By the time I got to the receiving hall, I was seething. I’d been thrown in a cell and handed a bucket, and my inquiries of when I would see the queen were met with silence. Not a word. An hour of waiting and pacing passed. And then three, sunlight shifting through the tiny window of my cell. I could be here for days, weeks. I knew the game she played. I had played it with prisoners plenty of times. Let them wait and fear the worst.
Maybe her tactic was working. Kazi said the queen would hear me out, but when? And even then, would she really listen? As far as the kingdoms were concerned, Tor’s Watch was nothing but a minor speck on the landscape. All they knew about us was what the King of Eislandia had told them, and he knew nothing. I was through upholding the terms of Paxton’s idiot great-grandfather—a whole town for a round of drinks. If I ever got out of here, I was taking back Hell’s Mouth. We would no longer be held hostage to a gambling debt or defer to a king who had no interest in the town that he didn’t bother to support. We would no longer be ignored. I felt like the voice raging in my head was my father’s. After at least four hours, I was dragged out of my cell by two burly guards who again had nothing to say to me other than shut up. They hauled me through the outpost and threw me into an empty hall to await the queen, my hands still tied behind me. But she wasn’t there.
Twenty minutes passed. Then forty. Silence ticked by. More waiting? The elevated end of the room had two passageways on either side. I waited
for someone to come, but no one did.
“Where’s the queen?” I finally yelled. No answer. I let loose with a litany of shouts, demanding that someone come. I heard a baby cry in the distance and then footsteps. Loud, angry footsteps. The crying stopped, but a man burst through one of the passageways, his burning blue eyes landing on me. He stomped down the steps and crossed the room, grabbing my shirt, nearly jerking me off my feet. He held me close so we were eye to eye. “The queen will get here when she gets here, but if you wake my baby daughter one more time, I’ll pop your head from your shoulders. Understand?”
“Who are you?” I asked.
“A man who has had very little sleep in the past forty-eight hours. But to you I am King Jaxon.”
The King of Dalbreck. I’d also heard rumors about him, another twelve-foot legend—one with a temper. Right now, he looked like an exhausted, crazed man. And a protective one. He let go of my shirt with a shove.
And then I heard a shuffle. We both turned. Four soldiers filed out of the right passageway, Dalbretch officers by the look of their uniforms, and then just behind them, more officers, but these were Vendan. Griz was one of them. They lined up on the dais, facing me, long swords at their sides, and I wondered if this was going to be an impromptu execution.
There was another shuffle of movement, this one quieter, and from the opposite passageway a woman walked out onto the dais. She held a baby in her arms. The king forgot about me and walked up the steps to meet her. His face was transformed as he looked at her, his rage replaced with tenderness. She looked at him in the same way. They gazed down together at the baby in her arms and the king kissed the queen, long and leisurely as if I wasn’t there.
This was Queen Jezelia of Venda, the one who held my fate in her hands. She was younger than I thought she’d be, and softer and more serene than I’d expected. Maybe this wouldn’t be so difficult after all. She handed the baby to the king, and he held his daughter in the crook of his arm, his knuckle rubbing her cheek.
The queen turned to me, and in an instant her softness vanished. The dreamy eyes she had for her baby and the king had turned hard and cutting. This was a monarch who tolerated no nonsense. She stepped to the end of
the dais, confident in her stride, one brow arched in irritation. “So you’re the one making all the noise.”
“I’m the Patrei of Tor’s Watch and I demand—”
“Correction,” she said, briskly cutting me off. “You’re my prisoner and
“What do you want me to do? Bow? Because I won’t do that. My realm was centuries old before the first stone was laid in yours. Because—”
She put her hand up in a swift stop motion and shook her head. “You’re going to be trouble, aren’t you?”
“I was told I would get a chance to speak!”
“You will, but I get to go first, because I’m the queen, I just went through twenty hours of labor, and I’m the one wearing a sword.” She wasn’t wearing a sword, but I got her point. She may as well have been. “I was told you’re a good listener, but maybe my source is wrong.”
A good listener?
“Kazimyrah, is this the prisoner you told me about?”
I startled as Kazi walked out of the passageway. Her steps were smooth and composed. She turned to face me, her expression grim, but her eyes only looked into mine briefly before she looked away again. “Yes, Your Majesty. It’s him.”
The queen turned back to me. “Then I expect you to listen, Patrei, because my Rahtan are never wrong.”
I boiled inside like an overheated kettle, but I remained silent waiting for my chance to speak. She had a guard untie my hands, then repeated the charges against me, violating kingdom treaties by harboring fugitives, in addition to conspiring to dominate the kingdoms. I opened my mouth to respond, and she shut me down with a quick glare and tilt of her head.
“However, as Kazimyrah pointed out to me, you have not signed a treaty with the Alliance of Kingdoms, because you are not a kingdom at all, nor are you even part of Eislandia, and yet you are steward of Hell’s Mouth, which is part of that kingdom, which is all a very curious and complicated arrangement. I don’t like complications. Kazimyrah explained to me how that came to pass.” She shook her head. “A word of advice, Patrei, never play cards with a monarch. They cheat.”
The soldiers behind her rumbled in agreement, and the king grinned.
“In addition, she has also made me aware that the King of Eislandia may have not acted in good faith, nor held up the tenets of the Alliance in finding suitable land for a settlement and in fact, may have intentionally chosen your land as a way to provoke you. This does not sit well with me. Using my citizens to settle grudges is not something I take kindly to. They have already been through untold hardships, and I will not suffer fools who bring them more. Nevertheless, I understand you rectified the situation by rebuilding the settlement at your own expense in a better location, and that you were very generous in the process.”
I glanced at Kazi. She stood to the side of the queen, looking straight ahead, avoiding eye contact with me.
The queen walked down the steps, studying me. I wondered if I was ever going to get a chance to speak, but my gut told me to wait, because none of this was going quite how I expected it to. I was wary, uncertain if I was being led to a cliff and any minute I would be pushed over it.
“Still, you conspired to build weapons,” she continued, “providing the fugitives with materials that could have brought great destruction upon the kingdoms, but my Rahtan tells me the Watch Captain deceived you and his purposes were not your purposes. That you only wanted to protect your interests against aggressors. Should I believe her?”
I started to answer, but she shut me down again. “It was rhetorical. I always believe and trust the judgment of my Rahtan. It’s you I’m still leery of.” She pursed her lips. “But Captain Illarion is an accomplished liar, and in fact, even my father and I were greatly deceived by him.”
She walked in a circle around the room as if thinking. I looked at Kazi, whose eyes were on me now, her pupils tight beads. The king’s eyes drilled into me too. Something about this was all wrong. I felt like a lone fish in a barrel, and everyone else in the room had a spear.
The queen stopped circling and faced me again. “I’ve also been enlightened about your family’s long history, perhaps longest of any of the kingdoms. Kazimyrah says you claim to be descended from the leader of the Ancients—the first family—and she’s seen some evidence of it herself.” “It’s not a claim. It’s the truth,” I said, not waiting for an invitation to
“Tell me something about it, then. I want to hear it in your own words.” “The Ballenger history?” I asked.
I hesitated, still uncertain where this was going, wondering just what Kazi had told the queen, because it seemed she had said a lot. The queen waited for my answer. “All right,” I answered slowly. This wasn’t what I thought I’d be speaking about. I started at the beginning with Aaron Ballenger, the chief commander of the Ancients. “He was forced to run, like everyone else during the Last Days, when the seat of his command was destroyed.” I explained about his struggle to survive, and his final effort to get a group of children to a faraway shelter, and then his murder by scavengers. “Before he died, he passed the responsibility of leadership to his grandchild, Greyson. He was the eldest but only fourteen.” I told her how he and twenty-two other children struggled to survive in the Tor’s Watch vault while predators waited outside. She listened intently, but she seemed to be studying me too, and I became self-conscious of every move I made. “They finally learned to defend themselves and eventually ventured out to lay the first stones of Tor’s Watch. And that was the first generation. We have centuries of history after that.”
“That’s quite impressive,” she answered. “I have a keen interest in history. I’ve discovered that there are several histories on this continent, and I’ve learned something from them all, but yours is especially intriguing. It seems that perhaps all the kingdoms have been remiss in failing to acknowledge the place of Tor’s Watch on the continent, however small it might be.”
She tapped her lips, her gaze dissecting me, long seconds passing, and then her chin lifted, like a seasoned trader at the arena ready to make a final offer. “Here’s what I’d like to propose, Jase Ballenger. I’d like to suggest to the Alliance that they take Tor’s Watch under consideration to be acknowledged and accepted as another kingdom on the continent. However, as Kazimyrah says, your ways are not our ways and that presents a few prickly problems.” She stated the things we would have to change in order for this to happen and that included ending our blatant support of the black-market trade. “It might be rampant across the continent, but it is still theft. And then there’s the matter of your borders. You would have to establish clear ones.”
I didn’t respond, still thinking all this was some sort of trick. “You’re not willing to do this?” she asked.
“What’s the catch?”
“No catch. Some things are just the right thing to do. Kazimyrah told me you understood that concept. And it would serve our interests too, to have a reliable ally in that region.”
There it was. I heard the implication that King Monte was incompetent. I couldn’t disagree, though it seemed Kazi had embellished the story about him choosing the settlement site. I still wasn’t convinced he knew it was our land.
“And it’s that simple? Just like that we’re a recognized nation?”
“No,” the king replied, jiggling the stirring baby on his shoulder. “It’s not that simple at all. It could take months, even years for all the kingdoms to agree, and it would include several investigative trips by ambassadors. But the queen is very persuasive, not to mention she has an inroad with the King of Dalbreck. The kingdoms will go along, eventually, providing you agree to the terms.”
“Fifty miles,” I said. “Those are our borders. Fifty miles in all directions from Tor’s Watch.”
“But that would include Hell’s Mouth,” the queen noted.
“That’s right,” I confirmed. “It’s always been ours. It’s time to settle any question about it.”
She bit the corner of her lip. “That might be a little trickier if the King of Eislandia will not willingly cede the lands to you. He is still the sitting monarch.”
“We’ll persuade him,” I said. “By lawful means, I assume?”
Whose laws? I wanted to ask. I had racaa and antelope blood in mind, but I answered, “Of course.”
“Maybe the persuading would be better left to us,” the king said, as if he had read my mind. “And considering the longer Ballenger history of stewardship of the land, it shouldn’t be hard to argue for its return into your hands.”
The queen nodded. “Very well, then, if the other kingdoms are in agreement, Tor’s Watch will become the thirteenth kingdom.”
“The first,” I corrected.
The queen’s eyes narrowed, but I saw a glimmer behind them. She was amused by this. “You are trouble, just as Kazimyrah warned me.” She
sighed. “Very well then, the first.”
She said they would put me up in quarters tonight, have papers for me to sign in the morning, and then I could leave. I would hear from them in several weeks. A delivery of Valsprey and a trainer for them would be made to aid in communications. For now, they would provide me with supplies for my trip home and an escort if I required one. “You’re free to go.”
Go? Just walk out the door and not look back? I looked at Kazi. She was a rigid soldier, her gaze fixed on an empty wall, but her hands were fists at her sides. I had just gained everything my father had ever dreamed of— what generations of Ballengers had dreamed of—the acknowledgment of all the kingdoms that would establish our authority once and for all. We would be a recognized nation ourselves. And yet, I stood there, unable to leave. I should have felt light with victory but instead a heavy weight pulled at me.
I looked back at the queen. “Thank you,” I said. I knew I had been dismissed, but I still stood there. The queen looked at me oddly as if she noticed my hesitation. She glanced at Kazi, then back at me. Her eyes suddenly turned sharp again.
“On second thought,” said the queen, “it would be the height of foolishness to strike a bargain with a band of outlaws. I’m not sure I can really trust you, Jase Ballenger. You might revert to your old, lawless ways. What do you think, King Jaxon?”
He looked startled for a moment, then answered, “I completely agree.” He stepped close to his wife, shaking his head disapprovingly. “I don’t trust him. Look at that smirk of his. I don’t think it’s safe to let him go.”
Was this the trick they’d been planning all along? My blood raced. “What—”
“Though I could send a trusted representative along to keep an eye on you,” the queen suggested. “An ambassador of sorts. What do you think, Patrei? Do you think I should trust you?”
I stared at her, the air punched out of me, but then, the glimmer again—I saw the glimmer in her eyes, and it struck me. I understood what she was doing.