Chapter no 23 – Kazi

Dance of Thieves

Books were piled on the bed around me, ghosts peeking from their pages, a whisper here, there … Hold on no matter what you have to do. The Ballenger ghosts sounded as desperate as those I had known. Survive, no matter who you have to kill. Maybe more desperate.

I spent a good portion of the night reading the books from Jase’s shelves. After thumbing through several, I realized that nearly all of them were handwritten—and most by Jase. Some of the first books on the top shelf were in a more childish scrawl. It seemed to be a part of his schooling, having to record the family history and stories in his own hand. Maybe that was another reason he knew it so well. Many of the histories were curious, not long stories but hundreds, maybe thousands of short journal entries, some of them bare sentences, beginning with the first one from Greyson Ballenger: Write it down, write down every word once you get there, before the truth is forgotten.

It was one of the ways Pauline had taught Wren, Synové, and me to read, copying some of the ancient histories of Gaudrel, though I hadn’t begun to fill even a single book with words, much less shelves of them. This wall of books wasn’t just a matter of a reading lesson, this was the Ballenger code, a passion, never forgetting where they had come from. Whereas some of us tried to do just the opposite.

I found myself touching the words, imagining Jase as he wrote them, imagining him as a child like Nash, imagining him growing up in this large,

close-knit, powerful family, imagining his concentration as he wrote every word.

I startled awake to the sound of rapping at the door and found my hand still lying across the middle of an open book. It felt like I had barely dozed off. I had just thrown back the sheet when Vairlyn, Priya, and Jalaine burst through the door. Vairlyn carried a breakfast tray; Priya, a folded pile of clothes; and Jalaine plopped a pair or riding boots down on the floor, then made herself comfortable at the foot of my bed.

They breezed in like they knew me, like I wasn’t just a grudging guest, but someone else. Priya whisked open drapes, letting light flood in, and Vairlyn set the tray on the side table by the armchair and poured a warm drink into a cup from a small pewter pot. They all seemed in a cheerful mood, even the sullen Priya. She shook out a folded riding skirt, eyeing it for size. “This should fit. I’m taller, but this is one of my shorter skirts. It hits me just below my knees. It should be fine on you. I don’t know what Jase was thinking when he sent for one of Jalaine’s dresses.”

“He wasn’t thinking,” Jalaine said. “He was—”

“Sorry to wake you,” Vairlyn said, “but we’re heading out soon.”

She handed me the cup she had poured and then a bowl of some sort of eggish pudding.

Jalaine’s gaze swept across the room. She had a broad grin pasted across her face. “You kicked out Jase?” She was clearly amused, seeing Jase only as her big brother and not as Patrei.

“I didn’t exactly—”

“Let the girl eat,” Vairlyn scolded. “It’s too early for questions.” “Where are we going?” I asked.

They explained that we were on our way to Hell’s Mouth. Apparently, the whole family was making a show there today so the Ballenger presence was strongly seen and felt. They didn’t only want to erase doubts among the townsfolk, but also wanted to reinforce among the leagues that the passing of power hadn’t weakened the family. I was to be part of that show—a premier soldier of the Vendan queen walking side-by-side with the family.

“And Jase? Will I see him?”

Priya laughed, and she exchanged a glance with Jalaine. “I think she still doesn’t get it.”

“Yes,” Jalaine answered. “You will definitely see Jase.”

* * *

We stepped out the front door of the main house, and Priya noted with a grumble that our horses still weren’t here. I asked if there was time for a little tour before we left, and I was surprised when Vairlyn readily agreed.

“Why not,” she answered. “It looks like we have a few minutes until they bring the horses around.”

Maybe getting the lay of the land at Tor’s Watch wasn’t going to be as hard as I thought—at least now that I was an insider. Getting around last night had been impossible. Eluding the guards wasn’t hard, but unlike a very willing tiger, the dogs were trained not to take food from anyone, so the meat I had taken from the kitchen to cozy up to the beasts went to waste. And hissing vaster itza did nothing to calm them—apparently they only liked hearing the order from Jase. But with a little patience, I was sure I’d find a way into their dark, snarling hearts. Even the most hardened lords and merchants had chinks in their cruel armor. “Where are the dogs?” I asked hesitantly as we walked down the front steps.

“You heard them last night?” Priya asked. “Only a little snarling.”

“Probably just chasing a rabbit,” Jalaine interjected.

Vairlyn patted my shoulder. “Don’t worry. The night dogs are kenneled during the day. The only ones about now are the gate dogs, and they’re likely resting in a nice shady spot. The days are getting so hot.” She brushed back a thick lock of hair, and I was struck again with how young she seemed—and yet a widow already. This way,” she said, pointing to a path that ran between the towering main house and another large building. As we walked past it, she told me that each of the houses had a name. “This one here is Raehouse. It was named for the first child of Greyson and Miandre. It holds the offices for the Ballenger businesses. Priya manages it.”

“How many businesses do you have?”

Priya blew out a puff of air. “Dozens. Farms. A lumber mill. The Ballenger Inn. But the main ones are managing the arena and Hell’s Mouth.”

Dozens. What were the others she hadn’t mentioned? It was those I was curious about, particularly the purpose of housing a cold-blooded killer.

What was his business here? According to the queen, the former Watch Captain at the Morrighese citadelle wasn’t notably skilled at any one thing. He’s an average swordsman, an average commander, but he’s an above average deceiver. His skill is in his patience. The betrayal of her family burned in the queen as much as the betrayal of the kingdoms. She would never forgive nor forget it. Besides poisoning her father, the Watch Captain planned a massacre that killed her eldest brother, and he instigated another attack where her youngest brother lost his leg and her third brother was gravely wounded. He never fully recovered and died a year later. When the whole plot was uncovered, she found out that the captain’s stake in all this, besides a fortune, was one of the many kingdoms the Komizar had planned to conquer. Gastineux was to be his. Captain Illarion never got his prize. All the outside world held for him now was a noose—or perhaps he thought there was a second chance to regain what had slipped through his fingers. Is that what he hoped to gain here? His lost wealth and power? And why would the Ballengers be willing to give it to him? Did their ambitions match his?

“The records for all the businesses are kept here in Raehouse. Priya is good with numbers,” Vairlyn said with obvious pride.

Priya shrugged. “Numbers don’t lie. They’re far more reliable than people.”

“Really?” I questioned. “Numbers can be manipulated.”

Priya shot me a long sideways glance. “Not as much as people.”

A skeptical murmur rumbled from Jalaine. “What Priya really likes is the solitude. Numbers don’t talk back. She enjoys peace and quiet here, whereas have to deal with a lot of griping mouths at the arena.”

“And that, my sister, is your specialty—a griping mouth.”

Jalaine gave Priya a playful shove. The elder sister took it in stride. Their digs went no deeper than marketplace banter where the cost was already assured. Their devotion was as certain as a firm price.

“Watch your head here,” Vairlyn said, pushing back a branch. “These need to be cut back, but I rather like the wildness of it.”

The path had narrowed and we walked through a long, tunneled arbor that was thick with yellow climbing roses. The ground below it was littered with a rainfall of petals. It was a striking contrast to the foreboding spiked structures that towered on either side—one was meant to invite, the other to

turn away. We emerged from the arbor onto the back side of the main house, where there was a sprawling garden with raked walkways, low hedges, and tall rows of shrubs. A large fountain bubbled at its center. Beyond the gardens were three more stone buildings with more sharp turrets. Homes, Vairlyn called them.

“That’s Riverbend at the far end,” Jalaine said. “It houses our employees. Next to it, set back in the middle, is Greycastle, where more family lives.”

“My sister Dolise and her family—and a few cousins who are not overly social—live there. More family live down in Hell’s Mouth.”

“There are seventy-eight of us Ballengers altogether,” Priya said, “and that’s not counting third cousins.”

“Third cousins like Paxton?” I asked. An icy wall fell over Priya.

“Yes,” Vairlyn answered, “like him.”

“Of course, we are hoping for more little Ballengers soon,” Jalaine quipped. Priya jabbed her elbow into her sister’s side.

Vairlyn jumped in quickly as if trying to sweep past Jalaine’s suggestion. “And the one next to Greycastle is Darkcottage.”

Darkcottage was not a cottage at all. It rose two stories above us with four spiraling turrets that went even higher. The cottage was made from glistening black granite.

“Who lives there?” I asked.

“It’s empty right now,” Vairlyn answered. “Only filled with memories and stories.” Her gaze was wistful. “Sometimes guests stay there. And that’s the tour, except for a few outbuildings, and the stables down that path over there.”

“What about the vault? May I see it?”

Priya’s brows arched. “Down in the tunnel? You know about that?” “Jase told me.”

“It’s a bit dank and dusty,” Vairlyn said doubtfully. “Still, I’m curious after all the stories he told me.”

Jalaine and Priya exchanged a knowing smile as if I had confessed something important.

“I’ll have Jase show you the vault when we come back from town,” Vairlyn said. “The horses are probably ready for us by now, and the others

will be waiting.”

With those words said, Jalaine and Priya left, walking back down the path eager to be on their way, but Vairlyn didn’t move, her attention still fixed on Darkcottage. I waited, unsure if I should go or stay. When they were out of earshot, she said, “Thank you for your letter to the queen.”

“I’m not sure thanks are in order. It was Gunner’s letter. I only copied it.

And you do know it came with a price? I didn’t give the letter freely.”

“The settlement. Yes. I’m aware. I do know something about compromise. Sometimes we must give something up in order to gain something else that is more important to us. I see it as a win for both of us.”

“The queen coming here is that important to you?”

“It was important to my husband, and that makes it important to me. Keeping promises is important. Soothing fears is important. Protecting Hell’s Mouth is important.”

Yes, I thought, I understand about promises. Mine are important too.

As we walked back through the arbor, she paused, lightly touching my arm. “I was wondering, by any chance is Kazi short for Kazimyrah?”

I stared at her, her simple question squeezing the air from my lungs. I tried to figure out how she knew. Did she suspect something about how I signed the letter? “You’ve heard the name before?”

“Yes. In Candora. It’s not an uncommon name up there among fletchers, especially for first daughters. In their old tongue it means ‘sweet arrow,’ which is the…”

She continued to explain, but I already knew what the sweet arrow was, that rare arrow among a dozen quivers that flies truer and farther than the rest, the one in which a fletcher’s craft is elevated by something as intangible as the spirit within the wood.

“No,” I answered. “My name is just Kazi.”

But as we walked back to the front gate, my mind whirled with this new knowledge that even my own mother hadn’t known. Had my father been a fletcher from Candora? Had he named me? Old wounds split open again, every answer that should have been mine stolen like it was only a cheap trinket to be traded away at market. Thousands of years of history were revered by the Ballengers. My own brief history had been ripped from my grasp. There were a hundred questions I would never be able to ask my mother.

When we got back to the front gate, everyone was waiting for us, the army of Ballengers, straza, and other hands, ready to head into Hell’s Mouth.

Everyone but Jase.

All eyes fell on me. I might have been on the inside of the gate, but I was still a foreign object, a stone caught in a horse’s shoe and dragged into their inner sanctum. Priya smirked. She had seen me scanning the group.

“Don’t worry. He’s coming,” she said, as if to let me know nothing slipped by her.

“Come ride by me!” Nash called.

“Not just yet, Nash. I’m going to ride with Kazi first.” Heat raced between my ribs. I turned to see Jase approaching from another path, guiding two horses. One was coal black—mine. I ran to him, checking his tack, all in place but now dust free and freshly oiled. His coat gleamed, and his mane was carefully groomed and braided.

The others headed out through the gate, leaving Jase and me alone.

I nuzzled my horse’s neck and scratched his forelock. “Mije, gutra hezo, Mije,” I whispered, and he blew out a robust snort of appreciative air, his expression of excitement, and a signal that he was ready for a gallop through open fields. He was high energy and meant for speed, a venerable breed of Vendan stock specifically bred for Rahtan and not used to the long confines of a stable.

“His name is Mije?” Jase asked.

My focus remained fixed on Mije’s neck and I nodded, unable to look at Jase, caught off guard by the sudden tightness in my throat. Stupid horse, I thought, don’t do this to me, but I couldn’t hide that I was glad to see him.

“The mane was Jalaine’s idea. I hope you don’t mind. She kind of fell in love with him.”

“It’s a bit fancy for him, but I don’t think he minds. He’ll probably expect extra treats from me now too.” I looked up. Jase’s eyes were trained on me.

“Tiago found him at the livery when they were searching for you and the other Rahtan.” He straightened, his shoulders stiff and uncomfortable, and he frowned. “We don’t have the others, Kazi. We never did. I want you to know.”

This wasn’t about horses. He was talking about Wren and Synové.

“Why tell me now?”

“Because of last night. I saw the look in your face. The fear. I don’t want you to think of me that way. I would never harm them. You know that, don’t you?”

I thought about my reaction. I had been afraid. I had felt death in the room. It had rushed over my skin, like a stampeding army of ghosts, and then I saw Jase. He had killed someone—I had known it—and dread had gripped me. My first thoughts had jumped to Wren and Synové, and I realized that what I knew about Jase and what I knew about the Patrei were two different things. The Patrei ruled a different world than the one where Jase and I had roamed. I was still getting to know this other person.

“Why did you lie and say you had them?”

“They had disappeared, and we’ve had trouble in town. I have to consider all possibilities.”

“And if I believed that you had them in custody you thought I might confess something. They became leverage.”

A crease formed between his brows. “Yes.”

“Jase, I had vanished into thin air—just like you. Maybe they feared they were next. Did it ever occur to you they might have disappeared because they were trying to keep their own necks safe?”

“It occurred to me. But where are they now? Everyone knows you’re here and safe.”

“I don’t know where they are.” “Kazi—”

“I don’t know, Jase. I swear.”

He studied me. Whatever he saw, it had to be truth, because I didn’t know where they were now. Not exactly. I guessed they were on the move, probably from one crumbled ruin to another on the outskirts of town. And whenever I did make contact with them, they needed to remain out of the Ballengers’ sights. I might be inside Tor’s Watch, but I needed them on the outside and not under scrutiny.

He finally moved past the subject of missing Rahtan and said we needed to catch up with his family. He checked my cinch and handed the reins over to me. He looked at my boots as if still taking in the changes—our long days of walking barefoot together were over. “This time yesterday—”

“I know,” I said. “We were still chained together.”

“A day can change everything, can’t it?”

“Less than a day,” I answered. “A spare minute can send us careening down a new path and turn our lives upside down.”

He stepped closer. “Is that what your life is right now, Kazi?” he asked. “Upside down?”

Utterly and completely, but I answered the way I should. “Not at all. I’m a soldier who is now a guest in a very comfortable home, and we have struck up an agreement that will be advantageous to my kingdom—if you plan to keep your word.”

Distaste sparked in his eyes at the reminder of the reparations and resettling of the Vendans. “My word is good,” he grumbled, and he got up on his horse.

“I can’t promise when or if she will come, you know?”

He nodded. “I know. But you’ve made a good-faith effort. We can’t ask for more than that.”

Good faith.

I slipped my foot into Mije’s stirrup, settled into the saddle, then nudged him forward with a touch from my knee. The straza who had hung back waiting for us followed behind. We were just past the gates when Jase asked how I had slept last night. Polite talk. Something I supposed people who lived in fine houses asked guests.

I guessed that a polite response was required even though I had barely slept at all. I couldn’t reveal to Jase the reason why his comfortable room gave me no rest. It seemed that having his lovely cave of a bed wasn’t enough after all. It was still missing something. Him. He had become a bad habit. Too quickly, I’d become accustomed to the weight of his arm around me, the feel of his chest at my back, his whispers in my ear as I dozed off to sleep. Tell me another riddle, Kazi … If not for his books, I might not have dozed at all.

“Fine,” I answered, “and you?”

“I slept well. It was good to finally sleep in a soft bed instead of on hard ground.”

It wasn’t so hard. I remembered him commenting on the thick grass or the beds of leaves that rustled beneath us. He had liked it then. I was strangely disappointed by his answer. It was all so quickly left behind. Leaves. Grass. Us. And yet, that was exactly what I had counted on. I had

told myself over and over again that it would soon be behind us, that everything we said and did was all right, because it was only temporary. It was our way to make the best of it. My own feelings had become a thorny riddle for which I had no answer.

The road traversing back and forth down to Hell’s Mouth was steep. I couldn’t let Mije break into a gallop until we hit level ground, but when I finally gave him free lead, he was a black specter not tied to this earth, his gait so swift and steady, he became a dark wind flying down the road and I was part of that wind. Jase worked to keep up, and the pounding, the noise, the strain in my thighs and calves as I lifted in the stirrups, the thump in my heart and bones made me feel alive, and the moment was all there was, and the answers to riddles were forgotten in the trail of dust behind us.

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