“Like I said,” Jase repeated, “we need a powerful sovereign recognizing our authority. We need—”
“She won’t come,” I said flatly, cutting him off before he went any further.
Gunner leaned forward. “She will if you write a letter requesting her to come to Tor’s Watch. In fact, we’ve already written it. You just need to copy it in your hand and sign it.” He pushed a blank piece of paper toward me.
I ignored Gunner and turned to Jase. “They already believe she’s coming,” I said. “Isn’t that enough? I’m sure Gunner can weave more of his ridiculous lies when she doesn’t show.” Gunner’s lips pulled tight against his teeth, his eyes smoldering with anger.
“It would cost you nothing.” The coldness in Jase’s voice receded. His gaze penetrated mine, as if searching for a way to reach me. He knew it was a long shot. Still, among all the other things he could do, this mattered to him. It mattered to his family. Why? “What can a simple letter hurt?” he added.
It couldn’t hurt, and in some ways I sympathized with them. I hated labor hunters too, but this was about more than just turning Gunner’s lie to truth. About more than labor hunters and attacks on Hell’s Mouth. It ran deeper. The Ballenger weakness was showing, a thread pulled loose, a seam unraveling, their enormous pride exposed. They truly believed they were the first kingdom, and they wanted it recognized.
I pulled the letter closer and read it slowly. I shook my head at the audacity. “This is not how these things work.”
Titus tapped the table impatiently. “It’s the way they work here.”
“It sounds more like a veiled threat.”
“Only because you choose to read it that way,” Jase said.
“It could take weeks for this to reach her and then—”
“We have Valsprey.”
I paused, wondering how that was possible. The swift birds were from Dalbreck, trained by handlers and only gifted to the kingdoms in the last few years as a speedy form of communication between them.
“The merchants in the arena offer a surprising array of goods,” Jase explained.
Stolen goods. I wasn’t terribly surprised. Valsprey were only trained to fly between certain cities. Hell’s Mouth was not one of them. He said that the queen’s reply via another Valsprey would go to Parsuss but would be relayed back here by messenger in only a few days.
They had it all figured out. Almost.
And the almost was huge.
The queen would not come. She would never give them what they wanted—legitimacy—because they were thieves. That much the King of Eislandia had voi
ced clearly—the Ballengers collected taxes from the citizens and then kept half the proceeds for themselves before sending the rest on. They had the gall to take a cut of everything in Hell’s Mouth—even the king’s purse. Even the air that Vendans breathed. The king had told Griz that the family had a stranglehold on the northern region and he was at a loss for how to control them. Recognizing their right to rule was the furthest thing from any monarch’s mind. But a letter could buy me a few more weeks here to search their compound for a traitor, find Wren and Synové, connect with Natiya and the others, and be on our way with our prisoner—and best of all—I might be able to address another problem in the process. The queen would be more than pleased. Make a wish, Kazi. It seemed mine were coming true.
The brothers anxiously stared at me, waiting. I’d let them taste victory for a few minutes, let its claws sink in good and deep—before I snatched it away again.
I reached for the parchment and began copying it. “I’ll need to change some of the wording, and include Wren and Synové, or the queen will know I didn’t write this.”
“Small changes only,” Gunner said.
They hovered like duped merchants stepping close to watch me juggle, watching every letter fall neatly into place, their anticipation building.
Your Majesty, Queen of Venda,
I’m writing to report that our investigations have gone well, but they did reveal some surprising revelations. The Ballenger Dynasty is a vast and well-managed one, which is astonishing since it is not an easy world to rule.
There are many threats to the citizens from outsiders, but the Ballengers are experienced and have protected them for untold centuries, long before any of the kingdoms were established. Their ways may not be like ours, but in this wild and untamed territory they do what is necessary and the citizens of Hell’s Mouth are grateful to them for their leadership and the protection they provide.
We strongly request your presence here, acknowledging the work of the Ballengers and their authority to rule this region. We’re settled in at Tor’s Watch, taking in every aspect of their hospitality, and until you arrive, Wren, Synové, and I will be staying on here. We’re learning much—
I set my pen down.
“Why are you stopping?” Jase asked.
I chewed on my nail as if thinking it over. “Before I finish and sign, I do have one simple condition of my own.”