Chapter no 21 – Kazi

Dance of Thieves

I have something for you to steal, Kazimyrah. I would do it myself, but as you can see, I’m unable to travel. And the truth is, regardless of my passion for this quest, you are the preeminent thief in Venda. But the prize I want is not a square of cheese or a soup bone. It is loud and large. What is the largest thing you’ve ever stolen?

I had sensed that she already knew—it was spoken of in whispers on the streets. Did Ten really steal that? No, impossible. Why would she? But anonymity was essential in what I did, if I wanted to keep doing it. The queen didn’t question the if or the what—she wanted to hear the how. Could I do it again? I thought back to my large, loud, and very dangerous acquisition. It had taken me more patience than I had thought I possessed, more than a month of many skipped meals, saving and stashing, and favors procured by stealing numerous other much smaller things. There was no doubt I had seen it as a challenge. But there was more to it than just that.

The tiger had drawn a large crowd when the Previzi driver rolled into the jehendra. No one had seen one before or even knew what it was, but it was obvious it had to be one of the magical creatures of legend, and when it suddenly lunged and roared, the thunderous sound vibrated through my teeth. I watched three men fall back, wetting themselves. I also saw the thick iron collar and chain that kept the tiger from leaping from the back of the dray, and on closer inspection, I noticed that its glorious striped fur hung like a loose coat over its ribs. The Previzi driver was, amazingly, unafraid

of the beast. He shouted a command, then laughed and scratched the animal behind its ear when it lay down.

The butcher had stepped forward, lusting for an animal that was good for soup bones at most. I watched him as he pulled on his beard, the skin puckered to attention around his eyes, his lips glistening as he licked them over and over again. And then he asked the Previzi driver if he could make the beast bellow again. The roar. The fear it induced, the enormous white fangs. That was what the butcher lusted for, and it came as no surprise. And that was when I knew I would steal the tiger.

Why Kazi? Why steal something you had no use for?

There was only one reason I could share with her.

I wanted to let it go. I knew eventually the animal would die, and the butcher would watch it happen, slowly, for it would have taken all of the butcher’s precious meats displayed in his shop to properly feed such a beast and he would never sacrifice his livelihood for an animal, nor would he care day by day as he watched the tiger’s ribs protrude, its cheeks hollow, and its flesh sag. He already saw that every day among his human patrons, and their suffering didn’t sway him. Besides, he would profit from the tiger’s death too, selling its tough meat as magical, pulling its enormous teeth from its jaws for trade with other merchants, selling patches of its striped hide to the chievdars, and its clawed paws to governors who loved exotic trophies from the land beyond the Great River. When the last roar of the tiger was gone, death would be a bonus, bringing more rewards to the butcher. He paid a hefty sum to the Previzi driver but knew he would triple his investment in a few short months, and in the meantime he would derive his ultimate pleasure from the fear he would sow, and he’d have yet another way to chase the undesirables from his stall.

I had already experienced the fear he liked to spread four years earlier. My mother had been gone for only a handful of days. I was lost without her, and my eyes itched with hunger. I had stumbled upon his shop, his skinned lambs hanging from hooks, a flurry of flies buzzing and tasting their slick pink flesh, his caged doves pecking at one another’s bald heads, his mysterious pearlescent meats showing the rainbows of age, and I had stopped to stare, wondering how I might make such treasures mine, when I felt a sharp snap across my face. I hadn’t even had time to reach up to touch my bleeding cheek, when it slashed across my calves. And then I saw him

laughing, watching my confusion. He lifted his willow switch and snapped it again, the lithe green branches cutting across my brow. I ran, but he yelled after me, warning me to stay away. Street rats with no money were less welcome than the flies that swarmed his meats.

But the prize was something that could have easily turned and killed you. Was it worth risking your life?

She had looked at me thoughtfully then. I knew the queen had the gift, but I didn’t think she could read minds. Even so, she saw the answer in mine. Yes, it was worth it. Every missed meal was worth it. The grueling new depths of patience I had to learn were worth it. Every groveling favor I had to pay off was worth it.

But there was more I couldn’t tell her. A reason that hooked into my heart as sharply as a claw. It was the tiger’s eyes. Their beauty. Their shine. Their amber glow that had wrapped me so tightly with memory that I couldn’t breathe. I saw the desperate brokenness in them that was masked behind a defiant roar. Shhh, Kazi. Don’t move.

In the flash of that moment, I already saw myself leading him across a rickety chain bridge, setting him free in a forest where he would roar, fierce, loud, and unbroken. At least that was my hope for him, to be restored and free.

The animal you steal for me will be even more dangerous, Kazimyrah. You must be every bit as careful and cunning, and above all, you must use every ounce of patience you possess. You must not be reckless with your own life nor with those who are with you. This beast will turn and kill you.

Cunning. Careful. Patient.

I had always been patient. Even the simple stealing of a turnip or a mutton bone required waiting for opportunity to cooperate. It might take an hour or more. And when opportunity didn’t present itself, more patience to create opportunity, or learning to juggle to distract a merchant, or telling them a puzzling riddle to make their minds tumble in different directions, abandoning their guard. The brass-button theft alone had taken a week of planning and patience. The theft of the tiger, over a month, testing my limits, always unsure if the tiger would survive long enough for me to follow through with my plan, wanting to rush, but then holding back, my

patience gnawed and eaten away, like a worried bone. I thought nothing could be harder.

But this theft of a traitor had complications I hadn’t foreseen, namely Jase Ballenger. And now something else had gone wrong, something worse than a complication. I could hear it in Mason’s deliberate footsteps and the long silence between us. I could taste it in the air, the foreboding tang of blood and anger. In Venda, when I sensed things going wrong, I could back out, silently walk away, and disappear into a crowd. Move on to a different mark. Here, I couldn’t do that.

Patience, Kazi. Patience. There is always more to draw from.

It was a lie I told myself.

So far I believed it and that was all that mattered.

I eyed the blood on Mason’s sleeve. What business had suddenly taken them all by storm? Did they find Wren and Synové? What if the blood was

“Why didn’t Jase come and get me?” I asked.

Mason grinned. “Am I really such a bad escort? Don’t believe the rumors.”

“I always believe rumors.”

“Relax. There’s nothing to be worried about.”

When someone said that, it was precisely the time to be worried. “I was only wondering—”

“Jase had to go clean up.”

Clean up? He was spotlessly clean just a few hours ago. “It must have been some very messy business you were taking care of.”

“It was.”

I knew I wasn’t going to get anything more out of him. Mason was tight in the inner circle, family, one of many keystones firmly wedged and committed, and nothing could make his lips slip free for anyone outside that circle. I understood and admired that because one loose stone could make a whole bridge collapse, but unfortunately, his loyalty did nothing to help me.

We reached the end of a long hall. Tiago and Drake stood on either side of the doors.

“They’re inside,” Drake said. “Waiting.”

Who? A salty taste swelled on my tongue. Patience, Kazi. The tiger is not yet yours. And I knew patience was the dividing line between success

and failure.

Mason opened the door and we walked in.

* * *

It was a small room, windowless, with dark paneled walls, but a candelabra in the corner provided soft golden light. Jase sat slumped in a chair, his boots propped up on the end of a long table, and Gunner and Titus sat on either side of him. Gunner reviewed scattered papers and carefully wrote on another.

Jase jumped to his feet when I walked in. He had a new shirt on. He stared at me. His brown eyes that had once swallowed me whole with their warmth were cold and distant. The anger and blood I tasted in the air was not imagined.

“Hello, Kazi,” he said formally.

A fist pounded my sternum. It was death, fierce and strong, and I couldn’t breathe. “Who have you killed?” I asked immediately, not waiting for any more formalities.

“Who says—”

“I want to see Wren and Synové! Now!

Jase walked to my side and took my elbow, trying to guide me to a seat. “Sit down. Your friends are fine, but we can’t bring them here—”

I yanked free. “You don’t really have them. Is that it?” I asked, praying I was right. Praying he would confess this one truth to me. “That’s why you won’t let me see them.”

Gunner stood and retrieved something from a leather case on the floor. He threw two items onto the table. Wren’s ziethe clattered and spun on the polished wood. Synové’s leather archer glove slid as smooth and golden as warm butter toward me.

Gunner grunted. “We thought you might need some proof.”

I let out a shuddering breath, letting them think it was fear instead of relief. I maintained my distressed expression, but inwardly I calmed. Now I knew, with little doubt, that they didn’t have them. Each of Wren’s blades had dyed leather wrapping the hilt. The red one was the spare she kept carefully wrapped and buried deep in her saddlebag. The blue and violet ziethes were her blades of choice and the ones she wore at her sides.

Synové’s monogrammed archer glove was a gift from the queen, a spare she had not yet worn. She was too much in awe of it. The leather was still pristine and unblemished. Gunner had only gotten hold of their saddlebags, perhaps taken by the magistrate at the livery while we were in town. If they actually had Wren and Synové, they wouldn’t have had to dig deep through their belongings. They could have taken items in plain sight at their sides.

“This doesn’t mean they’re alive. I saw the blood on Mason’s shirt,” I said, keeping up the charade.

Titus shook his head. “She’s a hard one to convince, Jase. I don’t know how you spent all that time with her.” He threw a loosely wrapped packet on the table in front of me.

I pulled a corner of the paper aside and choked back a gag. “Those look like your friends’ ears?” Titus asked.

“No,” I answered quietly.

“Put them away, Titus,” Jase snapped.

Titus wrapped the ears back in the bloodstained paper and set it aside. I tried to sort out how severed human ears played into this.

“We’ve had more trouble in Hell’s Mouth,” Jase said. “We need your help.”

I looked down at the damson stain that Jase had carelessly overlooked on the toe of his boot. He saw me staring and drew my attention away, taking my arm and leading me to a seat at the table. They all took seats around me. They were sober as they laid it all out. They had found more labor hunters in town. That was the coldness I had seen in Jase’s eyes—and now heard in his voice—his utter hatred for the scavenging predators. It was a hatred we shared and was an especially fresh horror for both of us.

I listened without interrupting, still wondering where “my help” came into play. They explained they were under attack by someone conspiring to oust them in a moment that the Ballengers appeared weakened. Jase said they were increasing defense and protections around the town, which would take care of the short term, but knowing a powerful sovereign was recognizing their authority with a visit would help calm nerves, support their right to rule, and might make whoever was orchestrating these attacks back off. They suspected it could be two or more leagues working in a concerted effort.

I sat back, knowing where this was going. The appearance of more labor hunters had made Gunner’s impulsive outburst rear its ugly head again.

“Then ask the King of Eislandia to come here,” I said. “He has jurisdiction over Hell’s Mouth.”

They all laughed, but it held no genuine mirth. I remembered Griz rolling his eyes when he described the king. Apparently the brothers held a similar opinion of him.

Mason pushed back from the table. “The king is barely a king at all.” “He’s a joke is what he is,” Titus added.

Gunner’s expression held similar contempt. “Except for drawing his two percent tax, he wouldn’t know Hell’s Mouth from a swamp in the Cam Lanteux. Last time he was here, he only came looking for breeding stock for his farm, and then he was gone.”

Mason sneered. “And the breeding stock he chose was more like a laughingstock. He’s not even good at being a farmer.”

“Like I said,” Jase repeated, “we need a powerful sovereign recognizing our authority. We need—”

“She won’t come,” I said flatly, cutting him off before he went any further.

Gunner leaned forward. “She will if you write a letter requesting her to come to Tor’s Watch. In fact, we’ve already written it. You just need to copy it in your hand and sign it.” He pushed a blank piece of paper toward me.

I ignored Gunner and turned to Jase. “They already believe she’s coming,” I said. “Isn’t that enough? I’m sure Gunner can weave more of his ridiculous lies when she doesn’t show.” Gunner’s lips pulled tight against his teeth, his eyes smoldering with anger.

“It would cost you nothing.” The coldness in Jase’s voice receded. His gaze penetrated mine, as if searching for a way to reach me. He knew it was a long shot. Still, among all the other things he could do, this mattered to him. It mattered to his family. Why? “What can a simple letter hurt?” he added.

It couldn’t hurt, and in some ways I sympathized with them. I hated labor hunters too, but this was about more than just turning Gunner’s lie to truth. About more than labor hunters and attacks on Hell’s Mouth. It ran deeper. The Ballenger weakness was showing, a thread pulled loose, a seam

unraveling, their enormous pride exposed. They truly believed they were the first kingdom, and they wanted it recognized.

I pulled the letter closer and read it slowly. I shook my head at the audacity. “This is not how these things work.”

Titus tapped the table impatiently. “It’s the way they work here.” “It sounds more like a veiled threat.”

“Only because you choose to read it that way,” Jase said. “It could take weeks for this to reach her and then—” “We have Valsprey.”

I paused, wondering how that was possible. The swift birds were from Dalbreck, trained by handlers and only gifted to the kingdoms in the last few years as a speedy form of communication between them.

“The merchants in the arena offer a surprising array of goods,” Jase explained.

Stolen goods. I wasn’t terribly surprised. Valsprey were only trained to fly between certain cities. Hell’s Mouth was not one of them. He said that the queen’s reply via another Valsprey would go to Parsuss but would be relayed back here by messenger in only a few days.

They had it all figured out. Almost. And the almost was huge.

The queen would not come. She would never give them what they wanted—legitimacy—because they were thieves. That much the King of Eislandia had voiced clearly—the Ballengers collected taxes from the citizens and then kept half the proceeds for themselves before sending the rest on. They had the gall to take a cut of everything in Hell’s Mouth—even the king’s purse. Even the air that Vendans breathed. The king had told Griz that the family had a stranglehold on the northern region and he was at a loss for how to control them. Recognizing their right to rule was the furthest thing from any monarch’s mind. But a letter could buy me a few more weeks here to search their compound for a traitor, find Wren and Synové, connect with Natiya and the others, and be on our way with our prisoner— and best of all—I might be able to address another problem in the process. The queen would be more than pleased. Make a wish, Kazi. It seemed mine were coming true.

The brothers anxiously stared at me, waiting. I’d let them taste victory for a few minutes, let its claws sink in good and deep—before I snatched it

away again.

I reached for the parchment and began copying it. “I’ll need to change some of the wording, and include Wren and Synové, or the queen will know I didn’t write this.”

“Small changes only,” Gunner said.

They hovered like duped merchants stepping close to watch me juggle, watching every letter fall neatly into place, their anticipation building.

Your Majesty, Queen of Venda,

I’m writing to report that our investigations have gone well, but they did reveal some surprising revelations. The Ballenger Dynasty is a vast and well-managed one, which is astonishing since it is not an easy world to rule.

There are many threats to the citizens from outsiders, but the Ballengers are experienced and have protected them for untold centuries, long before any of the kingdoms were established. Their ways may not be like ours, but in this wild and untamed territory they do what is necessary and the citizens of Hell’s Mouth are grateful to them for their leadership and the protection they provide.

We strongly request your presence here, acknowledging the work of the Ballengers and their authority to rule this region. We’re settled in at Tor’s Watch, taking in every aspect of their hospitality, and until you arrive, Wren, Synové, and I will be staying on here. We’re learning much—

I set my pen down.

“Why are you stopping?” Jase asked.

I chewed on my nail as if thinking it over. “Before I finish and sign, I do have one simple condition of my own.”

Jase’s chest rose in a deep breath. He knew it would be anything but simple. “And that would be?”

“No conditions,” Titus argued.

Gunner’s eyes bulged. “Is she blackmailing us?”

Mason huffed out a disbelieving growl. “I think that’s exactly what she’s doing.”

“Only because you choose to read it that way,” I said and smiled. “I prefer to call it payment for services rendered. A simple business transaction. You Ballengers understand that, don’t you?”

Jase’s voice turned flat and to the point. “What do you want?” “Reparations,” I answered. “I want everything that was stolen from the

Vendan settlement restored—with interest—and all their destroyed structures, pens, and fences rebuilt.”

Tempers exploded. A host of angry objections whirled between them. Jase jumped to his feet. “Are you out of your mind? Haven’t you gotten the message? We want them to leave.”

“It is their right to be there. Venda has gone to great expense and effort in establishing this settlement, and the King of Eislandia specifically approved the site.”

Jase growled. “The king who doesn’t know Hell’s Mouth from his own ass?”

I shrugged. “No reparations. No letter.”

“No!” Jase went off on a rant, walking around the room, his hands waving, punching the air, reiterating that his family hadn’t destroyed anything and helping the Vendans would be the same as posting a welcome sign for anyone to come and take what they wanted. All of his objections were punctuated and reinforced by the others. They fed off each other like a pack of jackals. “They are half the cause of our troubles in the first place! You let one encroach on your territory, and then everyone thinks you’re weak and they want a piece too!”

I sighed. “They are seven families. Twenty-five people. It’s not even land that you use. Are the Ballengers so very small that a few families are a big threat? Can you not see them as an asset instead? A way to grow your dynasty?”

They looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language. I leaned back, crossing my arms. “Those are my terms.”

Angry glances bounced between them, but no words. I watched their frustration mount, jaws growing rigid, nostrils flaring, chests rising with furious indignation. The silence ticked.

“We’ll move them,” Jase finally said. “And rebuild in another location.”

A heated chorus of grunts erupted. The others objected to this concession.

“But it has to be fair and equitable,” I answered, “water, good land, and still within a day’s ride of Hell’s Mouth.”

“It will be.”

“I have one other stipulation.”

Gunner’s hands flew into the air. “Can I wring her neck right now?” “The Ballengers must do the work,” I said. “Specifically, the Patrei.

You, Jase. You personally must physically help rebuild their settlement. It shouldn’t take long. A few weeks at most. They had so very little to begin with. I will stay on here—of my own free will—to make sure the work is done, and you will remove the guards at my door, so I will be a true guest, just as your letter so poorly tried to imply.”

Jase’s hands curled into fists. His gaze was deadly. “Sign the letter.” “Does this mean we have an agreement?”

His chin dipped in a stiff affirmation. Titus groaned.

A hiss burned through Gunner’s teeth. Mason shook his head.

“Sign it,” Jase repeated and pushed the letter back in front of me.

I looked at him, knowing I had chipped away a large piece of the Ballenger pride, but knowing something else about Jase, too—or hoping I did. I saw it when he whispered stories to me late into the night, when he pressed a wish stalk to my blistered foot. I saw it when he held Nash in his arms then wiped away his tears.

“Thank you,” I whispered. I dipped my pen back into the inkwell and signed with flourish.

All is going well. In fact, after an unfortunate fire that destroyed some settlement structures, the Ballengers have generously agreed to rebuild them on a new site that will be even more productive. I know you’ve been busy with travel but I hope this news will hasten your arrival here. Please bring golden thannis as a gift of goodwill—our kind hosts deserve this honor. We look forward to seeing you soon.

Your ever faithful servant, Kazi of Brightmist

Jase picked up the letter and examined it, looking for some sort of betrayal. “Thannis?” he asked.

“The thorny vine you saw embossed on my vest that the hunters took. It’s on the Vendan shield too. It’s a wild plant that’s native to our land—we take great pride in it. It’s our traditional gift we give to all visitors—unless, of course, you think a weed is beneath you?”

“I remember seeing it on her vest,” Titus said. “A goodwill gift is fine,” Gunner interjected.

Jase nodded. “We’ll be sure to have a nice gift for her too.”

* * *

With the letter signed, I was returned to my room. Drake and Tiago escorted me to my door but then left, as per my agreement with Jase. When I went inside, I found a small bowl of fruit on the dressing table. Oranges. Three perfect oranges.

Had he already known I would sign the letter? Was this his thank-you?

I picked one up, my fingernail drawing a spray across its skin, and held it to my nose, breathing in its magic.

Or maybe this was the thank-you I never got for giving him the ring?

No, I thought as I peeled it.

This was just Jase remembering I loved oranges.

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