“We’re going to my father’s funeral. There will be a lot of people there. I need you to back up whatever I say.”
I said nothing.
“If I have to, I’ll throw you off the horse right here and leave you behind. Is that what you want?”
No, he wouldn’t, or he would have left me behind back at the post. He wanted me for something. I was curious enough to bite but not so much that I would serve him his wishes on a platter. And if I was too compliant, he’d grow suspicious.
“I guess you’ll have to wait and see what kind of dead weight I become.”
I felt his waves of anger at my back, and I wondered if I had overestimated my value, eyeing the rocky landscape around me. It wouldn’t be pleasant to be thrown off a horse here.
We began climbing and the horse labored under the pace, but it was clear that Jase knew precisely how fast he could push the beast. The stallion’s rest lay just ahead. When we cleared a copse of trees, the towering fortress of Tor’s Watch greeted us. Multiple jagged turrets shot into the air, like sharp black spindles piercing the sky. If it was meant to intimidate, it did its job well. On one side, the lumbering behemoth teetered near the edge of a sheer drop, and around the rest a great stone wall with more turrets meandered out of sight. It was far larger than what I had imagined—and I could only see part of it. We headed for a section of the stone wall that turned and rolled down the mountain like a black weathered ribbon. A massive portcullis opened as we approached, anticipating our arrival.
As soon as we were through the entrance, I spotted Greyson Tunnel ahead. It was an engineering marvel in itself, a half-moon cut into the side of a mountain of solid granite, wide enough for an army to march through and high enough for five tall men to stand, one atop the next. The telltale signs of age wrinkled the edges of the opening, like the deep weathered lines of an old man’s mouth. This was not the work of ordinary men. This was a creation of the Ancients. We rode far into the cavern, our horses’ hooves echoing through the stone chamber. The air was chill and smelled of age and straw, horses, and sweat. A metallic taste permeated the air. I couldn’t see how far the tunnel stretched, but it seemed endless. Somewhere, I heard the hollow ring of trickling water. The tunnel bustled with activity, wagons being loaded with goods, stable hands guiding horses, and absorbed workers hurrying down stairs that were carved in the tunnel’s sides and emerging from an opening in the curved ceiling.
I made a mental map of every foot we traveled. There were not many places to disappear in here, but there were hundreds of glorious shadows, stepping stones to places yet to be explored. Partway down, a smaller tunnel jutted off in another direction and lanterns cast an eerie yellow glow from its low ceiling. On the wall next to the entrance, like a sign announcing a pub within, was a faint circular engraving, the stone edges melting away with time. A trace of an eagle’s wing was the only thing that was still discernible. The Ballenger crest? So Jase’s story wasn’t just a story? Was this the same crest Greyson Ballenger had seen centuries ago? Still, one crest didn’t make Jase’s claim of being first any more true than seven waterfalls proved a goddess was crying over a lost lover.
A boom echoed and a pallet lowered by an elaborate pulley system jolted to the ground. My pulse thumped, like I had climbed into the belly of some dark macabre machine, its gears all turning and ticking in an orderly beat to the sound of its master’s orders—and the master was Jase Ballenger. He swung down from his horse and grabbed my waist, bringing me down with him. “This way,” he said.
He walked briskly ahead, expecting me to follow, peeling off his clothes as he walked, his belt falling to the ground, then his trousers. Dear gods, not his—
His undershorts fell by the wayside, too. He was as naked as
the gods had made him, but my glimpse was quickly cut off by servants who descended upon him. They offered him wet towels to wash the grime from his face, a fresh shirt, trousers, a jacket. He dressed as he walked, hopping on one foot as he put boots on. He was driven, as if every second lost was crucial. Servants had descended on me too, and while I gratefully took the warm wet cloths to wash my face, I drew the line at stripping naked in a busy cavern with dozens looking on. Jase must have heard my grumblings behind him, and he turned around. “Just put the dress on over your trousers. I don’t care!”
And that is exactly what I did. Both of us were still dirty with days of the wilderness clinging to our skin, but the wet towels scrubbed us up enough for appearance’s sake, and the fresh clothes did the rest. Whosever dress I had was smaller than me. The hem hung well above my ankles, and I had to roll my trousers up to my knees. The long sleeves hit me mid-forearm, and buttoning the bodice proved impossible. I got it fastened as far as my bosom.
“Breathe out,” the servant said, then tugged until it stretched tight across my breasts and the last two buttons were secure. And when do I get to breathe in again? I wondered. She was an older woman, her hair a striking shade of silver, and she seemed unruffled by the unusual activity. “Oleez,” she said, in a simple introduction, then threw some slippers to the ground for me to step into. They were tight too, but for the short term, passable. She nodded toward Jase and I turned. He was poised before another passageway, a servant shaving the stubble from his face in quick sure strokes. “That’s good enough,” Jase said, wiping his face with a towel. “Let’s go.”
We weren’t exactly transformed, our appearance still disheveled, but I supposed we presented some semblance of the picture he was trying to achieve. The passage was only wide enough for two of us to walk abreast. Jase and I led, the rumble of an army following behind us. No one spoke. I glanced sideways at Jase, and his jaw was a rigid line. We reached a door and when we stepped through it, brilliant sunlight blinded me. My hand shot up to shade my eyes, and a loud frenzy of snarling and barking erupted. My eyes adjusted to the light, and I saw two enormous black dogs charging toward me, their jaws snapping with sharp bared fangs. I gasped, and the top button of my dress popped free, plinking across the cobbles. I stepped back toward the door, but Jase’s hand was at my back, stopping me.
“Vaster itza!” Jase shouted and the beasts immediately stopped. They lowered their heads, whimpering briefly, then lay down. “They don’t know you,” Jase said, unruffled, “and you made a sudden move.”
Shading my eyes?
Besides the forbidding walls, this was one of the reasons Tor’s Watch was impenetrable. I had never had to deal with dogs in Venda. There were none. They had all been eaten.
This was not a home. It was a formidable stronghold and those who manned the turrets and gates were not just guards—they were warriors committed to taking down any trespasser who even blinked in a manner that didn’t suit them.
We stepped out into a large courtyard and continued our pace toward a guarded gate that was reinforced with metal plates—and then my breath caught—to our right, the fortress, Tor’s Watch, which I had only seen from a distance, now loomed directly over us. Jase saw me looking up, my steps faltering. He eyed the missing button of my dress.
“Are you all right?”
“Shut up,” I answered. He had no right to ask that now. But as we walked, I made another mental note: He was paying more attention to me than I thought.
We walked down a long road that traversed the mountain, and all of Hell’s Mouth was laid out below us, a sprawling, spectacular sight, the circular formation of the tembris trees more apparent from this vantage point and appearing more unearthly.
When the road switched back, we were suddenly upon our destination, a tree-shaded graveyard full of tombs, statues, and gravestones. The crowds that gathered on the green lawns saw us coming. Dear gods, what was I doing here? What possible purpose did Jase have for me? Human sacrifice? Was I to be enclosed in the tomb with his father? I knew my imagination was pushing the limits of possibilities, but he was taking a huge chance bringing me here with him. Somehow, he trusted I wouldn’t reveal that the Patrei had been taken captive in his own town by some bumbling fools. He was wrong to trust me, especially now. Whatever we had shared was behind us.
My pace slowed as we drew near and heads turned to watch our approach, but Jase’s hand was firm at my back, pushing me forward. Still, I managed to skim the faces as I always did, not just looking for one from my past, but also the one carefully described by the queen. Neither materialized. Hundreds were gathered, and they parted as we reached the outer edge, making room for Jase to pass, a human seam silently and respectfully rippling open, until finally it revealed a cluster of people standing near the entrance of a large tomb.
They stood shoulder to shoulder, stoic, proud, but two children broke from the group when they spotted Jase and ran to him, calling his name. He knelt, gathering them into his arms, hugging them tight, his face nestling against one head and then the other, soaking them in. I watched their small, pale hands curling into his jacket, holding on to the folds like they’d never let go. It looked like Jase would never let go either. I could feel the knot in his throat, the ache in his chest, and my own chest tightened. Finally, he loosened his grip and wiped the boy’s tears from his cheek with his thumb and whispered softly, “You’re all right. Go on now.” He tweaked the girl’s chin and told them both to return to the group. The boy glanced up at me, his wet lashes clumped together, his eyes the same brown as Jase’s, then turned and did as his brother ordered. The little girl followed.
His family. I knew that now. His mother. His brothers and sisters. Three I recognized from Jase’s descriptions. Gunner was tall and angular, his dark-brown hair slicked back in waves. Titus was stout and muscled, with sandy hair that curled around his ears. Mason had long black hair woven into multiple braids, and a rose-colored scar on the side of his neck left a jagged line against his dark brown skin. These were the ones I had seen walking beside Jase on the first day we met. I tried to recall the names of the rest.
Unlike the youngest siblings, the others knew Jase was not supposed to have been missing at all, so they stood, calm, waiting, at if he had just come from Tor’s Watch. But his mother’s rigid jaw said everything. I watched her breathe in what was probably the first full breath she’d had since her son disappeared. Jase left my side and went to her, embracing her, reserved, with respect, whispering something briefly in her ear. He did the same with his brothers and sisters. The emotion that had spilled out with the youngest two was kept in check by the older Ballengers—this was a respectful greeting only—presumably they had all just seen him hours earlier, and the crowds surrounding them watched everything.
One of his sisters peered at me and my dress, and I guessed that it most likely belonged to her. She looked younger than me and several inches shorter. Check Jalaine’s room, I think Jase had said. I stood in the middle of the open seam, distant from Jase and everyone else, awkwardly alone and wondering what I should do. When Jase hugged his last brother, he turned to the priest who was waiting at the end for him. They spoke a few quiet words, and then the priest, adorned in flowing red robes trimmed in gold, turned to the crowd and said he would prepare the tomb with blessings before the viewing procession would begin. He went into the tomb and the family and crowd seemed to relax, Jase’s back still to me as he spoke to his mother. Other quiet conversations started up again, but then a man stepped out into the open seam.