Chapter no 43 – Kazi

Dance of Thieves

My breath came in gulps. Eben’s arms clamped around me. “Breathe, Kazi. Take it slow,” he whispered in my ear.

Water steamed in a kettle. Hot bread lay on a rack. Half-chopped turnips were abandoned on the cutting board. Their voices were details, like the bread and steam and the stab in my throat, all of them splintering through me, as if I had stepped into a world that was exploding apart. Eben had seen me storm through the hallway and pulled me into the kitchen. Natiya’s eyes loomed in and out of my vision. Wren bit her nail. Synové pulled on her braid. I closed my eyes.

As I hurried up the mountain, all I could think was, Eleven years. For eleven years, the driver had been coming and going with the Ballengers’ blessing. He was here all along. This was where his journey began, where he slept and ate and bathed, where his life went on, when mine had stopped.

“Are you all right?”

All right? I made a vow. I had no choice but to be all right. But my insides bled.

Drained through my pores. Every part of me hollow again. I remembered the brokenness. The hunger.

The years vanished, and I was hiding under a bed again.

Where is the brat? Where is she?

In the warehouse, I had reached for my knife. I was ready to kill them all, just as I had been when I’d gone after the ambassador. It was only the flash of the prison I had landed my whole crew in that made me stop.

The man who took my mother was here. Somewhere. And if he wasn’t here today, he’d roll in on a wagon tomorrow, or the next day, and when he did I would do something that would jeopardize everyone in this room because he mattered to me more than a thousand valleys piled with dead. I craved justice for one.

I need you, Kazimyrah. I believe in you.

I floated between worlds, between oaths and fear, promises and justice— between love and loathing.

“Drink this,” Natiya ordered.

Eben loosened his hold, and I took the water Natiya held out to me. I finished the glass and asked for more, turning away, leaning against the counter, molding composure the way I did when my next meal depended on it. A hundred tricks, one piled on another, fooling myself that I could do it, digging my nails into my palms until one pain masked another that I couldn’t bear.

I downed the second glass of water and finally turned back to face them.

I told them about the Previzi warehouse.

Anger pinched Wren’s face. “Previzi? Based here?

“And the welcome mat is rolled out for them,” I confirmed. “Something else happened too. I punched the Patrei in the face.”

A deep silence fell in the room.

“Did you knock any teeth out?” Synové finally asked, a certain desperation in her wink and smile.

“If I did, it wasn’t enough.”

Natiya sighed. “You’ll have to smooth it over with him until we leave.

An apology—”

I would not apologize. Ever. “We leave tomorrow,” I said. “But—”

With our quarry,” I added. “I know where the captain is—at least I think I do.”

I told them my hunch. It was Jase who had given me the answer. And Priya. And my own forgotten wishes that my mother and I had had a second way out.

As I had escaped from the arena, as Mije gave me all he was worth racing up the back trail to Tor’s Watch, I heard Priya speaking again, They escaped down another path, and then Jase, Every good stronghold has more than one way out. Otherwise you could be trapped.

Another way out.

* * *

Wren and Synové came with me.

“You might hear voices,” I warned Synové. “They’re harmless. You’ll be fine. Just stay close.”

We casually sauntered through the gardens, smiling in case anyone watched, turning, pointing at butterflies that didn’t exist, and when each of us had scanned the grounds and the windows that looked down on us and had given the all clear, we walked down the path that led to the rear entrance of Darkcottage. We quietly slipped inside and I eased open a shutter in the kitchen, just a crack to give us some light. We only used hand signals. I pointed to the stairs that led to the cellar. I went first, made sure the room was empty, then signaled for them to follow. Except for a circle of dim light at the base of the stairs, the room was completely black.

I had already told them to feel the walls for hinges, handholds, loose stones, anything that could be moved, to look for cracks of light, and feel for drafts. We moved silently and slowly, careful not to make any sound that might reveal us. The cellar was large, and it was slow work moving in the dark. I reached the end of one solid wall and started on another, meeting Synové in the middle. Nothing. I was still certain—

And then Wren ticked a soft sound, one that could be mistaken for a creak in an old house. She found it—on the wall that supported the stairs— a draft between panels. We listened, and when we were sure there was nothing immediately behind the panel, I pressed on it. It sprang open a crack, and we stepped into the end of a very long tunnel. At the other end was a door with a thin line of light streaming from the bottom of it. Once we started down, we’d have no cover. We’d be open targets if someone should enter from the other end. The only weapons we had were the daggers at our sides. Carrying a bow and a quiver of arrows through the gardens would have been too conspicuous.

“Ready?” I whispered.

They nodded. We crept down the tunnel, the only sound my pulse drumming in my ears as we neared the door. I put my hand out to have them wait while I carefully eased forward to make sure there were no alcoves for dogs to hide in. It was clear and I put my ear to the door, then gently squeezed the latch. Our breaths caught at the faint click. I eased it open a hair’s width at a time and cool fresh air rushed in, green with the scent of soil and grass. The other side of the door was stone that matched its surrounding walls, impossible to see unless you knew it was there. I peeked out on a large empty terrace, almost like a foyer, that had several arched passageways intersecting it. The one straight ahead emptied out onto rolling empty grounds covered with grass, still lit by the fading light of dusk. But something in the distance at the far end of the grounds caught my eye—a wide curved double door set into a stone wall—a door that was strangely familiar.

Stand watch, I signaled to Wren and Synové as I stepped out onto the terrace, carefully hugging the walls and shadows. At the end of the terrace, I looked across the grassy grounds at the distant door, and I realized I was looking at a door I had already seen—but I had seen it from the other side. Jase had claimed it was only another exit. There’s nothing on the other side.

Except all of this.

A cold fist gripped my spine.

All of this.

I looked up at the roof of a cave that seemed as high as the sky. It swept out over half the grounds like a wave poised to crash. Tendrils of vines hung from its ceiling. Tucked below it against its wall was a long house, shallow in depth, with multiple staggered terraces. Only steps away was another outbuilding. Where the wall of cave ended, more of the fortress wall began, obstructing it all from view. It was a hidden enclave right within Tor’s Watch.

I skulked along the outside wall of the house, just another shadow creeping across its porches, hiding behind pillars, peeking in windows. I passed room after room of bedchambers and sitting rooms.

And then I heard a low rumble of voices. I stopped and sweat flashed over my skin. I was both eager and afraid of what I would find. I listened, but the words were indiscernible. I moved closer to the sound, then ducked

behind a pillar when I saw someone cross a room with doors that opened onto the broad terrace.

“Save some for me. We’re almost out.” Another voice.

“More comes in the morning.” “Morning is not now.”

And still another voice.

“It will be a shame when this party is all over.”

“This party won’t end. Thanks to the Ballengers, our riches will only become greater.”

Laughter erupted.

“The Great Battle will look like a spring picnic.”

“Soon all the kingdoms will be under our thumb. We’ll say jump, and they’ll ask how high.”

“Especially that bitch in Venda.”

“She’ll be in for a surprise when she arrives, and it won’t be a royal welcome.”

“She’ll finally get what’s coming to her.” “A noose.”

There was a murmur of agreement.

“I still don’t like that he took our only working weapon.”

“Within a week, we’ll have an arsenal. One small weapon won’t matter.

He’s probably already used up all the loads practicing on trees.” There was a hearty round of guffaws.

A noose? An arsenal of weapons?

“I’m going to need more supplies.”

“No worries. The Ballengers are generous. They’ll give us more.

They’re as eager for this as we are.” More laughter.

Eager for what? What were Jase and his family planning? All the kingdoms under their thumbs? Was inviting the queen here only a trap?

“To the Ballengers, our generous patrons.”

I heard the clink of glasses lifted in a toast, a chuckle, and then a long unapologetic belch, followed by a stumble, a curse, and a wail as a shin or knee met an immovable object. I used that moment to peek around the pillar.

It was the first thing I saw—a clear view of a moon-shaped scar on a wide forehead. My attention jumped to a deep cleft in a stubbled chin, and the man who wore both so infamously had white hair. It wasn’t Erdsaff but Captain Illarion.

Jase’s manipulations piled on. He had fed me one lie after another.

Then the captain and two other men I didn’t recognize stepped aside and my throat went dry.

Sitting on a divan behind them was Governor Sarva of Balwood. He was the one who had led the attack against the clans in Blackstone Square. After the Great Battle, all that was found of him was part of his charred breastplate with the Balwood insignia. He was believed dead. Sitting beside him was Chievdar Kardos, swigging back a mug of ale, another member of the Komizar’s Council who was unaccounted for but believed dead. And seated at a table near them, picking at meat on a trencher and licking his fingers, was Bahr, one of the Sanctum guards in the clan attack—

I pushed back behind the pillar, pressing against it. How would I tell Synové?

Everything had just gotten more complicated. These men were as vile as the captain, maybe worse, hated criminals of Venda. My mind whirled. Jase was harboring them all. A sour taste swelled on my tongue. This beast will turn and kill you. Now we had many beasts.

Take them all back? We had to. But was that even possible?

Maybe, I thought. Maybe there was one way. I was going to need a hay wagon.

* * *

When we were safely back in the kitchen at Darkcottage, I told them.

“Yes, the captain’s there. It was him with the white hair just as I thought.”

Wren blew out a long slow breath. We had done it. We had finally found him.

“But that’s not all,” I added cautiously. “There are five others.” I looked at Synové and pressed her shoulders against the wall, trying to stave off her reaction. “One of them is Bahr.”

Synové shook her head. “But he’s dead. In the battle. He—”

“No,” I said.

Her mouth opened, and I clapped my hand over it before she could scream. Muffled noises leaked between my fingers. Wren helped me hold her back, both of us using all our weight to keep her pinned in place. Tears streamed down her cheeks.

“We’ll take him back,” I whispered, “just like the others.” She moaned a violent muffled objection.

“He will pay,” Wren promised. “But he goes back to face justice, like the queen wanted. The long ride will be the best torture we could inflict.” The chievdar who had killed Wren’s parents had died in battle, but her lip trembled and her eyes brimmed with tears too, knowing Synové’s pain as her own.

We stayed in our tense knot, holding back and holding on, Synové’s heaving breaths the only sounds in the room. Her shoulders finally went limp beneath our hands. Her breathing calmed, and she nodded, resigned to her vows and duty.

Evening was quickly falling, and we returned to the main house with our plan still forming, my hands still salty with Synové’s tears. We were just inside the door when I heard the dogs loosed.

My legs ached as I walked the final steps back to my room, as if every bit of strength had finally been wrung from them. I was already raw with pain of my own, and Synové’s agony had only deepened it.

I dreaded dinner tonight. I dreaded seeing Jase. How could I pretend I didn’t know?

How could he have hidden all this from me? Doors guarded by poisonous dogs that he claimed led nowhere? An invitation to the queen that was really a trap? A groundsman who was really a murderous fugitive? Weapons to dominate all the kingdoms?

His little enclave was a dragon’s dark den.

Fool me once, Jase.

My thoughts jumped, my own words taunting me. The thing about a mark is they’ve created lies in their head, a story they’ve invented that they desperately want to believe, a fantasy that merely needs to be fed.

But this time it was I who had been that round-mouthed fish breaking the surface of the water, following crumb after crumb, swallowing each one whole.

I was the mark, the witless dupe of my own game. And Jase had played me expertly.

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