It wasn’t only the major powers of Morrighan and Dalbreck who wanted the Vendans divided and dispersed, the Lesser Kingdoms did too, afraid of their numbers and the strength they had once amassed, but the queen had never held it out as threat, only that it was the right thing to do. These were people who hoped for a brighter future.
Troops would come if disputes couldn’t be resolved, but before troops came, a darker trouble needed to be uncovered here—discreetly. Any whiff of what we were really after and our prey might vanish entirely, as he had before. Not this time, the queen said. I saw the ghosts in her eyes. Even for her, I thought, they never go away.
“So you can’t identify the attackers either?” I asked.
“What’s going on here?”
I sighed. The bevy of bacchanals had followed us. I turned and faced them, eyeing the bloodshot leader of the group. “Move along, boy,” I ordered. “This doesn’t concern you.”
His eyes went from bloodshot to flaming. “Boy?” He stepped closer, and in one swift movement, I brought him to his knees and slammed him up against the apothecary wall, a knife to his throat.
His crew jumped forward but then stalled when they saw the blade firm against his skin.
“That’s right, boy. Call off your misbegotten posse and move along as I ordered, and maybe I won’t cut your pretty neck.”
His muscles strained beneath my grasp, his shoulder a knot of rage—and yet the knife was snug against his jugular. He considered carefully.
“Back off,” he finally told his friends.
“Sensible,” I said. “Ready to move along?”
“Yes,” he hissed.
“Good boy,” I said, though it was now clear to me that there was nothing boyish about him.
I pulled the knife from his belt and shoved him away. He didn’t protest or try to double back, but instead took his time to stand. He faced me and waved back the others, who were ready to jump to his defense now that his neck was safe from my knife. Seconds stretched and he studied me as thoug
h he was memorizing every inch of my face. Revenge burned in his gaze. He lifted his arm and Wren and Synové tensed, raising their weapons, but he only raked his thick hair back from his face, and then, his eyes still boring into mine—he smiled.
A chill danced up my spine. Smiles like his unsettled me. I had a history with them. They meant something else, but he only dipped his head in good-bye, and said, “I wish you a pleasant stay in Hell’s Mouth.” He turned and walked away by himself, his friends going in the opposite direction, as though he had sent them some private communiqué. I knew about subtle signals—Wren, Synové, and I often used them to silently communicate our moves—but if he had used one, I hadn’t seen it.
I puzzled over it for a moment then returned my knife to its sheath, eyeing him as he disappeared down an avenue. Synové and Wren did likewise with their weapons, and the noise around us, which had hushed with the commotion, slowly resumed. I turned back to the couple, but they both stood stiff, their eyes wide with horror.
“It’s all right,” I said. “They’re gone—”
“Do you know who that was?” the woman asked, her voice trembling.
“The Patrei,” her husband answered before I could finish.
I had a very clear description of Karsen Ballenger—a robust man, somewhere near forty, dark brown hair, dark eyes, a scar across his chin—and the swaggering dirty blond was not remotely him.
“The Patrei is Karsen Ballenger,” I said. “He’s—”
“Karsen Ballenger is dead,” the man replied. “He died yesterday. That was Jase, his son, the new Patrei.”
New Patrei? Karsen Ballenger dead? Yesterday? No. They were mistaken. I was told that Karsen was young, fierce, and healthy. How could—
My stomach spun. The gold signet ring. It was on his finger. I caught a glimpse of gold when I held him against the wall, but I didn’t think anything of it. It was supposed to be on an older man.
My mind whirled, and I felt myself being whisked down an unexpected path. I could see Natiya raging already, Griz roaring, and the queen burying her face in her hands.
I sucked in a deep breath. There is still time to save this. If I was going to get under anyone’s skin other than Karsen Ballenger, his son was the next best choice. This could still work. In fact, maybe it was perfect timing.