Even with both windows open, the air was hot, still, as if the world had stopped breathing. My back was damp against the sheets. It seemed impossible that only this morning when I woke I was lying on a bed of grass with Kazi nestled against my chest, a chain still connecting us.
It was well after midnight and I should have been passed out in my bed with exhaustion by now, but instead I tossed and turned and paced—in one of the guest rooms. Oleez had been afraid to tell me. I was finally back at Tor’s Watch and shut out of my own room.
I could have easily had Kazi moved, but there were other battles ahead and this one wasn’t worth fighting—and strangely, some part of me liked the idea of her being in my room. I wasn’t sure why. This room was larger, more comfortable, meant to impress guests, and I knew by now she had probably explored every thing in my room. What did she think? Had she gone through my books searching for the stories I shared with her? Rummaged through my clothes? The forgotten clutter in the bottom of my wardrobe? There were three knives that I could remember. I suspected she already had one on her. I wasn’t worried. Had she taken another bath? I saw the revulsion in her face when Titus threw the ears on the table. After she left, I grabbed him by the collar and threw him up against the wall. Don’t ever do that again, I had told him. We may have dirty work to do, but everyone doesn’t need to see it. Especially not her. I had seen her expression
—the fear—when she thought I had harmed her friends. Killed them. The
terror in her eyes had whittled through me like a dull knife. She had seen something in my face, maybe all of our faces. She knew death when she saw it.
The harm I actually did do hadn’t been hard for me, and I would do it again.
Foley had come to tell me what had happened.
When Mason, Gunner, Titus, and I walked into the warehouse, Lothar and Rancell already had them on their knees. Tiago and Drake hovered nearby.
“We spotted their wagon in an alley,” Rancell said. “When we lifted the tarp we saw the brewer’s boy gagged and chained. The other chains were still empty. They hadn’t gotten the rest of their cargo yet.”
I stepped closer to the three men. Two of them began crying, begging for mercy. The third said nothing, but sweat beaded on his forehead. They were a more ragged crew than the ones who had taken Kazi and me. Their tattered clothing was ripe with stench, their knuckles creased with filth, but their story was the same. They’d been paid up front, but they didn’t know by whom. The fellow who approached them with a fat purse wore a wide-brimmed hat pulled low, and they weren’t even sure what color his hair was.
“Which of you took the money?” I asked. “He did,” the two sniveling ones cried.
I looked at the silent one, his sweat the only indication he knew the gravity of his situation. My hatred for him rose to a different level. It was personal. The brewer’s boy was fourteen.
“So you’re in charge?” He nodded.
“Have you done this before?”
“Not here. Other places. It’s good money. But he said it had to be Hell’s Mouth and—”
“You know whose town this is?” I asked.
He swallowed, his expression suddenly crackling with eagerness. “I’ll give you a cut,” he said. “We can make a deal. Half. You want half? Half for doing nothing.”
“You know what would have happened to the boy you grabbed?”
“A mine. He would have worked in a mine. That’s all. Good hard work.”
There was nothing good about dying in a mine. Nothing good about being shackled and hauled in the back of a wagon against your will. He couldn’t conceive that the brewer’s boy had a life, a future. He only saw him as an article of profit. I drew my knife.
“All. You can have it all,” he pleaded. “The money’s in my vest. Take
“All of it?” I stepped closer and knelt so we were eye to eye. “That’s
quite a deal you’re offering, but I’m in a hurry, so here’s a better one. I’ll kill you quickly instead of letting my dogs tear you to pieces—which is what you deserve.” I wasn’t sure the words had even registered before I plunged my knife into his throat. Blood sprayed my shirt and face, and he was dead before I had pulled my knife free.
I stood and my attention turned to the other two. They began wailing, trying to back away on their knees, but Mason and Titus stood behind them, preventing them from going anywhere.
“Want me to do those two?” Tiago asked.
I walked over, as if studying them. “Maybe not,” I said. “Maybe they’d be more useful to us as messengers. Would you two rather be dead or deliver a message?”
“A message!” they both agreed. “Please, any message! We’ll deliver it.”
I motioned to Mason and Titus. They jerked their heads back by their hair and in a swift second, an ear from each man was on the ground in front of them. Their screams bounced off the walls of the warehouse, but when I told them to shut up, they did. They had already witnessed what else could happen to them.
“Better. Now here’s the message. You go back to whatever hole you crawled out of, and you let everyone get a good long look at your ears, and you let them know who did it—the Ballengers—and you tell them that this is the kind of trouble they’ll find in Hell’s Mouth, and no amount of money that anyone offers them is worth it. The citizens of this city are off-limits. And if I ever see either of you here again, even for a sip of water, we’ll be cutting off something much more valuable to you than your ears. My word is good. You can count on it. Understand?”
They both nodded.
“Good. Our business is done, then.”
I looked at Lothar and Rancell. “Get them bandaged up. I don’t want them bleeding out before they deliver our message.”
It was on our way back to the main house that Gunner said it was time for other messages to be sent too, the one my whole family was pushing for, and now I finally agreed. We had nothing to lose. Or so I thought.
I still couldn’t quite believe that to make good on my promise to my father, I had also agreed to rebuild a Vendan settlement. If the gods had carried that news to his ears, he was probably beating on his tomb walls, demanding to be let out, demanding to name someone else as Patrei.
I rolled out of bed and went to the window. It was dark, the work yard below quiet, a dim bluish light in the gate tower the only sign that anyone was awake, and then I saw a shadow moving through the blackness. Or I thought I did. It was just as quickly gone. Maybe one of the dogs patrolling. Barking erupted but quickly quieted again. Yes, only the dogs.
I stepped away from the window, paced, and wondered if she was having as hard a time sleeping as I was. I remembered her face when I came to her chamber, at first soft, happy to see me, but then it turned sharp.
What do you want, Jase?
I knew what I wanted. She did too.
* * *
My hand hovered as I debated whether I should knock. It was late. The middle of the night. If she was asleep, I would wake her.
She’s not asleep. I knew it was impossible, but I sensed it. I could feel her eyes open, scanning the walls, pulling the drapes shut, opening them again, watchful, unable to rest, needing a story, a riddle, something to ease her into a dreamworld. I rested my hand against the door wanting to go in, knowing I shouldn’t.
What is this, Kazi? What do you feel?
She couldn’t answer me before when I had asked. Or she wouldn’t.
Maybe it was best not to know. Her loyalties were clear.
And so were mine.
I pushed away from the door and walked back to my room.
* * *
Candles glowed in red glass globes in the apse of the temple, and the heavy scent of amber hung in the air. I was the only one inside. The priests were asleep in the manse. They would find my offering in the morning. I took out my knife and nicked my thumb, squeezed it, letting the blood drip onto the plate of coins below me. A coin for every child in the city. This is only between you and the gods, Jase. Not the priests. Nor anyone else. This is your promise to protect them with your blood, just as Aaron gave with his blood to save the Remnant. Gold pleases men, but blood serves the gods, because in the end, your life is all you have to give.
The drops of blood trickled down the pile of coins and they shifted, a bare clink, echoing through the silent temple. My father’s last desperate words were ones he had heard from his own father, words every Patrei heard. I had read them in the histories and transcribed them at an early age.
The candlelight caught the glint of my gold ring. I gave it to you when it mattered. She had stepped forward willingly and helped me, and instead of thanking her, I questioned why she hadn’t given it to me sooner. Everything was more complicated now, even something as simple as gratitude.
Footsteps scuffled behind me. “You ready?”
Mason had caught me on my way out and insisted on coming with me.
You lost your mind? Leaving without straza? And then he laughed. Let’s go.
He walked down the center aisle toward me and whispered, “The town will be waking soon. We should go while it’s still dark.”
We left, the streets silent, the roads dark. Halfway home he asked about Kazi. “How did you two end up being…”
He knew something had happened between us, but he stumbled with the rest of his question, as if he didn’t know how to craft it—as if he was still not quite believing it himself. He had seen her slam me up against the wall, threaten to cut me. He hadn’t taken it any better than I had.
“It was different out there,” I said. “She was different. So was I.” “What about now?”
“I don’t know.”
“I’ve never seen you like this. I know you’re not asking for advice, but I’m offering it anyway. She might have been nice to curl up with out there,
but back here she’s not someone you want to get tangled up with. She can’t be trusted.”
I hated to hear him say it, but it was true. Kazi had secrets. She performed a skillful dance around everything we said. Last night I had seen genuine fear in her eyes when she thought I had hurt her friends, but then I saw how she played us too, the fear dissolving and being replaced by something skilled and calculating. It was the same look I had seen in her face when she had studied the driver, like in her head she was constructing something solid, stone by stone. Her shrewdness managed to get reparations we didn’t owe out of the deal. Even with her letter we had no guarantee the queen would come, but there was hope and that was a short-term bandage we needed. I’d use it to my advantage for now. Soon we wouldn’t need anyone tossing us crumbs of respect. Soon we’d have a greater share of trade on the continent, and it would be the kingdoms begging for a place at the table with the Ballengers.
We reached Tor’s Watch, but before Mason left to go back to his room and catch what little sleep was left of the dark morning hours, I said, “Tomorrow when we go into town, pull Garvin from tower security and put him on her watch. She doesn’t know him, and he melts into the background. Add Yursan as a decoy too.”
Mason’s brows rose. A decoy tail, especially for someone like Garvin who was good at what he did, was a grand admission of my doubts.
I hoped Mason was wrong. I hoped I was wrong. Because I was still tangled up with her and I didn’t want to be cut loose.
Miandre is our storyteller. She tells us stories of before.
It was a world of princesses and monsters, and castles and courage. She learned the stories from her friend’s mother. Someday I will tell the stories too, but my stories will be about different monsters, the ones that visit us every day.