Chapter no 31 – Jase

Dance of Thieves

The last time we were there I had barely glanced at the settlement. When we’d rounded up the shorthorn in an outer pasture, my father had yelled, “We already warned you—our land, our air, our water. You trespass; you pay! We’ll be back for more if you stay.” We didn’t go back, and if we had, we would have taken only one more shorthorn. But someone did go back and took more. They took everything.

“Who did it? Find out!” I growled to Mason. He was the one who supervised the magistrates. One of them had to have seen or heard something.

The Ballengers were being attacked from all angles. Even if I disliked the Vendans, this was not their battle. They didn’t even know what they were being used for.

We had been struck silent when we first saw the destruction, but then rage had taken hold. As we walked up the hill to the rock monument, out of range of others who might hear us, everyone threw out possibilities of who had ravaged the settlement.

“Rybart and Truko,” Mason said. “They’d steal socks off a baby. This has their hands all over it.”

“Four Ravians were taken,” Gunner added. “They’d be easy enough to spot in their stables.”

Titus shook his head. “No, they would have sold them off by now. I can check with the Previzi when we get back. See if they had any questionable


“Half their trades are questionable,” I reminded him. The Previzi unloaded merchandise that was better left untraced—like the Candoran ambassador’s side deals. Like the Valsprey that had come into our hands. We took advantage of what they offered just like everyone else. Some goods need to be bought and sold discreetly, my father had explained when I was twelve and questioned why we used them. And some questions are better left unasked, he added.

“What about the dozen short horns?” Gunner asked. “It wouldn’t be easy to herd them, especially in a midnight raid. Where did they take them?”

“Dead in a gully somewhere,” I answered. “Maybe the Ravians too. Starling Gorge isn’t far from here and has some good forest cover. This wasn’t about acquiring merchandise. It was a message.”

“To make us look bad.”

The fires and labor hunters were meant to scare the citizenry, the caravan attacks to hurt business and frighten off traders from the arena, but this attack was meant to bring the kingdoms down upon us.

When we loaded up the last of the meager Vendan belongings, it felt like our questions had been wrung out of us and we were struck silent again. Kazi’s words jabbed me like a bony elbow in my ribs. They had so very little to begin with. It shouldn’t take long to rebuild.

The words stuck with me as Caemus and I walked the length of the valley floor hammering stakes into place to mark foundations. The two of us had gotten off to a bad start, and things hadn’t improved much from there. He was a bullheaded ox. Good soil? It was damn fine soil. Maybe being an obstinate block of wood with a perpetual frown was what was necessary for someone to lead a settlement out here in the middle of nowhere.

I had already known the soil was good. I’d been to this valley many times before, camping here with my father and older siblings. The towering oak still spread out in the middle of the valley, and a rope with a stout stick tied to the end still swung from it too. I fell from that rope more times than I could count. Somehow, I never broke anything.

When I was nine, I told my father that one day I would build a house and live here. He said no, this valley was only a place to visit, that my home

and destiny was back at Tor’s Watch. This valley was for somebody else yet to come. I had always wondered who that would be.

The shouts of the children turned both of our heads. They had already found the rope and were taking turns swinging from the tree.

“Another house, here?” I asked.

“We’ve already staked out four. That was all we had. Some of us share.”

Kazi had told me there were seven families so I had sent enough timber for seven homes.

“We may end up with extra lumber. If you were to build more houses, where would you want them?” I had been careful to leave the choices up to him. I didn’t want to be accused later of sabotaging their settlement.

He looked at me warily. He still suspected a trick.

To hell with it.

I was tired and I was hungry. I staked out the last three myself.

* * *

Kerry worked silently, not complaining, but stabbing his small garden spade into the soil like it was my kneecap.

“How old are you?” I asked. “Old enough.”

“What kind of answer is that?”

“Old enough to know I don’t like you.” “Four,” I said. “You must be about four.”

His eyes flashed with indignation. “Seven!” he shouted. “Then you should know the proper way to dig a post hole.” “Nothing wrong with my—”

“Come over here. I’ll show you.”

He grudgingly walked over, dragging his spade behind him. I marked a small circle in the soil, and we began a new hole together. He twisted his face into a scowl but followed my directions.

“You go to school?” I asked.

“Jurga teaches me letters, but she doesn’t know them all.” “Is Jurga your mother?”

“Sort of. She took me in.”

I learned there were eight children at the settlement. Three were orphans, and Kerry was one of them. He only had a faint memory of his parents. They had died in a fire back in Venda. It explained the pink scarring that crept up his arm.

“Would you like to learn all the letters?”

He shrugged. “Maybe. Don’t see what use it is.” “You like stories?”

His eyes brightened, but then he remembered he was supposed to be scowling and his brows pulled down. “Sometimes.”

“If you learn all your letters, then you can read stories on your own.” “Still no use. Don’t have no books.”

I thought about the belongings gathered from the homes and loaded in wagons. There was crockery, barrels of dried food, cookware, tools, clothing, some basic furniture, and nothing more.

“This hole’s finished,” I said. “That’s enough digging for today. Go get some dinner.”

* * *

I pulled off my shirt and washed up at the river’s edge. There were several Vendans down there doing the same. I felt their stares, scrutinizing the tattoo across my shoulder and chest, trying to make sense of it. Or maybe just trying to make sense of me.

Heavy footsteps tromped behind me. “Canvas is up,” Mason said, then stooped beside me to wash up too. I’d had several large open air tents brought in to protect against the sun and possible rain until the homes were finished. He leaned closer. “Friendly bunch, aren’t they?”

“At least one of them is.”

He knew who I was talking about and frowned. “She has it out for me. I don’t know why.”

“Maybe because you were the one who relieved her of her weapons back in Hell’s Mouth.”

“I gave them back—which I still think was a big mistake.”

“It was my agreement with Kazi. I don’t think you need to worry about Synové stabbing you.”

“She’s an expert archer, you know?”

“Most of those on our patrols are expert archers. She’s Rahtan. It doesn’t surprise me.”

“No, when I say expert, I mean, expert. She could shoot the shadow off a fly at a hundred paces.”

He told me that when he gave her weapons back as I ordered, she drew an arrow with hardly a thought and shot a loose chain on a passing wagon, pinning it into silence, saying the jingle annoyed her.

“I think she was trying to impress you more than threaten you.


He shook his head. “Her mouth is what’s going to do me in.” “Speaking of mouths, Gunner behaving himself?”

“Whatever you said to him must have sunk in. He hasn’t said a single word.” I didn’t think I really needed to warn Gunner to keep his temper in check. He’d been notably quiet ever since we left the old site. He was probably thinking the same thing as the rest of us. The Vendans had been caught in the crossfire of a battle that wasn’t theirs.

A shadow passed over us, and I looked up. It was Caemus. He washed up silently near us, but with a long riverbank in both directions, I knew he could have chosen a spot farther away. There was something on his mind.

He scooped up a handful of sand and rubbed it in around his fingernails, trying to scrub away the embedded dirt. “Kerry do a good job?” he finally asked.

“He’s learning.”

Caemus finished his hands, scrubbed his face, then stood, wiping his hands on his trousers. He looked at me, his weathered face still shining with water.

“I didn’t know you had kin buried there.”

I was silent for a moment, old angers rising again, not feeling I had to justify any of the reasons why we wanted them off our land.

“We don’t,” I finally answered. “It’s a spot to mark where an ancestor died.” I stood so we were eye to eye. “We don’t know for sure if it even happened there, but it’s a traditional spot we’ve recognized for generations. And we Ballengers are big on tradition.”

His head cocked to the side, his chin dipping once in acknowledgement. “We have traditions too.”

I looked down at the tether of bones hanging from his belt. “That one of them?”

He nodded. “If you have a minute, I’ll tell you about them.” I sat back on the bank and pulled Mason down beside me. “We have a minute.”

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