As we walked down the porch steps, Titus whispered under his breath, “Alms first, fool!” I shoved him with my shoulder, and the others laughed as he tumbled down the steps. They were ready for a night of trouble. A night of forgetting. Watching someone die, someone who was as full of life as my father, who should have had years ahead of him, was a reminder that death looked over all our shoulders.
My eldest brother, Gunner, sidled close as we walked to our waiting horses. “Paxton will come.”
I nodded. “But he’ll take his time.”
“He’s afraid of you.”
“Not afraid enough.”
Mason clapped me on the back. “Hell with Paxton. He won’t come until the entombment, if he comes at all. For now, we just need to get you snot drunk, Patrei.”
I was ready. I needed this as much as Mason and everyone else. I needed it to be over with and all of us moving on. As weak as my father had been before he died, he managed to say a lot in his last breaths. It was my duty to hear every word and vow my allegiance even if he’d said it all before—and he had. He’d been telling me my whole life. It was tattooed inside my gut as much as the Ballenger seal was tattooed across my shoulder. The family dynasty—those both blood and embraced—was safe. Still, his final labored instructions dug through me. He hadn’t been prepared to let go of the reins this soon. The Ballengers bow to no one. Make her come. The others will notice. That part might prove a little harder.
The other vultures who came circling, hoping to take over our territory, were what I needed to crush first, Paxton foremost among them. It didn’t matter that he was my cousin—he was still the misbegotten progeny of my long-ago uncle who had betrayed his own family. Paxton controlled the smaller territory of Ráj Nivad in the south, but it wasn’t enough for him. Like the rest of his bloodline, he was consumed by jealousies and greed. Still, he was blood and would come to pay honor to my father—and to calculate our strength. Ráj Nivad was a four-day ride from here. He hadn’t heard anything yet, and if he had, it would take him just as long to get here. I had time to prepare.
Our straza shouted to the tower, and they in turned called down to the gate guards, clearing our passage. The heavy metal gates creaked open, and we rode through. I felt the eyes on me, on my hand. Patrei.
Hell’s Mouth sat in the valley just below Tor’s Watch, only parts of it visible through the canopy of tembris trees that circled it like a crown. I had told my father once that I was going to climb to the top of every one. I was eight years old and didn’t realize how far they reached into the heavens, even after my father told me the top of the tembris was the realm of the gods, not men. I didn’t make it far, certainly not to the top. No one ever had. And as high as the trees stretched, the roots reached to the foundations of the earth. They were the only thing more rooted in this land than the Ballengers.
Once we were at the base of the hill, Gunner shouted and took off ahead of the pack. The rest of us followed, the trampling of hooves pounding in our bones. We liked to make our arrivals into town well announced.
* * *
The bell chimed softly, as delicate as crystal goblets meeting in a toast. The ring echoed up through the stone arches of the temple unchallenged. As disorderly and loudly as we pounded into town, the family respected the sanctity of the temple even if cards, red-eye, and barrels of ale swam in our visions. Five more bells and we would be done. Gunner, Priya, and Titus knelt on one side of me, Jalaine, Samuel, Aram, and Mason on the other. We took up the whole front row. Our straza—Drake, Tiago, and Charus—knelt behind us. The priest spoke in the old tongue, stirring the ashes with calf’s blood, then placed a wet, ashy fingertip on each of our foreheads. Our offerings were taken by the sober-faced alms bearers into the coffers, deemed acceptable by the gods. More than acceptable, I would guess. It was enough to fund another healer for the infirmary. Three more bells. Two.
One. We stood, accepting the priest’s blessing, and walked solemnly in a single file out of the dark hall. Chiseled saints stood on lofty pillars looking down upon us, and the cantillating benediction of the priestess floated after us like a protective ghost.
Outside, Titus waited until he was at the bottom of the steps before he pealed out a shrill whistle—the call to the tavern. Drinks were on the new Patrei. Decorum in the face of death brought emotion too near the surface for Titus. Maybe for all of us.
I felt a tug on my coat. The seer was huddled in the shadow of a pillar, her hood covering her face. I dropped some coins in her basket.
“What news have you?” I asked.
She pulled on my coat until I knelt to eye level with her. Her eyes were tight azure stones, and appeared to float, disembodied, in the black shadow of her hood. Her gaze latched on to mine, her head tipping to the side like she was slipping deep behind my eyes. “Patrei,” she whispered.
She shook her head. “Not from without. Within. Your soul tells me. From without … I hear other things.”
She leaned close, her voice hushed as if she feared someone else would hear. “The wind whispers they are coming, Patrei. They are coming for you.”
She took my hand in her gnarled fingers and kissed my ring. “Gods watch over you.”
I gently pulled loose and stood, still looking down at her. “And over you.”
Her news wasn’t exactly news, but I didn’t begrudge the coins I had tossed her way. Everyone knew we would face challenges.
I hadn’t gotten to the bottom step when Lothar and Rancell, two of our overseers, dragged someone over and threw him to his knees in front of me. I recognized him, Hagur from the livestock auction.
“Skimming,” Lothar said. “Just as you suspected.”
I stared at him. There was no denial in his eyes, only fear. I drew my knife.
“Not in front of the temple,” he pleaded, tears flowing down his cheeks. “I beg you, Patrei. Don’t shame me before the gods.”
He grabbed my legs, bowing his head and sobbing.