How many have you killed?
Two. I try to avoid it if I can.
Now she had killed four. There was no avoiding death today. This was no ragtag group of bandits who attacked us. They’d been a team on a mission. We’d already gathered their horses and gone through their bags looking for some clue about who they were. They were suspiciously clean. Even their saddle blankets gave no clue as to where they were from.
Kazi walked over, bruises on her neck beginning to darken. The last attacker had choked her before she stabbed him. She grabbed a skin of water to take back to Samuel, who was still being cleaned up by Wren. “You should flush out your eyes again,” she said. “They’re still red.”
“I will. After this.”
She paused and looked at the bodies we were stacking. “Why would they attack empty wagons? There was nothing to steal.”
“Large empty wagons are sometimes the greater prize,” Mason answered. “They’re headed to market to buy goods, and that means they’re carrying fat purses.”
When she walked back to where Wren nursed Samuel’s wound, Tiago said what we were all thinking. “Or it was another staged attack to discredit the Ballengers.”
We made a point to look at each face as we loaded bodies to see if we recognized any league hands. Was this a chance raid by bandits, or an attack to stir fear—or was there another motive? An attack to specifically kill the Patrei and his brothers?
Whatever the motive was, we had to take the bodies and dump them in a gorge. We didn’t want other traders who might pass this way to see the bloodbath. News would spread through the arena like wildfire. Every trader there wanted to earn a profit, but like the Candoran ambassador, they valued staying alive more and didn’t want to be caught in the middle of a power war.
Mason shook his head. “Something about them is strange,” he said. “Something—”
“They’re shaven and clean,” I said. “Their clothes don’t stink. These aren’t men who’ve been lurking on the trail for a long time waiting for prey to come along. They came here for this purpose. They knew we’d be here.”
But how? And who sent them?
We moved the wagon ahead to pick up the last body—the one I had shoved off Kazi. He was facedown. Mason and Tiago grabbed him and threw him up on the wagon. I rolled him over and his head lolled to the side, his eyes still open.
The three of us recognized him.
Tiago hissed through his teeth.
“Son of a bitch,” Mason said.
It was Fertig—Jalaine’s beau.
* * *
We threw Fertig’s body into the gorge first. It disappeared into the rocky ravine. No one would ever spot it. I told Mason and Tiago not to say anything to the ot
hers, including Samuel, about what we had discovered.
As far as we knew, Fertig didn’t work with any of the leagues. He was a groom at one of the arena stables. Tiago said Fertig liked the gaming tables and had a weakness for dice. Maybe someone had taken advantage of that and paid him to keep his ear to the ground. Was that what his interest in Jalaine had been all along? She managed the arena office and was usually discreet, but there was no better source of news than her.
We pieced it together. She had bragged about the queen’s letter, and then mentioned Gunner’s message telling us to come home.
That was how Fertig and his gang knew we would be here.
Jalaine had told him.
Strangely, racing side-by-side with my rage was a sense of relief. I already knew there were conspirators, but at least now we had a clue. And one clue always unveiled more. They had a habit of leaving messy trails. Now, we had one to follow.
This time, I thought.