There was no knock at Gronnor’s Herm post. Jess Stray just pushed her way in, an angry gust of crimson and gold.
He had ordered her to come, but failing to knock was disrespectful anyway. At least she’d removed her camp shoes. Some campwife instinct too deeply ingrained to overcome.
She tugged a cushion back with her toe before kneeling on it. Then she glared at him, silent and still as stone.
A prickly heat rose through Gronnor. Though he’d steeled himself for the encounter, she’d got to him. That simple act, twitching back the cushion as though he were diseased, as though he smelled bad—got to him. But he stopped his hands from making fists, disciplined his face.
It should amuse him to see a Stray elder reduced to petty acts of defiance. But her lack of respect, her disdain for his authority, angered him instead. She was one from whom disrespect should not be tolerated, because she was respected. Her disrespect would breed contempt in others. She was one from whom disdain was unacceptable, because she understood the ways of power. Her disdain would embolden his enemies.
She understood power because she’d been born into a clan that had it. And because she could wield it herself.
Because of her clanmark.
Oh yes, Jess Stray. I sniffed that out long before Tegan guessed it. You and Ward thought you could keep some of the clan’s assets hidden. A relic or two—and you.
They couldn’t hide Petra’s clanmarks. Too many had seen them at her birth. Her mother even bragged of them. But the Strays were good at keeping secrets, and few knew of Jess’ clanmark. Her sister Genna, an unmarked adept, was her decoy. At the joining, Ward had said nothing of it.
Gronnor’s fists did clench when he remembered that. You welcomed us, made a show of offering trust, but you never fully trusted me, did you? Arrogant, condescending shits that you are. And in your hubris, you left two eggs in an undefended nest. Now who’s laughing?
But Gronnor wasn’t laughing.
Somehow, though he loomed over her, Jess Stray managed to look down on him. Arrogant, condescending, and dangerous. Anyone who could bind demons to her will was that. Fortunate for him that Ward’s profligacy had de-fanged her. Without the means to pay, calling upon demons would only anger them.
Gronnor relaxed his hands and laid them flat on his desk. His voice was hard when he spoke. “Now that Brael is dead, I hold you accountable for camp discipline.”
“A place where corpse dogs feed is no camp,” spat Jess.
Corpse dogs! Gronnor couldn’t stop the twitch in his face. She meant him and his men. Retorts flashed through his mind, none equal to the insult. Instead, he brought a fist down on his desk with a thud that scattered apricot pits. He said, in a growl like rocks grinding, “One of my watchmen drugged, a camp guard with a broken arm, weapons stolen—I should have you whipped.”
“Do what you will to me. I could not stop it if I tried.”
Gronnor scowled. Likely she was right. The guard had been beaten senseless by three masked boys. He suspected the organizers were Tegan and Ola—the one his bride-to-be, the other his lieutenant’s daughter.
“Then, I shall discipline the camp for you,” he grated. “Henceforth all meals will be tested first on Drakhorn children. The boys will do chores under guard. Any disobedience, and the youngest will be beaten. Tegan and Ola will be fettered in their tents.”
Jess Stray’s eyes widened in shock, then narrowed. “A man who hides from children behind other children is beneath the contempt of goats.”
If she hadn’t moved her cushion back, he’d have slapped her. But he kept his clenched fist on the desk. Once he’d tamed her, she’d be useful. If he killed her, or any of the Stray women, clan Stray might move against him before he was ready. Unlike the League, they might not flinch from a fight with his allies, the Flays.
For now, enough of insolence. He thrust his head forward and roared, “And for every further act of sabotage, I shall slaughter a Drakhorn and hang the carcass at the gate. Now, get out!”
Gronnor was glad to see the back of her. It was time to check on Lucan, time to become the dragonfly. Despite the winding down of the bug’s life, it tugged at him like a drug.
Lucan and his rider waited in the shadows of concealing firs. The mind of Gronnor Brok was with them. Together they stared up at the zigzag of shelves that took the ridge-top trail down the cliff face into the tip of Screams Valley. If Gronnor’s calculations were correct, Petra and her companions would soon come down that path. Better to meet them here than on the ridge-top, where one mistake could carry Lucan, or Petra, over the brink.
If his map was correct. His map—the pitiful waymap of the Broks, based in part on hearsay and worthless downlander surveys.
He was sure her waymap would show whether the knife-edged ridge that carried on to the Cloven Tower was passable. If the ridge-top trail was passable, they might eschew the valley trail. He could do nothing but wait and see.
The dragonfly’s remaining life had diminished by half since the chase began. There was little hope it would be of service to him once it returned. His plans for the bug had dwindled to the only one that really mattered: to intercept Petra before she reached the raid, or some mischance befell her.