We were out of place here, frauds in every way, playing roles, wearing fine dresses as if it was something we had done hundreds of times when we never had. Not even once.
Wren kept hitching her shoulder up like the whole thing was going to fall off of her, saying its flimsy construction made no sense at all, while her fingers absently made small circles on her abdomen, feeling the pink softness over and over again. Synové held a goblet out, trying to catch her own reflection, watching the yellow fabric dance in the crystal before her eyes, then she would smooth her hands over her silky curves, pressing the dress there like it might vanish. I was no different. I had always thought my vest an extravagance, but it served a purpose. Its hidden pockets held weapons and maps. The sturdy leather protected me from the weather. The dress I wore now served no purpose at all except to feel beautiful. It didn’t belong on me. I had never felt beautiful in my life. I was only the dirty street rat no one wanted to see coming.
And then there was the food.
“Do you smell that?” Synové whispered.
It was impossible not to smell. The scent of marinated roasting meats was a glorious complex tapestry hanging over our heads, swelling our cheeks and awakening our stomachs like a song. Tables overflowed with first courses of cheese, savory breads, and an abundance of food that filled us with both wonder and guilt. There were still shortages in Venda, which
was what made the settlements so vital. It felt traitorous to nibble on one tiny delicacy after another.
But we played our roles. We ate. We smiled. We improvised. We were Rahtan, and we could chisel what made us uncomfortable and awkward into an ice sculpture in hell if we had to.
I searched for Jase. I couldn’t see him, but I knew he was probably occupied with other guests. There were so many. I guessed about two hundred.
Lydia and Nash ran between tables and shrubs with their young cousins, laughing and playing tag. Surely if the captain was here he’d be among the guests, perhaps going by a different name to hide his identity. Maybe the Ballengers didn’t even know they had a wanted criminal in their midst? Was that possible? It was a hope that suddenly sprang in me.
And then, against my will, my eyes searched again for the pale, bloodless face, but I came to another one instead. The man who had followed me today. I alerted Wren and Synové. He obviously wasn’t tailing me anymore, so why was he so intently keeping an eye on me?
“He’s still watching,” Wren whispered to me a few minutes later. “He knows who I am,” I said.
“If he knew, he wouldn’t still be watching,” Synové answered. “He’s still trying to figure it out. Even if he makes the connection, you can deny it. You don’t look anything like that girl anymore.”
“But her name,” Wren replied.
“No Previzi driver ever knew the name of a street rat.” “Not Kazi. Her other name. Ten. Everyone knew that one.” “She simply denies the name too.”
The name that would make doors close for me. No one let their guard down around an accomplished thief.
I turned and looked directly at him and smiled as if surprised. He nodded and walked away.
“Taste this,” Synové said, already forgetting the driver, shoving a small crisp of bread slathered with a thick tangy relish into my hand. She rolled her eyes like she was tasting a fruit of the gods.
I groaned with pleasure. Wren licked every crumb from her fingers.
Synové grinned and put her hands on her hips. “Look at us. Being fed and clothed like royalty.”
Wren smacked her lips. “Enjoy it while you can.” We all knew this was a short-lived indulgence.
“Oh, trust me,” Synové answered, “I am. But not as much as Kazi’s enjoying it.” Her eyes narrowed, and I knew what she was implying. I waited for a lecture but instead I saw unexpected worry. “I like him too,” she said, “but you know that can’t last either. Not once we—”
Her brows lifted and she left the last thought hanging for me to complete. Not once we steal away his secret guest? Not once he finds out why I’m really here?
“I’m not expecting anything to last,” I replied with disdain. “I’m only doing my job the best I can.”
“Admirable,” Wren answered and exchanged a dubious glance with Synové.
The thing that still puzzled me was, why? What did a traitorous, on-the-run captain who had no army to command have to offer the Ballengers? He had barely escaped a battlefield with the clothes on his back. He had never gotten his promised fortune from the Komizar, and yet, he had something. Something worth their risks. If he was here. But the queen was certain her informant was reliable, or she wouldn’t have sent us.
As we nibbled more food, I told them about the layout of the compound, pointing only with eyes to the various buildings. “Behind Greycastle and Riverbend are the stables and outbuildings. Darkcottage is empty, so he’s not staying there.”
Music started up and a group of women began dancing, Vairlyn among them.
Wren grimaced. “How’s your foot?”
“Throbbing,” I answered. “The birchwings is beginning to wear off. You two will have to do twice the dancing to cover for me. The Ballengers are insulted easily and if none of us dance—”
Wren’s brows pulled down in a disturbed V. “I don’t know a thing about dancing.”
“Sure you do, Wren,” Synové said, nudging her with her elbow. “We used to dance to the flutes in the jehendra on market days.”
“That was twirling, falling on our backsides, and laughing.”
Synové shrugged. “It’s all about the same. Add a little swaying. Just watch what everyone else does. Damn, with that dress on, no one will be
watching where your feet go anyway. We—”
Lydia came running our way, her eyes wild as she squealed, “Hide me!
Hide me, quick!”
Wren’s hand immediately shot to her ziethe.
I reached out and stopped her. “It’s a game, Wren,” I said quietly. “Only a game.” But my heart beat a wicked dash too.
Hide me. Please, hide me.
The screams were as vivid now as the day I had heard them, the tearful pleas as crowds ran from Blackstone Square, beating on doors, trying to hide in dark corners when the slaughter began. Hide me. It was no game. We were only eleven years old. I hid three people in my hovel. There was no door to lock. The only weapon I had was the same small stick my mother hadn’t been able to reach in time—useless against the guards’ swords and long halberds. No one came inside, but we heard the pounding of footsteps as guards hunted people down. We heard the screams. The clans had made the mistake of cheering for the princess after she stabbed the Komizar. The princess attacked him because he had killed a child— Aster, a girl who worked as a barrow runner in Sanctum Hall. Unfortunately, he didn’t die from his wound, and he sought immediate revenge on the clans for their disloyalty
“Quick!” Lydia pleaded again.
I shoved her behind us, and then Wren, Synové, and I moved shoulder to shoulder, creating an armored wall of silk and satin. Lydia giggled behind us as Nash came running up, asking if we had seen her.
“Seen who?” Wren asked, her breath still rushed. “We haven’t seen anyone,” Synové confirmed.
Lydia squealed and tore out between us, racing past Nash. He chased after her, and we all stared, still shoulder to shoulder, watching them run away.
“Only a game,” Synové repeated and swallowed. She had been one of those who had hidden in my hovel.
Tor’s Watch was a different world from our own. The games were different.
“We were talking about dancing,” I said, trying to refocus our thoughts. “Right,” Synové answered. Her chest swelled against the yellow silk in a
deep cleansing breath. She rose on her toes, and her eyes skimmed the far
reaches of the gardens. “I’m already on it. If I can just find one very tall, dark, and…” She walked away, but there was little doubt who she was on the hunt for. Eben had been temporarily displaced by Mason.
I looked to my right and saw Jase’s twin brothers walking toward us, their gazes focused on Wren. I elbowed her. “Aram and Samuel approaching,” I whispered. “Jase’s younger brothers. I think they have a thing for you. Be nice.”
“What makes you think I don’t know how to be nice,” she grumbled. She hitched up her shoulder, smoothing her scalloped pink sleeve into place, then twisted her scowl into a smile. “There. Now which is which?” she whispered.
“That’s for you to figure out—but don’t leave permanent marks.” “You’re no fun at all,” she said and walked off to meet them.
It was my opportunity to slip into Raehouse—the only house I hadn’t yet searched. The offices were closed now, and Priya would be at the party. The front door was in shadows and as it turned out, unlocked—and tonight because of the party there were no dogs roaming, only a few guards patrolling who were easy to slip past. The dim glow from the party lanterns filtered through the windows, giving me enough light to maneuver. The offices were sparsely furnished, most of the rooms on the first floor looking like sitting rooms, perhaps for business discussions, and though there were three floors of rooms, the majority filled with storage, there appeared to be only one office—Priya’s.
This explained the quiet and solitude that Jalaine had talked about. Priya’s office took up most of the second floor and was the opposite of the rest of the house. What she lacked in companionship here, she made up for in décor. It was neat and excessively ordered, but overflowed with color and detail, as if the sum of her twenty-three years was laid out in this room. Whenever I had broken into a quarterlord’s or merchant’s home, I always took a few minutes to study their belongings. What they filled their houses with was revealing. Spiked strips beneath windows, caged rats with chopped off tails, silky underclothing in bright colors, and always knives under their pillows. They trusted no one.
In Priya’s office there were, of course, ledgers and books, quills and ink, maps and stacks of paper waiting her attention, but the collection of small polished pebbles laid out in a neat row across the top of her desk caught the
light and my notice. Just below them was a tiny spotted quail feather laying precisely in the middle of her blotter. To the side were small charcoal sketches of butterflies, which revealed a softer side she didn’t readily radiate.
On the other side of her desk, a note caught my eye.
For Jase’s approval:
Supply request from BI
BI? The Ballenger Inn?
I surveyed the list—Morrighese wine, Gitos olives, Gastineux fish eggs, Cruvas tobacco, large quantities of charcoal, and several powders that I’d never heard of before. Herbs?
At the bottom of the page was Jase’s signature. Priya’s list had been approved. It was the only approval request I saw on her desk, but it was a costly one—maybe that was why it required Jase’s approval.
I heard a door click, and then a light glowed in the downstairs hallway. By the time Priya stepped into her office, I had already stepped out and found my way down a back staircase. Maybe she had remembered another supply request that couldn’t wait until morning, or maybe she simply needed a break from the party and a dose of her solitude again. She would find that here. The captain wasn’t a guest in Raehouse either.
When I rejoined the party, I finally caught a glimpse of Jase. He was on the far side of the garden near Darkcottage, immersed in a conversation with two older men. His black shirt made his blond hair brighter, and his cheekbones still bore the warm polish of our long trek in the sun. I watched him as I walked closer and noted what I had seen already today, the way he commanded attention. It wasn’t just because he carried the title of Patrei. There was a presence about him, an intensity that was both sobering and alluring. He was tall and his shoulders wide, but it wasn’t his stature that stopped people. It was more about the angle of his head when he looked at you, the lift of his chin, the awareness in his eyes, the way you could see thoughts spinning behind them, like a tailor measuring before he cut the cloth. There was precision in his stare, and that precision could slice right through you like diamond shears.
I don’t need an outsider, much less a Vendan, to tell me the right thing to
His head turned as if he sensed someone watching him. From far across
the garden, his eyes met mine. He didn’t smile—he offered no expression at all—but his gaze lingered, and then he said a few quick words and left the man at his side, making his way toward me.
A flutter skipped through my ribs. I was still uncertain about our parting today. He had left abruptly, and the kiss I had meant to control had felt like anything but a show.
“Jase,” I said when he stopped in front of me.
He stared at me, his jaw tight, a vein raised at his temple, and then he reached out and grabbed my hand. “We need to talk. Alone.”
He pulled me along, his pace feverish, and I felt the increased pressure on my ankle as I worked to keep up. Had he found out something about me? Discovered the drops of blood in the tunnel? We hurried along the shadowed side of Darkcottage.
“Jase, what are—”
But then he suddenly pulled me into a dark arched alcove. He swung around, his arms braced against the wall on either side of me.
“What is it?” I asked.
Even with darkness concealing us, I saw the dampness that glistened on his brow. A storm gusted through his eyes that I didn’t understand. He swallowed and leaned closer. “I want to kiss you, Kazi,” he finally said, his voice a whisper. “And I want you to kiss me back. But this time I don’t want it to be because we’re only making the best of it. And I don’t want a kiss that’s for show or has any conditions. I want you to kiss me just because you want to. Because you deeply want to. No one’s watching now. You can walk away, and I won’t say a thing. I promise, I won’t ever bring it up again.”
My breaths stopped up in my chest. He knew I had kissed him willingly today, but there had been conditions. Everything about us was so confused. It wasn’t a kiss he was looking for, no matter how true and heartfelt. He was searching for a clarity that couldn’t be ours. “Jase, I’m a soldier in the Vendan army. I—”
“I’m not asking you to be anything else.”
“In a few weeks, I’ll be leaving. When the settlement—”
“The settlement may take more than a few weeks. And I could make the rebuilding last a very long time.”
His eyes drilled into mine, searching for something clear, sure, and simply delaying the rebuilding wouldn’t give it to him.
What is this, Kazi? What is this between us?
The question was still there, but its thrum had grown louder. Coals burned in my stomach. I still had no answer, or maybe I simply didn’t want one. “I have to go back, Jase. We only have a short time—”
“A lot can change in a few weeks, Kazi. Plans can change. There are no guarantees. We could all be dead.”
I was intimate with destinies being yanked and pummeled and turned inside out. I knew about being thrown down unexpected paths. But Jase dead? Not him. His presence was too full, too felt, too—I shook my head, rejecting the possibility. It was just his father’s unexpected death weighing on him.
His shoulders pulled back and his hands slid from the wall back to his sides, releasing me as if he had received his answer. An angry tic pulsed in his neck.
I have no answers, Jase! I screamed silently. Not for this!
He started to turn away, but I hooked my finger onto his belt, stopping him.
He paused, his nostrils flared, waiting and wary.
“A kiss will not make all of our differences go away, Jase. It won’t—” “I’m not expecting our differences to disappear!” he hissed. “I’m just
asking you to be honest about this one thing! Would you stop thinking about tomorrow or a thousand days from now! In this moment, what do you want, dammit!”
I looked at him, unable to speak.
My heart hammered wildly. Pivot! Steady! Blink last! My rules tumbled in a freefall. I felt him pulling away again, and I gave his belt a harsh tug, drawing him to a standstill. My gaze locked onto his, and everything inside me split in different directions. “Yes, I want to kiss you, Jase Ballenger. Not for show or to make the best of it. I want to kiss you because I want you, every part of you, even the parts that infuriate me beyond telling, because you’ve infected me with a poison that I don’t want to flush out, because you’re a mad viper twisting around my middle, cutting off my breath, yet I
want you more than I want to breathe. Yes, Jase, I want to kiss you, just because I do, but the one thing I cannot do is promise you any tomorrows.”
He stared at me, and I could see every word I had spoken passing through his eyes. He measured them, turned them over, rejected and absorbed them. Finally his shoulders eased down a fraction of an inch.
“Poison?” His mouth pulled in a smirk. “Here, let me infect you some more.”
* * *
Was it possible to live two lives side-by-side? To serve two goals that were destined to collide? To weave lies with one hand and unravel them with the other?
It was his kindness that had seduced me, and now everything else about him captivated me. I was dancing with fire and hoping not to get burned.
We returned to the party, our hands woven together, the music brighter, the food more sumptuous, invisible wish stalks tucked in our pockets. Be honest about this one thing. And I was.
Even though tables were set, dinner was an ongoing loose affair, meats brought from smoking pits, and more fare set out on long tables as the night wore on. Jase introduced me to nearly everyone there, and more than one guest mentioned their gratitude that the queen was coming for a visit and tour. The story had already evolved.
When we finally had a moment alone, Jase swooped to the side and his lips met mine, easy, and a warm flush spread across my chest. “Do you see who your friend is dancing with?” he asked.
I looked over his shoulder. It was Mason, and he didn’t look too happy with the situation. It wasn’t a dance that required much touching, a simple country jig that was common in many regions. But Synové was making plenty of missteps, and the Ballenger version had an extra hop or two. Synové playfully jabbed Mason’s ribs as they spun around. He offered a polite strained smile in return, acting like the cordial host, probably on Jase’s orders. She was radiant, her cheeks glowing with heat, her long locks shimmering in the lantern light like golden marmalade, swinging in rhythm with the zitaraes and flutes. I wished I could be her sometimes, jumping
into every moment fully, her cheer covering the darkness that still lurked deep inside her.
I spotted Wren too. “I’d worry more about Aram and Samuel,” I answered. I saw them farther away on either side of Wren, one of them trying to maneuver around her ziethe every time she turned.
“They’re not safe with her?” Jase asked.
“Of course not, but they probably think that’s half the fun.” Jase smiled and nodded in agreement.
“What about us?” he asked. “Should we join them? We haven’t danced yet.”
I had already deflected his question twice. A third time would be obvious. I couldn’t pretend that I hated to dance. I still remembered hooking my hands around his neck one night in the middle of the Jessop plain, dancing with him beneath a moonlit sky, the grass waving at our ankles, crickets accompanying the tune he hummed into my ear. I had told him I didn’t want the night to end.
Now it seemed this night never would. My ankle had grown steadily worse. It was stiff and hot and, I was certain, swollen, but I didn’t dare peek at it beneath my dress. The medicine had worn off and the pain was circling around my leg like a spiked iron, every movement taking a bite out of my flesh. Even my thigh burned now. A thin line of sweat beaded at my hairline. When Jase commented on my damp back, I responded that the evening was warm.
“All right,” I answered. “Let’s join them.” Maybe a short dance would be bearable and the subject would be dropped. No hopping, only swaying.
We had only taken a few steps toward the brightly lit square strung with lanterns when Jase stopped. “What’s wrong?”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “You’re limping.”
I looked at him and wiped some damp strands of hair from my brow. I forced a smile. “It’s only these slippers. They don’t fit well—”
“Then take them off. Here, let me help you—” He started to bend down. “No!” I said, far too loudly. Sweat trickled down my back and pain was
squeezing my skull now, and it occurred to me that maybe the dogs were diseased. What if—
“Kazi.” Jase’s gaze was sober. He knew.
Pivot, Kazi. He sees your lies.
My foot gave way beneath me, and I stumbled forward but Jase caught my arm before I hit the ground. He muttered under his breath as he scooped me up—then spotted the bandage.
I stared at it in horror. It was bloody. The wounds were seeping.
“What the hell—” “Jase, please—”
My face flashed with sickening heat, and Jase called for Tiago and Drake. He carried me down a dark path, away from the guests, ordering Drake to find the healer and Oleez. Doors slammed open against walls and a long hallway bobbed and weaved around me. Jase laid me down on a couch, then found a pillow to prop behind my head.
“What happened?” he demanded. He was already unwrapping my ankle. I deliberated taking a chance with the truth—at least some version of it.
Chills suddenly overtook me and then a violent cramp in my stomach doubled me over. Diseased. The dogs had to be diseased.
Vairlyn, Jalaine, and two other women rushed in on Drake’s heels, and the room became a swirling chaos of questions.
“It was the dogs,” I answered. “I was afraid to tell you. I’m sorry.”
“Lower your voice, Jase!” Vairlyn ordered. “In the tunnels,” I said. “I—”
“What were you doing in the tunnels?”
Jalaine pushed Jase’s shoulder. “Mother said to stop yelling!”
“This is my fault,” Vairlyn said. “I promised her you’d show her the vault this afternoon.”
“It’s Jase’s fault,” Jalaine snapped. “I told him she wanted a tour.”
“Get out, Jalaine!” Jase shouted. “We have enough in here without you
“I’m not going—”
“Move aside. Give me some room.” A tall, thin woman elbowed her way in and pulled my dress higher, looking at my leg. “Yes, she’s definitely been bit by the ashti. Look at the spidering moving up her thigh. A servant is bringing my bag.”
Jase’s attention jumped from the healer back to me. “The ashti are stationed well past the vault entrance. What made you go way out there?”
“I was turned around. I—”
“There aren’t signs that say vault, Jase!” Jalaine interrupted. “How would she know?”
Another spasm gripped my abdomen and Jase was yelling again, this time at the healer, it seemed. At least I think he was. I couldn’t be sure. His lips moved out of sync with the sound I was hearing, echoing in long garbled ribbons.
I writhed in pain, my fingers digging into my stomach. And then I saw Death squeeze into the crowded room, grinning, waiting in the corner, his bony finger pointing at me. You, you are next.
“No,” I cried. “Not yet! Not today!”
The spasm finally passed and I saw a hand swipe the air, hitting the side of Jase’s head. His mother. “You heard her! Move aside! Give the healer room to work.”
The healer lifted a glass to my lips, encouraging me to sip a bitter blue liquid. I gagged as I choked it down.
“This will help. There now, keep it down. Another sip. That’s right.”
She used more of the blue powder to make a paste and applied it to the wounds on my leg. I heard her groan. “This one will have to be stitched. Eh, here’s another one. What were you thinking, girl? Here, take a sip of this now. It will put you out while I sew these up. The antidote should take effect soon. You’ll be fine by morning.”
“The dogs that bit you are poisonous,” Jase said. “Without the antidote, you would have been dead by week’s end. It’s a long and agonizing death.”
The thought became lost in a cloud of others, my lids growing heavy. The last thing I saw was a thin glint of steel and a thread being pushed through its eye.