Paxton tweaked his head slightly forward, eyeing my bruised neck. “Yes, maybe especially his.”
I pulled my hair forward to hide his view. He turned and looked up at the towers above us, shaking his head. “No doubt he’s spotted me strolling with you by now, so it’s time for me to take my leave. Just remember, I’m a Ballenger too, and not an unpleasant one most of the time. I hardly ever break wind at the table anymore.” When I didn’t smile he took my hand, at risk of losing his, and squeezed it gently. “If you’re ever in need of assistance, I’m here for you. Tread carefully, cousin. Remember, everyone is not always what they seem to be, and crossing the wrong person can get you into more trouble than you bargained for.”
Was he threatening me? “Sage advice I didn’t ask for,” I replied, “but I’ll keep that in mind—”
“Paxton?” a voice called. “I thought it was you!”
Paxton spun, his composure shaken for a moment, when a man in dusty, rumpled clothes clapped him on the shoulder. He quickly regrouped, and his worry sprang into a wide smile. “This is an unexpected pleasure!”
The man was tall, lean, his cheekbones sharp, and his attention turned to me. His dark, windblown hair swayed perilously to the side like a cresting wave, as if he had just gotten off a horse and hadn’t bothered to rake it back into place.
“And who would this delightful creature be?” he asked. “Are you forgetting your manners, Paxton?” The man grinned and his fingers tapped together like an eager child.
“Uh, yes, of course,” Paxton muttered, glancing up at the towers again. “Your Majesty, this is Kazi of Brightmist, a visiting soldier sent by the Queen of Venda.”
I stared at the man, from his lopsided mane of hair, to his smudged boots, to his foolish grin. “Your Majesty?”
“King Monte of Eislandia,” Paxton clarified.
The king clasped his hands in front of him, his brows and shoulders rising with expectation. “Do I get even a small bow?”
A buffoon just as Jase had described. A buffoon with an ego. “Yes, of course, Your Majesty.” I bowed low and deep, and when I rose his dark eyes danced with amusement. And maybe something else. Expectation? Was he hoping for just a little groveling? “Forgive me for my lapse,” I said. “I meant no disrespect. I just didn’t expect to see you here. It’s a great honor to meet you.”
His grin wavered. “Yes, I suppose it is.”
I looked at his hands. They were uncalloused and his nails were neat and manicured, not the hands of a working farmer. A silent moment passed, his gaze resting on me for an extra beat, just long enough for me to see unease behind his jolly banter. “What brings you to the arena?” I asked.
“Llama. Suri, to be precise,” he answered. “Such is the life of a farmer king—always trying to make ends meet. I hear the Candorans have some fine breeding stock to offer. If I can afford it, that is.” He chuckled and raised his shoulders again like everything was a jest. “And how are your investigations of treaty violations going?” he asked, at last making the connection between Natiya visiting him and why I was here.
“Quite well, Your Majesty.” I wasn’t about to tell him that the settlement had been moved. The less said, the better.
Paxton stared at me, his expression hungry for more information, but I left my answer short and vague.
“Is it now?” the king answered. “That’s good to hear.” He turned to Paxton, already bored with the subject. “Walk with me to the Candoran stables, will you? We’re preparing to forge more plows and farm equipment, and I have a question about your next shipment of pig iron. I have a supplier who claims he can give me a better deal.” They said their good-byes to me and I watched them walk away, straza and the king’s small contingent following close behind, but between the mass of bodies I caught sight of the king as he turned to Paxton, glancing back over his shoulder, his clownish grin gone, his eyes sharp and alert. A straza suddenly blocked my view, but when he stepped away again I saw the king fingering something in his vest pocket. Had Paxton just given him something? Or was the king about to give it to Paxton?
I took my newly acquired ring and placed it on my little finger, where it was loose, and then cut through the stalls to the other side of the arena. I circled around on the main path and walked, looking down, admiring my ring, carefully sidestepping other shoppers until I spotted smudged boots in my small line of vision and plowed headlong into their owner, nearly knocking both of us down. The king caught me in his arms as we stumbled together, my hands gripping his sides.
I looked up. “Oh, Your Majesty! I am so very sorry. What an oaf I am! I wasn’t paying attention. My ring—”
His hands lingered on my arms, pulling me a bit closer than necessary, as if I still needed to be steadied, and he smiled—not with his inane grin this time, but one that hinted at a different kind of interest. “We meet again so soon. No harm done,” he replied, suddenly gallant. “There, I see your ring. Let me.” He bent, picking it up, then blew the dust away, before placing it back in my hand.
“Thank you,” I said, smiling demurely.
Paxton’s eyes glowed with suspicion. “Watch your step,” he warned. “You might run into something more dangerous next time.”
We tear the pages out and burn another book. Miandre cries as she holds her shivering hands to the fire. She wants to go outside and gather wood instead, but Greyson won’t let her. We hear the howls. We don’t know if it is wolves, monsters, or men.
My blood still raced with exhilaration. Stealing from a king was a first for me, especially with a contingent of guards and straza standing nearby, though the prize turned out to be less exciting than what I had anticipated, merely a piece of paper with a name scribbled on it—Devereux 72—perhaps the trader who had promised a better deal on pig iron? Or maybe Paxton had slipped the king the name of his new hawker who would meet the deal? I didn’t know exactly what compelled me to go after it. Maybe it was the sly glance the king tossed over his shoulder, his eyes suddenly sharp, a hint that something more pressing was on his mind than bidding on Suri.
Or maybe it was just seeing him walk beside Paxton. Everything about Jase’s cousin was suspect—and his arrogant warning words, Tread carefully, didn’t help to instill trust.