I thought about Jase’s question, How do you go from anguish to pulling coins out from behind ears? I had given him an angry answer, but the truth was, by shielding Nash and Lydia, it felt like I had reclaimed a small part of myself. And that was what I was doing now, reclaiming that part of me that believed I could still make some things right. It was all I had.
“Good morning, ladies!” Natiya rounded the corner, a tub of slop propped against her hip. “On my way with a present for the sow,” she said loudly, in case the groom wondered why she was here.
She sidled close, and we smiled as we chatted, but our conversation wasn’t about potato peels for the swine. We had already talked last night. I had told them about our additional fugitives and the Ballengers’ motives for harboring them—weapons, domination, and a trap for the queen. Eben was convinced that the two men I didn’t know were scholars, more traitors lured away from Morrighan by the Komizar. He said it was never known just how many had lurked in the catacombs beneath Sanctum City, unlocking the mysteries of the Ancients, or just what they had escaped with. The captain must have hooked up with his crew of cronies, hoping for a second chance at the riches that had eluded them.
We set our plans in motion, fine-tuning the details to accommodate five more prisoners.
“Don’t be late for dinner. Timing is critical,” Natiya ordered. She said she was sending Eben with the stable dinners an hour before dusk to ensure the dogs weren’t released. The family dinner had to coincide with the stable hands’ dinnertime. “We might have more time, but we can only count on a two-hour window. What about the Patrei? He’s complicit in this. Do we take him too?”
They all looked at me, waiting. They knew it was imperative that I feel right about this, and since I was lead, Natiya left it to me to call the final shots, but something nagged at me. Maybe it was Vairlyn’s eagerness to talk about menus for the queen. Had Jase deceived his mother too? Or were they all masters at deceit? Or maybe I hadn’t quite abandoned everything I believed about Jase yet—that there was a kindness deep in his core, that he wanted to do the right thing. I looked back at Natiya. Her gaze remained steady, waiting. Yes, Jase was complicit, but our mission had been to retrieve a single fugitive and now we had six, more than we could handle. “Not this time,” I answered. “We already have a full load. Trust me, Jase isn’t leaving Hell’s Mouth. This is his home—he won’t disappear. The matter of the Patrei’s guilt can be addressed later.”
“What about Jalaine?” Wren asked. “She could be a problem if she doesn’t come to dinner again.”
“I’ll talk to her,” I said. “I’ll make sure she—”
“Kazi, there you are!”
“Oh snakes, it’s the nasty one,” Synové rumbled under her breath.
Gunner walked toward us. “I’ve been looking for you.” He slowed, noting Natiya’s presence. “What are you all doing out here?”
“Morning, sir!” Natiya chirped, bobbing her head. “And it’s a beautiful one, isn’t it? Just on my way with slop for the sow. Her farrow should be here any day.” She nodded at the heap of leavings in the tub. “A little planning ahead reaps great rewards—and pudgy piglets. Good day, ladies!” She bounced happily away, and Gunner’s attention turned back to me.
“And I was just grooming Mije after a morning ride,” I said. “What can I do for you, Gunner?”
“Jase wants to see you.”
“He couldn’t come himself?”
“He’s wrapped up with something right now, but he wants to meet you by the fountain in the gardens in ten minutes. It’s important.”
By the fountain? It was more than odd, but I didn’t want to upset Gunner’s easily toppled applecart at this point with just hours left at Tor’s Watch.
“All right,” I answered. “Do you know what it’s about?”
He shrugged. “Something about the queen coming.” His poker face was pathetic. He obviously didn’t share his brother’s accomplished skill at lying.
“Sure. We’ll be there.”
“No,” he said firmly. “Just you.”
We had the timing worked out so it would look like chance. Zane was just unlocking the back gate into Cave’s End to make a delivery when I came riding down the road from the stables.
“Patrei!” he called. “Where are you off to?”
“Unexpected business that I need a quick answer for. What else is new, right?” I stopped my horse as if mulling something over. “Actually, I had a question for Garvin, but you might be able to save me a trip. It’s about Venda. You ever run wagons there?”
“Sure. But it’s been years. What’s the question?”
“In Sanctum City, they have something called the jen-der, the ja—”
“The jehendra? Yes, that’s their marketplace.”
“So you delivered goods there?”