Wren was transformed too, barely looking like the cutthroat we had seen in the alley earlier today—except for the curved sword at her side.
“No one told her she could leave it at home?” Gunner said.
My attention went back to Kazi. Disconnected words flooded my head, and I heard my father’s long-ago warning, Choose your words carefully, even the words you think, because they become seeds, and seeds become history.
There were words I had avoided even thinking ever since I met Kazi. When my mother asked about her, I only said she was resourceful—a safe, stable word. But now others flowed freely, sown recklessly in my head. I wanted them all to take root, grow, become history—part of my history. Clever, smart, ruthless, determined, brave, devious, loyal, caring. She turned, her eyes grazing the tops of heads, the breeze lifting loose strands of hair at her neck, and another word came, beautiful, and it was the only word I could think of, until another one bloomed on its heels, future, and I wondered if it was too dangerous a word to entertain. But I already felt it taking root.
More guests arrived, sweeping Kazi and her friends from our view, and Aram and Samuel took off in Wren’s direction. Mason was right—they were a little too preoccupied with someone who could likely break both of their necks in unison while smiling. I’d have to talk to them.
Last night had been the small family dinner, but tonight all the family was invited to celebrate the new Patrei, along with close friends and colleagues. The priestess, seer, and healer who had tended my father would be here too.
Beaufort had broached the idea of coming too, hanging back in the shadows, but I said no. He was getting itchy from so many years of hiding, and maybe a little cocky too, having eluded the kingdoms for so long, but he wasn’t going to get caught on my watch, at least not while he still had goods to deliver. We had too much invested at this point. He had joined us for dinners in the past, but there would be too many here tonight outside of the family—especially Kazi and her crew. He said his appearance had changed and he wasn’t likely to be recognized, but it was too much of a risk. He was still wanted by the kingdoms. We had seen the occasional warrant brought into the arena by traders and had mostly become numb to them. They named people we were unlikely to ever see, but Beaufort had been different. He had come to us with the wanted bill in hand, not trying to hide who he was. He was tired of running. He said the reason he was really wanted was because he had escaped with valuable information and he would prefer to share it with us than with people he didn’t trust.
According to him, he’d been an officer in the war between the Greater Kingdoms and there was bad blood between him and the Morrighese king. Beaufort claimed the king was corrupt and in turn, the king charged him with treason for switching sides. After the war, the kingdoms had signed new treaties, so now he was wanted by all of them. We had doubted that this was entirely true, but neither did we care about the political collusions and grudges of distant kingdoms, except as they affected Tor’s Watch. Still, my fath
er had sent a discreet message to the king’s magistrate in Parsuss regarding “a warrant floating through the arena” to check out Beaufort’s story. The magistrate had no details to offer on Beaufort and could neither confirm nor refute the charges.
It could be that we’re actually doing the kingdoms a favor—keeping him out of further trouble, my father had said, but it was mostly the promise of the fever cure that made us look the other way. And, of course, the weapons were simply a benefit that made our arrangement all the sweeter. Whatever it took to keep the family—and that included everyone in Hell’s Mouth—safe was all that mattered.
I turned toward the graveled voice. It was the seer. She was suddenly at my side, her azure eyes looking up into mine, a crooked smile twisting her lips. Her hood was pushed back, which was rare, but her wild black hair still circled her face, casting her features in shadow. She kissed my hand, and paused, looking at the ring, then shook her head sadly and crooned, “They found you, Patrei. I am sorry.”
For the first time, it occurred to me that maybe her warning that they were coming for me had been about the labor hunters and not the leagues.
“What news have you?” I asked.
“I taste new blood. They circle near.”
“It’s been taken care of. We killed those who came after me.”
Her eyes glowed with worry. “Not them,” she whispered. “Others. Guard your heart, Patrei. I see a knife hovering, ready to cut it out.”
I smiled. “Don’t worry. I’ll keep my straza near. Go, enjoy some food and drink. My mother has a seat of honor for you. Titus will show you.” I grabbed Titus by the back of his shirt, pulling him away from another conversation, telling him to get the seer a drink and help her to her seat. I wondered sometimes if her warnings were prompted by my mother’s concerns. They spoke each day at the temple, and my mother generously contributed to her keep. There were few in Hell’s Mouth who had the gift. The Vendan queen was rumored to be strong in it, and I wondered about Kazi and the way she slipped away so quietly, almost like magic. Our Ballenger histories mentioned the gift, but it seemed to have faded with the generations.
Titus left with the seer, and I strained to see through the crowd. I spotted Garvin. He stood alone, staring. I followed the line of his gaze, and it led to Kazi.
Brightmist. It’s one of the poorest quarters. Don’t let the name fool you. Nothing bright about it.
Garvin was wrong.
There was at least one bright thing about it.
We were out of place here, frauds in every way, playing roles, wearing fine dresses as if it was something we had done hundreds of times when we never had. Not even once.
Wren kept hitching her shoulder up like the whole thing was going to fall off of her, saying its flimsy construction made no sense at all, while her fingers absently made small circles on her abdomen, feeling the pink softness over and over again. Synové held a goblet out, trying to catch her own reflection, watching the yellow fabric dance in the crystal before her eyes, then she would smooth her hands over her silky curves, pressing the dress there like it might vanish. I was no different. I had always thought my vest an extravagance, but it served a purpose. Its hidden pockets held weapons and maps. The sturdy leather protected me from the weather. The dress I wore now served no purpose at all except to feel beautiful. It didn’t belong on me. I had never felt beautiful in my life. I was only the dirty street rat no one wanted to see coming.
And then there was the food.
“Do you smell that?” Synové whispered.
It was impossible not to smell. The scent of marinated roasting meats was a glorious complex tapestry hanging over our heads, swelling our cheeks and awakening our stomachs like a song. Tables overflowed with first courses of cheese, savory breads, and an abundance of food that filled us with both wonder and guilt. There were still shortages in Venda, which was what made the settlements so vital. It felt traitorous to nibble on one tiny delicacy after another.
But we played our roles. We ate. We smiled. We improvised. We were Rahtan, and we could chisel what made us uncomfortable and awkward into an ice sculpture in hell if we had to.