It was late morning, and fresh, sweet hay perfumed the air. The groom whistled as he went about his work, and swallows darted through the rafters with morning meals for noisy hatchlings, a morning that at first glance was deceptively brushed with the perfect colors of a painting. But looking closer, I saw the frayed halter hanging from a nail, the rotten post on the first stall, the tail of a rat in the woodpile. I wondered if there were always things we didn’t see, only because we chose not to look too closely. I had replayed yesterday over and over again in my mind.
The staggering lies. The secrets.
Jase’s angry face when he called me Ten.
But something else woke me from my sleep last night. The laughter. I heard the captain and the rest of them, laughing. The clink of their glasses. It needled through me, but I wasn’t sure why. Maybe it was just the shock of seeing them altogether—seeing far more than what I bargained for.
When the groom finished pitching hay into the stall, I ambled over, sizing up the wagon. It was a small hay wagon, which was an advantage. It would still hold six men but it would be easier to maneuver around the back side of Tor’s Watch over to the Greyson Tunnel trail. That path would draw the least attention. We couldn’t traipse through town, and on the back trail the cover of night would swallow us up. We could only count on a few hours’ lead time.
But hitching up a team of horses would be noisy. I looked at the groom’s cottage at the far end of the stables. His supper would have to come via Eben too. It would be laced with birchwings, the same as with the keeper for the dog kennels. If he was passed out, no dogs would be loosed. The birchwings would also keep our quarry of six quiet on the trail.
I had slipped into the storage room in the kitchen during the middle of the night. The lock had been child’s play. The small vial of birchwings that Wren had gotten for me still had two doses in it, which would take care of the groom and keeper, but I was going to need more. The full canister of birchwings was the solution but it was important that my theft wasn’t noticed, at least not until long after we were gone, so I had poured the birchwings into a pouch and put salt in its place. No one would notice the difference immediately, though the salt wouldn’t do much for a headache.
Wren and Synové rode in, dismounting and leading their horses into stalls. They’d been in town getting supplies together—spools of cording, more water skins, and dried food—presumably for our trip home in case anyone noticed. Though Synové was more than able to supply us with fresh game, it wouldn’t be safe to build a campfire for a while—at least not until we met up with Griz and the troops.
“Have you spoken with Jase?” Wren asked.
I shook my head. Last night I had stayed awake for hours waiting for a tap at my door, a creak outside it, a sense that he leaned against it, but nothing came. I opened it twice, imagining he was there. He wasn’t. He never did come. I had a dozen excuses to turn him away if he did, but I didn’t need any of them.
“Are you going to be all right?” Synové’s brows pulled low. There was concern in her voice but dogged anger also simmered in her eyes. Now that she knew Bahr was among the fugitives, this mission had become personal. Wren’s promise that the ride back would be torture seemed to be a goal that calmed her.
“Of course she’s all right,” Wren answered, then looked at me, waiting for me to confirm it.
“Yes,” I answered. And I was. I wasn’t sure if it was a relief or not, but when Jase said there were no drivers like the one I had described to him, I at least knew I wouldn’t turn a corner and run into him face-to-face. Not in the middle of all this, where I might jeopardize everything. I didn’t want to
come undone the way Synové had last night when Wren and I had to hold her back. Too much was at stake. Knowing he wasn’t here allowed me to push thoughts of returning to the Previzi warehouse out of my mind and concentrate on what needed to be done.
I thought about Jase’s question, How do you go from anguish to pulling coins out from behind ears? I had given him an angry answer, but the truth was, by shielding Nash and Lydia, it felt like I had reclaimed a small part of myself. And that was what I was doing now, reclaiming that part of me that believed I could still make some things right. It was all I had.
“Good morning, ladies!” Natiya rounded the corner, a tub of slop propped against her hip. “On my way with a present for the sow,” she said loudly, in case the groom wondered why she was here.
She sidled close, and we smiled as we chatted, but our conversation wasn’t about potato peels for the swine. We had already talked last night. I had told them about our additional fugitives and the Ballengers’ motives for harboring them—weapons, domination, and a trap for the queen. Eben was convinced that the two men I didn’t know were scholars, more traitors lured away from Morrighan by the Komizar. He said it was never known just how many had lurked in the catacombs beneath Sanctum City, unlocking the mysteries of the Ancients, or just what they had escaped with. The captain must have hooked up with his crew of cronies, hoping for a second chance at the riches that had eluded them.
We set our plans in motion, fine-tuning the details to accommodate five more prisoners.
“Don’t be late for dinner. Timing is critical,” Natiya ordered. She said she was sending Eben with the stable dinners an hour before dusk to ensure the dogs weren’t released. The family dinner had to coincide with the stable hands’ dinnertime. “We might have more time, but we can only count on a two-hour window. What about the Patrei? He’s complicit in this. Do we take him too?”
They all looked at me, waiting. They knew it was imperative that I feel right about this, and since I was lead, Natiya left it to me to call the final shots, but something nagged at me. Maybe it was Vairlyn’s eagerness to talk about menus for the queen. Had Jase deceived his mother too? Or were they all masters at deceit? Or maybe I hadn’t quite abandoned everything I believed about Jase yet—that there was a kindness deep in his core, that he
wanted to do the right thing. I looked back at Natiya. Her gaze remained steady, waiting. Yes, Jase was complicit, but our mission had been to retrieve a single fugitive and now we had six, more than we could handle. “Not this time,” I answered. “We already have a full load. Trust me, Jase isn’t leaving Hell’s Mouth. This is his home—he won’t disappear. The matter of the Patrei’s guilt can be addressed later.”
“What about Jalaine?” Wren asked. “She could be a problem if she doesn’t come to dinner again.”
“I’ll talk to her,” I said. “I’ll make sure she—” “Kazi, there you are!”
“Oh snakes, it’s the nasty one,” Synové rumbled under her breath. Gunner walked toward us. “I’ve been looking for you.” He slowed,
noting Natiya’s presence. “What are you all doing out here?”
“Morning, sir!” Natiya chirped, bobbing her head. “And it’s a beautiful one, isn’t it? Just on my way with slop for the sow. Her farrow should be here any day.” She nodded at the heap of leavings in the tub. “A little planning ahead reaps great rewards—and pudgy piglets. Good day, ladies!” She bounced happily away, and Gunner’s attention turned back to me.
“And I was just grooming Mije after a morning ride,” I said. “What can I do for you, Gunner?”
“Jase wants to see you.”
“He couldn’t come himself?”
“He’s wrapped up with something right now, but he wants to meet you by the fountain in the gardens in ten minutes. It’s important.”
By the fountain? It was more than odd, but I didn’t want to upset Gunner’s easily toppled applecart at this point with just hours left at Tor’s Watch.
“All right,” I answered. “Do you know what it’s about?”
He shrugged. “Something about the queen coming.” His poker face was pathetic. He obviously didn’t share his brother’s accomplished skill at lying.
“Sure. We’ll be there.”
“No,” he said firmly. “Just you.”