Chapter no 24 – Kazi

Dance of Thieves

As soon as we arrived in Hell’s Mouth, I was whisked away by Vairlyn, Priya, Jalaine, Nash, and Lydia—a whole troop of us heading toward the dressmaker.

“Don’t keep her long,” Jase had called after us, an exasperated expression darkening his face. It was obvious this was not part of his plan, but apparently a Patrei’s mother and sisters could override even him in some matters.

Vairlyn said it would be best to get the visit out of the way first thing so there would be time for the dressmaker to get some alterations done. She thought it necessary for me to have a few clothes of my own for my stay in Hell’s Mouth—instead of just borrowed ones. I had to agree, especially in regard to underclothes. I promised to pay her back, but she waved me off saying it was the least she could do after I had helped her son escape the labor hunters.

Guilt riddled through me. She had no idea that I’d been forced to help him and that my intent was to use him for my own purposes. My goals and loyalties hadn’t changed. Ever since the queen had asked me to find this fugitive, I had imagined the grand moment I would hand the elusive traitor over. You can make some things right. The moment had grown in my thoughts. It became a color that gleamed behind my eyes, a silver stitch in a wound that would close a gash that had been open for too long or a golden stone in a tall wall that would finally erase my mistakes. I needed to believe

that maybe even a worthless little crapcake like me could make a difference that mattered in this world. It became a deep need and I worried—what if the Watch Captain had already vanished? What if he wasn’t here at all? Sometimes people vanished and no matter how badly you wanted to find them, they were never seen again.

It was disquieting to be drawn into their family circle. I was certainly good enough at conversation—it was one of the tools of my trade. When I was forced to engage a merchant instead of just slipping away with my pilfered goods, I had to redirect their thoughts, make them so transfixed by something that they could perceive nothing else—like the labor hunter who was so intent on the answer to the riddle I withheld, he forgot he even had keys at his side.

But this was different. It felt far more intimate, their chatter, their laughter, the touching and nudging. It didn’t seem right that I should be in the middle of it, and yet it intrigued me the way listening to a foreign language might, trying to understand the nuances behind their words. They held fabric up to my face and asked me what I thought. I didn’t know. I left the decisions to them.

The dressmaker quickly took measurements, and fabrics were chosen. The only other time I had been fitted for clothes was as a Rahtan soldier. We didn’t have uniforms. We chose our own clothing, and I chose carefully. I missed my boots and the shirt I had been forced to shred in order to cross Bone Channel, but most of all I missed my leather waistcoat the hunters had ripped from my possession while I was unconscious. It wasn’t exactly like Jase’s ring, but it was symbolic of something—the revered thannis of Venda was gracefully embossed across the deep bronze leather. It was the most beautiful item of clothing I had ever owned. Growing up, I had only known layers of rags covering my back, and I was lucky to have those. Vairlyn spoke quietly with the dressmaker for a few moments while I entertained Lydia and Nash with a shell game using the dressmaker’s thimbles.

In a short time, as promised, I was delivered back to Jase and our tour of Hell’s Mouth continued. He walked closely beside me, his shoulder occasionally brushing mine, his hand sometimes at the small of my back, directing me down one avenue or another. His close proximity was orchestrated, a subtle signal to all who watched and a confirmation that the rumors were true. Everyone could plainly see that it was, after all, the

Rahtan soldier from Venda who had ended up being arrested—by the charm of the Patrei.

I noticed Jase’s ease when he spoke with the townspeople, how he knew the details of their lives and they knew his, how an old shopkeeper pinched his chin because he was one of the untamable Ballenger boys she had chased or chastised multiple times.

“So you were trouble as a child too?” I said. “Probably less trouble than you.”

I didn’t admit to him that he was probably right.

But even with the pinching of his chin, the playful wagging of a finger, or the ruffling of hair, which he was far too old for but endured with a strained smile, there was an undeniable regard for his position too. Patrei, good to see you. Patrei, taste my powdered srynka. Patrei, meet my new son, and a baby would be shoved into Jase’s arms. He was new to this part of his role, and he would awkwardly hold the squalling child, dutifully kiss its forehead, and hand it back. I learned it was a custom here for the Patrei to pledge to protect and care for every child in the city—the same way the first Ballenger leader had.

I had seen the merchants and citizens at Sanctum City nervously pander to the Komizar when he walked the narrow lanes of Venda. What I saw here wasn’t fear—except when they spoke of recent troubles. After mentioning the recent spate of fires, a store clerk said he had heard rumors of caravan raids and wondered about the flow of supplies to the city. Jase assured him they were only false reports and nothing more. All was well and under control.

I studied every avenue we passed out of habit. You never knew when one of them could become an escape route. I also scanned the shadows for Wren and Synové.

“You might try to smile once in a while,” Jase said, nodding back at someone we had just passed.

“Of course,” I answered. “But I’m afraid that will cost you, Jase Ballenger. Everything comes with a price, you know? The Vendan settlement could use a few more short horns. Or maybe a root cellar? Do you like to dig, Patrei?”

“I’m afraid that by the end of the day you will be costing me far more than a root cellar.”

I smiled, wide and deliberate. “You can count on it. Dig deep in your pockets. I have many more of these smiles to toss about.”

His hand slid around my waist, drawing me closer, and my pulse raced in an uneven beat when his lips brushed my ear. “Be careful,” he whispered, “I just might cost you something too.”

A breath skipped through my chest. You already have. More than you know.

The truth was, it was easy to smile, and it was more work not to. I drank in the smells, sights, and sounds of the city like I’d been offered a sweet nectar. If the brisk ride had made me feel alive and above this world, the streets here made me feel grounded. They were busy and familiar.

Jase told me the story of the tembris, the great trees that were like none I had ever seen. Legend said they sprouted from a shattered star that plummeted to the earth during the devastation. The stars carried magic from another world, which is why the trees reached back toward the heavens. It was a tall Ballenger story I could almost believe, and I loved that the giant trees created a shadowy maze that made the city itself blink with magic. Every corner came alive, ever changing, exhilarating, and I memorized these details, too. Attention to detail was another sort of magic. It had helped me survive on the streets of Venda, and as I walked, I heard a familiar ghost tutoring me, watch, my chiadrah.

My beloved. My everything.

Chiadrah, the crooning name she called me as often as she had Kazi. I had been her world. Watch and you will find the magic.

It had been her lesson to me after I heard other children talking about the great gift of the lady Venda. They said that her magical sight that helped the early Vendans was from a time past. They said that the gods had abandoned us and now magic was dead.

My mother shook her head furiously, denying it. There is magic in everything, only you must watch for it. It does not come from spells or potions or the sky, nor by special delivery of the gods. It is all around you.

She had taken my shivering hands and clasped them between hers.

You must find the magic that warms your skin in winter, the magic that perceives what cannot be seen, the magic that curls in your gut with fierce power and will not let you give up, no matter how long or cold the days.

She had taken me to the jehendra and told me to watch carefully.

Hear the language that isn’t spoken, Kazi, the breaths, the pauses, the fisted hands, the vacant stares, the twitches and tears, for everyone can hear spoken words, but only a few can hear the heart that beats behind them.

Like wish stalks, my mother would not let me stop believing in magic— the hope it held. She was the one who taught me to discern, in a glimpse, the danger or opportunity that was not just in my path, but well beyond it. It almost became a game. Where is the anger? Do you feel the air? Who is coming? Every day, she made me see in a deeper way, as if she knew one day she wouldn’t be there for me, as if she knew something as precious as her love for me would not go unnoticed by the gods, and they would snatch it away like a jealous merchant.

Make a wish, Kazi, one for tomorrow, for the next day, and the next. One will always come true.

Because if I could believe in tomorrow or the next day, maybe that would give the magic time to come true. Or better, maybe by then I wouldn’t need the magic at all.

“This way,” Jase said, guiding me down another avenue. I saw him eye some men at the far end of the street. His demeanor changed and his pace slowed. I asked who they were.

“Truko and Rybart, leaders of other leagues.” He said they controlled trade in smaller towns in distant regions and would love nothing more than to control Hell’s Mouth. They all wanted a larger share of the Ballenger power—if not all of it. That made them suspect in the fires and appearance of labor hunters, but they brought business to the arena. It created a rocky sense of partnership—as long as everyone remembered their place.

“Like Paxton? What happened between his branch of the family and yours?”

He hissed out a disgusted breath. “Too many run-ins to count.” He explained that it began three generations ago. Control of Hell’s Mouth had fallen out of Ballenger hands several times in their history, but never for long. Most recently was when Paxton’s great-grandfather had sold it off for a handful of coins in a drunken card game with a farmer from Parsuss staying at the inn. It turned out the farmer was the King of Eislandia. Hell’s Mouth was isolated and small, and the king had no interest in it, other than

collecting a tax. The kingdom’s borders were redrawn, reaching high to include Hell’s Mouth, which explained the odd tear-shaped kingdom. All offers to buy it back were rejected, but it was still left to the Ballengers to maintain order. After that, Jase’s great-grandfather took control at Tor’s Watch and banished his older brother who had gambled away the town. The brother went south, sobered up, and he and now his spawn had schemed to get back control of Tor’s Watch ever since.

“So Gunner or Titus could oust you?”

“If I did something stupid enough. Or Priya or Jalaine. Even Nash or Lydia for that matter. And that’s the way it should be. It’s not about a single Patrei, but the family and those we owe loyalty to. When you swear protection, you don’t go gambling it away for another round of drinks.”

“You Ballengers hold grudges for a long time. You never forgive?”

“Just as the gods gave us mercy, we do too. Once. Turn us into a fool a second time, and you pay.”

By pay, I didn’t think he meant a fine.

“What about the arena that you’ve mentioned? Is that part of Eislandia too?”

“No,” he answered emphatically. He said the arena was nestled below Tor’s Watch on its western side. It began centuries ago in the ruins of a huge complex where the Ancients had once held sporting matches. The family had repaired and expanded it over the years, and even more so since the new treaties were established and trade had increased. What used to be a place just for farmers was now a principal trading site for merchandise of every kind, and also for negotiations and future deals to be made. Luxurious rooms were provided to ambassadors, well-to-do farmers—anyone who could pay the price. Four of the Lesser Kingdoms had permanent apartments there, and more were showing interest.

“What about those two?” I asked, nodding toward Truko and Rybart, who were almost upon us.

“No apartments, but they have space on the arena floor like other merchants.”

The two league leaders eyed us briefly as they passed. While others we had encountered had offered condolences to the Patrei, these league leaders only returned a stiff but respectful nod to Jase and continued on their way.

We turned another corner, which brought us to the wide plaza in the center of town. For all of Jase’s nods, smiles, and slow, easy strides, the tension gripping the town was most noticeable here. Wagons were stopped without warning and inspected, tarps thrown aside. Perhaps citizens thought something had been stolen because news of the labor hunters seemed to have been effectively quashed. As far as I knew, none of the wagons had revealed anything suspicious, but I saw Jase’s eyes turn sharp every time one lumbered past, as if he was memorizing every unfamiliar face.

Besides the straza walking both before and behind us, guards stood watch on the elevated skywalks that connected the tembris. More guards stood on corners. There was nothing to distinguish them from anyone else in town, but I saw the knowing glances between them and Jase as we passed. They were waiting for a war to erupt—or maybe this was their way of making sure that it didn’t.

We were just nearing the temple when Jase grumbled under his breath. Paxton was approaching us. Several large men who were well-armed walked behind him. Today, Jase was armed too. A dagger on one side, his sword on the other. I hadn’t seen him use either weapon yet—just his fist in the hunter’s throat, which had proved deadly. I wondered about his skill with these other weapons.

I only had the small knife in my boot, but as Natiya taught me, a small, well-thrust knife was as lethal to a heart as a large one, and much easier to conceal. The air changed to something more deadly as the two cousins locked gazes. I surveyed the men behind Paxton, already choosing which to take down first if circumstances took a turn for the worse.

“Good to see you out and about, cousin,” Paxton called.

“You still in town?” Jase replied, as if he had spotted something smelly on the bottom of his boot he couldn’t quite scrape free.

Paxton stopped in front us, and though today his dress was more casual, he was still impeccably groomed, his white shirt and tan trousers wrinkle free, his face gleaming with a close shave. “I have a caravan on its way to the arena,” he said. “I thought I might as well stay and settle a few things myself.”

“So your hawker can’t be trusted?”

“I’ve hired a new one. I’m breaking him in. And the times have changed.”

“Not as much as you might think, cousin.”

Paxton turned his attention to me. “A pleasure to see you again—forgive me—I’m afraid I didn’t catch your name yesterday.”

With rumors flying through town, I was sure he knew, but I played his game anyway, hoping he would move along quickly. I had just spotted something that interested me far more than Jase’s boorish cousin— something I had been looking for all morning—Wren and Synové. They waited in the shadows of the tembris on the other side of the plaza, their Rahtan garments exchanged for clothes with local flavor. Large hats shadowed their faces.

“Kazi of Brightmist,” I answered.

Paxton reached out to take my hand in greeting, and Jase and the straza all moved imperceptibly, their hands just a bit closer to their weapons, making me wonder again about the bad blood between the Ballengers and Paxton’s branch of the family. This wasn’t just an old grudge. What were those run-ins Jase had mentioned? It was perplexing that they were still compelled to do business together, but I supposed much could be tolerated in the name of profit. Paxton squeezed my fingers and kissed the back of my hand, which I found to be an overly familiar custom. I pulled my hand away.

“Welcome to the family,” he said and looked back at Jase. “She’s quite lovely. I’m sorry I missed the wedding. I—”

“There’s been no wedding,” I corrected.

“What? Still no wedding? I got the impression yesterday that—” He dismissed his thought with a wave of his hand then asked, “What are you two waiting for? The temple is right here.” His theatrics were maddening and I wished he would just get on with his point, but I wasn’t sure he had one. Maybe simply annoying Jase was his goal. “Oh—it’s the queen, isn’t it? Waiting for her imminent arrival?”

“Yes,” I answered. “The queen is my sovereign. I am a soldier in her army, and I require her blessing.”

Paxton grinned, his eyes leisurely roaming over me. “For your sake, Jase, I hope the queen comes soon—or someone just might come steal away your prize.”

The way he said it, I knew he considered a Vendan soldier anything but a prize, but it pushed Jase’s patience to its limit. “Move along,” Jase

ordered. “We’re done here.”

The mood changed in an instant, and Paxton’s flippant attitude vanished. This was not an order from one cousin to another, but from Patrei to underling, and it cut through the air with as much menace as a sword. There was no question that one more word from Paxton, and Jase would do something unpleasant. Paxton stiffened, his Ballenger pride evident, but he wasn’t stupid. He silently left without a good-bye, his crew following close behind him.

Jase’s eyes remained fixed on them as they walked away, a vein at his temple raised and hot.

“Is there nothing you won’t steal, Jase Ballenger?” He looked at me, confused.

“Move along?” I said, trying to prick his memory. “My phrase to you? At least you didn’t threaten to cut his pretty neck. Or maybe you only said it because you were swept away with a nostalgic moment?”

A gleam lit his eyes, warmth replacing the rage that had been there seconds ago. “I guess your words suit me. Will borrowing them cost me something else?”

His gaze settled into me, touching me in intimate ways. I needed to throw the wall back up between us, but instead my blood raced warmer. I pulled in a shaky breath. “Not this time,” I answered. “Consider it a gift.”

His lips had barely parted, a reply imminent, when his attention was turned away by Priya and Mason, heckling his name as they laughed and strolled toward us, talking about the hour being well past noon, the hot sun, a cool tavern, a cold ale, roast venison, and—I didn’t hear what else. Timing was everything, and theirs was perfect. The noise rose, the shadows swirled, sun dappled shade swayed with the breeze, and the arms of the city reached out to spirit me away.

And even the eyes that had been quietly watching us from afar were bewildered when I disappeared.

* * *

Wren meant to be angry. I saw it in her eyes, but once we were far from everyone else, in a quiet little alley, she blew out a fierce relieved breath

and hugged me. Hugs were rare from Wren. In fact, the only time I could remember one before was when she clutched me after her family died.

“By the gods, where have you been?” she demanded, her face flushed with heat.

“You didn’t lose faith in me, did you?”

Synové’s eyes narrowed in the shadows of her hat, their blue ice sparking, a wicked smile curling her mouth. “Who cares where she’s been? What has she been doing? Tell us everything.”

I told them about the labor hunters and our escape—and about the chain that kept us together. I skipped the parts of our journey that I knew Synové was hoping for. “But the best part is I’m inside Tor’s Watch now and have a reason to stay for a while.” I explained further about the letter to the queen, and the conditions I had laid down. “My little business agreement with the Patrei will not only give me access and time to search the compound, but will also provide reparations to the settlers in the process. They’re going to get everything back that they lost.” They stared at me, not looking as pleased as I had expected. “It really couldn’t have worked out better,” I added. “Any sign of Natiya yet?”

“Hold on just a minute,” Synové balked. “You think we’re going to let you breeze over the main item? Him. You were both out for blood last we saw you, but just now, the sparks flying between you two could have singed my hair. What’s going on?”

I looked to Wren for help. She shrugged. “Might as well tell us. You know she won’t stop.”

I confessed that there had been a moment or two between us when we were out in the wilderness, but now it was over.

Synové snorted. “As over as an old man’s grudge. Did you do it? You know, it?”


“Don’t be so touchy, Kazi. Whatever you had to do to occupy your time is fine with me. And he does clean up well. So does his friend. That tall, dark, handsome one. What’s his name?”

I looked at her in disbelief.

“Just playing with you,” she said and shoved my shoulder. “Sort of.” She leaned against the wall of the shop we were hiding behind and folded

her arms, ready to get down to business. “There’s no sign of Natiya and Eben yet. We’ve been watching for them in town. Nothing.”

It was a worry. It wasn’t like Natiya to be late, but our plan had cushions in it for the unexpected, like weather or lame horses. We discussed the possibilities—even bandits on the road—but between Eben and Natiya, we were sure bandits would be on the losing end of any encounter. Eben had been trained to become the next Assassin of Venda, but after the war that position was eliminated. The queen disapproved of stealth murders, especially since she had narrowly escaped one herself. But his skills were still there. His mastery of a knife was awe-inspiring.

“We know they’ll show up,” Wren said. “They’re just delayed for a good reason. That will give us plenty of time to lie low, like she ordered.”

“And for you to milk as much as you can out of the Ballengers for the settlement,” Synové added.

I smiled. “Yes, that.”

Wren’s brow lifted with skepticism. “You really think they’ll keep their word?”

Jase loathed the idea. His brothers were furious. But yes, I did believe they would keep their word—that lofty Ballenger pride. It was a business transaction they had agreed to. “They’ll not only keep their word—they’re doing the work themselves. It was all part of our deal. The Ballengers will be digging fence posts.”

Wren grinned. “You’re evil,” she said. “You could steal the nose off a man’s face, and he wouldn’t know it was gone for a week.”

“It’s genius, I admit,” Synové said. “Even Natiya would crack a satisfied smile at that one. Any sign of our man yet?”

Our man. The reason we were here. I heard the tension in her voice.

I shook my head and explained that it was a large, sprawling compound with multiple homes and offices that were as big as palaces. “And there’s the tunnel too, though I’m not sure it leads to much. To search everything is going to take a while, plus there’s a lot of people who work there that I—”

“And dogs!” Wren interjected. “They have crazed dogs! Did you know that? Dozens of them!”

Dozens? I had only seen two. Becoming friends with that many might be more of a challenge than I thought. Wren said their efforts to look for me inside the walls of Tor’s Watch were thwarted by the nasty beasts.

“A few arrows could have taken them down,” Synové replied.

Wren frowned. “And a dozen dead dogs just might rouse the guards’ suspicions.”

Synové shrugged. “Could have taken them down too.”

“And killing everyone in sight just might go against the queen’s orders,” I reminded her.

Synové knew that. We were ordered not to kill anyone in order to catch our game—unless our own lives were threatened. There was still some distrust when it came to Venda—we weren’t to make it worse for Vendans who were trying to settle in new areas. Get him and get out. That was our task, and that was it. Like plucking a rotten apple from a crate.

I told them that we also had the bad timing of being plummeted into the middle of a power war spawned by Karsen Ballenger’s death. Other factions wanted control of Hell’s Mouth and its riches. “And these other factions were the ones who sent in the labor hunters. They paid them up front with no other expectation than to scare the citizenry and create a mutiny of sorts in order to gain control. It could be they were the ones who really attacked and burned the Vendan settlement too.”

“No,” Wren argued. “Caemus said—”

“Caemus said the Ballengers took a short horn as payment. That is all.” “That’s enough. It’s still stealing.”

“I’m not disagreeing with that, but it was too dark to see who attacked and pillaged the settlement that night. Maybe someone else is trying to stir the wrath of the Vendan queen. Jase denies it was them.”

“And you believe him?”

I shrugged. “It’s possible.”

Wren and Synové exchanged a long knowing look. “I know what you’re thinking but—”

“He’s duped you, Kaz,” Wren moaned. “You of all people. I can’t believe you’ve fallen for—”

“I haven’t fallen for anything, Wren. I just want you to know there are other risks here besides the Ballengers, and we have to watch out for them. Someone’s been setting fires too. Six so far. Have you seen anything?”

“We set one of them,” Wren answered. “Maybe two,” Synové added.

“You what?”

“I had no choice!” she said. “It was the middle of the night, and we were still hiding from corner to corner trying to get out of town. I shot a burning arrow into an oil lamp and another into a woodpile. I had to create a distraction so we could get our horses out of the livery. You know that bastard stable master stole our saddles and gear?”

Dear gods, if Jase finds out that they set even one of those fires—

“Did you burn a house?” I asked, afraid to hear the answer.

“A woodpile, Kazi. And a wagon of hay. Why are you so jumpy?” “Because the Ballengers are jumpy and determined to find who is

attacking the city. I don’t want you mixed up in that battle.” I thought about the severed ears. “They wouldn’t understand, and it could get ugly.”

“No one knows we’re here.”

Yet. Jase memorized details. Their changed clothes and hats wouldn’t hide them for long. They needed something more permanent to protect them. They needed Jase’s word.

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