I closed the heavy double doors behind me, secured the bolt against interruptions, and turned to face my family. Everyone was present except for Lydia and Nash, who were too young to hear most of what I had to say. The family had maintained our charade all the way back to Tor’s Watch, even through the front entrance and into the hall. When Gunner began to ask questions, I shut him down and said, “Family meeting room. We’ll speak there.”
As soon as I turned, Jalaine ran to hug me, and my mother came forward and slapped my face in the way only she could. “Straza! What have I told you a hundred times!” And then she held me too. I looked over her shoulder at my brothers and sisters, who patiently waited for answers.
When she finally let go, everyone took a seat at the long table filling the center of the room, and I told them everything about where I had been and what I had done. Almost everything. I didn’t include some of the parts with Kazi.
“How did she get your ring?” Mason asked. “Do you think she was working with the labor hunters?”
“No. She stumbled into them, the same as me. And ran for her life the same as me.”
“It could have been a trick,” Samuel offered.
I told them no again, it was no trick, but I still couldn’t figure out how she got the ring either. I had seen the hunter dump all the goods they had
taken from us into a box beneath the wagon seat. When we escaped, there was no time to dig through it. “I’m not sure how she got it, but I’ll be asking.”
“Can she be trusted?” Aram asked.
Titus laughed. “Of course she can’t be. Not if Jase had to post two men outside her room.”
For now, she was in my room while guest quarters were prepared for her. I had posted Drake and Charus at the end of the hall so as not to be obvious. I still had made it clear to everyone at Tor’s Watch what the limits to her wandering were. There were some places no one went but the family.
“She can be trusted in some ways,” I answered. “But she is Vendan, and she did come here to investigate treaty violations. We’ll have to be careful.” “Violations,” Gunner grumbled. A seething rumble echoed from the
“So, just what happened out there between you two?” Priya asked. “We were chained at the ankles. We had to work together to—” “Don’t be coy, Jase. You know what I mean.”
Titus chimed in, “There were a hundred other things you could have said to Paxton to explain your absence. Why imply that you were holed up with her?”
“Because that excuse could not be refuted,” my mother said. “No witnesses.”
“Nor delicately discussed in depth,” Mason added. “It did end Paxton’s interrogation.”
“He could have said he was sick,” Samuel said.
My mother shook her head. “No. The healer would have been summoned, and the last thing we want to suggest is that another Patrei is in poor health.”
Everyone jumped in with their own opinion on why it was or wasn’t a good excuse. Priya finally held her hand up to stop the discussion. “Jase, you still haven’t answered me. What happened between you two? You think I didn’t see how you looked at her?”
I didn’t remember looking at her in any particular way, only with a long moment of trepidation when I stretched out my hand, wondering if she would take it. I had taken a calculated risk that she would help me again, just like she had in that alley the first day we met, that she would choose me
over wolves like Paxton, just as she had chosen me over labor hunters. She could have walked away that day, as the hunter had ordered. Instead she drew her sword. She may have hated me, but she hated some people more, and maybe I hoped that after all we had been through I wasn’t just the lesser of two evils. Maybe I gambled that she would choose me because she wanted to. “If you imagine you saw me looking at her in any way, it’s only because we managed to stay alive together.”
Jalaine pouted like she was disappointed, but her eyes were lit with a smile. “So, you weren’t really making little Ballengers?”
Aram and Samuel snickered.
Mason shrugged. “I was convinced.” I shot them a frigid stare to let it go.
“Well, we need her now,” Priya said. “She’s going to have to write a letter to the queen and actually tell her to come now that Gunner—”
“No,” I said. “We’re not going down this path again. After Father—” “We have one of the queen’s premier guards in custody,” Gunner argued.
“She’ll come! We are through being snubbed by the kingdoms.”
My mother nodded in agreement. “And now the citizens are expecting it.
Did you hear the murmurs from the crowd?”
Mason sighed as if reluctant to concur. “It’s spread to the whole town by now, Jase. Getting her to come might help the leagues back off.”
“And they were all there today,” Priya said, “supposedly paying their respects, but mostly licking their chops.”
Make her come. It was my father’s last request. That’s what they were all thinking about. Him. What he wanted. What he never got.
When we had gotten word of the new treaties, my father wasn’t concerned at first—our world had nothing to do with the outside one. We didn’t care about them and what they did. We had always been isolated. But when heavily guarded settlement caravans began crossing our territory en route to other places, he took note. I told my father he needed to go to Venda and speak with the queen like every other kingdom. We are not a kingdom! he had raged. We’re a dynasty! We were here long before Venda, and we bend a knee to no one. She will come to us. And he sent a letter telling her to come to Tor’s Watch. There was no reply. It was a mistake, because now it was an insult that made him look weak. It was an insult he never forgot. Neither had the rest of my family.
Making the queen come here was as much about restored pride as making the leagues back off, but it could lead to other problems—bigger ones.
“We can’t take the queen’s guard hostage. If she came at all, it would be with an angry army behind her. Is that really what we want?”
“Not if the letter is worded carefully, commending us,” Gunner argued. Titus snorted. “Which I’m sure he’s already written.”
“No,” I answered. “We don’t need a queen’s acknowledgment to be legitimate or to control those encroaching on our territory. There are challenges every time there’s a shift in power or a weakness is perceived. We’ll show our strength as we always have.”
“Then what do we tell people when they ask when the queen’s coming?” Priya asked.
I shook my head, blowing out a long, angry breath. “You should have kept quiet, Gunner! Why’d you have to go shoot off your mouth?”
Gunner pounded his fist on the table and stood. “Because she’s Rahtan! The town’s been buzzing about how she threw you up against a wall and brought you to your knees! They saw it with their own eyes! A Patrei on his knees with a knife at his throat! You think dismissing that as a mere misunderstanding is going to erase their doubts? And believe me, they have them! They needed something big to hold on to, and I gave it to them!”
Our angry gazes remained locked, the silence long and stifling.
Arguments around the table were not unusual. That was one of the reasons we held meetings behind closed doors, so our differences were aired in privacy, but once we walked out we were a unified front. That was one of the things that kept us strong.
“What about Beaufort?” Aram asked. “He’s made big promises. Is he ever going to cough up the goods?”
“It’s a long-term investment,” Gunner told him. “Father knew Beaufort couldn’t produce for us overnight. He’s getting close.”
“It’s been almost a year,” Priya said, “as he and his friends drink up our goodwill and wine. I don’t like it. Playing with the Ancients’ magic is like playing with fire.”
“But it will secure our position with every kingdom on the continent— not just the leagues,” I reminded her.
“And it will keep us and our interests safe,” Mason added. “Trade could triple.”
Jalaine grunted. “If he ever follows through.”
“He will,” my mother said firmly. There was more that we hoped to achieve than just security. But these were only more promises. Sometimes I thought that was all my father was trying to give her when he gave Beaufort sanctuary. Hope.
“Until then,” she went on, “we need to do something now, Jase. We can’t wait for promises to be fulfilled. The wolves have left their calling cards. Six suspicious fires in as many nights.”
“Could it be the Rahtan who were with her?” Mason asked.
I got Tiago’s hidden message loud and clear and knew when he claimed he had them in custody that they were still on the loose. The fact that two Rahtan had gone into hiding was suspicious and made speaking in front of the third one more risky. Where were they hiding and why? I didn’t like it. But my gut told me that destroying homes and businesses with fires was not a Rahtan tactic, and scaring the citizenry was definitely the wolves’ approach. “I don’t think it’s the Rahtan who did it, but we need to find them. They’re around somewhere, maybe even hunkered down at that Vendan settlement. I know enough about them already to know they wouldn’t run off too far with one of their own missing. Samuel, Aram, take a crew out to the settlement tomorrow and sniff around.”
“We already did that. We turned up nothing.”
“Do it again. The first time, they were expecting a visit. This time they won’t be. We also have to find out who paid labor hunters up front to come stir trouble.”
“Think it was Paxton?” Priya asked, her tone filled with distaste. He had always been sickeningly sweet to her, and it made her dislike him all the more. I suspected that he saw Priya and marriage as a way back into the Ballenger family—and its power.
“Could be,” I answered, not sure myself, but I knew Paxton hated labor hunters too, and I wasn’t sure even he would stoop that low.
“Or it could be a love letter from any of the leagues,” Jalaine said. “They’ve seen the arena prospering and are hungry for a bigger piece of it. I hear them grumbling when they come into the office looking for their cuts. Truko’s hawker practically ignites every time.”
I looked at Mason. “Find out. However you have to do it, whoever you have to strong-arm or bribe, find out who paid off the hunters. Concentrate on Truko and his crew. Check with Zane too—see if he’s seen any unusual activity.” Zane had a sharp eye for faces and logged all deliveries at the arena. “As for the fires, Titus, post more guards on every incoming artery— day and night—and tell the magistrates that all new faces are suspect.”
“And how do we address doubts?” Gunner asked. He wouldn’t let it go. But then he had heard the buzzing and I hadn’t. Gunner might be more impulsive than me, but he did have a good ear.
“I’ll make myself more visible this next week. The Patrei is not cowering on his knees for anyone. I’ll make a show of confidence and strength. We all will. Uncles, aunts, everyone. Tell them. Everyone walks the streets of Hell’s Mouth this week. The Ballengers still run this town and keep it safe.”
“What about her?”
The very Rahtan who took me down, walking the streets of Hell’s Mouth with me? It could blow up in my face, but it could also reinforce my claim that it was a mere misunderstanding. And if any leagues were skulking, it would be a clear message that a great power was not moving in on us, but instead, recognizing our authority. Given a few weeks, doubts and fears would be calmed and everyone would forget about the queen coming.
“She’ll walk too. With me.”
My mother told me not to cry. She told me not to forget kindness.
She told me to be strong. She told me to believe in tomorrow. Every day I try to remember what else she told me.
Something about shoes; something about birthdays and baths; something about whistling and roses. I cannot remember what she said.
I was only eight when she died. I hope the things I’ve forgotten don’t matter.