Our path glistened with water and small rivulets streamed across the trail as last night’s storm drained down the mountain. Blinding blue sky winked back at me from puddles and swollen ruts, and bands of jays squawked as we passed.
The back side of Tor’s Watch was green, the trees thick, and enormous colorful lichen taller than a man fanned out on the ancient ruins that lined our path like gaily clad spectators. Everything in this part of the world seemed to grow large.
We were taking the back way that Jase had mentioned to get to the arena. Priya, Titus, Gunner, and straza rode with us.
Jase seemed more like himself now, his eyes focused, already simmering with the work ahead of him. But last night when he came to my room he was a different Jase. He held me, soaking me in his grasp. I only need you, Kazi. After dinner he said he’d had to take care of some business matters. “Business out in the rain?” I had asked doubtfully. The storm had been raging, the windows rattling with thunder so loud I thought they might break. He said the business was out in Greyson Tunnel, and he was caught in the downpour. I wanted to ask about Jalaine. I knew she had to be one of those matters—but I saw his weariness so I said nothing.
We had changed into dry clothes and lay on a thick rug in front of the fire. Tell me a story, Jase, I said, because this time I sensed that it was he who needed to be rescued from his own thoughts, just as he had rescued me
so many times. His shoulders relaxed and his gaze softened, melting into a part of me that only wanted more. More of Jase, more of us. He told me about Moro Forest, and the legend of a creature that lived there. His head rested in my lap, the fire crackling, my fingers raking through his hair, until his lids grew heavy and they closed, his story unfinished, his face peaceful. My chiadrah, I whispered somewhere deep inside me where no one could hear, and then I nestled down beside him and we had both slept.
A loud squawk sounded and we both ducked. We had turned on a switchback and loud jays darted close over our heads. “Easy, Mije,” I said, and I rubbed his neck to soothe him.
Jase looked at Mije’s mane and frowned. It was braided again. I suspected Jalaine had escaped to the stables last night and shared secrets with Mije that she could share with no one else.
When Jase rode ahead, to speak with Gunner about something, Priya fell back with me.
“How’s your neck?” she asked.
I had worn a high-collared shirt and left my hair loose around my shoulders to help hide the bruises.
“Fine,” I answered.
She huffed out an amused breath. “Not much flusters you, does it?”
I wondered if she knew I was the one who had killed Fertig. I wondered if Jalaine knew.
“Did you see your sister this morning? How is she doing?”
Priya shook her head. “Still holed up in her room. She won’t come out.”
I kept thinking about her red and swollen eyes. Her silence. “Did she love him?” I asked.
“It doesn’t matter now,” Priya answered. “The minute he plotted against the family, Fertig became dead to us.”
“Jalaine will get over it. She understands the cost of betrayal. She would have run him through herself if she had known. Fertig’s aim was to kill her brothers. And maybe the rest of us too. It wouldn’t be the first time the Patrei and his family were all slaughtered.”
She grinned. “I guess that’s one story Jase didn’t tell you. But I can assure you Jalaine knows it quite well. Centuries ago, a Patrei and his
whole family were slaughtered at—”
“But I thought the Ballenger line had never ended.”
“All killed, except for the baby daughter.” Priya told me that an uncle had succumbed to the flirtations of a lover. He let her in through a bolted entrance in the middle of the night. A flood of attackers followed behind her. As the family fled, they were cut down by rival powers, but a servant scooped up the baby, and they escaped down another path, making it to the vault. The servant eventually made it out through one of the caves and raised the daughter among cousins in the mountains. When the girl turned twenty, she returned with those cousins in tow and there was another slaughter in the very same house—but this time it was the daughter avenging her family’s death, and a new reign of Ballengers began with her. “Some swear they can still hear the dead walking through the rooms. That’s why many guests aren’t fond of staying there.”
“Darkcottage. It was the first Ballenger house.” She shrugged. “I’ve never heard anything in there.”
But I have.
“Are you afraid of spirits?” she asked.
Was I? I wondered. They whispered to you in unexpected moments, and sometimes crossed the boundaries of life and death and touched you with cool fingers, and sometimes they warned you, but that was all.
“No,” I answered. “The dead can’t harm you. It’s the living I fear.”
Priya cast me a long sideways glance. “I doubted you when you first came. I thought you were going to be a big load of trouble, but I admit, I was wrong—even if you lied to me.”
“I’m not sure I know what you mean.”
“It never was a show. You always cared for my brother. I just don’t know why you tried to hide it. Is it against your Vendan laws for a soldier to fall in—”
“No,” I said quietly, cutting her off before she could utter the word I had avoided. Saying love aloud seemed dangerous. It made it tangible, easier to grasp and break. Or maybe I was just afraid the gods would take notice and steal it away.
“The Ballengers will never forget what you did for my brother.”
Yes you will, I thought. If you ever find out why I really came here, that I have searched every room of your house and rifled through your private belongings, that I combed through your desk and touched your neatly ordered pebbles, that I was an invader instead of an ally, you will only remember me for that.
The whole family would remember.
We rode silently and my thoughts returned to Priya’s story. A whole family slaughtered was a horror beyond imagination. No wonder the Ballengers were so protective, so diligent about teaching their history. But something Priya said niggled at me, A servant scooped up the baby, and they escaped down another path.
There were no direct paths to the vault from Darkcottage. She would have had to run out in the open, through the work yard, making her an easy target—though the attack did come at night. As long as the baby didn’t cry, she might have hid in the shadows and made her way there. If the baby didn’t cry. I remembered everything I’d had to do to keep a tiger quiet when I smuggled it out of Sanctum City, and that escape was extremely well planned, not a panicked flight from intruders.
“Just a mile to go,” Jase called. He circled back to ride with me again, his business with Gunner finished, and Priya rode ahead.
“I’ll give you a quick lay of the land when we get there, but while I go over leases and other business, you can explore the rest on your own.”
“Other business? Like Fertig?”
“That too. Whomever Fertig plotted with took a substantial hit with twelve men dead in a gully. There will be rumblings.”
“They were twelve well-trained men, Jase. There won’t be rumblings. I saw how they operated, signaled each other, ticked off their moves as smooth as a timepiece. Wren, Synové, and I have never been injured before. Those were no common bandits. They were as cool as ice—even Fertig. He was soulless when he choked me, and then when I stabbed him … he smiled.”
Jase was quiet, soberly taking in my assessment.
“Who’s the one you least suspect?” I asked. “That’s your guilty party.” “I suspect them all,” he answered. He told me there were five league
leaders, Rybart, Truko, and Paxton the most powerful among them, but the
other leaders had raided caravans and stirred trouble before too. “Twelve dead crew will put a halt to any of their plans for a while. A dozen dead men would hurt our operations. It will cripple theirs. Still, I want to know who’s behind it.”
So they’ll pay a greater price. The unsaid words simmered in his eyes.
We turned at the switchback and Jase pointed. “Look there.” I got my first glimpse of the arena through a clearing in the trees. It looked like a city in itself. The jagged oval structure rose six stories into the sky. Eight towers around its circumference looked like the fangs of some heavy-toothed beast rising up out of the earth. Its mouth was open and alive with activity. Behind the arena were more structures—warehouses, barns, silos, and fenced pastureland.
Jase told me about the traders at the arena, some of whom sold actual goods, and others who displayed items to be sold and delivered on contract. On the center ground floor were local merchants selling food, small goods, and trinkets. On the perimeter were the larger traders.
“Reux Lau sells exotic leather goods that aren’t found anywhere else on the continent, and Azentil sells every flavor of honey you could imagine.”
I didn’t know there was even more than one kind.
“And the Quiassé lace from Civica draws an exorbitant price, but there’s always plenty of buyers and not enough lace.”
It seemed the whole world out there was far richer than the one I knew. “And you get a cut of it all?”
“We’re fair. We negotiate cuts, but if it weren’t for the arena, they’d only sell a fraction of what they do now. They make a considerable profit too. That’s why they come.”
No wonder the leagues ached for control of the arena, even to the point of trying to kill the Patrei who controlled it. I’d seen people kill for less.
* * *
The toothy towers I had seen from afar were actually long, circular ramps that led to the upper floors and to apartments on the highest level. The Ballenger apartments were surprising—far more elegant and luxurious than Tor’s Watch. This was where they entertained ambassadors, wealthy merchants, and sometimes royalty who traded at the arena. This was where
deals were made. The rooms were deep and dark, windowless on three sides except for the walls that faced out on the arena, so there were glittering ornate chandeliers to light the interior.
“Who else do you entertain here?” I teased, peeking into one of the elaborate bedchambers.
“I’d be happy to entertain you here,” Jase said, sneaking up behind me and sweeping my hair to the side. He nibbled on my nape as his arms circled around my waist.
“Patrei,” Gunner called impatiently from the foyer.
Jase growled. “I have a meeting with Candora. I’ll find you in an hour.”
I turned to face him. “And how will you find me in this enormous maze?”
“You’re not the only one with tricks up your sleeve.”
He kissed me and left, but just before he reached the foyer he turned. “You can get oranges on the floor too. I hear if you mention that you know the Patrei you’ll get a good price—maybe even one for free.”
“Really?” I said, pulling my brows down in disbelief. “And I heard just the opposite—mentioning the Patrei could get me into a good deal of trouble.”
He smiled. “That too. Live dangerously—take your chances.”
He left me alone in the apartment, free to explore the entire arena—not the sign of someone who had anything to hide. Still, I did an obligatory sweep through the rooms, finding nothing suspicious. One worry rolled off me and another took its place. Move on. I pushed away the thought and left to finish my job—to search any hidden corners of this world.
My fingers itched the minute I hit the floor of the arena. The noise, the bustle, the hawkers—it was like I was in the jehendra again, staking out my next meal. I kept reminding myself I had a full stomach and coins in my pocket now, but playful banter with the hawkers could do no harm.
In the outer ring on the ground floor, I saw some of the traders and goods that Jase had mentioned—the flowered carpets of Cortenai, the linens of Cruvas, the honeys of Azentil. And more. Everything that could be sold was sold here—furniture, gems, metalwork, wheat, barley, spices, animals for breeding stock, lumber, fine writing papers, minerals, intricate weights and measures, crystals—the finest products of a dozen kingdoms all converging in an irresistible stew of sounds, smells, and flavors. I breathed
in the delicious fingers of woodsmoke that floated in the air. The hum of voices, the clatter of wares, and the distant, delicate warble of a flute wove together in a seductive welcome. Some merchandise ran loose. A bevy of keepers ran after a silky llama who escaped their lariats. He ran between stalls, always a step ahead of the keepers. I admired his technique.
I kept my distance from most of the shops, perusing them from a distance, but then I paused to eye the trinkets in one of the center stalls of a local merchant, focusing on a ring that reminded me of home—a delicate silver vine winding around a circle of gold. My mother used to weave a crown of vines through my hair on holy days. The merchant immediately spied me looking at it and out of habit I braced myself for a litany of jeers. Scat! Filthy vermin! Shoo! I ran through my mental bag of tricks—a riddle, a sleight of hand—to soothe his temper, but instead of a jeer he began a pitch that I was all too familiar with—the pitch that was always reserved for others. On the outside, I appeared to be one of those others now, but on the inside I would always be that girl who was ready to run.
“You have a discerning eye!” he said, his hands moving with enthusiasm as he spoke. “This ring is a rare find! A singular and scarce, splendiferous spangle! Pure gold and the finest of silver!”
I doubted that it was real silver and gold at all.
“You deserve such a treasure! A dazzling delectation for a delightful lady!” he went on with exaggerated flourish, his tongue twisting with glee over his descriptions. “For you, today, I will cut the price in half. Ten gralos!”
I smiled and shook my head. “Not today—”
“But wait!” he said, grabbing my hand. “You must try it on! It was made for your exquisite hand.” He was a short, stout man, his face cheerful and round-cheeked with lines etched around his eyes.
“Your tongue is golden sir, and your words alluring, but I cannot afford to spend coin on a luxury like this.”
He slipped the ring on my finger. “There. It’s yours! Surely you have something to offer me in return?”
His methods were certainly different from merchants in the jehendra. He seemed as eager to engage as he was to sell. I smiled, thinking for a moment. “I can only offer you this as a testament to your mastery of persuasion. A riddle crafted just for you.”
His eyes lit up and his long wiry brows twitched with delight. He waited with anticipation. I added extra theatrics as a bonus just for him.
“I have no fingers, but can pick you apart, “I’m not a healer, but can mend a heart, “I amuse and hush, deceive and astound,
“And there’s no sword forged that can cut me down. “With rosy enticement, and pouty appeal,
“I can twist and shape and pour forth zeal, “I am made of snare, and wit, and gold,
“And you, kind sir,” I said as I held the ring back out to him, “add a touch of bold.”
With my last phrase, he clapped his hands with jubilation. “Words?” he cackled. “Yes, words!” he said, spouting the answer again. “The joy of my trade!” He curled my fingers back around the ring in my palm. “A fair payment, bought and paid for.”
The more I refused the more he insisted, and I finally thanked him for his generosity and moved on. I hadn’t gotten far when someone fell into step beside me, someone as welcome as a flea on a scalp.
“I’ve never seen that old curd quite so enamored with anything besides his own wares.”
It was Paxton. “He’s a logophile.”
Paxton clucked and wrinkled his nose. “That sounds nasty.”
I was pleased that, courtesy of the Royal Scholar, I knew a word that the very polished Paxton didn’t know.
“What do you want, Paxton?” I asked, hoping to be rid of him as quickly as possible.
He started to link his arm with mine. “Ah. Careful there. Only if you wish to lose it,” I said, eyeing his arm.
He glanced at the dagger at my side, then grinned. “We’re practically cousins. I thought it would be a good idea for us to get to know each other. Be friends.”
“I think I know enough about you already. I got quite an eyeful the first time I saw you.”
“At the funeral? Emotions were high. In runs in the Ballenger blood.” “Not Jase’s.”
Paxton tweaked his head slightly forward, eyeing my bruised neck. “Yes, maybe especially his.”
I pulled my hair forward to hide his view. He turned and looked up at the towers above us, shaking his head. “No doubt he’s spotted me strolling with you by now, so it’s time for me to take my leave. Just remember, I’m a Ballenger too, and not an unpleasant one most of the time. I hardly ever break wind at the table anymore.” When I didn’t smile he took my hand, at risk of losing his, and squeezed it gently. “If you’re ever in need of assistance, I’m here for you. Tread carefully, cousin. Remember, everyone is not always what they seem to be, and crossing the wrong person can get you into more trouble than you bargained for.”
Was he threatening me? “Sage advice I didn’t ask for,” I replied, “but I’ll keep that in mind—”
“Paxton?” a voice called. “I thought it was you!”
Paxton spun, his composure shaken for a moment, when a man in dusty, rumpled clothes clapped him on the shoulder. He quickly regrouped, and his worry sprang into a wide smile. “This is an unexpected pleasure!”
The man was tall, lean, his cheekbones sharp, and his attention turned to me. His dark, windblown hair swayed perilously to the side like a cresting wave, as if he had just gotten off a horse and hadn’t bothered to rake it back into place.
“And who would this delightful creature be?” he asked. “Are you forgetting your manners, Paxton?” The man grinned and his fingers tapped together like an eager child.
“Uh, yes, of course,” Paxton muttered, glancing up at the towers again. “Your Majesty, this is Kazi of Brightmist, a visiting soldier sent by the Queen of Venda.”
I stared at the man, from his lopsided mane of hair, to his smudged boots, to his foolish grin. “Your Majesty?”
“King Monte of Eislandia,” Paxton clarified.
The king clasped his hands in front of him, his brows and shoulders rising with expectation. “Do I get even a small bow?”
A buffoon just as Jase had described. A buffoon with an ego. “Yes, of course, Your Majesty.” I bowed low and deep, and when I rose his dark eyes danced with amusement. And maybe something else. Expectation? Was he hoping for just a little groveling? “Forgive me for my lapse,” I said.
“I meant no disrespect. I just didn’t expect to see you here. It’s a great honor to meet you.”
His grin wavered. “Yes, I suppose it is.”
I looked at his hands. They were uncalloused and his nails were neat and manicured, not the hands of a working farmer. A silent moment passed, his gaze resting on me for an extra beat, just long enough for me to see unease behind his jolly banter. “What brings you to the arena?” I asked.
“Llama. Suri, to be precise,” he answered. “Such is the life of a farmer king—always trying to make ends meet. I hear the Candorans have some fine breeding stock to offer. If I can afford it, that is.” He chuckled and raised his shoulders again like everything was a jest. “And how are your investigations of treaty violations going?” he asked, at last making the connection between Natiya visiting him and why I was here.
“Quite well, Your Majesty.” I wasn’t about to tell him that the settlement had been moved. The less said, the better.
Paxton stared at me, his expression hungry for more information, but I left my answer short and vague.
“Is it now?” the king answered. “That’s good to hear.” He turned to Paxton, already bored with the subject. “Walk with me to the Candoran stables, will you? We’re preparing to forge more plows and farm equipment, and I have a question about your next shipment of pig iron. I have a supplier who claims he can give me a better deal.” They said their good-byes to me and I watched them walk away, straza and the king’s small contingent following close behind, but between the mass of bodies I caught sight of the king as he turned to Paxton, glancing back over his shoulder, his clownish grin gone, his eyes sharp and alert. A straza suddenly blocked my view, but when he stepped away again I saw the king fingering something in his vest pocket. Had Paxton just given him something? Or was the king about to give it to Paxton?
I took my newly acquired ring and placed it on my little finger, where it was loose, and then cut through the stalls to the other side of the arena. I circled around on the main path and walked, looking down, admiring my ring, carefully sidestepping other shoppers until I spotted smudged boots in my small line of vision and plowed headlong into their owner, nearly knocking both of us down. The king caught me in his arms as we stumbled together, my hands gripping his sides.
I looked up. “Oh, Your Majesty! I am so very sorry. What an oaf I am! I wasn’t paying attention. My ring—”
His hands lingered on my arms, pulling me a bit closer than necessary, as if I still needed to be steadied, and he smiled—not with his inane grin this time, but one that hinted at a different kind of interest. “We meet again so soon. No harm done,” he replied, suddenly gallant. “There, I see your ring. Let me.” He bent, picking it up, then blew the dust away, before placing it back in my hand.
“Thank you,” I said, smiling demurely.
Paxton’s eyes glowed with suspicion. “Watch your step,” he warned. “You might run into something more dangerous next time.”
Me tear the pages out and burn another book. Miandre cries as she holds her shivering hands to the fire. She wants to go outside and gather wood instead, but Greyson won’t let her. We hear the howls. We don’t know if it is wolves, monsters, or men.