“But you have no defined borders. You aren’t even supposed to be settled in the Cam Lanteux at all. You’re breaking the law. It’s a violation of the ancient treaties. How can you lay claim to all of this?”
“Well, maybe the ancient treaties never bothered to consult us. Tor’s Watch has been here longer than any of the kingdoms—including Venda. And we do have borders, but maybe our lines are drawn differently than yours. They extend as far as it takes for us to feel secure. We’ve lived by our laws and survived by them for centuries. Venda has no right to be meddling.”
“What about your meddling? The businesses you skim in Hell’s Mouth? Is that one of your laws too?”
The color deepened at his temples. “Hell’s Mouth was ours long before it became part of Eislandia. We built the city from rubble and ruins, and we protect everyone who lives there. No one gets a free ride.”
“Protect them from what?”
He looked down at the chain between us. “Do I really need to give you a list? Ours is a different world than yours. My family doesn’t need to explain anything to Venda.”
I was ready to argue more, to point out that Hell’s Mouth was in Eislandia and it was their jurisdiction to protect as they saw fit—not the Ballengers who extracted fear money—but I tried to remember that my primary goal wasn’t to educate him but to obtain information, and his ire was growing. Soon we’d revert to silence.
He had already told me some of the Ballenger history, but now I wondered about his family, which he had mentioned more than once. It was a driving motivation in his life, and I contemplated the prospect of meeting a whole family of thugs who possibly harbored a dangerous traitor. For what purpose would they give him refuge? It seemed everything was a transaction for the Ballengers. No free rides. What were they getting out of it?
I softened my tone, trying to redirect the conversation. I already recognized his tics, the straight, firm line of his lips, his nostrils flaring, the muscles in his neck tightening, his wide shoulders pulling back. His enormous pride and ego when it came to his family was his weakness, and I needed to understand it, because for a thief, understanding and exploiting your opponent’s shortcomings was the first rule of the game. And he was my opponent. I needed to remind myself of that because he hadn’t turned out to be what I expected, and some part of me found him—
I wasn’t sure what the word was. Maybe the safest one was intriguing.
But as he spoke of his family, they didn’t seem like a weakness at all—maybe it was just the sheer number of them that astounded me. No one had families that large in Venda. Ever. Besides his mother, he had six brothers and three sisters. There were also aunts, uncles, and cousins. More extended family lived in the city. He told me their names, but there were far too many to remember them all, save a few. Gunner and Titus were his
oldest brothers, Priya his sister was the oldest of the siblings, and Nash and Lydia, who were only six and seven, were his youngest—still too young to sit in on family meetings. The meetings were a formal affair where the whole family gathered together around a table to decide on family business. They voted on all major decisions.
“And there’s Mason too,” Jase added. “He’s another brother. Same age as me—nineteen. My parents took him in when he was only three after his parents died. We’re the only family he’s ever known. He votes too.”
“And what’s your role in this?”
“As Patrei, I make the final decision.”
“You can overrule the vote of the family?”
“Yes—if I were there. But as you may have noted, I haven’t even had a full day as Patrei yet.”
“And that’s the trouble you think I’ve caused.”
His response was an affirmative silence, but then he added, “I shouldn’t have gone down that alley alone, but I only expected to encounter you, not hunters, so I waved off my straza.”
He explained they were personal guards. The whole family had them.
“You have that many enemies?”
“When you have power, you have enemies,” he answered. “What about you? Do you have family?”
My throat squeezed. Since I lost my mother, I had seen family as only a liability. Even growing close to Wren and Synové seemed like a terrible risk. The world was so much safer when you only had yourself to lose.
“Yes,” I answered. “I have family. Both of my parents live in Venda.”
“What are they like?”
I searched for an answer, something that would make his questions stop. “Happy. Content. And very proud of their only daughter,” I said, then steered the conversation elsewhere.
* * *
Though I was no stranger to hunger, our foraging had been scant, so I was overjoyed when we came to a creek and I spotted wish stalks growing at its banks. I was surprised that he had no knowledge of them. In Venda, they were a spring treat, growing in wide thickets in bogs. My mother and I would go gather them just outside the city walls. Make a wish, Kazi. With each one you pick, make a wish for tomorrow, the next day, and the next. One will always come true.
The magic of the wishes, of course, was simply in making them, fishing deep for a hidden desire, molding it into words to make it real, and tossing it into a mysterious unknown that you believed was maybe, just maybe, listening. Even at six years old, I knew wishes didn’t come true, but I made them just the same. It felt rich and wild and as indulgent and marvelous as a rare dinner of pigeon and parsnips. For a few minutes, a wish put a sword in my hand and gave me power over the grimness of our world.