Chapter no 12 – Kazi

Dance of Thieves

I woke to weight pinning me down. The heat of skin on mine. A hand over my mouth. “Shhh. Don’t move.” Jase’s face hovered next to mine.

I jerked but his weight pushed harder. And then I heard it. Footsteps.

The crunch of leaves. A breath.

Jase’s mouth pressed close to my ear. A bare whisper. “Don’t move no matter what.”

Leaves stirred, careless footsteps. Heavy steps that didn’t care about noise.

The sky above us was still dark, just tinged with dawn, the black silhouette of trees barely lacing an outline above us. Jase’s face was a shadow near mine, and his heart pounded against my chest.

Something large lumbered toward us, hulking, a mountain of swaying black. Each footfall trembled though me. Jase couldn’t speak now; it was too close, but I felt the strain of his muscles willing me to freeze. It went against every instinct I had. Run, Kazi, hide. But I froze beneath his weight, sweat springing between our bodies. The creature sniffed the air, saw us, and its mouth opened wide, a gaping cavern of enormous teeth, and a terrible roar split the forest. My muscles tensed but Jase held me tight, still. It drew closer, so close that its heaving breaths touched our skin, the smell noxious and suffocating, like all the furnaces of hell bellowed from within.

A warning grumble vibrated from it, its mouth tasting the air, tasting us, its tongue rolling over our skin. It huffed, as if disappointed, and turned away. We didn’t move as dawn crept over us, but when the creature’s footsteps had finally faded, Jase let out a long-held breath, and his hand slid from my mouth.

He looked down at me, our faces still close, and the moment splintered, out of step, tumbling into long, frozen seconds, his chest still beating against mine. He blinked as though he was finally oriented again, and rolled off, lying on the ground next to me.

“I didn’t mean to crush you,” he said. “There wasn’t time to wake you up. Are you all right?”

Was I? The fear was ebbing, and yet my pulse still raced. I still felt the pressure of his body on mine and the burn of his skin.

“Yes,” I said, my voice hoarse. “What was that?”

He explained it was a Candok bear and they preferred fish to people, but there was no outrunning or killing them if they perceived you as a threat. If you made no sudden moves, they would usually leave you alone.

Usually. I felt like Wren now, understanding the certainty she wanted when it came to racaa and their meat preferences—especially when I still had the memory of the bear’s hellish wet tongue sampling my face.

“We should go in case it comes back,” Jase said, getting to his feet, but in two steps he stumbled and fell, the chain jerking between us. He cursed. “I forgot about this thing.”

He got back to his feet and grabbed his shirt from the rock where he had laid it to dry the night before. I watched as he put it on, seeing the inked feathers on his skin disappear beneath the fabric, and I thought about how he had forgotten about the chain and the dead weight he was attached to, and yet he had protectively hovered over me anyway.

* * *

Over the next few days, we fell into a surprisingly easy rhythm. There was rarely silence, and for that I was grateful. He told me about other animals that lived in this region. There were several deadly ones I hadn’t yet had the pleasure to meet. He hoped we would come across a meimol mound, a sign of a meaty, tasty bird that tunneled and nested beneath the soil in this area.

He eyed the sharpened end of his walking stick, saying the bird wasn’t hard to spear.

“How do you know so much about this region?” I asked, my hand sweeping the horizon.

“It’s Ballenger territory too.”

“Way out here? This has to be more than a hundred miles from Tor’s Watch.”

“Could be.”

I grunted but said nothing else. My silence poked and stabbed between


He finally sighed and a sardonic grin pulled at his mouth. “All right,

Kazi of Brightmist, tell me, just what is your definition of a thief?”

His tone wasn’t angry. It seemed more like a genuine entreaty to understand me, and I wondered if he had been pondering it ever since I called him a thief a few days ago.

“The Vendan definition is no different than anyone else’s. You take things that don’t belong to you.”

“Such as?” “Livestock.”

“You’re talking about the shorthorn we took from the Vendans? It was payment for trespassing.”

“You weren’t entitled to even one shorthorn, but it was far more than that. It was everything. You burned their fields. Destroyed their pens. Took their supplies.”

He shook his head. “One shorthorn. That was it. The rest is Vendan embellishment.”

“I saw the damage myself.”

“Then someone else did it. Not us.”

I glanced at his profile, wondering if he was lying. A vein twitched in his neck, and he seemed absorbed by what I said. This news troubled him. Or maybe it was just me who troubled him. I didn’t let up. “What about the merchant caravans you raid?”

“Only under certain circumstances when they cross into our territory.” “You mean if they cross you?”

He stopped and faced me. “That too.” There was no apology in his expression. His easy tone was gone.

“But you have no defined borders. You aren’t even supposed to be settled in the Cam Lanteux at all. You’re breaking the law. It’s a violation of the ancient treaties. How can you lay claim to all of this?”

“Well, maybe the ancient treaties never bothered to consult us. Tor’s Watch has been here longer than any of the kingdoms—including Venda. And we do have borders, but maybe our lines are drawn differently than yours. They extend as far as it takes for us to feel secure. We’ve lived by our laws and survived by them for centuries. Venda has no right to be meddling.”

“What about your meddling? The businesses you skim in Hell’s Mouth?

Is that one of your laws too?”

The color deepened at his temples. “Hell’s Mouth was ours long before it became part of Eislandia. We built the city from rubble and ruins, and we protect everyone who lives there. No one gets a free ride.”

“Protect them from what?”

He looked down at the chain between us. “Do I really need to give you a list? Ours is a different world than yours. My family doesn’t need to explain anything to Venda.”

I was ready to argue more, to point out that Hell’s Mouth was in Eislandia and it was their jurisdiction to protect as they saw fit—not the Ballengers who extracted fear money—but I tried to remember that my primary goal wasn’t to educate him but to obtain information, and his ire was growing. Soon we’d revert to silence.

He had already told me some of the Ballenger history, but now I wondered about his family, which he had mentioned more than once. It was a driving motivation in his life, and I contemplated the prospect of meeting a whole family of thugs who possibly harbored a dangerous traitor. For what purpose would they give him refuge? It seemed everything was a transaction for the Ballengers. No free rides. What were they getting out of it?

I softened my tone, trying to redirect the conversation. I already recognized his tics, the straight, firm line of his lips, his nostrils flaring, the muscles in his neck tightening, his wide shoulders pulling back. His enormous pride and ego when it came to his family was his weakness, and I needed to understand it, because for a thief, understanding and exploiting your opponent’s shortcomings was the first rule of the game. And he was

my opponent. I needed to remind myself of that because he hadn’t turned out to be what I expected, and some part of me found him—

I wasn’t sure what the word was. Maybe the safest one was intriguing. But as he spoke of his family, they didn’t seem like a weakness at all—

maybe it was just the sheer number of them that astounded me. No one had families that large in Venda. Ever. Besides his mother, he had six brothers and three sisters. There were also aunts, uncles, and cousins. More extended family lived in the city. He told me their names, but there were far too many to remember them all, save a few. Gunner and Titus were his oldest brothers, Priya his sister was the oldest of the siblings, and Nash and Lydia, who were only six and seven, were his youngest—still too young to sit in on family meetings. The meetings were a formal affair where the whole family gathered together around a table to decide on family business. They voted on all major decisions.

“And there’s Mason too,” Jase added. “He’s another brother. Same age as me—nineteen. My parents took him in when he was only three after his parents died. We’re the only family he’s ever known. He votes too.”

“And what’s your role in this?”

“As Patrei, I make the final decision.” “You can overrule the vote of the family?”

“Yes—if I were there. But as you may have noted, I haven’t even had a full day as Patrei yet.”

“And that’s the trouble you think I’ve caused.”

His response was an affirmative silence, but then he added, “I shouldn’t have gone down that alley alone, but I only expected to encounter you, not hunters, so I waved off my straza.”


He explained they were personal guards. The whole family had them. “You have that many enemies?”

“When you have power, you have enemies,” he answered. “What about you? Do you have family?”

My throat squeezed. Since I lost my mother, I had seen family as only a liability. Even growing close to Wren and Synové seemed like a terrible risk. The world was so much safer when you only had yourself to lose.

“Yes,” I answered. “I have family. Both of my parents live in Venda.” “What are they like?”

I searched for an answer, something that would make his questions stop. “Happy. Content. And very proud of their only daughter,” I said, then steered the conversation elsewhere.

* * *

Though I was no stranger to hunger, our foraging had been scant, so I was overjoyed when we came to a creek and I spotted wish stalks growing at its banks. I was surprised that he had no knowledge of them. In Venda, they were a spring treat, growing in wide thickets in bogs. My mother and I would go gather them just outside the city walls. Make a wish, Kazi. With each one you pick, make a wish for tomorrow, the next day, and the next. One will always come true.

The magic of the wishes, of course, was simply in making them, fishing deep for a hidden desire, molding it into words to make it real, and tossing it into a mysterious unknown that you believed was maybe, just maybe, listening. Even at six years old, I knew wishes didn’t come true, but I made them just the same. It felt rich and wild and as indulgent and marvelous as a rare dinner of pigeon and parsnips. For a few minutes, a wish put a sword in my hand and gave me power over the grimness of our world.

I picked several, making silent wishes with each one. Jase looked at my handful of stalks like they were weeds. “What do they do besides grant wishes?” It was obvious that he had never skipped a meal in his life, much less a week of meals.

“You’ll see,” I answered. We sat down on the bank cooling our ankles in the creek, and I told him to chew. “Don’t eat the stalk, just swallow the juice.” I explained that the juice was not unlike nectar and just as nourishing.

“But the real magic is this,” I said and took the pulpy stalk I had chewed and split it open so it lay flat. “Give me your ankle,” I said, pointing to the chained one. He pulled it from the creek, and I slipped the flattened stalk beneath the shackle where his skin was cut. “You’ll start to feel the difference soon,” I said. “It has—” I glanced up at him and found his eyes were focused on me, not his ankle. I froze, thinking there was something he was about to say. Our gazes remained locked, and there were questions in his eyes, but not the kind I could answer. My breath stopped up in my chest.

“It’s awkward, isn’t it?” he said.

“What’s that?” I replied, my voice far too breathy. “These moments when we’re not hating each other.”

I swallowed and looked away. But it seemed there was nothing to look at and the moment only grew more uncomfortable and my jaw ached from clenching it. He was right, it was awkward. This was not something I was good at. I was good at running away, distance, disappearing. Not this. Not at being confronted with him over and over again, never having more than three feet of space between us, and I hated that I actually found him … likable. I shouldn’t have liked him at all. And I hated the other things I noticed about him too, little things that caught my attention, like the way his hair fell over his eyes when he stooped to build a fire, the interesting quirk of his right brow when he was angry, the four small freckles on his arm that would make a if a line connected them, the way the light caught the stubble on his chin. I was a connoisseur of detail, but I didn’t like the details I saw. I hated that I found him—appealing. Not just his appearance, but the confidence of his strides, the calculations in his gaze, his cockiness, his damned voice. I hated the ridiculous flip-flop my stomach did just now when I caught him looking at me. I was not Synové!

Maybe most of all, I hated that I found any kindness in him at all. I hated that I’d had to swallow a knot in my throat that first night when I realized he was trying to help me sleep, as he had every night since then. Those I had tricked and stolen from in the past had never been kind. It made it easy to turn them into fools and steal from them.

“You were saying? It has…?” he asked. I knew he was trying to give me some coherent thought to occupy myself.

“Healing qualities. It has healing qualities.” “Here, let me put this one on your ankle.”

“I can do it myself,” I said and took the chewed stalk from him, fussing over it again and again as I pressed it onto my ankle.

“I think you have it in the right position,” he said, and I finally left it alone.

We sat there for silent minutes, chewing more stalks and breaking several more in half to stuff in our pockets. He leaned over, looking at his ankle. “The sting is gone. Thank you.” His voice. There was no mistaking the kindness I heard.

I nodded and finally felt composed enough to look at him. “Thank you, too.”


“Keeping me still when the Candok came upon us,” I answered. “I might have ended up as his breakfast.”

His mouth pulled in a frown. “Nah. One bite and he’d have spit you out.

You’re not even close to being sweet enough.”

I suppressed a smile. I was much more at ease with his disparaging remarks.

He stood and put his hand out to help me up. “We should get going, Kazi of Brightmist.”

I took it and stood. “You seem to like calling me that. Why?”

“Because I’m not sure that’s your real name. You appear to have a lot of hidden sides to you—juggling, telling riddles, taking down boys and threatening to cut their pretty necks.”

I grimaced and shook my head, sizing up his neck. “It’s not so pretty.”

He rubbed his neck as if offended. “Anything else up your sleeve I should know about?”

“If I told you, it wouldn’t be fun, would it?” “Should I be concerned?”


They tricked us. Their voices were soft. Their heads bowed. They did not look dangerous. They looked like us, afraid.

Until we opened the gate.

They stabbed Razim and laughed. They left him for dead, and we couldn’t open the door to get him until they were gone.

I heard the name of one of them as they ran away. One day I will be stronger than I am now. One day I will call his name, and I will kill him.

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