Chapter no 25 – JASE

Dance of Thieves

“Where is she?”

My back had only been turned for seconds. She’d been right next to me. Drake and Tiago jumped, embarrassment flooding their faces, their eyes shooting across the plaza, down avenues, wondering how she could have disappeared so fast.

She was gone.

I didn’t think someone could have taken her. She was gone because she wanted to be.

I scanned the plaza, looking for Yursan, and spotted him outside the pub. He shrugged. He had lost her too. But there was no sign of Garvin—which was a good omen. We moved to the center of the plaza, watching for him, waiting.

And then a whistle pealed out. His signal.

* * *

“Hello, Kazi.”

She was walking on the boardwalk in front of the apothecary when I intercepted her. “Where’d you rush off to?”

Her steps faltered, then stopped. “Me?” she answered innocently. “I didn’t rush anywhere. Just taking in the sights. I guess I must have wandered off.”

“Meeting friends?”

She whirled and saw her cohorts at the end of the walk. Mason held the one with long red braids by the arm. Samuel and Aram stood on either side of the other one. The rest of our crew stood behind them, including Garvin, who had done his job well. There would be no more slipping away. Her fellow soldiers had been here the whole time, and I was certain Kazi knew it.

She looked back at me, her eyes narrowing to slits. Her tongue slid slowly over her teeth, and then she walked toward me. “Look here, Jase,” she said, patting the wall. “The place of our first meeting. I bet this is no accident, is it?”

I looked at the apothecary sign over our heads, surprised. “Actually, it is.”

She stepped closer and her hands slid upward around my neck, her face drawing near, her lips inches from mine. It was an unusual moment for an embrace. I wasn’t expecting it, but I wasn’t opposed to it either. My arms slid around her waist and I pulled her closer.

Her cheek touched mine. “Think again,” she whispered into my ear. “This is no accident. I led you here. This is a grand moment I’m offering you—if you do the right thing. Imagine, the mouthy Rahtan captivated by your charm and leadership while everyone watches—playing with your hair, laughing, smiling, maybe even kissing you. What a perfect way to erase the shocking image of me slamming you up against this very wall and holding a knife to your throat. Everyone would have a new image to remember and whisper about. It would cement your claim that I, and by proxy, the queen, am on your side.”

She smiled, her fingers playing with my hair as she had just described, playfully pulling a strand over my eye. “Release them,” she ordered quietly. “Now.”

No doubt everyone who was watching was imagining a very different conversation playing out behind our whispers. “Keep your word and our agreement,” she said, “and acknowledge Wren and Synové as guests of the Ballengers, free to come and go as they please. In fact, they prefer to stay here in town. I’m sure you can put them up at one of your inns. Free of charge. No questions asked. And they keep their weapons.”

“And if I don’t?”

“The alternative is I slam you up against this wall again and make the image of the Patrei on his knees permanent.” She shrugged. “I imagine that would only add to your troubles. It might even be written in your history books. The Fall of the Ballengers.”

“So this is another one of your blackmailing schemes?” “A business proposition.”

I laughed and tightened my hold on her back, squeezing her against me. “You? Take me down again? Things have changed a little since that last time.”

“Think so? You don’t even know half of my tricks yet. Do you really want to take that chance? Everyone’s watching. I think I even spotted Paxton across the way.”

“Why are you doing this?”

“I’m helping you, Jase. I’m giving you a chance to do the right thing.

My friends are not your problem. Let them go.”

“I don’t need an outsider, much less a Vendan, to tell me the right thing to do.”

“Maybe you do. You promised me you would never harm them. Holding them against their will when they’ve done nothing is harm. Your word means nothing?”

Neither of us were smiling now.

“A large dinner out in the gardens is planned tonight for family and friends. It would be better if your friends came along quietly with us. As our new guests, their absence would be both suspicious and insulting.”

She rolled her eyes. “Is there anything that you Ballengers don’t find insulting?”

“Plenty. It’s just that you Vendans are so accomplished at dishing insults out.”

“Fine. They’ll come to your little festivity, but they’re free to leave when it’s over.”

Her gaze was steady, unrelenting.

Rahtan as guests and in possession of their weapons, which included quivers of arrows, when we still didn’t know who had started the fires?

Kazi’s gaze held, as unblinking as a statue, her loyalty to them fierce. I finally looked away, calling to Samuel. “Show our guests to the Ballenger Inn. Make sure they have the best rooms and everything they need.”

Her finger gently pushed on my jaw, turning my attention back to her. “One last thing, Patrei. No more tails. Call them both off. I am either your honored guest with whom you have an agreement. Or I am not.”

How did she know? The decoy, I understood, but Garvin was damn near invisible.

“No more tails,” I agreed, and I brought my mouth to hers before she could say one more thing. I was through with conditions.

I thought the kiss would be awkward, strained, but she relaxed in my arms, creating the show that she promised. I pressed her against the wall— the image that would burn in everyone’s memory and erase the last one— but that was the last of the show, at least for me. I felt her tongue on mine, the warmth of her lips, breathed in the scent of her skin and hair, and we were in the wilderness again, and nothing else mattered.

* * *

We sat in a dark corner of the tavern sipping a cool ale. Priya fanned herself with a tattered menu, and Mason absently spun a spoon on the table. After seeing Wren and Synové escorted to the inn, Kazi had gone back to Tor’s Watch with Jalaine and my mother.

“She made you,” I said.

Garvin swilled back the last drips of his ale. “No. She never looked my way,” he answered. “But when you stopped her outside the apothecary, she did spot me in the crowd.”

“She’s seen you before?”

He bit the corner of his lip, still chewing on some memory. “I didn’t place her when Mason first pointed her out to me. I was too far away. But seeing her up close—I know her, somehow, from somewhere, but I’m not sure where.” He told me that when he used to run wagons sometimes he went into Venda, mostly for the Komizar, sometimes for merchants in the jehendra, but the last time he was there was about seven years ago. “How old is she?”


He rubbed his bristled cheek, trying to recall where he had seen her. “That would make her just a kid the last time I saw her. What about her name?”

“Only Kazi. No surname. But she goes by Kazi of Brightmist. I guess that’s the—”

“It’s one of the poorest quarters in Sanctum City. Well, truth is, they’re all poor, but Brightmist is an especially bad one. Don’t let the name fool you. Nothing bright about it. Never sold any goods there. No one in those parts has two coins to rub together. Her name doesn’t sound familiar though.”

“There must be a few well-to-do families. She said her father’s a governor and her mother a general.”

He shrugged doubtfully. “It’s possible, I guess.”

I asked why a ten-year-old among thousands would stand out for him. He shook his head. “Don’t know. But I’ll place her eventually. Faces are what I’m good at—even if she was just a kid at the time.”

“Seven years, seven inches, and”—Priya gestured toward her chest

—“plenty of new curves tend to transform a girl.”

Garvin nodded in agreement. “But the eyes—those don’t change. Something about hers sticks. The fire in them. That girl has burned people.” He pushed his chair back from the table. “I’ll see you tonight. Maybe it will come to me by then.” He tipped his hat and left.

Priya circled her finger in the air to the barkeep for another round of ale then leaned forward with a warning glare at Mason, clapping her hand over the spoon he kept spinning to keep him quiet. She looked back at me. “Up until her little disappearance, she did well today. We were following in your trail, and everyone we talked to mentioned her. Apparently she pulled a coin out of the ear of the baker’s daughter? They were both impressed.”

I laughed. “Yes, so was I. The girl tripped and was crying over a scraped knee, but Kazi was able to captivate her with a shiny coin she magically found hiding in her ear. The tears were forgotten.” I thought about how Kazi didn’t hesitate, how she shed her tough exterior, and knelt down to eye level with the girl. Kindness was a default for Kazi, even if she wouldn’t admit it, especially when it came to children.

“Well, Nash and Lydia both think she’s better than a holiday trifle. All I heard this morning was Kazi this and Kazi that. When we popped in to the tailor today, she juggled brass thimbles for them and gave them a lesson on how to do it too. Get ready for some broken dishes at home.” Her eyes suddenly widened. “And speaking of dishes, you hired a cook? What were

you thinking? Aunt Dolise was grumbling around this morning. That’s her domain, you know?”

“The Patrei can’t hire a cook? We needed another one. She’s always grumbling about that too. There are a lot of people to feed at Tor’s Watch, not just the family. I happened to be there just as the guards at the gate were turning a cook away this morning—a vagabond woman looking for work, along with her husband. They’ll start tomorrow at Riverbend. Aunt Dolise will still have her kitchen, but some extra help too, when she needs it.” What I didn’t tell Priya was that I asked the woman if she knew how to make sage cakes—the vagabond food that Kazi had said could bring her to her knees. When the woman said it was her specialty, I hired her on the spot. Her husband too. She said he was handy with a knife in the kitchen.

“Well, you should have run it by Aunt Dolise first,” Priya complained. “Being Patrei doesn’t win you any kind of points with her, and there are two kinds of people you don’t want on your bad side—those who guard your back, and those who fill your stomach”

“I’ll smooth it over with her.”

Priya shot me a smirk. “Sure you will.” Priya knew Aunt Dolise turned to a pat of butter when any of us boys wandered into the kitchen looking for something to eat.

“The dressmaker was impressed with Kazi too,” she said. “Good job on whatever you did today to keep her in line. It worked.”

I frowned. “She’s not a trained dog, Priya. She doesn’t jump at my bidding.”

“Everyone in this town jumps at your bidding now, Jase. Get used to it. The important thing is, after seeing her walk so compliantly beside you, everyone we passed thinks we’ve now achieved the upper hand with Venda.”

“Maybe not everyone,” I said.

“You saw Rybart and Truko?” Mason asked.

I nodded. “And I didn’t like that they were walking together.”

“I saw them talking to Paxton too,” Priya said. “When did they all get so cozy?”

It was a question that didn’t need answering. We knew. They became cozy the day our father died. They might all hate each other in the end, but for now they’d use whomever they could to oust the Ballengers.

“I don’t like that they’re still here,” Priya added. “Paying respects is one thing. Don’t they have businesses to run?”

“I think that’s exactly what they’re doing,” I answered. “Attending to a new kind of business. Getting rid of us.”

“At least we have the Rahtan in custody. We don’t have to worry about them anymore,” Mason said.

“Technically, we don’t have them in custody,” I reminded him. “They’re guests. Remember that.”

Mason raised a dubious brow. I had him place guards in the tembris skywalks above the inn. They weren’t exactly tails, but they were watching for suspicious activity. As long as Wren and Synové did nothing suspicious, we had no problems.

“What did you think of them?” I asked. Mason had escorted and questioned them along the way to the inn.

Mason snorted. “They’re a strange pair. Wren, the skinny one, didn’t have much to say, but Samuel and Aram were way too preoccupied with her scowls. We need to get those boys out more often. And the other one—” Mason shook his head. “She never stops talking, but not a word she said amounted to anything important, even when I asked her questions.” He leaned forward, a mystified expression on his face. “She talked about my shirt. She knew everything about how the fabric was woven and where the buttons were made—and then she played a game guessing my height the whole way there. I think she was trying to make me smile. I didn’t like any of it. Like I said, an odd pair of soldiers, but I doubt they had anything to do with the fires. I’m guessing they were just hiding out because Kazi disappeared. And now of course, they’re eager to hang around and see the settlement rebuilt. They mentioned that several times too.”

Priya huffed out a disapproving sigh. “Are you really going to do that?” “We gave our word,” I said. “And I’ve already ordered the supplies.” “It will—”

“It will be a compromise, Priya. And it’s going to cost us very little in comparison to what we gain. Laying out a single copper for trespassers wasn’t high on my list of things I wanted to do, either—until Gunner shot off his big mouth and said the queen was coming. What choice did I have? At least now there is some measure of truth to our claim, and with the letter Kazi wrote, the queen may actually come. It’s what our father wanted. If it

takes rebuilding a few shacks far from our territory, I will swallow the gall in my throat and do it—and so will you and everyone else.”

“But what right do we have to move them, Jase? The king may have something to say about that.”

“The king can go yatter to his chickens as far I’m concerned,” I answered. “He’ll never know they’ve been moved, and we’ll have our land back.”

It was true, what Kazi said, that we had no defined borders. It was a hard thing to explain to an outsider. It had to do with comfort, and what felt intrusive, and too close. As far as you can see. We knew we didn’t own the land all the way to the horizon.

“So what was with that kiss? I’m pretty sure that even Paxton had to have his jaw rehinged after that display. Kazi told me you didn’t care a rat’s whisker for her.”

My fingers tightened on my mug. “When did she tell you that?” “Last night.”

After lying to her about where we were going, threatening to throw her off the horse, and then her suspecting I had harmed her friends—I suppose those were all grounds to believe I didn’t care about her—and I had failed miserably at conveying how I really felt, or maybe I just kept hoping my feelings would go away. Instead, they only grew larger, like a rock in my path that I couldn’t maneuver around. That rock was the size of a mountain now, and I couldn’t get past it.

Priya looked down and shook her head. “Oh damn, Jase. She’s got you by the throat.”

“I’m the Patrei, remember?” I answered, trying to sound more sure than I was. “No one has me by anything.”

She didn’t look convinced.

The barkeep came and set down the new round of ales Priya ordered. When he left, she reached out and squeezed my hand. “I love you,

brother. You know I’m behind you in whatever you do. Just be careful.”

Mason cleared his throat and tapped the spoon on the table. Priya reached out and squeezed his hand too, but much more violently than she had mine. “I love you too, brother,” she said to him. “But if you make any more clatter with that spoon, I’ll dig both of your eyes out with it.”

Mason deliberately dropped the spoon on the floor to irritate her, and they began wrestling like they were twelve years old again. The ales suffered the brunt of the tussle, all three sliding from the table. Some habits didn’t die and I was glad. Mason finally called surrender when Priya dug her nails into his ear.

“All right, I’ve had all the fun I can stand here,” she said, letting go and giving the fallen ales a cursory glance. “We should get home anyway. There’s a party in the garden tonight with our new special guests. Let’s see if these Vendans know how to dance.”

I already knew.

Kazi was an expert dancer—but not the kind Priya was talking about.

Mason rubbed his ear and stood. “I’m taking those other two back to the house now. They can cool their heels there until the party starts. I’m not making another trip down here in a few hours.”

“Be careful, Mason. Last time I said I was going to make a Rahtan cool her heels, it cost me more than I bargained for.”

“Those two?” Mason answered. “I’m not worried.” That’s what I had said too.

“Coming?” Priya asked, gathering some packages she had purchased. “I’ll be along. I have a late meeting at the arena.”

Priya rolled her eyes. “The ambassador?” I nodded.

“Give him hell, Jase. I’m tired of that asshole.”

The asshole who was responsible for a good portion of our revenue. I smiled. “I’ll be sure and give him your regards.”

“Be careful,” she added as she left some coins on the bar to cover our tab. “Those Candorans are crazy.”

Give him hell and be careful. Walk the razor’s edge.

That summed up the role of Patrei.

Minter has come. The walls are frozen.

The floors are frozen. The beds are frozen.

There is no wood, no more oil, so we burn ledgers and books instead.

When those are gone, I will have to go back outside to where the scavengers wait.

—Greyson Ballenger, 14

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