The cook dished out hearty stew into bowls and plopped a thick slice of black rye bread on top. Jase had brought in field cooks from the Ballenger lumber camps. If you included Wren, Synové, and me, there were about an equal amount of Vendans and Ballengers. Thirty of them, thirty of us, and as each person got their dinner they filed off to sit with their own.
The Ballenger crew sat on one side of an oak, and the Vendans on the other, which prevented any conversation between them, but maybe that was the goal. This was going to be a long, dreary evening, maybe even a contentious one if someone took a sharp word too personally. A small fire burned in a ring in the center, ready to stave off darkness as dusk rolled in. There were some benches and chairs from among the Vendan belongings, but not enough for everyone, and so they perched on the sides of empty wagons or on stacked lumber as they ate their meal.
Jase was the last to arrive at the cook wagon. As he got his meal, Titus called to him, offering a seat on a crate beside him—on their side. He didn’t even look for me, and I wondered if my encounter with the dogs in the tunnel had created a permanent distance between us.
I noted that the Vendans still watched Jase closely. When we had unloaded wagons, I heard their sentiments, ranging from disbelief to continued wariness, but knew they all felt cautious gratitude. Mostly, they were still puzzled by this new development. Many eyes glistened with tears as they unloaded their goods to a designated spot beneath a strung canvas.
There was no question that this was a site that held more promise than the last. One woman had openly wept, but now, as we sat eating, they kept their words quiet and emotions in check, as they had learned to do around outsiders.
But there was a curiosity, too—on both sides. I saw the glances. Even the camp cook had regarded them with something that wavered between worry and compassion. He was generous with their portions.
“Well, would you look at that,” Synové said. Her eyes directed us to Gunner across the way. “The nasty one keeps looking at Jurga.”
She’d been the one weeping earlier today.
“How can you be sure he’s looking at her?” I asked. There were several Vendans huddled close to her.
“Because she’s looking back.”
I watched more closely and it was true, but Jurga was careful, only looking sideways at him through lowered lashes when he looked away.
Maybe the divide wasn’t as great as I thought. If the nasty one could catch softhearted Jurga’s eye, maybe the divide only needed a little help to narrow.
“I’ll be right back,” I said. I strolled across the empty expanse, and several pairs of eyes followed me, like I was a plow churning up a furrow of soil in my wake. Gunner didn’t like me. He’d made that clear, but the feeling was mutual so I didn’t hold it against him. Once I signed the letter to the queen, my purpose was done, and I was dead to him. When I stopped in front of him, he looked at me like I was a swarm of flies blocking his view. “She won’t bite, you know? You could go over and say hello.”
“I’m just eating my dinner. Don’t know what you’re talking about.” “Your bowl is empty, Gunner. Your dinner is gone. Would it be the end
of the world to get to know some of the people you’re building shelters for?”
I reached down and took the bowl from his lap and set it aside, then grabbed his hand and pulled him to his feet. “Her name is Jurga. Did you see her weeping today? It was with gratitude for what you Ballengers have done.”
He yanked his hand loose. “I already told you, I don’t know what you’re talking about. Let me finish my dinner in peace.”
We both looked at his empty bowl.
Jurga had come up behind us.
Perhaps seeing me talking to Gunner had given her courage to do the same. I wasn’t sure, but Gunner calmed, shifting awkwardly on his feet, and I stepped away, leaving the finer points of introduction to the two of them.
Now I turned my attention to another Ballenger.
I walked over to one of the older Vendan boys testing notes on a flute. I asked him if he knew “Wolf Moon,” a common Fenlander song that Synové sometimes hummed. He did, and when he started playing the first tentative notes, I ambled over to Jase, still deep in conversation with Mason and Titus, and I curtsied in front of him, quickly getting their attention. “We never got to dance last night, Patrei. Would now be a good time?”
He looked at me uncertainly. “What about your ankle?”
“I’ve ridden for hours, dug up a barrel of parsnips and potatoes, and helped unload two wagons today, and now you’re worried about my ankle? Maybe it is your delicate feet that are too weary? Are you trying to get out of this dance, Patrei? Just say so and I’ll find someone else to—”
Jase was on his feet, his arm sliding around me, pulling me to the center of the Ballenger-Vendan divide. The truth was my ankle was still tender, but Jase seemed to sense this in spite of my protest, and he limited our dancing to gentle swaying.
“I think this is the least we can do to warm the chill between these two camps,” I said.
“So this is all for show?” “What do you think?”
“I think I don’t care anymore, as long as you’re in my arms.”
The tune was slow and dreamy, the notes gliding through the air like birds heading home through a dusky sky to roost. Jase pulled me closer, his lips resting against my temple. “Everyone’s watching,” he whispered.
“That is entirely the point.”
“Not entirely.” His mouth edged closer to my lips.
The question of whether it was a show was swept aside, forgotten. There may have been other secrets between us, but this much was true and honest
—I wanted to be in his arms, and he wanted to be in mine.
Maybe that was enough.
Maybe moments like this were all the truth we could expect to get from the world. I held on to it as if it were.
“Last time we danced we were knee deep in grass,” I said.
“And now there’s not even a chain between us,” Jase whispered. “Maybe we don’t need one anymore.” We were in the wilderness again,
and it felt easy and natural to allow ourselves to slip through a hole that was familiar.
I had an awareness of others joining us, but my eyes were locked on Jase’s and his on mine, and as I heard more feet shuffling, others dancing around us, I wondered if they had fallen through that same hole with us, and I wondered if, this time, we would be able to make it last.
* * *
Tell me a riddle, Kazi.
Jase had seen me, restless, walking, organizing supplies that were already ordered. Everyone else was asleep on their bedrolls. He came up behind me, his hands circling my waist. “I can’t sleep either,” he said. His lips grazed my neck, and he whispered, “Tell me a riddle, Kazi.”
We laid out a blanket on a bed of grass, the stars of Hetisha’s Chariot, Eagle’s Nest, and Thieves’ Gold lighting our way, far from everyone else.
I settled in next to him, laying my head in the crook of his shoulder, his arm wrapping around me, pulling me close.
“Listen carefully now, Jase Ballenger. I won’t repeat myself.” “I’m a good listener.”
I know you are. I’ve known that since our first night together. That’s what makes you dangerous. You make me want to share everything with you. I cleared my throat, signaling I was ready to begin.
“If I were a color, I’d be red as a rose,
I make your blood rush, and tingle your toes,
I taste of honey and spring, and a good bit of trouble, But I make the birds sing, and all the stars double.
I can be quick, a mere peck, or slow and divine, And that is probably, the very best kind.”
“Hmm…” he said, as if stumped. “Let me think for a minute…” He rolled up on one elbow, looking down at me, the stars dusting his cheekbones. “Honey?” He kissed my forehead. “Spring?” He kissed my chin. “You are a good bit of trouble, Kazi of Brightmist.”
“I try my best.”
“I may have to take this one slowly…” His hand traveled leisurely from my waist, across my ribs, to my neck, until he was cupping my cheek. My blood rushed; the stars blurred. “Very slowly … to figure it all out.” And then his lips pressed, warm and demanding onto to mine, and I hoped it would take him an eternity to solve the riddle.
* * *
Wren, Synové, and I sat on a stack of lumber, fanning ourselves in the shade and taking a break from leveling a foundation. It was midmorning but already sweltering with the height of summer.
I thought Jase would be gone by now, that all the family would be on their way back home this morning, along with us, but Jase got caught up in discussions with Caemus about the barn and then with Lothar, one of his hired workers he was leaving to supervise the crews, and then when he watched stonemasons moving in to lay the foundation for one of the sheds, he decided it needed to be a bit larger first, and then he paused, eyeing the whole valley, the children swinging from the oak tree, and his gaze fell on the future shed again. He turned to Mason and said, “I’m thinking they need a root cellar too. Why bother with a bigger garden if they have no cool storage? If we put our backs behind it, we should be able to dig it in a few hours.”
A root cellar?
I wasn’t sure I could believe what I was hearing.
It became a competition between Jase, Mason, and Samuel digging on one side, and Aram, Gunner, and Titus on the other. A slow competition. They were feeling the heat too, their shirts long shed. Sweat glistened on their backs. They stopped to wipe their brows often and drink long gulps of water from buckets brought from the river. Sometimes they just poured the water over their heads.
Synové was mostly silent, her eyes wide, forgetting to blink. “I swear, I’ve never seen so much beautiful artwork on skin in all my life.”
“We should probably get back to work,” I said.
“Hell’s bells we shouldn’t,” she said firmly. “I’m certain we need to rest a bit longer.”
We didn’t need much encouragement. None of us moved.
Wren took a long sip of water. “It looks like a whole flock of beautiful, muscled birds taking flight.”
Their tattoos were all different—some on chests, some on shoulders, backs, or arms—but they all had some form of the Ballenger crest on them, the wings of eagles fluttering in front of us. I stared at Jase’s, as taken with it now as the first time I had seen it. Synové was right; it was a work of art, one that I happily gazed upon.
He looked up, catching me watching him. He smiled and flames shot through my belly. “Halfway done,” he called.
That’s what I felt like. I was halfway between worlds, trying to find a story that fit neatly into both. When the root cellar was finished, he moved onto the barn, and then the waterwheel and a sluice from the river. A day passed, and then another. Four days, four nights. The valley was alive with banging, hammering, and sawing. Gunner went back to Tor’s Watch. Titus went back. Aram and Drake went back. There was business to tend to. But Jase stayed. He was giving up tomorrows he didn’t have to spare, tomorrows I had been unable to promise to him.
I began to wonder if I’d been wrong about everything, wrong about the way they ruled Hell’s Mouth, wrong about their history and place among the kingdoms, wrong about their right to govern. Their work here wasn’t just a grudging gift to fulfill an agreement. It felt like far more. It felt like a wish stalk pressed to a blistered foot, like words spoken under a midnight moon to lull me to sleep.
* * *
We stood together at the cookwagon, waiting in line for our food. Jase was close behind me, his hip brushing mine, a reminder that he was there, and I suddenly thought there were things I was hungrier for than dinner.
My shoulders went rigid. The question came from somewhere behind me. I didn’t dare turn with recognition, but it came again, louder this time.
A girl circled in front of me. “I’m sorry, but aren’t you Ten? I’ve been trying to place you ever since the first day, and I just remembered. My family was in Sanctum City for a year when—”
I shook my head. “I’m sorry. You’ve mistaken me for someone else.” “But—”
“My name’s Kazi,” I said firmly. “Bogeve ya.” Move on.
Her eyes shifted to Jase and then she quickly looked down, as if she realized her mistake. “Of course. I’m sorry to bother you.”
“Ten?” Jase said as she walked away. “What kind of name is that?” I shrugged. “I think it’s a highland name—short for Tenashe.” “I’m surprised she didn’t already know that your name was Kazi.”
“There are a lot of new names to learn. She probably just got confused.”
I was grateful that Jase’s attention turned back to food as the cook cut off a slab of venison for our plates, and I decided I was glad that we were returning to Tor’s Watch in the morning after all.
Just before dusk, Aleski rode in with news that made our return more urgent. It was a message from Gunner. Come home. A letter has arrived from Venda. The queen is on her way.