There was one thing I could never make right.
But maybe there were other things that I could.
Gather close, my brothers and sisters.
We have touched the stars,
And the dust of possibility is ours.
But the work is never over.
Time circles. Repeats.
We must ever be watchful.
Though the Dragon rests for now,
He will wake again
And roam the earth,
His belly ripe with hunger.
And so shall it be,
—The Song of Jezelia
As far as you can see, this land is ours. Never forget that. It was my father’s and his father’s before that. This is Ballenger territory and always has been, all the way back to the Ancients. We are the first family, and every bird that flies overhead, every breath that is taken, every drop of water that falls, it all belongs to us. We make the laws here. We own whatever you can see. Never let one handful of soil slip through your fingers, or you will lose it all.
I placed my father’s hand at his side. His skin was cold, his fingers stiff. He’d been dead for hours. It seemed impossible. Only four days ago, he’d been healthy and strong, and then he gripped his chest as he got up on his horse and collapsed. The seer said an enemy had cast a spell. The healer said it was his heart and nothing could be done. Whichever it was, in a matter of days, he was gone.
A dozen empty chairs still circled his bed, the vigil ended. The sounds of long good-byes had turned to silent disbelief. I pushed back my chair and stepped out to the balcony, drawing in a deep breath. The hills reached in hazy scallops to the horizon. Not one handful, I had promised him.
The others waited for me to emerge from the room wearing his ring. Now my ring. The weight of his last words flowed through me, as strong and powerful as Ballenger blood. I surveyed the endless landscape that was ours. I knew every hill, every canyon, every bluff and river. As far as you can see. It all looked different now. I backed away from the balcony. The challenges would come soon. They always did when a Ballenger died, as if one less in our numbers would topple us. News would reach the multiple leagues scattered beyond our borders. It was a bad time for him to die. First harvests were rolling in, the Previzi were demanding a greater take of their loads, and Fertig had asked for my sister’s hand in marriage. She was still deciding. I didn’t like Fertig, but I loved my sister. I shook my head and pushed away from the rail. Patrei. It was up to me now. I’d keep my vow. The family would stand strong, as we always had.
I pulled my knife from its sheath and returned to my father’s bed. I cut the ring from his swollen finger, slipped it on to my own, and walked out to a hallway full of waiting faces.
They looked at my hand, traces of my father’s blood on the ring. It was done.
A rumble of solemn acknowledgement sounded.
“Come on,” I said. “It’s time to get drunk.”
* * *
Our steps echoed through the main hall with singular purpose as more than a dozen of us headed toward the door. My mother stepped out from the west antechamber and asked me where I was going.
“Tavern. Before the news is everywhere.”
She slapped me on t
he side of the head. “The news was out four days ago, fool. The vultures sniff death before it arrives and circle just as quickly. They’ll be picking at our bones by next week. Now go! Alms at the temple first. Then you can go drink yourself blind. And keep your straza at your sides. These are uncertain times!” She shot a warning glower at my brothers too, and they dutifully nodded. Her gaze turned back at me, still iron, thorns, and fire, clear, but I knew behind them a wall had been painfully built. Even when my brother and sister died, she didn’t cry, but channeled her tears into a new cistern for the temple instead. She looked down at the ring on my finger. Her head bobbed slightly. I knew it unsettled her to see it on my hand after twenty-five years of seeing it on my father’s. Together, they had strengthened the Ballenger Dynasty. They had eleven children together, nine of us still living, plus an adopted son, a promise that their world would only grow stronger. That is what she focused on, instead of what she had lost prematurely. She lifted my hand to her lips, kissed the ring, then pushed me out the door.