Chapter no 16 – Kazi

Dance of Thieves

I had always heard the ghosts.

Death was no stranger in Venda. He had walked the streets boldly, rubbing his bony elbows against passersby whose cheeks were as gaunt as his own, his wide grin spotting you from afar, whispering, You, you are next. And I would whisper back, Not yet, not today. Everyone in Venda was always just a season away from death, including me, depending on which way death turned, and his frozen grin had long ceased to frighten me.

So when I saw the ghosts in Bone Channel, their bony fingers reaching out, pawing my feet, their rattled voices warning, Turn back, do not pass this way, I ignored them.

Do not pass this way.

But we did.

And now we couldn’t turn back. We had fallen through a hole and come out on the other side in a different world, a temporary world that was upside-down, where everything sounded, felt, and tasted different, and every fleeting flavor of it was dangerously sweet.

Jase leaned close, lifting my chin, his lips meeting mine—the best of it, that’s what we told ourselves, over and over again as one day rolled into the next; we were only making the best of it. It was a story, a riddle, a wish stalk that we wove into every kiss, a sweet powdered sugar that would melt and disappear on the end of our tongues, but for now it was real enough. What was the harm? We were surviving.

But as the miles we walked added up, our steps whispered a different message, each one bringing us closer to the world we had left. Heaviness would crouch in my gut, a hidden animal that wasn’t fooled, no matter the stories we told ourselves. He might be one kind of person out here, but back there, he was the enemy, the lawless head of a lawless family—a family that possibly harbored a murderous war criminal who was a threat to the entire continent, and if they did, he and his family would pay. Here, I might be a girl who had helped him escape from hunters, helped heal his wounds, the girl who loved listening to his stories, but there, in the real world, I was entrusted with a job by the Queen of Venda. I was as loyal to her as he was to his family, and I would betray him when the time came. I would bring his family and dynasty to their knees. His world was about to end.

The best of it.

We were only making the best of it. For now.

It was our story. It didn’t have to have a happy beginning or a happy ending, but the middle was a feast at a banquet, a rich soapy bath, a night’s rest at an inn and a full stomach, a warm chest nestled up against my back, the soft heat of lips at my nape, stories whispered in my ear.

We stopped midmorning to drink at a spring, then rested in the shade of an alder. Foliage was growing thicker now, the plains behind us, the foothills steeper, the mountains topped with forests looming just behind them. I lay on my back and he hovered next to me, propped on one elbow. His finger traced a line along my jaw. He didn’t ask anymore what had been done to me. Now it seemed he only wanted to erase it, wash it from my memory, and for now, I let him.

“Kazi,” he whispered against my cheek. And then his lips slid down my neck, and I forgot once again about the world we were heading into and thought only about this one.

* * *

Another night closed in, a midnight blanket of clouds covering the stars, making our words safer. The darkness mercifully swallowed what might be seen in our eyes.

What is this, Kazi?

I knew what he meant. This. What was this between us? Just what game were we playing?

I had wondered too. Because now our kisses were filled with pauses, our gazes filled with more questions instead of fewer.

I don’t know, Jase.

What do you feel?

Your lips, your hands, your heartbeat. No, Kazi, in here, what do you feel in here?

His finger stroked a line down the center of my chest. I felt an ache pressing within. A need I couldn’t name.

I don’t know.

I didn’t want to know.

Let me taste your mouth, I whispered. Don’t make me think.

* * *

I screamed with joy when we came upon a deep pool to bathe in. We rushed toward it, stumbling, squealing, jumping into the cool crystal water. When I surfaced, he splashed me and an all-out war began, the pool erupting with a maelstrom of blinding water and laughter, until he finally grabbed my wrists so I couldn’t move. Calm returned, but not to his eyes. They churned with a different kind of storm. I looked at his face, water dripping from his hair and chin, his lashes clumped together with wetness.

“I like you, Jase Ballenger,” I said softly. “I think if you weren’t a thief, we might be friends.”

“And if you didn’t whisk out knives and threaten to cut pretty necks, I think we might be friends too.”

I wrinkled my nose. “Oh, how obsessed you are with your pretty neck.”

His hands tightened on my wrists. He pulled me close, his teeth nipping at my neck and between kisses, he whispered, “It is not my neck I am obsessed with, Kazi of Brightmist.”

* * *

A cooling breeze lifted my hair, the scent of pine wafting through it, high grass swaying around our knees. We had left early, the screech of a racaa startling us both awake. It flew low, its shadow nearly touching both sides

of the valley. Jase confirmed that their primary diet was antelope, occasionally snatching foals or sheep, but he assured me he had never heard of them taking humans. “At least not more than once or twice. It’s never worried me, though. I hear they favor black-haired beauties—with their sour, tough meat and all.”

I jabbed him with my elbow. “Where I go, you go, so you better hope it finds a nice juicy antelope today.”

By midmorning, the breeze was gone, the sun relentless, and the still air seemed to hold a foreboding hum. Maybe it was just our footsteps swishing through the grass or the endless rattle of the chain dragging between us. Maybe it sounded like a timepiece ticking off our steps.

“Let’s take a break,” I said, and we headed for a stand of birch and lay beneath the shade on a thick bed of summer grass. But even without the rattle of the chain and the swish of our footsteps, I still heard a persistent hum and tick in the stillness of the air. It vibrated through my bones like a quiet warning. “Tell me a story, Jase,” I said. “Something else about your family history.” Anything to block the hum and the tick.

He told me the story of Miandre. She was the first mother of all Ballengers. She came to Tor’s Watch with Greyson as part of the surviving Remnant when she was thirteen. She was only a child herself but was forced to lead along with Greyson because the others were even younger. Like Greyson, she had watched her last living relative murdered by scavengers, so they had a common goal to create a haven where no scavenger could hurt them again. Stone by stone, the fortress they founded grew over the centuries, but they were the beginning of Tor’s Watch. “We were the first country, or as you Vendans would call it, the first kingdom.” I heard the pride in his voice. Even his eyes danced with light as he spoke.

The lines of Morrighese, Vendan, and Dalbretch history had blurred and overlapped each other long ago, but it was well recognized by all the kingdoms that Morrighan was the first to be established, not a rocky out-of-the-way fortress no one had heard of until recently. And from Morrighan the other kingdoms were born. Even Venda had been only a wild territory with no official name until the first borders were drawn. Tor’s Watch was small and isolated. It was little surprise that Jase knew nothing of the history of the entire continent. I only learned most of it myself after I went to live at the Sanctum.

“And all of this is written in the books you told me about?”

“Yes,” he said confidently. “Every word. It was Commander Ballenger’s last order to his grandson, to write it all down, and Greyson did, along with the surviving Remnant, but it was mostly he and Miandre who recorded what had happened. It wasn’t until almost a decade later that the two of them married, and the Ballenger line began. They had eight children together.”

Babies. The Ballenger women seemed to be quite fertile.

I had been careful not to cross that unwanted line that might bind Jase and me together forever—out here there was no protection for that. I wasn’t going to risk creating a child, not when this world we were living in would disappear in only a day or two when we fell back into the other one, and soon I would return to Venda. Jase didn’t push me, as if he didn’t want to cross that line either. We might be deluding ourselves for now, but he was as driven as I was and his connection to home was strong. It showed in his face and his determined pace. Even our rests he kept short, only breaking when we came to a spring, stream, or shade.

“Did it hurt?” I asked, my hand skimming the feathers tattooed across his shoulder and chest.

“Like hell. I was fifteen and too stupid to know how much it would hurt. But I was eager to get it a year early. My brothers didn’t get theirs until they were sixteen.”

“Why did you want it early?”

He shrugged. “To prove myself, I guess. It seemed important at the time. My younger brother and sister had died unexpectedly from an illness, we’d just gotten word about the new treaties that were already over a year old that no one had bothered to tell us about, and then there had been an attack on one of our farmsteads. They destroyed everything and killed two of our hands and my cousin. Our world seemed to be falling apart. I guess getting the tattoo was my way of trying to prove it wasn’t. It was something permanent that said our family and legacy would survive. My father tried to warn me, but I was stubborn and insisted. I wailed like a baby when I got it

—and that was just with the first feather.”

“You? Stubborn? I never would have guessed.”

He grinned, and I watched a dreamy memory float through his eyes. “Yeah, my father smiled the whole time I was getting it done. He reminded

me, Be careful what you ask for, and he made sure the tattoo was nice and big. I had to go back for three more sessions after that to finish it up. Those were even harder, but I survived. When it was done, my father made me come to dinner without a shirt for a week to show it off. He was proud. I think that was when I knew I would be the next Patrei. I just didn’t think it would happen so soon.”

His expression turned sober, and I wasn’t sure if it was because he was remembering the duties that awaited him or remembering that his father was dead.

I gently dragged my fingernail over his skin, outlining the jagged edge of feathers, trying to bring him back from that other world, at least for a few minutes. His eyes gleamed once again, and a flurry of birds flew through my stomach like they did every time he stared at me so intently. I wondered how I had not seen how beautiful his eyes were the first time we met. But then I knew—it was his kindness that had broken me, that first night when he asked for a riddle. He had perceived a weakness in me that he tried to help me overcome by bringing out my strength. Before that kindness, the color of his eyes hadn’t mattered.

He looked down at me, our pauses becoming more reckless, the questions lurking behind them doubling.

“What?” I finally said as he continued to study me, like all the world’s mysteries were hidden behind my eyes.

“I have a riddle for you this time,” he said. “You?” I laughed.

“Don’t be such a skeptic. I’m a fast learner when I’m motivated.”

Wish stalks, stories, riddles—for now it was enough. “All right, then, Jase Ballenger, go ahead.”

“What is as bright as the sun, As sweet as nectar,

As silky as the night sky,

And as irresistible as a cold, tall ale?”

“Hmm. Bright, sweet, silky, and irresistible? I give up.” “Your hair woven through my fingers.”

I laughed. “That’s a terrible riddle. It makes no sense.”

He smiled. “Does it have to?”

He brushed a strand of my hair across his cheek, his face drawing closer, and his lips hovered, lingering at my hairline. I closed my eyes, breathing in his touch, needles of heat skimming beneath my skin, and then as slow as syrup his lips traveled over my brow, grazed my lashes, down my cheek, drawing a line all the way to my mouth, and there his lips rested gently, our breaths mingling featherlight, a searching, wondering ache between them— How much longer?—both of us memorizing this moment as if we feared it disappearing, until finally his lips pressed harder, hungry on mine.

It was a wild indulgent slope we had cascaded down, and I didn’t care. For once in my life, I didn’t care about tomorrow. I didn’t care if I starved or died. I feasted on the now, and I didn’t let myself think about who he was or who I was, only who we were right now in this moment and how he made me feel on this patch of earth, in this patch of shade. In this strange upside-down world, ignoring tomorrow seemed as natural and expected as breathing.

What is this, Jase? What is this?

But it was a question I didn’t really want answered.

Our lips finally parted, and he rolled onto his back. He blew out a long slow breath. “Time to go,” he said. “I’ll think of a better riddle next time.” He stood and helped me up. We got our last drinks at the stream, and he studied the path ahead. I perceived a shift in him already, counting the steps to home. The settlement was closer than I thought.

Next time.

There would be no more next times. This brief story we had created was ending. I felt it in the glint of the sun, the curl of the wind, the voices of ghosts still calling, Turn back. I saw it in the change of his focus. That other world, the one that held who we really were, was calling him, already whittling a hole into this one, our pasts echoing through it. Its voice was strong and I heard its call too.

* * *

The mountains on either side stepped closer, the wide valley narrowing, funneling us in the crook of its arm. I watched the way he scanned the shrinking horizon, the way he tensed as we crested every knoll, always

walking a step ahead of me. My fingers danced up the knots of his spine, and his chest expanded in a deep breath. He looked sideways at me, his expression dark.

I had interrupted his thoughts.

“My father is being entombed today,” he said. The final good-bye.

I wondered how quickly his father passed, if there were things Jase didn’t get a chance to say to him. We can never know the exact moment when someone will leave our lives forever. How many times had I bargained with the gods for one more day, one hour, just one minute. Was that too much to ask? One minute to say the unsaid things that were still trapped inside me. Or maybe I only wanted one more minute to say a real good-bye.

“Is there more you wished you could have asked him?”

He nodded. “But I didn’t know what all my questions were until it was too late.”

“How did he die, Jase?” I wondered if he would trust me enough to tell me now, instead of skirting the question like he had the last time.

“His heart,” he answered, but it sounded more like a question, like he was still not quite believing it himself, or maybe this was the first time he could say it aloud. “It was unexpected. It seized in his chest, making him fall from his horse, and within a few days he was gone. There was nothing the healers could do.” He stopped walking. “I’ve told you about my family, and you’ve told me nothing about yours. Can you at least be honest with me about this? How did your parents die, Kazi?”

The words that had been teetering on my tongue vanished. I hadn’t expected this. “I never said they died.”

“You’ve talked about Berdi and her stew, nameless people you trained with, and others you’ve met in distant cities, but you never mention your parents. They’re either monsters or they’re dead. I can see the scars, Kazi. You’re not fooling me.”

Be honest? I could barely be honest with myself, but after his confession, what I held back seemed like a mountain, all the larger and darker for its secrecy. I could only create a larger mountain to hold back the truth.

“Not every family is like yours, Jase. I don’t see mine as often as you see yours. My parents are very important people. My father is the governor of a northern province, and my mother’s a general in the army. They’re always away. I rarely see them.”

He was silent for a long while as if mulling over my answer, then asked, “If they weren’t around, who raised you?”

The streets, hunger, fear, revenge, the merchants and quarterlords who chased me away. Desperation. A lonely world in the middle of a bustling city—a world he couldn’t begin to understand.

“Friends,” I answered. “Friends helped raise me.”

* * *

We were the poorest of the poor. My mother was beautiful but so very young. Too young to have me, but she did, and she loved me. We were rarely apart. Whatever she did to earn a few mouthfuls of food, I was there too. She stitched garments, washed clothes, wove tethers for amulets, and sometimes at the jehendra she sold the useless fragments of the Ancients that she dug up in the ruins. Many Vendans thought they could ward off angry spirits.

We had a silent language between us, street language, signals that helped my mother and me survive. The subtle flick of fingers. A hand held at the side, rigid. A fist against a thigh. A finger on the cheekbone. Run. Don’t move. Say nothing. Disappear. I will return. Smile. Because in a taut moment, some things were too dangerous to say with words.

It was the middle of the night when he came. I was awakened suddenly when I felt a finger pressed to my lips, Shhh, Kazi, don’t say a word, and she slowly pushed me to the floor between our bed and the wall to hide me. From beneath the bed, I saw yellow flickering light dancing across walls as he approached. We had no other way out, no weapons, but she had a heavy wooden stick in the corner. She didn’t reach it in time. He lunged out of the darkness, grabbing her from behind.

“I have nothing,” she immediately told him. “Not even food. Please don’t hurt me.”

“I’m not here for food,” he said as his eyes scoured the small hovel we called home, a cramped space in an abandoned ruin. “Someone’s had his

eye out for a girl like you. You’ll bring a nice profit.” The moving light from his lantern made the planes of his face jump like he wore a distorted, hideous mask. Cheekbones, chin, a shining forehead, looming close then far, twisting like a monster as I cowered in terror beneath the bed. “Where is the brat you were with today?”

That’s when I knew I had seen him before, a Previzi driver, unloading his wagon of goods at the jehendra as merchants gathered around to admire the exotic wares. He walked by the stall later where my mother made amulets. He paused and studied us both but didn’t buy anything. The Previzi never did. Vendan goods were beneath them, and they had no fear of the gods or spirits. They didn’t need amulets.

“Come out, girl!” he yelled, lifting his lantern trying to see into the corners of the ruins that were our home. He shook my mother. “Where is she?”

My mother’s eyes were frantic black pools. “I don’t know. She’s not mine. Only an orphan I let help me.”

I wanted to run to her. Run for the stick in the corner, but I saw her hand, desperate, rigid at her side. Demanding. Do not move. Her fist against her thigh. Say nothing. I watched as he forced something to her lips, her hand striking him, her struggle as he made her drink, as she choked and coughed, and within seconds she went limp in his arms. I watched as he carried her away, her limp arms swinging as if saying good-bye.

Run, Kazi. Grab the stick. Save her. Now.

But I didn’t. And then the flickering lantern light disappeared, darkness closed in again, and I was alone.

When the light of morning dawned, I still cowered beneath the bed, too afraid to move. I stayed there for two days, lying in my own waste, growing weak and hazy with hunger and thirst. I finally crawled out, dazed, and searched the streets for her, drinking at the washbasins, chewing bitter cuds of thannis, because wild plants were the only thing that was free. Those first months were a blur, maybe because I was half starved, but somewhere along the line I stopped being afraid of the merchants who chased me away. I was only hungry and determined.

Someone’s had his eye out for a girl like you. Who? A rich merchant? A quarterlord? You’ll bring a nice profit. I never forgot the driver’s face, but it took me years to understand what his words even meant. I thought he took

her to make amulets or wash clothes, so I searched every merchant tent and washbasin in the city. And once I got better at slipping into shadows, I found my way into every quarterlord’s home, thinking he was making her work there. She was nowhere. She had vanished, along with the Previzi driver who had taken her, perhaps to a remote province in Venda, perhaps to a faraway kingdom on the other side of the continent. She was gone.

“You’re quiet,” Jase said, pulling me from my thoughts. “So are you.”


A stupid question. A placeholder for what was really on his mind. He was getting nervous. Unusually so. It made me wonder what kind of animosities the Casswell settlement might hold against the Ballengers. They were far outside the borders of Eislandia and in no way could be construed as being on Ballenger land. To my knowledge they had not been raided by them. Still, there could be grievances. Even settlements had to trade goods, and the Ballengers appeared to control the center of trading. He might have a good reason to be nervous. Just as nervous as I might be entering Tor’s Watch.

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