honey pears, so I play.”

    He knew the phrasing was a mistake the moment he said it.

    “Well, we all play for the Queen’s pleasure in one way or another, don’t we?” Theran said. Then he glanced at Ranon and added with a touch of malice, “Better play faster or there won’t even be porridge left by the time you get to the table, let alone meat and eggs.”

    I guess we’re not trying to get along anymore,Ranon thought. Since he made no secret of it, everyone in the court knew he hated porridge. Which meant Theran had said that in order to jab at him. Why? Because they didn’t like each other, and the effort to be civil rarely lasted for more than a few minutes at a time?

    Hell’s fire. Grayhaven had been running hot and cold since Cassidy found the treasure and proved she was meant to rule here, but they were all committed to working together for the good of the land and the Queen.

    For the good of the land, anyway. The other eleven men who made up the First Circle knew Theran didn’t feel the same commitment to Cassidy that they felt. Serving in her court was part of the agreement Theran had made in order to bring a Kaeleer Queen to Dena Nehele. That didn’t mean hewanted to serve her, despite his recent efforts to work with her instead of opposing her.

    “Tell you what,” Theran added. “I’ll save my share of the porridge for you.”

    An edge of temper. A slash of heat in the air between them. And an unspoken invitation to spill some blood.

    “You’re twenty-seven,” Ranon said coldly. “I’m thirty. We’re both too old to indulge in a pissing contest over porridge.”

    Theran jerked back as if he’d been slapped. Then, snarling, he took a step forward.

    Using Craft to vanish the hourglass and flute, Ranon instinctively took a step to the side to give himself more room to maneuver.