After a day and a half of hard riding, we reached the location of Leif’s disappearance. A few hours of daylight remained.
Janco dismounted and examined the ground. Ari and I allowed him to do his tracking mojo while we walked the horses. They had set the brutal pace. Patches of sweat stained their coats. Their nostrils flared as they caught their breaths. Once their breathing smoothed, we watered and fed them. By this time, Janco had finished his investigation. He stood in the middle of a number of scuff marks on the right side of the road, scowling.
“What did you discover?” Ari asked him.
“It wasn’t a typical ambush.” Janco pointed to clumps of grass and dirt between two trees. “Somebody went to considerable trouble to stage an accident. They overturned a wagon and made it appear as if it was stuck.” He strode closer and crouched down. “And here’s evidence of a freaked-out horse.” Janco straightened. “They knew their mark.”
“Janco,” Ari warned.
“I’m trying to be dispassionate. Leif’s my friend, too.”
I concentrated on the information and ignored my emotions, which threatened to let that voice of doom speak. “Why do you think it was set specifically for Leif?”
“`Cause of the elaborate setup. Being a Sandseed horse, Rusalka would have alerted him of people hiding in the woods.”
“Unless they were waiting downwind,” Ari added.
“Not this time of year. The prevailing wind direction is from the west.”
Ari and I exchanged a glance. Impressive.
Janco huffed. “Ya know, it’s not all…tracker mojo. There’s a lot that goes into it. And there’s some good news.”
My heart jumped. “You know where he is?”
“I wish. They headed west, but the road’s surface is too hard packed and well traveled to distinguish their tracks from all the others.”
“The good news,” Ari prompted.
“There’s no blood.”
“That makes sense if he was taken by the Cartel. They wouldn’t want to harm him until he refused to join them.” And my stubborn brother would probably never agree to work for them. Which meant we had a limited amount of time to find and rescue him before The Mosquito bit.
“Another thing about the setup is they knew Leif would be on this road at a particular time,” Janco said. “Who else knew his location, other than Master Irys?”
“Bain and the Councilors, who might have informed their aides,” I said. Plus all the people who bribed the aides for intel. In other words, too many.
“Janco said they continued west. We didn’t pass them on the road, or else Rusalka would have smelled Leif. Is there another road that branches off this one?” Ari asked.
I considered. “There’s a shortcut about a day west of here that leads to the main southern road. That route follows the western edge of the Avibian Plains, but they could have veered off into Stormdance or Greenblade lands. And they have a three-day head start.” Frustration welled.
“That’s also the way to the Jewelrose lands,” Ari said.
“If Bruns Jewelrose is dumb enough to amass his magician army in his own backyard,” Janco added. “I doubt he’s that stupid.”
“What’s our next move?” Ari asked.
Guessing would get us nowhere; we needed reliable information. I stifled a groan. My earlier mistake—the one that had led to us sitting in a cell wasting time for five days—returned for another kick of recriminations. “Fisk.”
“But if he knows where Leif and the others are, why doesn’t he tell the Council?” Ari asked.
“For the same reason we don’t trust the Council,” Janco said.
“And the reason is?”
“They’re ineffective idiots!”
“He probably doesn’t have any proof,” I said. “These are wealthy businesspeople who have a great deal of influence and power. Fisk has probably cobbled together bits of information from his sources and determined what’s going on.” At least I fervently hoped so. “We need to talk to him. Let’s go.” I stepped toward Kiki, who grazed nearby.
Ari grabbed my shoulder, halting me. “No.”
“We haven’t slept in over a day.”
“We’ve been resting for five days.”
“A few hours is all we need.”
“Leif’s clever. He’ll play along, knowing we’ll come rescue him. But you won’t be able to help your brother if you’re exhausted.”
I peered at him. He’d gone from using we to you, meaning me. “Let me guess, Valek—”
“Doesn’t have to order us to protect you. You are family. That goes beyond orders.”