“Gunner,” Jase said, stopping his brother mid-sentence with a sharp glance. I saw how quickly Jase could be two different people, the brother and the Patrei. That was the strain I had seen in his face earlier, the weight of it pressing on him.
His focus turned and I watched him eyeing Lydia and Nash, choosing his next words carefully. He stood and walked to the sideboard. He grabbed two mugs and set them in front of Nash and Lydia, then emptied their bowls of soup into them as he explained. “One of the crew we encountered today was a friend of Jalaine’s.”
Priya’s mouth fell open. Titus sat forward in his seat. Vairlyn’s lips pressed tight. Everyone but Nash and Lydia knew that the “crew” we encountered were dead at the bottom of a gully now.
“Who was it?” Aram asked.
Jase sighed. “Fertig.”
A hush fell at the same time Lydia shouted, “I know Fertig! He’s Jalaine’s beau.”
She and Nash began happily slurping their soup from the mugs.
Jase walked around the table, returning to his seat. “There’s more. Jalaine had mentioned Gunner’s message to Fertig—the one calling us home. That’s how he knew where to find us.”
Vairlyn leaned forward, her fingers pressing on her forehead.
“Fertig?” Priya said, as if she still couldn’t quite believe it.
“Why didn’t you say something when we were out there?” Samuel asked.
“I wanted to get information from Jalaine first.”
“Which one was he?” I asked.
Jase eyed my neck, my question answered.
Fertig was the one who had choked me—the one I had killed.
Today was every hell my father had ever described. I stumbled from one fire to the next. A raid. A betrayal. Kazi pinned beneath the body of a raider, soaked in a pool of blood. The memory punched me again and again. And I still had more business to address.
There will be times you won’t sleep, Jase.
Times you won’t eat.
Times you’ll have a hundred decisions to make and not enough time to make just one. Times a choice will make you feel like your flesh is being peeled from your bones. Times you’ll be hated for the decisions you’ve made. Times you will hate yourself.
You’ll be torn a hundred ways. You’ll doubt your decisions and whom you trust, but above it all, you must always remember that you have a family, a history, and a town to protect. It is both your legacy and your duty. If the job of Patrei were easy, I would have given it to someone else.
Now I understood my father’s anguish as he lay on his deathbed passing his duties on to me. It was as much a burden as it was an honor.
I burst into Cave’s End, and Beaufort jumped up from the divan to welcome me, a full goblet in one hand and a bottle in the other.
“What the hell did you think you were doing?” I said.
“Well, this wasn’t the greeting I expected. Especially not when—”
“We had an agreement that you’d stay out of sight. One of the Rahtan soldiers staying with us spotted you going into Darkcottage. I had to make up a story about you being a groundsman.”
Beaufort sneered. “Why are they still here? I feel like a caged animal! I thought I told you to get rid of them!”
I looked at him. Looked through an arched doorway at the rest of them sprawled around the “cage” as he called it, stocked with fine wines, tobaccos, ridiculous amounts of imported Gitos olives and Gastineux fish eggs, and he was giving the Patrei orders now? I already saw myself throwing the whole lot of them out the gates of Tor’s Watch in the middle of the night, weapons be damned.
He realized his mistake. “Patrei, Patrei, I’m forgetting myself. Forgive me. Come in. Can I pour you a drink?”