Make her come. It was my father’s last request. That’s what they were all thinking about. Him. What he wanted. What he never got.
When we had gotten word of the new treaties, my father wasn’t concerned at first—our world had nothing to do with the outside one. We didn’t care about them and what they did. We had always been isolated. But when heavily guarded settlement caravans began crossing our territory en route to other places, he took note. I told my father he needed to go to Venda and speak with the queen like every other kingdom. We are not a kingdom! he had raged. We’re a dynasty! We were here long before Venda, and we bend a knee to no one. She will come to us. And he sent a letter telling her to come to Tor’s Watch. There was no reply. It was a mistake, because now it was an insult that made him look weak. It was an insult he never forgot. Neither had the rest of my family.
Making the queen come here was as much about restored pride as making the leagues back off, but it could lead to other problems—bigger ones.
“We can’t take the queen’s guard hostage. If she came at all, it would be with an angry army behind her. Is that really what we want?”
“Not if the letter is worded carefully, commending us,” Gunner argued.
Titus snorted. “Which I’m sure he’s already written.”
“No,” I answered. “We don’t need a queen’s acknowledgment to be legitimate or to control those encroaching on our territory. There are challenges every time there’s a shift in power or a weakness is perceived. We’ll show our strength as we always have.”
“Then what do we tell people when they ask when the queen’s coming?” Priya asked.
I shook my head, blowing out a long, angry breath. “You should have kept quiet, Gunner! Why’d you have to go shoot off your mouth?”
Gunner pounded his fist on the table and stood. “Because she’s Rahtan! The town’s been buzzing about how she threw you up against a wall and brought you to your knees! They saw it with their own eyes! A Patrei on his knees with a knife at his throat! You think dismissing that as a mere misunderstanding is going to erase their doubts? And believe me, they have them! They needed something big to hold on to, and I gave it to them!”
Our angry gazes remained locked, the silence long and stifling.
Arguments around the table were not unusual. That was one of the reasons we held meetings behind closed doors, so our differences were aired in privacy, but once we walked out we were a unified front. That was one of the things that kept us strong.
“What about Beaufort?” Aram asked. “He’s made big promises. Is he ever going to cough up the goods?”
“It’s a long-term investment,” Gunner told him. “Father knew Beaufort couldn’t produce for us overnight. He’s getting close.”
“It’s been almost a year,” Priya said, “as he and his friends drink up our goodwill and wine. I don’t like it. Playing with the Ancients’ magic is like playing with fire.”
“But it will secure our position with every kingdom on the continent—not just the leagues,” I reminded her.
“And it will keep us and our interests safe,” Mason added. “Trade could triple.”
Jalaine grunted. “If he ever follows through.”
“He will,” my mother said firmly. There was more that we hoped to achieve than just security. But these were only more promises. Sometimes I thought that was all my father was trying to give her when he gave Beaufort sanctuary. Hope.
“Until then,” she went on, “we need to do something now, Jase. We can’t wait for promises to be fulfilled. The wolves have left their calling cards. Six suspicious fires in as many nights.”
“Could it be the Rahtan who were with her?” Mason asked.
I got Tiago’s hidden message loud and clear and knew when he claimed he had them in custody that they were still on the loose. The fact that two Rahtan had gone into hiding was suspicious and made speaking in front of the third one more risky. Where were they hiding and why? I didn’t like it. But my gut told me that destroying homes and businesses with fires was not a Rahtan tactic, and scaring the citizenry was definitely the wolves’ approach. “I don’t think it’s the Rahtan who did it, but we need to find them. They’re around somewhere, maybe even hunkered down at that Vendan settlement. I know enough about them already to know they wouldn’t run off too far with one of their own missing. Samuel, Aram, take a crew out to the settlement tomorrow and sniff around.”
“We already did that. We turned up nothing.”
“Do it again. The first time, they were expecting a visit. This time they won’t be. We also have to find out who paid labor hunters up front to come stir trouble.”
“Think it was Paxton?” Priya asked, her tone filled with distaste. He had always been sickeningly sweet to her, and it made her dislike him all the more. I suspected that he saw Priya and marriage as a way back into the Ballenger family—and its power.
“Could be,” I answered, not sure myself, but I knew Paxton hated labor hunters too, and I wasn’t sure even he would stoop that low.
“Or it could be a love letter from any of the leagues,” Jalaine said. “They’ve seen the arena prospering and are hungry for a bigger piece of it. I hear them grumbling when they come into the office looking for their cuts. Truko’s hawker practically ignites every time.”
I looked at Mason. “Find out. However you have to do it, whoever you have to strong-arm or bribe, find out who paid off the hunters. Concentrate on Truko and his crew. Check with Zane too—see if he’s seen any unusual activity.” Zane had a sharp eye for faces and logged all deliveries at the arena. “As for the fires, Titus, post more guards on every incoming artery—day and night—and tell the magistrates that all new faces are suspect.”
“And how do we address doubts?” Gunner asked. He wouldn’t let it go. But then he had heard the buzzing and I hadn’t. Gunner might be more impulsive than me, but he did have a good ear.
“I’ll make myself more visible this next week. The Patrei is not cowering on his knees for anyone. I’ll make a show of confidence and strength. We all will. Uncles, aunts, everyone. Tell them. Everyone walks the streets of Hell’s Mouth this week. The Ballengers still run this town and keep it safe.”