Chapter no 20 – Kazi

Dance of Thieves

I soaked in a tub of luxurious hot water. The bath chamber was excessively large, as was the tub. Sweet lavender oils swirled on top in a shimmering bubbled tapestry. My toes wiggled beneath the surface, reveling in the decadent silky oils slipping between them. Oleez had lit a candle in the corner and left me a plate of cheese, flatbread, and berries to nibble on while she scouted out some other clothes for me to wear. If this was being in custody, I was all for it.

There was no reason I couldn’t soak up the Ballenger hospitality while I went about my work. Jase asked Oleez to escort me here while he went directly to a meeting with his family. I was sure after his absence they had a lot to catch up on—including me. His family had walked behind us on our return to Tor’s Watch, and I felt their eyes on my back with every step. They were as protective of him as he was of them. Jase was quiet the whole way, but his hand rested on the small of my back because no doubt Paxton and others watched as we departed. As soon as we were through the gates of Tor’s Watch, his hand fell and he gave orders for me to be escorted elsewhere. He didn’t say good-bye, and I had to silently applaud him on how well he massaged appearances. But it wasn’t appearances when he embraced Lydia and Nash. Something about that moment circled back through my head again and again. The tenderness. That was real. Some parts of Jase were—

I slipped beneath the water, scrubbing my scalp, wishing hot water could wash away not just dirt, but these past days too. When the viewing was over and the tomb door was finally pushed shut, the family remained stoic, but their eyes glistened and his mother’s eyes puddled with tears, her stony façade cracking at last. I found myself envying the finality of a door shutting, a certainty that I would never get.

I broke the surface and gasped for a breath. Warm candlelight danced on the wall, and the only sound was the gentle sloshing of the water. I lifted my foot, listening to the drips cascading down, and surveyed my clean pickled toes and the scabs that still circled my ankle like a thorny wreath. A matching wreath circled Jase’s ankle. The chain was gone now, but the connection still jingled through corners of my mind. I stood and rinsed with the pitcher of fresh hot water Oleez had left on the table for me. The thick white robe that was laid out was luxurious too, and I brushed it to my cheek before shrugging it on. Wren loved soft things. She would relish this as much as me, if she and Synové were here. Were they? Or were they in hiding, waiting for me to show up? That was the first thing I’d have to find out.

When I left the bath chamber, it felt strange not to have Jase within a few feet of me, strange not to hear his footsteps, his voice, and I found myself glancing to the side out of habit, expecting him to be there. It was surprising how quickly habits could form, and I wondered how long it would take for them to disappear. Then a faint voice inside me whispered, Is he a habit you really want to disappear?

“Yes,” I whispered back. Yes was the only answer I could afford.

His bed had heavy, dark curtains that could be drawn—like a tent, only better—a perfect enclosed cave for sleeping. I think I loved it more than the tub. Heavy drapes covered the windows, and the walls were covered with polished wood panels on three sides. Another wall was full of books. Everything about it was dark and luscious.

Oleez returned with borrowed clothing that she thought would be closer to my size than Jalaine’s dress and told me my other quarters were ready.

“Thank you, but I’ll be staying here. This chamber suits me.”

She paused, quirking her head, as though I hadn’t quite understood her. “But this is the Patrei’s room.”

“I’m aware of that. I’m sure he’ll be as comfortable in the guest quarters as I would be.”

She frowned, giving me a chance to change my mind. I remained firm. “I’ll let him know,” she said and left. She was passing this battle on to


The guards he had posted at the end of the hall were an amusing touch, but I wasn’t going to be put away in a room that would certainly be more restrictive than this one. This room had four windows, not to mention that Jase had all kinds of items to pilfer. I had already found a forgotten grooming kit in the bottom of his wardrobe with a long, thin tool that could be useful for many things besides grooming. A small black satin bag that had probably once contained an expensive gift became a sleek, discreet pocket tied beneath my clothes. I was sure the nooks and corners had more to offer, but mostly I simply liked his dark cavelike bed. I wanted to crawl into it now and draw the curtains tight.

I went to the bookshelf and pulled a thick volume out. It was carefully handwritten, the penmanship itself mesmerizing, gracefully riding across the page in bold strokes like horses with wings. I replaced the book and my hand skimmed along the spines of the others as I thought about the stories Jase had told me—Breda’s Tears, Hetisha’s Lost Horses, Miandre and the first Ballengers, and I wondered if he had read them here.

A knock startled me from my thoughts. “Yes?”

“It’s Jase.”

My pulse jumped like a snared rabbit, and I paced several steps, trying to shake it off. I pulled the robe tighter around me. “I’m not dressed,” I called.

“I need to talk to you.”

I quickly combed my wet hair with my fingers. “Come in.”

He opened the door hesitantly. He had properly bathed and changed this time, shaved all the stray stubble, and a crisp white shirt accentuated his burnished skin, bronzed by days in the sun. His blond hair was trimmed and combed back. He paused, looking at me, but said nothing. Unwelcome emotion surged through me, as if a bit of that world we had left behind had somehow slipped through the door with him.

He took a few steps forward, his gaze never leaving mine. “I’m sorry, Kazi,” he finally whispered. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.”

He was only making things worse. “You owed me nothing. I know that now. I was a means to an end. Get me here with as little fuss as possible, and maybe get something out of it along the way.”

“It wasn’t like that—”

“Then how was it, Jase? There were miles. Miles that you could have come clean and told me where we were really going. All those times—”

“What about you? You had my ring all that time and didn’t tell me? How did you get it?”

“You’re welcome, Jase Ballenger. I wasn’t expecting a thank-you!” “Kazi—” He shook his head and stepped impossibly closer, his hand

lifting, gently stroking the wet strands of hair from my cheek, then cupping it, everything about his touch familiar but new, and my skin was instantly on fire, wishing for more. His eyes searched my face and slowly he leaned in, his lips bare inches from mine. Heat swirled through me like a summer windstorm.

You are too close now, Kazi. Don’t cross this line again.

But I wanted to, more than I had wanted to the first time, because now I knew what was on the other side of that line. I knew a side of Jase that I hadn’t before, a side hidden beneath everything else, the tenderness that lay there. I knew what his lips tasted like on mine. I knew how he made me feel, and I wanted to feel it all again.

But my head spun with other thoughts too. Know what is at stake.

Just before his lips met mine, I turned my head. “What do you want this time, Jase?”

He stiffened at my clipped words, and his hand returned to his side. “Dinner is in two hours. That’s all I wanted to tell you. I’ll come back to get you once you’re dressed.”

He turned to leave, but when he reached the door I stopped him. “Your ring was in the hunter’s vest.”

He faced me again, waiting for the rest of my explanation. “I’d seen him up in the driver’s seat patting his pocket every few minutes. That’s a sure sign of a treasure within. When I leaned in to the get the keys, I grabbed that too.”

“I didn’t see you take it.”

You weren’t meant to, I thought, but my reply was only a shrug. “And you didn’t give it to me because?”

“I did give it to you, Jase. I gave it to you when it mattered.”

* * *

The opulence wasn’t overt. There were no gilded moldings, no gleaming marble floors, no ornate crystal chandeliers or servants dressed in impressive uniforms as I had seen in palaces in Reux Lau and Dalbreck. Simplicity seemed to rule here, but the expansive stone walls, wooden floors, and massive iron chandeliers exuded a wealth of their own, something sure and confident and ageless.

Instead of Jase, it was his sister who had come to get me and take me to dinner. “Jase is busy,” she explained. She introduced herself as Priya, the oldest sibling. She wore a sleeveless dress, and her upper arm was tattooed with the wing of an eagle. Unlike earlier today at the entombment when none of the family wore weapons, I noted that she now wore a low-slung belt with a dagger at her side. Was this the usual attire for dinner or a message to me?

“Did something come up for him?” I asked. “That is for Jase to tell you, not me.”

Her curt reply made it obvious she was not happy with my presence nor with being saddled with this chore. We walked silently until she stopped abruptly midway down the hall and faced me. She was taller than me, and her expression was undeniably hostile. I anticipated something unpleasant, and I hoped she would not draw her dagger because I really did not want to hurt her. It could cause all kinds of complications.

“Do you care for my brother?” she asked, a crease deepening between her brows, and it dawned on me what her iciness was all about. Protectiveness ran hot in the Ballenger blood.

“No, I do not care for your brother, at least not in the way I think you’re suggesting. We have reached an understanding and that is all.”

I thought she’d be pleased by this answer, that her brother was not entangled with one of those distasteful Vendan Rahtan, but her expression only darkened.

“But the way he kissed your cheek and looked at you.”

She was stubborn, just like her brother.

“Surely you, Priya, can discern a show when you see one. Your brother doesn’t care one rat’s whisker for me either. We were only working together in the face of Paxton’s clear effort to plant doubts about Jase’s character. And it is apparent, even to me, that Paxton is the kind of trouble no one needs.”

Her eyes narrowed. “I’m more than able to discern a show when I see it

—and I’ve seen my brother with plenty of girls. But I also know I saw something in him that wasn’t like my brother at all.” She fingered her dagger.

Don’t do it, I thought, or you’ll be sorry and so will I.

She leaned closer and said, “Let’s just call this a friendly warning. If you hurt my brother, I’ll make sure that you regret it.”

She stepped away, and I breathed with relief, sliding the knife I gripped behind me back beneath my bodice. “Friendly warning accepted,” I said. It wasn’t just an idle threat. I believed she would do her best to make good on her word.

* * *

When we arrived at the dining room, Jase, Mason, Gunner, and Titus weren’t there yet, apparently still busy, but the rest of his family was there talking and laughing as Nash tried to stand on his hands. They didn’t notice Priya and me standing in the doorway. Besides the immediate family, Priya pointed out their uncle, aunt, and two cousins. Twelve of us already, but the dining room was large and could clearly hold many more. It was the many more that I wondered about.

Where were Wren and Synové if they were in custody? And the captain we searched for was definitely not among those present. I had a clear description of his distinct features—tall, square-shouldered, thick black hair, with a cleft chin and a small moon-shaped scar over his left brow from where he’d been kicked by a horse. As the queen had said, If only he’d been kicked a little harder. “Is this everyone at Tor’s Watch?” I asked.

“Not nearly. But we don’t eat with everyone. Only family and sometimes close friends—and of course, our guests join us from time to time.”

Her message was clear that I didn’t fit in with the former, and had only provisional status on the latter. But at least now I knew that others were somewhere here at Tor’s Watch.

Within seconds, Nash and Lydia, only six and seven and overflowing with curiosity, dashed over and asked the first awkward questions. “Are you and Jase sweethearts?”

Their mother jumped in quickly. “That’s an impolite thing to ask, Lydia.”

“I’m only a guest,” I said. “Here to pay my respects for your father’s passing.”

“But Jalaine said—”

“I said nothing, Nash,” Jalaine cut in sternly, “except that Jase’s friend was joining us for dinner.”

Nash’s head swiveled instantly back to me. “Then are you our friend too?”

His and Lydia’s eyes were wide and innocent and not part of this game the adults played.

Everyone waited expectantly. I knelt so I was eye level with Nash and Lydia. “Of course I am,” I answered, taking their hands in mine. “I’m pleased to make your acquaintance, Nash Ballenger. And yours too, Lydia.” Further introductions were made. Each extended a cautious hand to me.

Now that I had faces to put to the names that Jase had already mentioned, it was much easier to remember them. First the twins, Samuel and Aram, who were impossible to tell apart. Both had dark brown hair that brushed their shoulders, dark eyes, and easy smiles. I made an effort to find some distinguishing mark and could only find a temporary one—a scratch on the back of Aram’s hand. Next, I met Jase’s Uncle Cazwin and Aunt Dolise, and their boys, Bradach and Trey.

Lastly, Vairlyn, Jase’s mother, with whom I had already had an eye-to-eye moment at the entombment, stepped forward and introduced herself. The tight coils she had worn earlier today were pulled free and her blond hair hung in loose waves around her shoulders now, softening her appearance. She seemed too young to be the mother of this extensive brood. She directed me to a seat at the table. The tone of the room had shifted, reserved and controlled, but polite. I had helped Jase today, but they still

weren’t quite sure what to make of me. Was I friend or foe?

“Your quarters are comfortable?” Vairlyn asked, as if trying to fill in the silence.

“Yes. Quite. Thank you.”

“I’m sure it will be good to sleep in a bed again,” Jalaine said. “Yes, it will.” Especially Jase’s little cave.

Lydia sat up on her knees and leaned across the table asking softly, thinking the others wouldn’t hear. “Did you two kiss?”

“Lydia,” Vairlyn said firmly.

Her innocent question pinched something painful inside me. Many times, Lydia, I wanted to say. A hundred times and every kiss was better than the last. I still taste his lips on mine; I still feel his breaths as my own. Maybe that I could never say those words aloud is what hurt—more words that would have to remain beneath the surface, crowding for room with all the rest.

“She’s at that age,” Vairlyn said apologetically. “Always full of questions.”

I smiled. “It’s a good age. Questions are important.”

Jalaine looked at me expectantly, as though she still hoped I would answer. I didn’t.

“Jalaine has a beau,” Nash said proudly.

“No, I do not, Nash.” I watched Jalaine’s frustration with her loose-lipped sibling grow.

“But Fertig asked you to marry him,” Lydia countered.

“And I haven’t said yes,” she answered between gritted teeth. “Yet,” Priya mumbled under her breath.

Thankfully, the first course was brought in by Aunt Dolise, and it provided a welcome distraction for both me and Jalaine. A servant followed with two large baskets of bread. I remembered Jase saying that his aunt did most of the cooking for the family. She set a large tureen of soup on the table, and Uncle Cazwin began filling bowls and passing them. I was surprised we were starting without everyone present.

“Will Jase and the others be joining us?” I asked.

“Jase said he might be a little late,” Aram answered. “He and the others were called away with business.”

“And my friends?” I asked. “Jase said they were guests here too. Will they be coming?”

“I haven’t seen anyone else here,” Nash said. “Me either,” Lydia chimed in.

A cluster of quick tight glances were exchanged between the older Ballengers.

“I believe you’re mistaken,” Vairlyn answered. “They’re being accommodated somewhere else. Not here.”

“But we’ll let Jase know that you asked,” Samuel said. “Maybe he can bring them over tomorrow.”

Sure he can.

They were a finely tuned machine, working together and finishing one another’s thoughts. The only wrenches in the works were Lydia and Nash. I was feeling more certain that Wren and Synové were free and safe. Suddenly my appetite doubled.

When everyone was served, Vairlyn said a prayer to the gods, not unlike the acknowledgment of sacrifice that was given at Sanctum Hall meals. But here no platters of bones were passed in remembrance.

Meunter ijotande,” I said quietly to myself as the others echoed Vairlyn’s final thanks.

“What was that?” Priya asked, missing nothing I said or did. “Just part of a Vendan prayer of thanks.”

“What does it mean?” Aram asked.

“Never forgotten. It refers to the sacrifice that brought the meal to the table.”

Samuel raised a suspicious brow. “Sacrifice?”

“The labor. The animal. All gifts, including food, come with a cost to someone or something.”

“You speak Vendan?” Nash asked. “Will you teach me?” I looked at Vairlyn. She nodded approval.

Le’en chokabrez. Kez lo mati,” I said slowly, waiting for him to repeat.

He struggled to repeat the words that were foreign to his tongue but smiled with accomplishment when he finished. “What did I say?”

“I’m hungry. Let’s eat.”

“I’m all for that,” Uncle Cazwin said and began eating.

Everyone dug in, and Lydia and Nash practiced the words over and over as they giggled and slurped mouthfuls.

“You are clever,” Vairlyn said abruptly.

I lowered my spoon and eyed her, uncertain if it was a compliment or an accusation.

“Jase told me,” she added. “He said you were resourceful in the wilderness.”

“As was he,” I answered. “We worked together and made the best of it.” Jalaine smiled. “I’m sure you did.”

I couldn’t see it, but I was certain Priya kicked Jalaine beneath the table because Jalaine jumped in her seat, then shot Priya an angry scowl.

A rumble of heavy footsteps echoed just outside the dining room, and the doors flew open. Mason walked in, looked around, his eyes landing on me first, then Vairlyn. “Sorry,” he told her. “We won’t make dinner tonight.”

She asked for no further explanation, as if she had already expected this. “We’ll keep your plates in the warmer.”

Mason turned back toward me. “Jase would like to see you.”

I spied two tiny crimson dots on his sleeve. Blood. A spray of blood to be precise.

“Sounds ominous,” I said, expecting him to laugh it off. He didn’t. “Ready?” he asked.

I pushed my chair back, my mind spinning with possibilities. Everyone watched me leave like I was on my way to an execution.

“How do you say good-bye in Vendan?” Lydia called. “Vatrésta,” I answered, “if it’s a final good-bye.”

“Is this a final good-bye?”

I didn’t know, and Mason shuffled me out before I could answer.

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