Chapter no 38 – Kazi

Dance of Thieves

I perched in the window nook of Synové’s room, holding a bag of ice to my neck as the healer had ordered, my knees drawn to my chest. From here I had a clear view of the gardens below and the massive houses that sat behind them like heavy kings on thrones, their spired crowns piercing a tangerine sky.

Thin, gauzy clouds tinged with the same color flowed in lazy stripes above them, making the great fortress seem less like a fierce stone warrior and more like a warm refuge. I was tired. I ached. A refuge was all I wanted it to be.

The beauty suddenly turned magical when a dark beating cloud streamed across the sky. Bats. Thousands, maybe millions, a thick swirling, undulating line all set on the same course. Twilight glanced off their wings like sparks in a wind storm. Jase had told me the Moro mountains were riddled with caves, some so large they could hold all of Tor’s Watch. Now I knew they held bats too.

Come watch, I was going to say, but Wren sat snugly in a chair with her eyes closed, her fingers strumming the soft robe she wore. Synové still lingered in her bath, marveling at the hot water available with just the turn of a handle.

“How do you think they do it?” she asked.

I told her what Oleez had told me. There were heated cisterns on the roof. The mountains that loomed behind the fortress provided ample water

and pressure. Synové leaned forward, adding more hot water, cooing with its luxury, then lay back again.

I studied her, wondering at her silence. Her arms were folded behind her head, and her toe played with a drip from the faucet. It was curious that she hadn’t mentioned Eben yet. Not once. His last words as we left the kitchen should have spawned hours of speculation from her. Just a few weeks ago, she was mooning over him. Now she seemed more entranced with her hot bath than the surprising news—Eben and Natiya were not posing as husband and wife. They were married.

As I mused about Synové, it was Wren who surprised me with her thoughts instead. “I understand why Natiya despises the captain so much. I think he might be more contemptible than the Komizar.”

“How’s that?” I asked. I couldn’t imagine anyone more despicable than him.

“The Komizar had been poor like us and knew what having nothing was like, but the captain—he had everything—a prestigious position in Morrighan, a seat on the cabinet, wealth, power, but it wasn’t enough for him. And with all he had, he was cruel too. When the queen was shot—”

“No,” Synové said.

Wren and I both startled. We turned to look at her, uncertain what she meant. She was still immersed in the tub, her eyes distant, staring up at the ceiling. I wasn’t even sure she had been listening to us.

“It was the governors and guards who turned on us that day at Blackstone Square,” she continued. “They were the most contemptible ones.” Her gaze seemed fixed on a distant memory, and then she blinked, as if surprised she had said the words aloud. We all had our own horrors, but we didn’t talk about them. We circled the edges, mended one another’s outer cracks, and helped each other jump the breaches, but we didn’t step into the middle of them.

She blinked again and smiled as if that could sweep away the last few seconds from our memories, then sat up in the tub. “So neither of you are going to say a word about Eben and Natiya?”

Wren stumbled over her words. “We—I didn’t know—” “It came as a surprise,” I added.

Synové blew out a puff of air. “Oh, I saw it coming. How could you not?

But I guess we know the answer to the it question now, don’t we?”

I guessed we did.

Wren sighed. “So we don’t need to bring it up again.”

Synové stood and stepped from the tub, wrapping herself in a towel. She walked to the wardrobe, surveying the fresh clothes Vairlyn had sent her, commenting on each piece, wondering if we would all be eating in the dining room together, if Mason would be there, what we would have for dinner, how strange the large Ballenger family was, did anyone mind if she ate the last goat cheese ball, Synové being Synové again.

“Vairlyn thanked me, you know? For helping her son. I set her straight. I didn’t just help Mason. I saved his ass. But it—”

“Balm,” I said, pointing to the jar the healer had sent up for Synové’s head.

Wren stood and grabbed the jar from the table. “I’ll do it.”

I leaned back against the nook wall again, mesmerized by the glowing gardens, listening to Wren chastise Synové, ordering her to hold still, her admonishments making me smile, thankful that we were all alive. Thankful that Jase was alive. All I could think as I galloped forward on Mije today was that seconds mattered. Seconds could change everything. Seconds could erase one path and send you reeling down another.

“What’s that?” Synové asked, her hand feeling the back of her head. “Nothing,” Wren answered, swatting her hand away. Nothing but a bald

spot. Neither of us had told Synové that a small chunk of her lovely copper locks had been a casualty of the knife slicing over her scalp. Careful combing would camouflage it until it grew back, and Wren already seemed to have that part managed.

My eyelids were heavy as I watched the bubbling fountain in the center of the garden—but then something disturbed my dreamy calm—a sharp movement in the corner of my eye. I turned and glimpsed a figure hurry up the steps of Darkcottage and disappear inside. I sat up, not sure of what I had just seen, it happened so fast.

He was tall and square-shouldered, but from here I could discern no features. It was more the way he hurried, then looked back out at the garden before he slipped inside that unsettled me. Maybe he was afraid the dogs would be loosed soon. Or maybe he was afraid of something else.

“What is it?” Wren asked, my slight movement catching her attention. “Someone just went into Darkcottage,” I answered.

“An employee?”

“Maybe. But he was tall and square-shouldered.” Those had been the queen’s exact words to describe the captain.

Synové jumped up from her chair and peeked out the window. “What color was his hair?”

“White, I think, but it was hard to tell. Everything is cast with an orange light.”

“The captain’s hair is black,” she said.

Wren joined us at the window, surveying the grounds with her sharp eye. “It’s been six years. Hair can change.”

* * *

It felt like a trapped bird banged around in my chest as I hurried up the steps of Darkcottage. The clouds above had grown thicker and more threatening. I didn’t have much time before night fell and the dogs were loosed. I listened at the door before I eased it open a crack. I was met with silence, but as I stepped inside, I smelled something. A scent.

The whiff of wine? Sweat? Maybe with the house closed up, it was just stale air.

But it was something I hadn’t smelled the last time I was here.

A thin beam of light peeped through a draped window. It was all I had to navigate through near darkness. I stayed to the edges of the wooden floor to avoid creaks that might reveal my presence. I crept, room by room, through the kitchen, the drawing room, the pantry, the cellar, and the many chambers on the upper floors that I had searched the last time I was here. Again, they were empty, unchanged. I found no one.

I checked the door at the back side of the house. When I opened it, the grounds were empty, still as only twilight is. Through hedges and trees, I saw a glimpse of the stables. Had he been on his way there? But why go through Darkcottage? There were more direct paths. I closed the door. It was getting late. I needed to get back.

But when I turned a chill caressed me—Go—a voice crawled up my spine—Leave—a finger turned my jaw—Hurry—and then there was a rushed blur of voices, hands, faces, running through the hall—Shhh, this way, run, don’t say a word. Death strode among them, glanced at me, but

this time he didn’t smile. He wept. His arms were full and he could carry no more.

* * *

My chamber door was ajar when I returned to the main house. I cautiously opened it to find Jase looking in my wardrobe, pulling open drawers and ruffling through them. He wore only trousers—no shirt, no shoes, his hair still wet—as if he’d rushed in to search for something.

I shut the door firmly behind me.

He turned, startled. “Sorry, I knocked but you didn’t answer. I was getting ready for dinner and I realized I was out of shirts. And socks. I only had a few in the guest room and those are dirty in my saddlebag now.”

My shoulders relaxed. It was his wardrobe he was searching. Not mine. I had almost forgotten I had commandeered his room.

“I moved your things to the bottom drawers,” I said. “Take your time. I’m enjoying the view.” And I was. He held up his hand. His fingers were bandaged. A grin lit his face. “I’m injured. Maybe you can help me?”

I rolled my eyes. “Poor baby. As injured as a spider spinning a web, and you’re luring me into yours.”

“But it’s a very nice web?” “I’ll be the judge of that.”

I strolled over and he drew me into his arms, his kiss a bare whisper against my lips as though he feared he might hurt me. “My neck is fine,” I said. “Only bruised—no lasting damage. But your knuckles—” I pulled away and lifted his hand, examining his two bandaged fingers. “Your mother was right? Broken?”

He shrugged sheepishly as if reluctant to admit it. “Maybe a little cracked. At least according to the healer.”

“You should always listen to your mother.” “So she tells me.”

I knelt to rummage through the bottom drawer for a shirt. “White?


“What about you, Kazi?” he asked. “Do you always listen to your mother?”

I paused, gripping the socks in my hands, kneading them between my fingers. “It’s different for us, Jase. I already told you. She’s a general and has a lot of responsibilities. We don’t see each other often.”

“But she must still worry about you. And today—” I heard him sigh. I heard the guilt. “This isn’t your battle. First the labor hunters, and now this. Does your mother even know you’re here?”

Does she? Loss flooded my throat. It had gripped me today with a fresh, cruel hand, reaching into my heart, tugging, reminding me of what I had lost. When I saw the concern in Vairlyn’s eyes as she looked at my neck, when she shooed me into the house like one of her children to have my injuries tended, I saw the lost moments with my own mother, all the memories I never got the chance to make. That was something else the Previzi driver had stolen from me. Six short years was all I had with her. My mother’s absence hit me in a new, bitter way, because sometimes you can’t begin to know everything you’ve lost until someone shows you what you might have had.

I rummaged through another drawer. “How about this cream one?” “Kazi—”

I stood and faced him. “Stop. You don’t have to feel guilty. My mother raised me from a very young age to be a soldier. And apparently I do it well. I’ll take my reward now.”

I drew his mouth to mine and I kissed him, long and hard, working to create a memory I could hold on to. When I pulled away, I began buttoning up his shirt. His chest rose in a deep quivering breath. “I guess there are some advantages to having bandaged fingers.”

“I think you can do your socks yourself. I have to get ready too.” I shoved him back in the armchair then threw him three pairs to choose from. “How’d your talk with Jalaine go?”

He was quiet, as if thinking it over. “It went well,” he finally said. “I’m all caught up on arena business now.”

“That much to catch up on in just a few days?”

“The arena is a busy place. A lot can happen in a short time.”

I asked if I could go along with him tomorrow and he seemed pleased, but warned me he would have a full day and I might be left to my own devices at times. His being busy was convenient for me—it would give me time to look around unfettered, maybe just to find more of nothing. Is that

what I hoped to find? Nothing? I wasn’t sure anymore. For months, I had thought that finding the captain would close a door in my life. Many doors. It would not only erase present dangers but erase past failures too. It would make something right. It would bring justice to many where it couldn’t be found for one.

Jase noticed my silence. “What is it?”

Secrets I still can’t tell you, Jase. Oaths I can’t break. Truths I want to share but can’t. What is this? I knew the answer now as certainly as I knew the exact shade of Jase’s brown eyes. “Turn around,” I said. “I need to change.”

His mouth pulled in a smirk. “You forget that I’ve already seen you half naked?”

The intimacies of being chained together and my thin wet chemise had left little to the imagination when we were in the wilderness. “But only half. Turn.”

As he pulled on his socks, I threw on fresh clothes and began brushing my hair. I casually asked, “Will there be guests at dinner tonight?”

“No, just the family.”

“What about the guest staying at Darkcottage? When I was in Synové’s room, I saw someone go in there.”

He pulled on a boot and a puzzled expression filled his face, but he didn’t miss a beat. “No guests. It was probably just one of the groundsmen checking to make sure the windows were all shut. It looks like there’s a storm moving in.”

A storm. It made sense. I had seen the thickening clouds. And every window and shutter was pulled tight.

“He had white hair,” I added.

Jase stood, thinking for a moment. “Tall?” I nodded.

“Yes. That’s Erdsaff. Good man. He’s been with us for years. Summer storms can be the worst.”

I thought about the sudden violent storm that had hit when Jase and I crossed Bone Channel, and as I did the room flashed with light and a crack of thunder shook the windows—as if on cue to confirm it was only a groundsman I had seen.

* * *

Jase’s fingers laced with mine. We walked through the halls, a rhythm to our steps that announced we were together, a rhythm that felt powerful, unstoppable. Inevitable. We paused, kissed, lingered, like the world wasn’t waiting for us, like the secrets between us didn’t matter, like the entire house was ours and ours alone, every wall, every corner, every landing. We had escaped death today, and a second chance was ours.

“You’re a good bit of trouble, Kazi,” he said, pinning me against the foyer wall, “the kind of trouble that I—” Words burned in his eyes, words he wanted to say, but held back, a silent bargain between us. His thighs were hard against mine, and breath rippled through my chest like a fitful breeze. His thumb lightly traced my lower lip. “We could skip dinner,” he said, his voice husky. He had never pressured me, but I knew what was on his mind. It was on mine too.

“Dinner, pretty boy,” I whispered against his jaw. “Your family’s waiting.”

* * *

Everyone was already seated when we arrived in the dining room. Notably absent were Aunt Dolise and her family.

“Nice of you to finally join us,” Mason said.

“Beware the gods—you missed prayers,” Titus added.

Priya clucked her tongue. “At least the cold soup won’t get cold.”

Their greetings were sarcastic, but a smile hid behind each one. They were happy to see their brother. Maybe even me.

“I’m sorry we’re late,” I said. “Time got away from us. We—” “No need to apologize,” Vairlyn said. “It’s been an eventful day.”

Bowls filled with cold mint soup were already placed in front of everyone. Vairlyn and Gunner sat at one end of the long table and the two seats at the head remained empty. Jase pulled one chair out for me, and then he took the other.

“Hmm,” Priya said quietly, noting my spot at the head of the table.

Wren and Synové sat near the middle, and I noticed that Mason was seated next to Synové. I wondered how she had orchestrated that. Samuel sat across from Wren, his right hand heavily bandaged and his arm elevated

in a sling. Between his injury, Synové’s bandaged head, and the scrapes and cuts on Wren, Mason, and Jase, we were a sorry looking lot, though decidedly less bloody than earlier today.

“Did you see it?” “Did you see it?”

Lydia and Nash bounced in their seats, echoing each other’s excitement. “Open it! Read it!” Lydia said.

Lying beside my bowl was the letter from the queen. The seal had already been broken. I looked down at the other end of the table and Gunner shrugged. “You weren’t here. I wasn’t sure if it was urgent.”

I unfolded the letter and saw immediately that it was written in Morrighese, not Vendan. As I expected, the queen intended for them to read it. I read it aloud, though I was certain most of those present had already viewed it.

“Dear Kazi, Faithful Rahtan in valued service to the crown,”

Wren choked on her water and I sent her a warning look. The queen was more of a casual note writer. She wasn’t one for pomp and circumstance, and her formal greeting made it clear that none of her words were what they seemed. She had understood my letter to her to its core.

“I read your letter with delight and gratitude that the Ballenger family is extending its warm hospitality to you, and to my other esteemed guards.”

Delight meant the whole Vendan Council had a good laugh over it.

“Your revelations are indeed astonishing.”

I don’t believe a word.

“This wild and untamed territory you’ve described is intriguing, and I trust you are using your time wisely to learn all you can about it.”

I hope you’ve found our man by now.

“Lord Falgriz—

I stifled a snort of my own. Griz was no lord, and he hated the teasing title the queen sometimes called him.

“Lord Falgriz,” I continued, “is escorting my brother to the palace at Merencia where I intended to meet with him.”

Griz is waiting at the rendezvous point, along with troops.

“But I can put some of my longer-term plans on hold and make a short stop at Hell’s Mouth.”

Even a queen could not put some plans on hold.

“I accept the Ballenger invitation to visit. I look forward to seeing you at month’s end.”

If you have still not found your quarry by then, he is not there. Come home.

“Your faithful service is a gift to me and all the kingdoms. It will never be forgotten.”

She signed off with all four of her given names, which I knew she never used.

The letter held no surprises except for the last line. It was a reminder—I believe in you.

Pleased chatter erupted around the table, all of it polite because Wren, Synové, and I were present, but I heard the crisp ring of entitlement. This was something they felt they had coming, and it was long overdue, but I noticed Jase said nothing, his eyes focused on Jalaine instead. She’d said nothing ever since we arrived, her back stiff against her chair, her eyes cast downward at her lap.

While still looking at Jalaine, Jase asked, “Samuel, how is your hand?” The mirth of the room dulled.

Samuel struggled to master his spoon with his left hand, the green soup spilling over the sides with his clumsy movements. “I’ll live,” he answered. “Jalaine, look up from your lap,” Jase said. “Look around. You have

nothing to add?”

“Jase,” Priya said, warning in her tone. He shot her an icy stare to quiet her.

Jalaine’s attention rose from her lap. Her eyes were swollen and red. Her gaze circled the table, as if seeing everyone for the first time, until her eyes landed back on Jase. “Nothing to add, brother. Not a word.”

Wondering glances ricocheted around the table. Surprisingly, it was the nasty one who tried to bring a measure of cheer back to the room. “I have more good news,” Gunner said. “While you were away, another kingdom signed a lease for apartments. Cruvas will now make us a base for trading too. And that shipment we promised the Candorans? I have confirmation it will be here in two weeks.”

Now Gunner had Jase’s full attention. “Two weeks? That’s excellent news.” He leaned forward, eager to discuss it more, but then sat back. “We’ll talk more later.”

Vairlyn’s eyes nervously swept the table. “That’s enough about business,” she said. “Let’s enjoy our soup.”

Conversation erupted as everyone dug in. Nash asked Wren question after question, mostly about her ziethes, which I had persuaded her to leave behind in her room tonight, though she still wore a dagger. I was surprised to see Mason talking quietly to Synové, asking about her head, whispering something else I couldn’t hear. Priya questioned Samuel about the settlement, but I noticed Jalaine remained quiet.

“What’s wrong with your sister?” I whispered to Jase.

“I’ll explain later,” he answered and his hand reached under the table and squeezed my thigh. His expression was taut, and he looked like he wanted to be anywhere but here right now.

A loud clatter stopped the conversation and everyone looked at Samuel. His spoon had tumbled from his fingers and green soup splattered the table. “Sorry,” he said. “It may take me a while to get the hang of using my left hand.” He blotted the green spots with his napkin. Wren pushed her seat back and circled around to his side of the table, grabbing a mug from the sideboard as she walked. She placed the mug in front of him and poured the soup from the bowl into it. “There,” she said. “Drink. Problem solved.” She returned to her seat.

Samuel smiled and lifted the mug to his lips, but Jalaine’s eyes pinched with horror as she watched him. She pushed back her chair and fled the room.

“What’s wrong with Jalaine?” Lydia asked.

Nash looked at Wren. “Can I drink my soup from a mug too?” “Should one of us go after her?” Aram asked.

“Jalaine will be fine,” Jase said firmly. “She’s just tired. I’m giving her some time off from the arena.”

Gunner leaned back and moaned. “Why would—”

“Gunner,” Jase said, stopping his brother mid-sentence with a sharp glance. I saw how quickly Jase could be two different people, the brother and the Patrei. That was the strain I had seen in his face earlier, the weight of it pressing on him.

His focus turned and I watched him eyeing Lydia and Nash, choosing his next words carefully. He stood and walked to the sideboard. He grabbed two mugs and set them in front of Nash and Lydia, then emptied their bowls

of soup into them as he explained. “One of the crew we encountered today was a friend of Jalaine’s.”

Priya’s mouth fell open. Titus sat forward in his seat. Vairlyn’s lips pressed tight. Everyone but Nash and Lydia knew that the “crew” we encountered were dead at the bottom of a gully now.

“Who was it?” Aram asked. Jase sighed. “Fertig.”

A hush fell at the same time Lydia shouted, “I know Fertig! He’s Jalaine’s beau.”

She and Nash began happily slurping their soup from the mugs.

Jase walked around the table, returning to his seat. “There’s more. Jalaine had mentioned Gunner’s message to Fertig—the one calling us home. That’s how he knew where to find us.”

Vairlyn leaned forward, her fingers pressing on her forehead. “Fertig?” Priya said, as if she still couldn’t quite believe it.

“Why didn’t you say something when we were out there?” Samuel asked.

“I wanted to get information from Jalaine first.” “Which one was he?” I asked.

Jase eyed my neck, my question answered.

Fertig was the one who had choked me—the one I had killed.

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