Chapter no 4 – Kazi

Dance of Thieves

Livestock pens were broken and scattered like tinder, and the stink of scorched grass burned our lungs. Rage blazed beneath my skin as I took in the destruction. Wren and Synové rumbled with fury. Our task suddenly fractured and multiplied like an image in a shattered mirror. In the end, the anger would serve us. We all knew it. Our sham excuse for coming here— investigating treaty violations—had suddenly grown, full-bodied, sharp, all teeth, claws, and venom.

The settlement consisted of four homes, a longhouse, a barn, and multiple sheds. They had all suffered damage. The barn was completely destroyed. We spotted a stooped man, furiously hoeing a garden, seemingly oblivious to the carnage around him. When he saw us coming, he raised his hoe as a weapon, then lowered it when he recognized Wren’s cloak made with the patched fabrics of the Meurasi clan. My leather waistcoat was embossed with the revered thannis found on the Vendan shield, and Synové’s horse had the tasseled nose band of the clans who lived in the eastern fens. All distinctly Vendan if you knew what you were looking for.

“Who did this?” I asked when we reached him, though I already knew.

He straightened, pushing on his bowed back. His face was lined with years in the sun, his cheekbones tired hills in a sagging landscape. Partial faces peeked around doors and between cracked shutters in the dwellings behind him, more settlers too afraid to come out. His name was Caemus, and he explained that the marauders had come in the middle of the night. It

was dark and they couldn’t see their faces, but he knew it was the Ballengers. They had come just a week earlier with a warning to the settlers to keep their shorthorns off their land. They took one as payment.

Wren looked around. “Their land? Out here? In the middle of the Cam Lanteux?”

“It’s all theirs,” he answered. “As far as they can see, according to them.

Every blade of grass belongs to them.” Synové’s knuckles whitened with rage. “Where’s your livestock?” I asked.

“Gone. They took the rest. I guess as payment for the air we breathe.”

I noticed there were no horses either. “And the Ravians that Morrighan gifted you?”

“Everything’s gone except for one old dray horse for our wagon. A few of the others went into town to buy more supplies. They won’t be able to get much. Vendans pay a premium.”

His jaw was set hard, his fingers tight around the hoe. Vendans didn’t scare off easily, but he said he was afraid some might be too fearful to return to the settlement.

“You won’t be paying a premium to anyone, nor payment for the air you breathe,” I said. I took a last look at the damage. “It may take a while, but reparations will be made to you.”

“We don’t want more trouble from—”

“The other settlers will return, and it is you who will receive payment.” He looked at me, doubtful. “You don’t know the Ballengers.”

“True,” I answered. “But neither do they know us.” And they were about to.

* * *

Hell’s Mouth was twenty miles away. It was a remote, mysterious city, far from the seat of Eislandia, that few knew anything about, other than it was a growing trading center. Until a few months ago, I had never heard its name. But it was supposedly a large enough town that it offered the opportunity for buying and trading for the settlement. I was tired and irritable as we rode. I hadn’t slept well last night, even in my tent. This miserable flat wilderness pecked at me like a relentless sour bird, and it seemed

impossible that any sizable town existed way out here. It felt like I hadn’t taken a deep breath in days. Synové chattered nonstop, and I snapped at her like a shrill crow when she brought up the racaa again.

“I’m sorry,” I said after a long silence. “I shouldn’t have jumped on you.”

“I’m afraid I’ve run out of fresh subjects,” Synové answered.

I was truly wretched. And she was right—she knew. I didn’t like the silence, and she was only trying to fill it for me. I was used to the noise of the city, the constant hum, the bang, the wail, the sound of people and animals, the tinny patter of rain on roofs and the slosh of wagons in muddy puddles, the chant of street peddlers trying to entice someone to buy a pigeon, an amulet, or cup of steaming thannis. I longed to hear the roar of the river, the jingle of soldiers as they marched down a lane, the heave of a hundred men pulling the great bridge into place, the sounds of remembrance bones clacking as they swung from a thousand belts, all of it teeming together like something alive and whole on its own.

All those things helped me to hide. They were my armor. The windswept silence left me naked. “Please,” I said, “tell me about how they give birth again.”

“Eggs, Kazi,” Wren interrupted. “You weren’t listening.”

Synové cleared her throat, her signal for us to be quiet. “I’ll tell you a story instead.”

Wren and I both raised our brows, dubious, but still, I was grateful.

It was one she had told many times before, but she often added an unexpected twist to make us laugh. She told the story of the devastation, the way the Fenlanders told it. She reverted to her thick, easy drawl. The angel Aster played large in this version. The gods had become lazy, not tending to the world as they should, and the Ancients had elevated themselves to godly positions, soaring among the heavens, ravenous in power but weak in wisdom, crushing all in their path, and so Aster, who was guardian of the heavens, swept her hand through the galaxy, gathered a fistful of stars, and threw them to earth to destroy the wickedness that dwelled there. But there was a Remnant on the earth she found to be pure of heart, and to them she showed mercy, leading them away from the devastation to a place of safety behind the gates of Venda. “And to the Fenlanders, of course, supreme over all, she gave a fat roasted pig with a glittering star in its mouth.” Every time

she told the story, Aster always bestowed the Fenlanders with a different gift—usually a fat, juicy one—depending on how hungry Synové was at the moment.

Wren took a turn too, telling the story with the details from her own clan. There were no roasted pigs in her version, but plenty of sharp blades. I had no version of my own, no clan that I belonged to—even among Vendans I was anchorless—but one thing was constant in all the versions I heard, the gods and angels destroyed the world when men aspired to be gods and mercy had fled their hearts.

No one was spared except for a small Remnant who found favor, and that was how all the kingdoms began, but as the queen often warned, The work is never over. Time circles. Repeats. We must ever be watchful.

Now it seemed, we needed to be watching the Ballengers. Wren had the eyes of a hawk and called out first. “There it is!”

Hills rippled the plain in the distance, and scattered ruins finally appeared, flecking the landscape with rich, lush shadows, but far beyond them, tucked at the foot of a misty lavender mountain, a dark blotch grew larger. It took form and color as we got closer and sprawled like a giant beast lying at the feet of its brooding master. What kind of beast was Hell’s Mouth, or, maybe more important, who was its master? An oval of deep green appeared to hover over it all like a foreboding spiked tiara. Trees? Strange, unearthly trees. Nothing like I had ever seen before.

Synové sucked in a breath. “That is Hell’s Mouth?”

My pulse quickened, and I stepped up in my stirrups. Mije snorted, ready to break into a gallop. Not yet, boy. Not yet.

Glimpses of ancient streets began to appear, like the backs of subterranean snakes surfacing as if they traveled just below us.

“By the gods,” Wren said. “It’s as big as Sanctum City.”

I took a deep relaxed breath and sat back in my saddle. This was going to be easy.

* * *

The city was just inside the border of Eislandia, a Lesser Kingdom shaped like a large falling tear, and Hell’s Mouth was at its apex, distant and remote from the rest of the kingdom. Just outside the border, the Ballenger

stronghold overlooked it all, but their fortress was impenetrable according to a report the queen had received. We would see.

Unlike the Sanctum in Venda, there were no walls around this city, no Great River to hold it prisoner. It ambled with the boldness of a warlord, nothing daring to hold it back. Its homes and hamlets reached out with strong crooked fingers, and the whole city seemed to be hemmed in only by the circle of trees that towered over it like a mystical wreath. There were multiple points of entry, and far off we could see many other travelers making their way into the city too. While still a good distance away, Wren picked out a suitable abandoned ruin as we passed, and she and Synové stowed some packs there before we continued on.

Though many travelers entered the city, when we rode in we drew stares. It could be they saw the Vendan crest on our tack, or maybe they saw something in our faces. We weren’t there to buy or sell goods. We weren’t there for any reason they perceived as good. They were right.

Wren hissed. Shook her head. Grumbled. “I don’t like it.” She pulled out her ziethe, spun it, and shoved it back in its scabbard, the hilt snapping against the leather.

Synové and I exchanged a glance. We knew this was coming. It was Wren’s ritual, as she recalculated every risk in the minutes before we actually took the risks. “You sure? They’re a powerful family. If they lock you up—”

“Yes,” I answered before she could propose something else. It was the only way this was going to work. “Like I told Griz,” I said, our gazes meeting, “I’ve got this. So do you.”

She nodded. “Blink last.” “Always,” I confirmed.

There were all kinds of unwritten laws that we lived by on the streets. Wren knew that was one of mine. Blinking last wasn’t just an occupational tip to reel in a target, it was a survival aspiration.

We proceeded forward, gawking at the strange city, taking turns pointing out oddities, like the web of rambling structures looming overhead where the thick, muscled arms of tree branches held them securely aloft, rope suspension bridges connecting them to more structures—homes, shops, even a large, sprawling inn that ascended into the trees—shadows upon shadows and endless paths to follow. The architecture of the city was a mix

of old and new, ruins repurposed into homes and shops. The pitted ancient stones of another time were joined and fitted with newly polished marble. In some places, the giant trees were a staunch troop of sentries huddled close together, their trunks as wide as two wagons, and only dappled light danced through their soaring canopies. In the center of town, the sentries took a step back, leaving an opening for the sun to shine unobstructed into Hell’s Mouth. It shone now on a white marble building ahead, giving it an ethereal glow.

A temple.

It was the focal point of a wide, circular plaza that was thick with people, bustle, noise, and—and everything I loved. I paused, taking it all in, and then for a handful of seconds I held my breath. It was a fruitless habit I couldn’t shake, and I scanned the crowd for a face that haunted me but was never there. I sighed with both relief and disappointment when I didn’t see it. As we circled around, I noticed that the avenues were laid out like the spokes of a wheel with the plaza at its center. We found a livery to feed and water our horses, and while Wren and Synové got our horses settled in stalls, I asked the stable master for directions to the magistrate’s office.

“Right here. You’re looking at him.”

The magistrates I had met in Reux Lau didn’t muck stables on the side. “You also enforce the law here?”

“I keep watch. There’s ten of us.” His shoulders pulled back and he squinted one eye. “What’s this all about?”

I told him who I was, here by the authority of the King of Eislandia, which was only a slight stretch of the truth, and also by the Queen of Venda to investigate treaty violations.

He didn’t try to disguise his slow perusal of me from my boots to the sword and knives belted at my side. His gaze lingered there. “Don’t know anything about violations.”

Sure you don’t.

I moved closer and he eased back a step. Apparently even he knew of Rahtan. “As an enforcer of the law for your king, I instruct you to tell us anything you know.”

He shook his head and shrugged. Nothing. I was ready to twist the little weasel into a braided loaf, but it was too soon for that. I had bigger game to

hunt. “There are Vendans here in town buying supplies. Have you seen them?”

He seemed relieved to see me on my way. “Sure,” he answered, now eager to talk again. “Saw them headed that way this morning.” He pointed down an avenue across the plaza. “There’s a mercantile there—”

“Where Vendans have the privilege of paying double?”

He shrugged his indifference. “Don’t know anything about that either, but I’ll tell you, folks here are loyal, and the Ballengers own this town. They always have.”

“Interesting,” I said. “Are you aware that Hell’s Mouth is part of Eislandia, and not the Ballenger dynasty?”

A smirk lifted the corner of his mouth. “Hard to tell the difference sometimes. Half those here have some relation to them, and the other half are in debt to them.”

“Really. And which are you, Magistrate?”

His taciturn demeanor bloomed again, and he only grinned. I turned and left but was only a few steps away when he called after me. “Just a friendly warning. Be careful whose toes you go stepping on.”


I gathered up Wren and Synové, and we asked a few questions as we made our way to the mercantile. The responses we garnered were similar to the magistrate’s. They knew nothing. I wasn’t sure if it was because we were Rahtan or if they were too afraid to speak about the Ballengers to any form of law.

Outside the mercantile, a striped awning stretched over barrels and crates brimming with food—grains, dried beans, salted meats, pickled hocks, colorful fruits and vegetables—all displayed in neat rows. The abundance surprised me, but it always did when I traveled to other cities. Inside, the store appeared to sell more food and other wares. Through the windows, I viewed shovels, bolts of fabric, and a wall full of tinctures. A dray pulled by an old draft horse was parked nearby, and I wondered if it belonged to the Vendan settlers. As we approached, I watched a clerk chase off children who were playing near stacked crates of oranges. My tongue prickled. Bright, luscious oranges. I had tasted only one in my whole life— when I stole into the home of a quarterlord. I was searching for something else but found it sitting on the middle of his table like a revered ornament. I

sniffed it, then joyously peeled it, scattering the dimpled skin across the tabletop so the quarterlord would see that his treasure was appreciated. With every tear of the peel, I breathed in the heavenly spray of its scent. As soon as it passed my lips, I knew it was divinely inspired and had to be the first food the gods ever created.

My cheeks ached with the memory of golden wedges bursting in my mouth. Even the way it was fashioned had fascinated me, impossibly organized into neat little half-moons packaged in gilded perfection. It was the first and last time I had had one. Oranges rarely made their way to Venda on Previzi wagons, and when they did they were a luxury reserved only for quarterlords or governors—usually as a gift from the Komizar— like the other rarities that only he could conjure. I understood the children’s lust for the mysterious fruit.

A woman leaving the mercantile called to the children, and they ran to the dray, jumping into the back, taking the goods she carried from her arms. Once the goods were stacked, their eyes turned longingly back to the oranges.

Wren called to the woman in Vendan, and her eyes immediately widened, surprised to hear her own tongue. Here they spoke Landese, which was essentially identical to Morrighese, the predominant language of the continent.

Once we were close, Synové asked, “Are you from the settlement?”

The woman glanced nervously around her. “Yes,” she said quietly. “I’m afraid we had some trouble. Some of our provisions in an outbuilding were burned, so we had to come to the city for more.”

She told us that this had used up the last of their money. I heard the fear in her voice. Her group had come here to avoid the starving seasons of Venda where life could not be scraped out on the devastated and fallow land. A colossal Vendan army had been disbanded in hopes of something better, but the something better was turning into something else for them, a harshness of a new kind.

I explained that we were Rahtan sent by the queen to check on their welfare and asked about the raiders. Her story was the same as Caemus’s— it was dark so they couldn’t see—but the Ballengers had demanded payment. “Where are the others you came to town with?” I asked.

She pointed down the street and said they were gathering what they needed from various shops and they all planned to leave as soon as possible. When I asked if the mercantile had charged her double, she looked down, afraid to answer, saying softly, “I don’t know.”

I eyed an empty burlap sack in the back of the dray. “May I borrow that?” Her eyes pinched with worry but she nodded.

I shoved it into Wren’s hands and signaled for her to follow me. She immediately knew why and rolled her eyes. “Now?”

“Oh, yes. Now,” I answered, and walked over to the clerk who supervised the merchandise under the awning. I pointed at the crate of oranges.

“How much?” I asked.

His response wasn’t quick, instead inventing an answer just for me. He had seen me talking to the Vendan woman and by now had probably guessed I was Vendan too.

“Five gralos each.”

Five. Even as a foreigner in these parts, I knew that was a fortune. “Really,” I replied, as if contemplating the price, then I grabbed one and tossed it into the air. It landed with a firm slap back into my hand. The clerk’s brows pulled down in a deep V and his mouth opened, ready to bark at me, but then I grabbed another and another and still another, juggling them in the air, and the clerk forgot what he was going to say. His mouth hung agape, his eyes twirling along with the spinning oranges.

I smiled. I laughed. Even as a knife slid through me, the same knife that had slid through me a hundred times, and the more I smiled, the more I bled, the faster the oranges twirled, the hotter my anger burned, but I laughed and chattered as I had so many times because that was part of the trick. Make them believe. Smile, Kazi. It is just an innocent game.

It was a trick I reserved for the most suspicious quarterlords, those who had no mercy or compassion for any of the street rats like me. Even though the prize was only a half-rotten turnip or a square of hard cheese to fill an empty belly, it was worth the risk of a lost finger. Each victory would get me through another day, and that was another trick of surviving in Venda. Make it one more day. Die tomorrow was another one of my rules. How many times had I hypnotized merchants this way? Smiling to deceive them, spinning to rob them, drawing crowds to their stands to make them forget,

using near misses, calls to those in the crowd, and tossing the same fruit into their arms to distract them so they never noticed the ones that disappeared.

The clerk was sufficiently mesmerized as I continued to grab orange after orange, juggling, tossing, and redistributing them into a tall neat stack in another crate, even as I discussed the wonder of oranges and how fine his were, the best I had ever seen. One thrown to a crate, one dropped into the waiting burlap sack at Wren’s feet. Once four were safely ensconced in the bag, I juggled the last piece of fruit onto the pile, making a perfect pyramid. The clerk laughed and admired the stack in wonder, never noticing a single missing orb.

“Your oranges are lovely, but I’m afraid too steep for my pocket.” It didn’t pass his notice that several townspeople had wandered over to watch the show and now were perusing his goods. He handed me one of the smaller, scarred oranges. “With my compliments.”

I thanked him and returned to the dray, Wren following close behind with the sack.

Even the children were not aware of what was inside. I sniffed the scarred orange, inhaling its perfume, then dropped it in with the others, tucking the sack between other supplies for them to discover later. We continued down the street to talk with more Vendans we saw leaving the apothecary. That was when I spotted trouble coming.

A throng of young men, full of swagger—and a night of carousing, judging by their disheveled appearance—walked toward us. The one in the middle hadn’t even bothered to button his shirt, and his chest was half exposed. He was tall, his shoulders wide, and he walked like he owned the street. His dark-blond hair hung in disarray over his eyes, but even from a distance it was easy to see they were bloodshot with drink. I looked away, exchanging knowing glances with Synové and Wren, and we moved on. Karsen Ballenger, patriarch of the lawless family, was my ticket into Tor’s Watch and the center of our target. This sloppy group was not the kind of trouble I could be bothered with.

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