Kazi’s head rested against my chest, deep in sleep as I carried her back to her room, but troubled words tumbled from her lips, Don’t hurt me … I have nothing … Please … don’t. She had mumbled similar words in the drawing room as the healer sewed her up. Please don’t hurt me. Her words had brought a crashing hush to the room.
“Shhh,” I whispered as we turned down the last hallway, “no one’s going to hurt you.” By the time we reached her room, her expression had relaxed and she was silent, drawn into a deep, oblivious sleep. I still didn’t know how she hid the wounds from me for half the night. The bites alone had to be unbearable, but the poison—
My mother walked ahead of me and threw open the bedroom door. I carried Kazi inside and laid her on the bed. She didn’t stir an eyelash. I looked for a pulse at her neck. It was the only thing that told me she was alive at all.
“It’s the sleep elixir,” my mother said, as if she could read my mind. We both stood there for long, quiet minutes, staring at her.
I knew what my mother was thinking too. Sylvey.
Their coloring wasn’t the same, but in sleep, Kazi still looked like her in many ways. Small, vulnerable, swallowed up in a sea of rumpled bedclothes. Sylvey was eleven when she died. I was the one who carried her from the ice bath back to her bed. She died in my arms.
Hold my hand, Jase. Promise me you won’t let go, she had cried with the last of her strength. Don’t let them put me in the tomb. I’m afraid. I had thought it was only delirious words brought on by her fever.
Stop talking like that, sister. You’re going to be fine.
Promise me, Jase, don’t put me there. Not the tomb. Please, promise me.
But I didn’t promise her. Her lips were peeling and pale, her eyes sunken, her skin clammy, her voice already a ghost, all signs that she was leaving this world. But I had refused to see. I wouldn’t accept that a Ballenger could die. Especially not Sylvey.
Go to sleep, sister. Sleep. You’ll be fine in the morning.
She had relaxed in my arms then. I thought she was sleeping. My mother had stepped out of the room for only a few minutes to check on my brothers and sister who were sick too. When she came back, Sylvey was dead in my arms.
My mother wiped Kazi’s brow with a cloth. “You were harsh with her,” she said.
“I was only trying to get answers.”
“I know.” She pulled a stool closer to the bed. “And you were frightened. I’ll sit with her. Go find your answers.”
* * *
The air was dank, as it always was here, as if the chilly breaths of the dead still hung here in the darkness, unable to escape. The tunnels were both sanctuary and prison, stuffy like the tombs that Sylvey had begged me to save her from. I listened to the silence, the solitary sound of my boots scuffling on the cobbles, and I imagined Kazi slipping through here undetected. The tunnel was deserted now except for guards at the entrance, but today when she had passed there had to have been dozens of workers passing through—and none had stopped her?
Still, I looked at the wagons parked along the perimeter, the pallets, the shadows, all providing places to hide if you were careful, and it was only a spare number of paces from the workyard to the T where another set of tunnel systems branched off the main one. I stopped at the faded crest that marked the entrance, barely illuminated with lantern light, the only thing that indicated the vault was down this way.
You were harsh with her.
I remembered shouting, feeling out of control. One minute I had been thinking about dancing, and the next I was unwrapping a bloody cloth from her leg as she doubled over in pain. Right beneath my nose something was going on, and I hadn’t seen it. I was afraid to tell you. Had I refused to see it? I thought about her damp back. I had noticed the beaded line of sweat on her brow too. It’s the warm night. It wasn’t that warm, and there was a breeze. But I had accepted her explanation and let myself be distracted by other details.
I went past the entrance to the vault and walked to the end where she had gone—so much farther out of the way. I turned the final corner and barked a command to dogs I couldn’t see. They came out of their alcoves to greet me, moaning and cooing, with their hind ends wagging, hoping for a scratch behind their ears. The ashti looked just like any other dogs, though closer to the size of a timber wolf—and sly. They could have killed her. They had killed before. Her reflexes had to be fast to escape them.
The dogs kept intruders away, but most would-be trespassers were far more terrified of dying from their poisonous bite than from being torn apart. It was an unpleasant way to die, and not many had the antidote. It came from the far north where the dogs were from. Kbaaki traders had gifted them to us generations ago after we gave them refuge during a late winter storm. The milksap antidote didn’t grow here, and the Kbaaki still brought us a supply once a year when they made their pilgrimage to the south.
I bent down, holding the torch closer to the floor. A stain had been smeared. She had taken the time to clean up the blood, trying to cover her tracks. Why?
Mason’s words stung me over and over again, like a wasp that wouldn’t die.
She can’t be trusted.
I stepped up to the door and checked the lock. It was secure and appeared to be undisturbed. I turned and scratched each dog behind the ear, and they whined their appreciation.
It was true—the vault wasn’t marked. You had to know where to turn, but what made her pass up two other passages and come all the way out here? Only curiosity? I had told her about the vault in the first few days we were together. She’d been fascinated by it, the idea of a shelter carved into a
granite mountain and the history and stories that began there. Even though I knew she didn’t believe it all, I’d been happy she had taken a genuine interest. It wasn’t surprising that she wanted to visit the source of my claims, and I should have known by now that Kazi didn’t wait for permission for anything.
Be sure to save time for a tour, Jase. Kazi wants to see the vault. Jalaine had tried to say it offhandedly as she left for the arena this afternoon, but her tone had been thick with pride. Kazi was Vendan, an outsider, and she wanted to see the vault. It was an acknowledgment that for us was a sign of respect. And for Jalaine, I guessed, it brought Kazi deeper into our inner circle—the vault was our beginnings, where our schooling began, the source of much of our history.
Without the vault, none of us would be here. It was nothing but a dusty, mostly abandoned relic now. Nash and Lydia still did some transcribing there, as we all had once done, but I hadn’t been inside in months. In spite of the broken, decayed furnishings, it was still remarkable in many ways, the natural filtration of the mountain still providing fresh air and water, but beyond that it was uninhabitable, partly by design. It was meant to be remembered as it once was.
It’s Jase’s fault.
I returned to the main house. Servants were still clearing the gardens after the party, all the guests now gone or retired to Greycastle. Wren and Synové had all but ripped Kazi from my arms when they burst into the drawing room and saw her. There was no trust there, and they assumed the worst until they saw the healer and Kazi’s stitched wounds. Then an expression of guilt washed over them. They knew she had been bitten, but they too had said nothing. Of course, they had no way of knowing that the dogs’ bites were deadly. Once assured she would be fine, they allowed a crew to escort them back to the inn.
I opened the door to Kazi’s room. My mother still sat on the stool, and Oleez was in the chair on the other side of the bed. I noted that Kazi’s dress had been removed and replaced with a nightgown, and her hair had been unbraided from the top of her head, falling in loose waves across her pillow.
“I’ll sit with her now,” I said. “You can go.”
Once they were gone, I walked over and looked down at Kazi, still lost in her drugged dream world, her chest rising in reassuring soft breaths.
You were watching my chest?
I remembered when she caught me in this confession, how I had tripped over my words trying to explain, as if I was twelve years old. We had both distrusted each other then. That day already seemed like a hundred years ago.
I kicked off my boots and eased down on the bed beside her, pulling her close. She nestled in with a gentle murmur, her arm locking around mine.
You’ve infected me with a poison that I don’t want to flush out.
I lay there next to her, and even though the healer assured me she would be fine, I pressed my fingers to her wrist, feeling the thrum of her pulse.
I can’t promise you any tomorrows.
And that was all I wanted.