Chapter no 18 – Kazi

Dance of Thieves

I glared at Jase.

But inside I secretly roared with laughter.

On some level I was still furious. He talked of honesty in one breath, and two minutes later his lies were bared like a Candok’s teeth. They sank into me, sharp and unexpected.

Still, once the shock had passed, I quickly had to hide my satisfaction at my astonishing good luck. He was taking me straight to where I wanted to go—Tor’s Watch. I didn’t have to sneak inside or create any more problems in Hell’s Mouth to land me there. I was being escorted in by the Patrei himself. It was a rich, sweet irony that, at some point, I was going to happily shove down his throat.

From the minute we were met by the riders in the valley, I had watched him transform. He became someone else. He became the Patrei. His face hardened as he barked orders, and all the quiet plans he had been stewing on for the last several miles spilled out, one command after another like he was a general. His soldiers, like minions, jumped without question at each one. I had foolishly thought that in those quiet miles he had been thinking about us.

His commands didn’t stop with his thugs. We wolfed down a few bites of bread, salted meat, and a swig of ale, and then he ordered me up on the horse we would share. He carefully held the reins out of my reach, got on behind me, and we left. As rushed as he seemed, he kept the horse in an

even canter so it wouldn’t become winded. I guessed that meant we had several miles to go yet.

I maintained my anger and silence, though I couldn’t resist a smile when I knew he couldn’t see. He spoke as we rode, trying to explain his ruse of the settlement destination, saying that he was afraid I wouldn’t go along if I thought he was taking me into custody.

“Is that what you’re doing? Taking me into custody?”

He was caught off guard by the first words I had spoken, and his answer came out in halting fits. “I—Yes, well, until we can figure this out.”

Figure what out? It was clearly not me causing trouble in Hell’s Mouth, nor Wren and Synové, whom they had in custody. That revelation alone shocked me. How did that happen? Did they stand watch at the end of that street for me for too long? And on what grounds were the Ballengers holding them? It was within their rights to investigate treaty violations. Still, I had a hard time understanding how they were taken in the first place

—Wren and Synové were more than skilled, and those with Jase that day had been as bleary eyed as he had been. If they were being held at Tor’s Watch—

If. Another thought wheedled into me. Maybe they didn’t have them at all. Tiago had hesitated for a few seconds when Jase mentioned them. They aren’t talking. They couldn’t talk if they weren’t there, and Synové did nothing but talk. Maybe his thugs were still searching for them and didn’t want me to know. Another kind of leverage. They were going to hold their supposed imprisonment over my head. I suppressed another smile. I could play that game too.

I felt more like myself again. Back on track. The blurred lines became clear. I could forget these last days with Jase as easily as he could.

We slowed to cross a brook, and Jase leaned close, his chin nuzzling my cheek, “Kaz—”

I shoved him away with my shoulder, my elbow jabbing backward into his ribs.

I heard a small oof.

I shook my head in disbelief. Now what game was he playing?

Once across the brook, he rode faster. “Aren’t you going to say anything at all?”


“We’re going to my father’s funeral. There will be a lot of people there. I need you to back up whatever I say.”

I said nothing.

“If I have to, I’ll throw you off the horse right here and leave you behind. Is that what you want?”

No, he wouldn’t, or he would have left me behind back at the post. He wanted me for something. I was curious enough to bite but not so much that I would serve him his wishes on a platter. And if I was too compliant, he’d grow suspicious.

“I guess you’ll have to wait and see what kind of dead weight I become.”

I felt his waves of anger at my back, and I wondered if I had overestimated my value, eyeing the rocky landscape around me. It wouldn’t be pleasant to be thrown off a horse here.

We began climbing and the horse labored under the pace, but it was clear that Jase knew precisely how fast he could push the beast. The stallion’s rest lay just ahead. When we cleared a copse of trees, the towering fortress of Tor’s Watch greeted us. Multiple jagged turrets shot into the air, like sharp black spindles piercing the sky. If it was meant to intimidate, it did its job well. On one side, the lumbering behemoth teetered near the edge of a sheer drop, and around the rest a great stone wall with more turrets meandered out of sight. It was far larger than what I had imagined—and I could only see part of it. We headed for a section of the stone wall that turned and rolled down the mountain like a black weathered ribbon. A massive portcullis opened as we approached, anticipating our arrival.

As soon as we were through the entrance, I spotted Greyson Tunnel ahead. It was an engineering marvel in itself, a half-moon cut into the side of a mountain of solid granite, wide enough for an army to march through and high enough for five tall men to stand, one atop the next. The telltale signs of age wrinkled the edges of the opening, like the deep weathered lines of an old man’s mouth. This was not the work of ordinary men. This was a creation of the Ancients. We rode far into the cavern, our horses’ hooves echoing through the stone chamber. The air was chill and smelled of age and straw, horses, and sweat. A metallic taste permeated the air. I couldn’t see how far the tunnel stretched, but it seemed endless. Somewhere, I heard the hollow ring of trickling water. The tunnel bustled

with activity, wagons being loaded with goods, stable hands guiding horses, and absorbed workers hurrying down stairs that were carved in the tunnel’s sides and emerging from an opening in the curved ceiling.

I made a mental map of every foot we traveled. There were not many places to disappear in here, but there were hundreds of glorious shadows, stepping stones to places yet to be explored. Partway down, a smaller tunnel jutted off in another direction and lanterns cast an eerie yellow glow from its low ceiling. On the wall next to the entrance, like a sign announcing a pub within, was a faint circular engraving, the stone edges melting away with time. A trace of an eagle’s wing was the only thing that was still discernible. The Ballenger crest? So Jase’s story wasn’t just a story? Was this the same crest Greyson Ballenger had seen centuries ago? Still, one crest didn’t make Jase’s claim of being first any more true than seven waterfalls proved a goddess was crying over a lost lover.

A boom echoed and a pallet lowered by an elaborate pulley system jolted to the ground. My pulse thumped, like I had climbed into the belly of some dark macabre machine, its gears all turning and ticking in an orderly beat to the sound of its master’s orders—and the master was Jase Ballenger. He swung down from his horse and grabbed my waist, bringing me down with him. “This way,” he said.

He walked briskly ahead, expecting me to follow, peeling off his clothes as he walked, his belt falling to the ground, then his trousers. Dear gods, not his—

His undershorts fell by the wayside, too. He was as naked as the gods had made him, but my glimpse was quickly cut off by servants who descended upon him. They offered him wet towels to wash the grime from his face, a fresh shirt, trousers, a jacket. He dressed as he walked, hopping on one foot as he put boots on. He was driven, as if every second lost was crucial. Servants had descended on me too, and while I gratefully took the warm wet cloths to wash my face, I drew the line at stripping naked in a busy cavern with dozens looking on. Jase must have heard my grumblings behind him, and he turned around. “Just put the dress on over your trousers. I don’t care!”

And that is exactly what I did. Both of us were still dirty with days of the wilderness clinging to our skin, but the wet towels scrubbed us up enough for appearance’s sake, and the fresh clothes did the rest. Whosever

dress I had was smaller than me. The hem hung well above my ankles, and I had to roll my trousers up to my knees. The long sleeves hit me mid-forearm, and buttoning the bodice proved impossible. I got it fastened as far as my bosom.

“Breathe out,” the servant said, then tugged until it stretched tight across my breasts and the last two buttons were secure. And when do I get to breathe in again? I wondered. She was an older woman, her hair a striking shade of silver, and she seemed unruffled by the unusual activity. “Oleez,” she said, in a simple introduction, then threw some slippers to the ground for me to step into. They were tight too, but for the short term, passable. She nodded toward Jase and I turned. He was poised before another passageway, a servant shaving the stubble from his face in quick sure strokes. “That’s good enough,” Jase said, wiping his face with a towel. “Let’s go.”

We weren’t exactly transformed, our appearance still disheveled, but I supposed we presented some semblance of the picture he was trying to achieve. The passage was only wide enough for two of us to walk abreast. Jase and I led, the rumble of an army following behind us. No one spoke. I glanced sideways at Jase, and his jaw was a rigid line. We reached a door and when we stepped through it, brilliant sunlight blinded me. My hand shot up to shade my eyes, and a loud frenzy of snarling and barking erupted. My eyes adjusted to the light, and I saw two enormous black dogs charging toward me, their jaws snapping with sharp bared fangs. I gasped, and the top button of my dress popped free, plinking across the cobbles. I stepped back toward the door, but Jase’s hand was at my back, stopping me. “Vaster itza!” Jase shouted and the beasts immediately stopped. They lowered their heads, whimpering briefly, then lay down. “They don’t know

you,” Jase said, unruffled, “and you made a sudden move.” Shading my eyes?

Besides the forbidding walls, this was one of the reasons Tor’s Watch was impenetrable. I had never had to deal with dogs in Venda. There were none. They had all been eaten.

This was not a home. It was a formidable stronghold and those who manned the turrets and gates were not just guards—they were warriors committed to taking down any trespasser who even blinked in a manner that didn’t suit them.

We stepped out into a large courtyard and continued our pace toward a guarded gate that was reinforced with metal plates—and then my breath caught—to our right, the fortress, Tor’s Watch, which I had only seen from a distance, now loomed directly over us. Jase saw me looking up, my steps faltering. He eyed the missing button of my dress.

“Are you all right?”

“Shut up,” I answered. He had no right to ask that now. But as we walked, I made another mental note: He was paying more attention to me than I thought.

We walked down a long road that traversed the mountain, and all of Hell’s Mouth was laid out below us, a sprawling, spectacular sight, the circular formation of the tembris trees more apparent from this vantage point and appearing more unearthly.

When the road switched back, we were suddenly upon our destination, a tree-shaded graveyard full of tombs, statues, and gravestones. The crowds that gathered on the green lawns saw us coming. Dear gods, what was I doing here? What possible purpose did Jase have for me? Human sacrifice? Was I to be enclosed in the tomb with his father? I knew my imagination was pushing the limits of possibilities, but he was taking a huge chance bringing me here with him. Somehow, he trusted I wouldn’t reveal that the Patrei had been taken captive in his own town by some bumbling fools. He was wrong to trust me, especially now. Whatever we had shared was behind us.

My pace slowed as we drew near and heads turned to watch our approach, but Jase’s hand was firm at my back, pushing me forward. Still, I managed to skim the faces as I always did, not just looking for one from my past, but also the one carefully described by the queen. Neither materialized. Hundreds were gathered, and they parted as we reached the outer edge, making room for Jase to pass, a human seam silently and respectfully rippling open, until finally it revealed a cluster of people standing near the entrance of a large tomb.

They stood shoulder to shoulder, stoic, proud, but two children broke from the group when they spotted Jase and ran to him, calling his name. He knelt, gathering them into his arms, hugging them tight, his face nestling against one head and then the other, soaking them in. I watched their small, pale hands curling into his jacket, holding on to the folds like they’d never

let go. It looked like Jase would never let go either. I could feel the knot in his throat, the ache in his chest, and my own chest tightened. Finally, he loosened his grip and wiped the boy’s tears from his cheek with his thumb and whispered softly, “You’re all right. Go on now.” He tweaked the girl’s chin and told them both to return to the group. The boy glanced up at me, his wet lashes clumped together, his eyes the same brown as Jase’s, then turned and did as his brother ordered. The little girl followed.

His family. I knew that now. His mother. His brothers and sisters. Three I recognized from Jase’s descriptions. Gunner was tall and angular, his dark-brown hair slicked back in waves. Titus was stout and muscled, with sandy hair that curled around his ears. Mason had long black hair woven into multiple braids, and a rose-colored scar on the side of his neck left a jagged line against his dark brown skin. These were the ones I had seen walking beside Jase on the first day we met. I tried to recall the names of the rest.

Unlike the youngest siblings, the others knew Jase was not supposed to have been missing at all, so they stood, calm, waiting, at if he had just come from Tor’s Watch. But his mother’s rigid jaw said everything. I watched her breathe in what was probably the first full breath she’d had since her son disappeared. Jase left my side and went to her, embracing her, reserved, with respect, whispering something briefly in her ear. He did the same with his brothers and sisters. The emotion that had spilled out with the youngest two was kept in check by the older Ballengers—this was a respectful greeting only—presumably they had all just seen him hours earlier, and the crowds surrounding them watched everything.

One of his sisters peered at me and my dress, and I guessed that it most likely belonged to her. She looked younger than me and several inches shorter. Check Jalaine’s room, I think Jase had said. I stood in the middle of the open seam, distant from Jase and everyone else, awkwardly alone and wondering what I should do. When Jase hugged his last brother, he turned to the priest who was waiting at the end for him. They spoke a few quiet words, and then the priest, adorned in flowing red robes trimmed in gold, turned to the crowd and said he would prepare the tomb with blessings before the viewing procession would begin. He went into the tomb and the family and crowd seemed to relax, Jase’s back still to me as he spoke to his

mother. Other quiet conversations started up again, but then a man stepped out into the open seam.

“Jase, so good to finally see you. I thought you might not come at all.” A deep silence fell as the man walked forward. He was young and tall, the sides of his dark-russet hair trimmed close to his head, the rest pulled back in a ponytail. His snug black jacket showed off his wide shoulders, and his boots were polished to a high sheen. “You’ve been scarce since your father’s death. No one’s seen you. You’d think a new Patrei would be more visible considering all the necessary preparations for today.”

Jase’s back stiffened and he turned, eyeing the man. Every angry tic of his that I had come to know—the controlled lift of his chin, the tight quirk of his upper lip, his unblinking stare—were instantly chiseled across his face. “Greetings, Paxton. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to see you. I thought I heard the howls of a few wolves.”

Jase, we’re family. I appreciate that now. I hope you aren’t still harboring grudges for my youthful arrogance and missteps. I know my place now, and today that place is here. It’s only right that I pay respects to my blood kin.”

“Only right,” Jase repeated. “And my father did deserve your respect.” “As Jase does now,” Mason added.

Paxton nodded and took a few steps closer. He wore a weapon at his side. Jase did not. I quickly scanned the crowd, wondering how many might be here with this man whom I already distrusted. He lifted a finger, tapping the air as if thinking. “One thing, though. I understand you missed the wrapping of the body. Did something urgent call you away? Where have you been, cousin?”

Jase remained silent, his face like stone, but I knew his anger was surging. He didn’t like accusing questions, and it was clear he didn’t like this cousin either, but still, others waited to hear his answer too, and those who listened mattered more to Jase than his cousin. He somehow managed to smile, then leisurely turned to me and put his hand out for me to join him. Though everything about him appeared to be assured and composed, his eyes were fixed on mine with a wildfire of need. His gaze burned through me. He said nothing, but I read the words in his expression, Please, Kazi, trust me. But I couldn’t. I looked away but only found the same

intensity in Jalaine’s stare, his mother’s, and then little Nash’s, whose eyes were wide circles, waiting, as though he knew his family was at risk.

I looked back at Jase, his eyes still blazing, his hand still outstretched. I walked forward, feeling every eye that rested on me, my bones stiff, my steps self-conscious and not my own. When I was close, Jase grabbed my hand and pulled me snug to his side. His arm slid around me, holding me warmly at my waist, and his attention turned back to Paxton.

“I was doing exactly what my father asked me to do—ensuring that there are many more generations of Ballengers to come. Our legacy will continue.”

A rumble of approving titters flitted through the crowd, and my cheeks warmed. Apparently no one but me thought the comment unsuitable for a funeral. I reached behind Jase’s back and jabbed him with my thumb. He pulled me closer. “And as you can see, I made sure that all the preparations were well taken care of too.”

Paxton scrutinized me, beginning at my exposed ankles. He spotted the suspicious scabs where the shackles had rubbed and cut into my flesh, his imagination probably racing in tawdry directions. His gaze rose slowly, taking in my sleeves that did not quite reach to my wrists, my tight bodice with the missing button, and then my face and disheveled hair. I met his ogling with an icy stare.

A man standing behind him leaned forward and whispered something.

Paxton smiled.

“So you’re warming your sheets with a Rahtan, no less. Is this the one who burst into town and you had that unfortunate incident with?”

“Only a misunderstanding,” Jase said. “It’s been cleared up.”

But now everyone was eyeing me anew, recalling what they had heard, or where they had seen me before, remembering the Vendan clothes they had seen me storm into town with, and the weapons I had worn at my side. Paxton’s doubtful insinuation had its desired chilling effect.

Gunner shifted nervously, noting the whispers, and stepped forward. “Of course, Rahtan! She brought word that the Queen of Venda is coming here to formally recognize the authority of the Ballengers and their territory.”

Paxton blanched, shaken off balance by this news—just as the rest of us were. Jase stared at Gunner like he had gone mad. A pleased rumble ran through the crowd.

“Coming here? To you? That is quite a development.” Paxton’s tone conveyed his genuine surprise, but he didn’t seem as pleased by this news as the rest of the crowd.

Quite a development, I silently agreed, but said nothing. Paxton watched me, searching for confirmation. I gave him nothing. I wasn’t going to sink into this quagmire the Ballengers were creating and make the queen look like a fickle liar when she didn’t come. His focus suddenly dropped to Jase’s hand still curled around my waist, and his brows shot up.

“The signet ring? You’ve lost it already?” His tone was condescending, as though he were shaming a careless child. Heat flared at my temples.

Jase withdrew his hand from my side and rubbed his knuckle where the ring should have been. He had told me it had been in his family for generations, gold added, reworked, and repaired as it wore away, but always the same ring. Once it was put on, it never came off. Until now. Paxton was publicly chipping away at Jase’s credibility bit by bit, first making note of his absence, then missing the wrapping ceremony, and now recklessly misplacing his ring, which symbolized his rule like a crown on a king. Or Paxton was outright digging to expose where Jase had been. Could he know? For my purposes, it was too soon for things to unravel. I still needed to get back to Tor’s Watch and didn’t need to get in the middle of a personal play for power, or take on some new unknown thug who wanted to displace the Ballengers.

“The ring is—” Jase began, I knew searching for a plausible explanation.

“Jase!” I said, shaking my head, as if something had just dawned on me. “I forgot to give it back to you.” I looked back at Paxton and explained, “It’s a bit large on him, but he didn’t want to have it refitted until after the funeral. He handed it to me this morning as he bathed.” I smiled at Jase. “I’ll get it for you.” I turned for privacy sake, facing his mother as I hiked up the front of my dress, then reached down into my grimy pocket, searching for it among the crumbled remains of wish stalks. His mother’s gaze was hard, disbelieving, wondering what I was up to, but a glimmer of hope resided in her blue irises too. My fingers circled around the ring, and I nodded to her. I turned and held out the ring to Jase. “You’ll have to call on the jewelsmith soon,” I said. He looked at me like I had just pulled a Candok bear out of my ear. How? When? But those answers would have to

wait. He leaned forward, and gently kissed my cheek as if we were happy lovers, then slid the ring back onto his finger, his gaze still considering me.


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