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Chapter no 27 – Jase

Dance of Thieves

The ambassador’s belly pressed over the low table like a rising loaf of bread, and his buckles, belts, and jeweled chains rattled against it every time he coughed or pulled in a deep, wheezing breath. He inhaled another long pull from his water pipe. The sickeningly sweet tobacco smoke hung in the stale air.

The apartments at the arena that the Ballengers provided—for a price— had been remade in the Candoran style. Heavy tapestries darkened the walls, and fur rugs covered the floors. The shutters were pulled tight and the only light came from a bronze oil lamp glowing on the table between us. The flickering flame cast shadows on his bodyguards standing behind him, enormous men with shimmering sabers hanging at their sides. It was all for effect. Our straza stood behind us for the same reason.

The ambassador’s upper lip twisted in discontent. “You are not your father’s son. He would have met with me last week. He knew—”

“I’m here now,” I said. “State your business. I have other meetings besides yours.”

I had no more meetings, and my harsh reply was part of the game. I had warned Gunner to keep his mouth shut before we entered the room. He didn’t like long silences. Like the one we were having now. I grinned, cool and calm, and leaned back in my chair, but inside I was as tense as Gunner and Titus.

The ambassador stared at me, rolling his pink puffy lips back and forth, the corners of his mouth glistening with saliva. I stared back.

“There are other places to trade,” he said.

“But not as profitable as here. You make a killing at this arena, and we both know it. We process the orders, you know?”

“Profit is only good when there’s no loss. Your father made promises about protection, and yet we still have none. We have ears and eyes. We know what’s been going on. Our caravans will be the next to be hit. There’s the trading center at Shiramar and the one at Ráj Nivad. We could take our business there. Rents and cuts are smaller, and the routes less dangerous.” He took a long easy drag on his pipe. “And if we pull out … others will follow.”

Gunner’s fingers coiled into a fist. I nudged him with my boot beneath the table.

“My father’s promises are good,” I said. “The weapons we’re developing—”

“Developing!” he spit out, his lip lifted in disgust. “What does that mean?”

“It means that your goods will be protected from door to door. That’s all you need to know.”

“That’s a grandiose claim for someone—”

“Grandiose!” I answered with the same level of disgust he had just thrown at me. “What does that mean? An idea too big for your small Candoran head?”

His wiry brows twitched and a grin lit his beady black eyes. “Your father always sweetened the pot for us when we had to wait for something.”

I paused, even though I already knew what I would give him. If I gave in too easily, he would balk and argue for more, and I wanted to get out of here as soon as I could with what we needed—and what we needed were the Candorans. They were our largest trader, and they had legitimate complaints.

We had patrols on the major routes to conduct raids on those who came under the guise of trading at the arena, but then, just short of it, only sent a lead man in to make contacts and lure buyers away to where their caravans waited, offering them better deals and avoiding our cuts. No one used us as a storefront without paying the lease. The same patrols who guarded our

interests offered a degree of safety to our legitimate traders too, but we didn’t have enough manpower to escort every caravan once they left our territory—and that’s where the other caravans had been hit. A hundred miles out. Even with their own security, drivers died and goods were lost. If there were even rumblings of them pulling out because of raids, it would hurt our business. That’s what other leagues counted on, but it was about to change. Soon, just one of our hands could single-handedly guard a whole caravan. Protection was what the Ballengers had always been good at. Now we would be able to extend it beyond our borders.

“Nothing?” the ambassador pushed, revealing his eagerness to still work with us. Our location was ultimately more central and far more comfortable

—we made sure of that. Shiramar was a hot, dirty pit, and Ráj Nivad out of the way. Not to mention we looked the other way on the ambassador’s little side trades that his king knew nothing about—as long as we got our cut on those too.

“A free lease on these apartments until we deliver on our promise. That sweet enough for you?”

The ambassador nodded, his stubby fingers happily tapping his chest. “I was wrong. You are your father’s son.”

I stood. Gunner and Titus rose beside me.

“The Ballengers keep their word,” I said. “Now don’t bother me with any more of your demands.”

He huffed to his feet, a greasy smile wrinkling his face. “Patrei. Always good to do business with you.”

Once we were out of the apartment, Titus whispered, “Free lease is going to cost us a fortune. And if the other tenants get a whiff of the deal we gave him—”

“It will only cost us a fortune if we don’t deliver on our promise.”

From the arena, we went straight to see Beaufort, prepared to pressure him. For us to deliver on our promise, he and his cohorts had to deliver too, and we were tired of waiting. His promises had worn thin. But as soon as we came through the gates, he greeted us as if he anticipated our visit and ushered us over to the testing range, saying they had worked out a major stumbling block. “It was all a problem of translation,” he said, then gave us a demonstration of the arms they had promised. It was half the scale of the

final firepower, but still impressive. It looked like it was everything we had hoped for—and more.

“Another couple of weeks. A month at the most to refine,” he promised. “But we do need more supplies.” Gunner and Titus gawked at the destroyed target that was more than a hundred yards away, then erupted in hoots. “Just tell us what you need,” Gunner said. “We’ll have Zane get it to you right away.”

“And the fever cure?” I asked.

Beaufort’s brows pinched together and he shook his head. “That’s a bit harder to rush along. Phineas is testing it. Don’t worry, every day brings him closer.”

Closer. I had been giving my mother that same update for months. It was a thread of hope that seemed to appease her, and for the time being, it appeased me too. The weapons we needed now, and I’d just seen evidence of that success.

Back in my room, I bathed, washing away the heavy stench of the ambassador’s apartment. I felt hopeful as I dressed, thinking about the weapons. There had been no more fires last night, and today, no evidence of more labor hunters. Things appeared to be returning to normal. I hoped the ambassador was wrong about caravan attacks, but if there were any, our patrols were instructed to come down hard—hunt down the attackers no matter what it took and find out who was ordering the hits.

* * *

Gunner whistled low. “Now that’s a sight you don’t see every day.” Wren, Kazi, and Synové emerged from the arbor, shoulder to shoulder.

I stared at Kazi. She hadn’t spotted me yet. Her black hair was braided in an elegant crown around her head—no doubt a creation of Jalaine’s. A dusting of fallen yellow petals from the arbor clung to her hair, and her violet dress floated in light waves past her ankles. Her shoulders were nearly bare except for the smallest wisp of sleeve draped over them. Her eyes skimmed another part of the garden, searching for something, and I couldn’t help but wonder—or maybe hope—that she searched for me.

Titus elbowed me. “Close your mouth, Patrei. You look too eager.” I was eager.

“What’s going on with the one in pink?” Gunner asked. “That’s Wren,” Aram and Samuel said simultaneously.

Wren was transformed too, barely looking like the cutthroat we had seen in the alley earlier today—except for the curved sword at her side.

“No one told her she could leave it at home?” Gunner said.

My attention went back to Kazi. Disconnected words flooded my head, and I heard my father’s long-ago warning, Choose your words carefully, even the words you think, because they become seeds, and seeds become history.

There were words I had avoided even thinking ever since I met Kazi. When my mother asked about her, I only said she was resourceful—a safe, stable word. But now others flowed freely, sown recklessly in my head. I wanted them all to take root, grow, become history—part of my history. Clever, smart, ruthless, determined, brave, devious, loyal, caring. She turned, her eyes grazing the tops of heads, the breeze lifting loose strands of hair at her neck, and another word came, beautiful, and it was the only word I could think of, until another one bloomed on its heels, future, and I wondered if it was too dangerous a word to entertain. But I already felt it taking root.

More guests arrived, sweeping Kazi and her friends from our view, and Aram and Samuel took off in Wren’s direction. Mason was right—they were a little too preoccupied with someone who could likely break both of their necks in unison while smiling. I’d have to talk to them.

Last night had been the small family dinner, but tonight all the family was invited to celebrate the new Patrei, along with close friends and colleagues. The priestess, seer, and healer who had tended my father would be here too.

Beaufort had broached the idea of coming too, hanging back in the shadows, but I said no. He was getting itchy from so many years of hiding, and maybe a little cocky too, having eluded the kingdoms for so long, but he wasn’t going to get caught on my watch, at least not while he still had goods to deliver. We had too much invested at this point. He had joined us for dinners in the past, but there would be too many here tonight outside of the family—especially Kazi and her crew. He said his appearance had changed and he wasn’t likely to be recognized, but it was too much of a risk. He was still wanted by the kingdoms. We had seen the occasional

warrant brought into the arena by traders and had mostly become numb to them. They named people we were unlikely to ever see, but Beaufort had been different. He had come to us with the wanted bill in hand, not trying to hide who he was. He was tired of running. He said the reason he was really wanted was because he had escaped with valuable information and he would prefer to share it with us than with people he didn’t trust.

According to him, he’d been an officer in the war between the Greater Kingdoms and there was bad blood between him and the Morrighese king. Beaufort claimed the king was corrupt and in turn, the king charged him with treason for switching sides. After the war, the kingdoms had signed new treaties, so now he was wanted by all of them. We had doubted that this was entirely true, but neither did we care about the political collusions and grudges of distant kingdoms, except as they affected Tor’s Watch. Still, my father had sent a discreet message to the king’s magistrate in Parsuss regarding “a warrant floating through the arena” to check out Beaufort’s story. The magistrate had no details to offer on Beaufort and could neither confirm nor refute the charges.

It could be that we’re actually doing the kingdoms a favor—keeping him out of further trouble, my father had said, but it was mostly the promise of the fever cure that made us look the other way. And, of course, the weapons were simply a benefit that made our arrangement all the sweeter. Whatever it took to keep the family—and that included everyone in Hell’s Mouth— safe was all that mattered.

“Patrei.”

I turned toward the graveled voice. It was the seer. She was suddenly at my side, her azure eyes looking up into mine, a crooked smile twisting her lips. Her hood was pushed back, which was rare, but her wild black hair still circled her face, casting her features in shadow. She kissed my hand, and paused, looking at the ring, then shook her head sadly and crooned, “They found you, Patrei. I am sorry.”

For the first time, it occurred to me that maybe her warning that they were coming for me had been about the labor hunters and not the leagues.

“What news have you?” I asked.

“I taste new blood. They circle near.”

“It’s been taken care of. We killed those who came after me.”

Her eyes glowed with worry. “Not them,” she whispered. “Others.

Guard your heart, Patrei. I see a knife hovering, ready to cut it out.”

I smiled. “Don’t worry. I’ll keep my straza near. Go, enjoy some food and drink. My mother has a seat of honor for you. Titus will show you.” I grabbed Titus by the back of his shirt, pulling him away from another conversation, telling him to get the seer a drink and help her to her seat. I wondered sometimes if her warnings were prompted by my mother’s concerns. They spoke each day at the temple, and my mother generously contributed to her keep. There were few in Hell’s Mouth who had the gift. The Vendan queen was rumored to be strong in it, and I wondered about Kazi and the way she slipped away so quietly, almost like magic. Our Ballenger histories mentioned the gift, but it seemed to have faded with the generations.

Titus left with the seer, and I strained to see through the crowd. I spotted Garvin. He stood alone, staring. I followed the line of his gaze, and it led to Kazi.

Brightmist. It’s one of the poorest quarters. Don’t let the name fool you.

Nothing bright about it.

Garvin was wrong.

There was at least one bright thing about it.

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