“I swear! I don’t deal in flesh! I never have!”
After an hour of questioning, and with gardening shears clamped over his finger, he confessed to taking Kazi’s mother. “She was a half-starved beggar! She was going to get a better life.”
The way flesh traders always tried to justify their actions.
“That’s why you had to drug her? Why you wanted her child too?”
His face went slack. It finally sank in, who he had seen in the garden. Not a ghost but the child of the woman he had taken. His eyes darted back and forth, looking around the warehouse, as if searching for an escape that he had overlooked. There were none. He was tied to a chair, surrounded by five of us. He looked back at me. “It was one time. I only did it once.”
I could hear the squirming in his voice, the grasping, trying to find some way out of this. He had done it dozens of times, but even once was too many. Once changed Kazi’s life, and her mother’s, forever.
“And the better life she got? Who did you sell her to?”
His eyes grew wide. I saw the lie forming in them. “I never sold her. She died en route. I told you, she was weak and half starved.” Right now he was more afraid of someone else than he was of me. That would change.
I was certain now that he was wrapped up with the labor hunters who had descended into Hell’s Mouth, still working his old connections.
I leaned forward, my hands on the arm of his chair, my face all he could see. “Tell me, Zane, you know Fertig?”
“He’s dead. He and his whole crew. They’re not coming home. Whomever you’re working for just took a big hit. But I want them out of business altogether. Tell me who they are, and you and I will work something out.”
He shook his head. “I don’t know anything!”
I stepped back and looked at Tiago. “The family’s waiting. I have to go to dinner. If he has no fingertips when I return, that’s fine. We’ll move on to his toes next. Just make sure he doesn’t bleed out. We’re going to keep him alive until we have our answers.”
I turned and walked toward the door, and Tiago picked up the gardening shears.
“Wait!” Zane cried, struggling against his ties, the chair wobbling beneath him. “I was given a satchel of money by someone named Devereux who told me to hire labor hunters! It was in an alley behind the pub. It was dark. I never saw his face. That’s all I know! I swear! He didn’t tell me who he worked for!”
I paused at the door without looking back. The smithy died because of Zane. Countless other lives were stolen. Kazi and I almost died. “That’s a start. We’ll talk more when I return. Tiago, you can go to dinner too. We’ll hold off on his fingertips for now.”
In a few hours, Zane would be tired, hungry, and crazed with fear. He’d have time to reassess what he valued more, his fingers or the people he was protecting. There’d be no lies left in him. I was sure by then he’d even remember more names.
* * *
I rubbed my hair with a towel and paused in front of the mirror, looking at my tattoo like I was seeing it for the first time. I had just bathed, trying to wash away the disgust and slime of Zane. I ran my hand over my shoulder, my chest, the wings, the words, the scrutinizing eye of a bird staring back at me. We can become numb to things, so much so that we don’t even see them anymore. I wasn’t sure when the last time was that I had really looked at it. Protect.
My father had stood over me while I got every feather, every claw, every letter etched into my skin. Protect and defend it all, he told me. This is who you are. It has always been in your blood, Jase. Now it is over your heart.
Greyson Ballenger had had twenty-two to protect and a vault to defend. Tor’s Watch had grown. The family had grown. There were hundreds, thousands to protect now. A whole city to defend. And because of the arena, the Ballenger world was still expanding. I had made a blood vow to protect the Vendan settlement. And it seemed that sometimes I would also have to protect people I’d never seen, people on the other side of a continent, people I’ll never even know—people like Kazi and her mother.
I wondered about Garvin now too, the questions we didn’t ask and should have. All this had come to a head in our family meeting this morning. I encountered loud resistance to creating new rules for the Previzi or ousting them—we could take a big hit in profits and anger some longterm traders who depended on them to peddle merchandise that had no bill of lading. I countered that when we crossed certain lines we invited others to be crossed too, and then I told them about my suspicions of Zane. I didn’t get any more arguments.
Once we got all the information we needed from Zane, I was going to have to tell Kazi about him. But how, I wasn’t sure.
Maybe that was why I had rushed to tell her how I felt today and asked her to stay. I was afraid. I needed her to know with certainty my feelings for her—before I told her that the man who took her mother worked for us.