She blinked at last, the frost splintering. Emotion rushed through me again that I couldn’t trust. “You should go.”
She didn’t move. “What’s the fever cure?” she asked.
“Another thing that never existed. Please, Kazi, I need you to leave.”
“I heard Phineas say ‘He knew it would make you listen.’ What did he mean?”
I sighed and sat back on the log. “My brother and sister that I told you about, Micah and Sylvey—” I cleared my throat. “They died from a fever. Beaufort figured it out. He found a weak spot in my family and used it to wheedle his way into our good graces. He claimed he had a cure. That was all he needed to say to make my mother invite him in. And my father.” I looked at her sharply. “Yes, we wanted the weapons too. Yes, we gave him the supplies. Yes, we looked the other way to get what we wanted. Is that what you wanted to hear? We knew he was trouble, even if we didn’t know exactly what kind.” I raked my hands through my hair, still wishing she’d leave. Instead she sat down beside me.
“No, that’s not what I wanted to hear,” she said quietly.
I leaned forward and shook my head. “Why didn’t you just tell me about Beaufort when you first came?”
“We didn’t know for sure if he was even there, and if he was there it was obvious it was with the Ballenger welcome. If I had told you, what would you have done, Jase? Be honest. Alerted him? Questioned him so he could disappear again? Denied it? Isn’t that exactly what you did when I spotted him outside Darkcottage? You claimed he was a groundsman. You lied to me and hid who he was. You saw the devastation today, and now you know their crimes even beyond that valley. These men deserve to be held accountable. I made a vow to the queen and to the gods that I would bring the captain back. I couldn’t risk losing him by telling you.”
“We were not going to use our weapons for that,” I said, motioning in the direction of the valley. “If you ever knew me at all, you know that much.”
She nodded. “It’s in the hands of the queen now.”
* * *
It was late. The camp was asleep, except for the soldiers on watch—and Kazi. I had seen her pacing, watching the other prisoners as if she entrusted their care to no one else. I made a vow to the queen and to the gods. We may have grown up differently, but there were many ways that Kazi and I were alike.
She finally rested, propping herself up against a thin, leafless tree, but still staring into the darkness.
You asked me why an open world frightens me, Jase? Because it gives me nowhere to hide.
I thought of all the stories I had told her when we were chained together in the wilderness, the stories I could tell her now to help her fall asleep. I thought of the riddle I had promised her, the one that still circled through my head. The one I could never tell her now. I rolled over so I wouldn’t have to look at her and tried to remember that I wasn’t supposed to care.
“And sometimes she likes to snip the eyelids away first so you have to look at her. It depends on her mood…”
I walked away as Synové concocted yet another punishment, describing it in gruesome detail to torture Bahr and the other prisoners. Mostly Bahr. These past weeks, she always managed to dip into a deeper well of creativity, making sure he was within earshot of her as she wondered aloud about the punishments the queen would dole out. I saw it wear on him. He no longer cursed her but listened in grim silence.
Mije and the other horses stood in the middle of Misoula Creek, drinking and cooling themselves. The sun was high and hot, the last days of summer taking a final bow. The break was a welcome respite. Even with troops to relieve us, I had rarely stepped away from the prisoners, always keeping my eye on them, wary that they would vanish before I could deliver them to the queen. The captain had a slippery history, but this wide, barren valley of sandstone and high cliffs was almost a prison in itself. He’d be going nowhere here.
I stopped at a sparkling shallow where fool’s gold glittered through the clear water, and I bent down to splash my face. The caravan was strewn out along the banks of the creek, but my attention settled on Jase. His hands were unshackled for the rest stop, and he was rinsing out his shirt. He’d gotten into another fight, this time with both Sarva and Bahr. They had said something to set him off, but he didn’t say what it was. It was Synové who broke up the fight, saying she wanted to make sure Bahr lasted long enough to face the justice he deserved.
Jase had gotten a bloody nose out of the skirmish and had used his shirt to wipe his face. As he washed it, I noticed a group of soldiers looking at his tattoo, probably wondering at its significance, but certainly not understanding the story behind it, not und
erstanding the reasons he got it when he was only fifteen, not understanding anything about the man who wore it, just as I hadn’t the first time I had seen it. I found myself wanting to tell them about the long history of Tor’s Watch, the recent settlement that Jase had helped build, the sluice, the root cellar, the small Vendan boy he taught to dig post holes. I wanted to tell them about the ongoing power wars that threatened Jase’s home, the town he kept safe, the secret enemies who battled to take it, the family who had clothed me and welcomed me to their table. Jase was more than just a prisoner they looked at with curiosity. He was a Patrei, and that symbol tattooed across his chest was a promise, centuries of promises, to protect. It was in his blood. His world was not our world.
But I had wanted it to be.
Now, with our days together coming to an end, I realized that with everything that I knew about him, there was still so much more I didn’t know—or hadn’t bothered to know. Like Sylvey. I’d heard Jase’s voice crack when he said her name.
I was going to tell you, I swear I was.
Sometimes it seemed the timing of the entire world was off, our intentions coming too soon or too late, life crowding up to blur our vision, and only later when the dust settles can we see our missteps. I could have given him that ring sooner. I could have saved him the worry. But there were questions I had wanted to avoid, just as he had wanted to avoid mine.
“Stop staring and enjoy the break while you can,” Wren said. I hadn’t heard her walk up behind me.
“Someone still with them?” I asked, craning my neck to look through soldiers and horses for Beaufort and the others. Wren knew that by “someone” I meant one of us. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust the Morrighese soldiers, but I trusted us more. We were too close now to take any chances. I’d had to choose between Zane and these men—I wasn’t about to lose them too.
“Relax. Eben and Synové are with them.”