Chapter no 14 – Jase

Dance of Thieves

She had an intense curiosity, and I was happy to feed it with stories about Tor’s Watch, but when it came to her own life her words became reserved and calculated. Being chained to someone hour after hour, day after day, gives every pause a hidden weight. I dwelled on the details she wouldn’t share.

What had her life been like in Venda? Or maybe, more precisely, what had they done to her? She was not the result of happy, content parents. It was like she’d been held prisoner in a cellar her whole life. She flinched at sun and an open sky. As soon as we hit the Heethe plateau, she kept her eyes straight ahead on some distant point, her focus like steel, her shoulders rigid, like she carried a heavy pack on her back. When I pointed out an eagle soaring above us, she barely gave it a glance.

I turned the conversation back to something that she seemed confident about—being a soldier. She told me about the various weapons that were forged for the Rahtan, the knives, ziethes, swords, rope darts, crossbows, and more. The fortress Keep assessed what best suited their strengths. Her sword and knives were presented to her by the queen when she became Rahtan.

“Have you ever used them?”

She raised a brow. “You mean, have I ever killed anyone? Yes. Only two so far. I try to avoid it if I can.”

If I can. She said it so casually, unruffled, the same girl who I had to coax riddles from each night so she could sleep under an open sky.

“Who did you kill?” I asked.

“Raiders,” she answered. A frown pulled at the corner of her mouth as if she was still disgusted by the encounter. “We were rear guard on a supply train. They didn’t see us hanging back. That was the point. But we saw them. What about you? Have you ever killed anyone?”

I nodded. Far more than three, but I didn’t tell her how many and I was glad she didn’t ask.

More than once, she caught me studying her. I tried to focus on the landscape, but my eyes drifted back to her again and again. She fascinated me, her contradictions, her secrets, and the girl that sometimes surfaced from beneath her tough soldier exterior, like when she spotted the wish stalks on the bank. The girl who forgot who I was and pressed a wish stalk to my ankle. In another world, another circumstance, I think we might have been friends. Or more.

I knew that I spent more time wondering about her than I should.

I scanned the foothills ahead, trying to concentrate. Trying to push my mind back to where it should be. I had ridden this way before but had never walked it all on foot—especially not barefoot, chained, and half starved. It was hard to judge distances. How much farther was it? Was there any chance of getting back before they sealed the tomb? What was going through all of their minds? Where the hell is Jase? No doubt search parties had been sent out, but no body had been found. I was certain that the Rahtan with Kazi were in my brothers’ custody by now, being interrogated. Mason could squeeze information out of anyone, but even Kazi’s companions wouldn’t have any hunch about what had happened to us. They couldn’t have known about the labor hunters any more than Kazi and I had.

Her comment, I saw the damage myself, kept resurfacing in my mind, the burning of the fields and the theft of all the settlers’ livestock. We had meant to scare them off. They had to leave. Our visit hadn’t been pleasant. The short horn had been a warning, a chance for them to gather up their things and move on, but that was all we took. Who took the rest?

Gunner was impulsive, his temper quicker than mine, and the days of standing vigil at our father’s bedside had left all of our emotions ready to snap. Gunner had always voiced his objections about the settlers more

loudly than any of us—but I was sure he wouldn’t go off on a rampage without my approval, even if at that time I hadn’t officially been Patrei yet. He deferred to me in these matters. But if not him, who? Were the settlers or Kazi lying?

That was another reason my father gave for naming me Patrei. I was usually good at spotting lies, better than my brothers. But being able to discern lies didn’t necessarily reveal the truth. That took more digging— and I wanted to know what her truths were.


I wanted to know a lot more about her, and that was only asking for trouble. I needed her and the other Vendans out of my life sooner rather than later. Hopefully, we wouldn’t be chained much longer.

I glanced at her, tireless, her dark lashes casting a determined shadow beneath her eyes, her warm skin glistening, my gaze lingering far too long.

Maybe some trouble was impossible to avoid.

* * *

“What’s this?” I heard the trepidation in her voice as if she already sensed what was hidden in the half-mile-wide river of blinding sand.

We had crested a knoll, and I had misjudged when we would reach it. It was midday and the sands would be scorching and we were bootless.

“Sand,” I answered.

“That is not sand,” she said.

Not entirely. The bones were visible, small, broken, and mostly human. Dull, pitted teeth, the occasional whole vertebrae resting on top like a white lily on a shining alabaster pond. “It’s called Bone Channel,” I said. “They say the sand streams from a city that was destroyed in the flash of the first star. We can’t cross it barefoot in the heat of day.”

Shimmers of heat rippled upward. Kazi stared at it like she could see the ghosts entombed in the sand trying to claw their way to shore. Her attention rose to the distant foothills on the other side and the ruins that topped them

—our first potential shelter—but a burning graveyard lay between us.

“Our shirts,” she said. “We can wrap them around our feet.” She began unbuttoning her shirt. “Take yours off too. We’ll need them both.”

“We can wait until night—”

“No,” she said. “I’m not sleeping out here in the middle of nothing when there are ruins in sight.”

She took off her shirt and ripped it in half. She had a thin chemise on beneath it, and I was both hoping she would and wouldn’t remove it too. Devil’s hell, get hold of yourself Jase.

“Your shirt,” she reminded me.

I wasn’t eager to rip it in half, but I didn’t want to wait until nightfall for the sands to cool either, and with the heat of summer we didn’t really need the shirts for warmth.

We wrapped our feet with several layers of fabric, tying them securely. We stepped out, the sand still feeling like a furnace beneath us, but the fabric did the job, keeping our feet from blistering.

It was harder to walk with the knotted fabric pulling at our ankles, but we synchronized our steps. I tried to make conversation, thinking of other legends to tell her, but I was distracted. It wasn’t that I had never seen a bare-shouldered woman before, or one so scantily clad, but somehow this felt different. She’s a soldier, I reminded myself. Rahtan. One who held a knife to my throat and was prepared to use it. It didn’t help. Halfway across I said, “Tell me a riddle.”

She looked at me, surprised. “Now?” I nodded.

She thought for a moment, her hand gliding over her abdomen, then said,

“The less I have, the more I grow, I swirl and twirl and make a show.

You can’t ignore me, though hard you try, I growl, and scream, and wail, and cry.

I roost in darkness, but my bite is seen, In rib and cheek, and wrist so lean.

With fierce teeth, and sharper claw, None can escape my ruthless maw,

But a strutting hen can strike me down, With its pretty legs in feathered gown.”

My stomach told me the answer to this one. Talk of chicken legs made the beast curled in my gut lift its sorry head. “Tonight,” I said. “I promise, the beast will be fed.”

She didn’t seem to hear my reply. Her right brow lifted, her gaze turned puzzled. She looked past me over my shoulder. “What is … that?”

I turned. In the distance, stark against a clear blue sky, a single cloud exploded upward. It wasn’t just any cloud. I had seen this kind before, but only when I was on safe high ground. It was a fat, bulging arm radiating miles into the sky, its muscles flayed open, purple and full, like a rampaging monster.

“Run,” I said.


“We’re in a wash. Run!

She trusted the urgency in my voice and ran, but we were still a long way from the other side. Silver fingers of water began shining in the distance, crawling toward us. “Faster!” I yelled.

Our steps pounded the sand and the fabric on her feet began unraveling, flapping loose at her ankles, but there wasn’t time to fix it. In seconds, we saw the frothing wall of water coming toward us, a deadly churning wave. She kicked the fabric loose. “Keep going,” she yelled, but I saw the agony in her face as she ran across the scorching sand. I scooped her into my arms and doubled my pace, my heart thudding in my chest, the wall getting closer, its roar like an animal bearing down, the trickling silver fingers already clawing at my ankles.

We made it to the other side, but the water was rising, already to my knees, and we still had to make it up the steep bank. I set her down, water now up to our waists, sucking to pull us into the current. The soft soil slipped beneath our feet, rain now pouring over our heads too. But we climbed, clawed, the water rising with us, both of us stabbing our walking sticks into the ground, stumbling, falling below the water, grabbing each other’s hands, and we finally made it to the crest, stumbling and pulling ourselves over the top of the embankment just before the wall roared past us. We collapsed, lying on our backs, gasping for air, rain pounding the ground around us, and then she chuckled. The chuckle turned to a string of long breathless laughs, and I laughed along with her. It was relieved,

feverish laughter, like we had just slayed a monster that already had us in its jaws.

And then our laughter subsided, both of us spent from our dash across the channel, and the only sound was the slap of the rain. The heat of the wet soil steamed up around us, and I turned my head to look at her. Her eyes were closed, strings of hair clinging to her cheek, drops of water collecting in the hollow at her throat, a small vein pulsing in her neck.

I sat up and reached for one of her feet to look at the sole. She flinched at first, but then let me touch it. I gently brushed my thumb over the skin. There were already blisters forming. I reached in my pocket and pulled out a wish stalk. I chewed it, then pressed it to her foot.

“Does that help?” I asked.

She blinked, her eyes avoiding mine, her chest rising in an uneven breath, then finally she answered, “Yes.”

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