Chapter no 45 – Jase

Dance of Thieves

Nash swirled his creamed squash into three green circles. I looked at his small fingers gripping his spoon, playing with his food the same way I had when I was six. Lydia arranged the pieces of meat that Mother had cut for her into a sunburst around her plate.

I was on the streets from the time I was six.

I couldn’t imagine either Nash or Lydia fending for themselves. I couldn’t imagine them being all alone and the terror they would feel. I couldn’t imagine that they would survive at all.

Look at my fingers, Jase! Take a good long look.

An image of Kazi’s long beautiful fingers with missing tips kept seeping through my mind. Why didn’t she tell me before? All the times in the wilderness when I had asked—

I didn’t grow up like you.

I had never seen a single tear in Kazi’s eye. Not when she ran across burning sands that blistered her feet. Not when a labor hunter hit her across her face. Not when a raider nearly choked the life from her. But this, a memory eleven years old, made her unravel. I watched her struggle to hold it back, like she was trying to dissect her feelings from the facts.

But when Lydia and Nash came to the door, she steeled herself and became someone else. How do you do that? I had asked as we walked to dinner, How do you go from anguish to pulling coins out from behind ears?

It’s an acquired skill, Jase. Something all thieves learn.

I heard the sarcasm in her reply. I knew what she thought I had meant, that even her tears had been a shallow act. It was just the opposite. I watched her sacrifice part of herself for their sakes, like hiding a bleeding limb behind her back and pretending she wasn’t in pain.

“Jase, you’re picking at your food,” Priya said, waving her fork at me. “You’re not hungry?”

I looked at my plate, untouched.

I had no servant to bring me food. No parties in the garden.

I wore rags upon rags to stay warm in winter.

I remembered in the wilderness when she was ready to eat minnows before we had cooked them. I had to scavenge for every rotten mouthful I ever ate. And now I knew—there were worse things than raw minnows, and she had eaten them.

My mother eyed my full plate. “I can ask Natiya to fix you something else if you like?”

“No,” I replied. “This is fine.” I stabbed a piece of meat and chewed.

I made more of an effort to concentrate on the multiple conversations running around the table. They seemed fuller and louder tonight. Maybe it was an effort to avoid any uncomfortable silences. An effort to cover Jalaine’s absence. To avoid the obvious—Kazi’s outburst at the arena— though the evidence on my jaw was a little harder to ignore. Lydia had asked me what happened. “A fall,” I answered, and that wasn’t far from the truth. I had told Garvin to keep his revelation just between us, so at least no one knew she had once been a thief.

And maybe, on occasion, she still was. She nicked the king.

What did she take from him? And why?

There were still so many questions I hadn’t asked. Things I wanted to know. How does an orphaned street thief become a premier guard of the queen? Where had she been in those hours I couldn’t find her? But after Lydia and Nash left, she went into the bath chamber and closed the door. I heard her running water and splashing her face. When she came out, the redness in her eyes was gone, but it felt like she still teetered on an edge and I was afraid to push her over it. My questions retreated. At least for a little while.

“More ale, Patrei?” Natiya stood next to me, a pitcher poised in her hand over my drained tankard.

I nodded. “Thank you.”

Apparently I was more thirsty than I was hungry.

Synové was always chatty, but tonight more so, hardly finishing one sentence before she began another. Even Wren, the quiet one with searing eyes who always filled me with some level of trepidation, was more talkative than usual. Aram and Samuel hung on every word as she explained the history of the ziethe, a weapon of the Meurasi clan that she hailed from.

Kazi spoke enthusiastically with my mother about foods the queen preferred, as if we hadn’t just had a screaming conversation in her room. As if she hadn’t just broken down and sobbed in front of me. As if none of it had happened at all.

“Maybe we can meet with the cook in the morning,” Kazi said, “and discuss which dishes she would recommend. I know the queen has a fondness for vagabond food.”

Something about it all was off. It didn’t feel right.

The cook and her husband had come in several times to replenish dishes or take them away. I stared at the husband each time. He was reserved, aloof, the opposite of his wife. Since they had been here, she had expressed her gratitude to me several times for giving them work. The first day, she had patted her abdomen and said their family would soon be expanding, so she was especially grateful. He had shown no emotion. He just kept going about his work in the kitchen, chopping vegetables with quick smooth movements. She was right about one thing; he was good with a knife.

And Kazi was right about another thing—his appearance. Now every time he walked through the kitchen door his appearance turned my stomach.

What I had told Kazi was true. There was no Previzi driver who looked like him.

But there used to be. Now he worked for us.

My father had hired him a year ago.

* * *

She’s racked with guilt, Jase. I’ve tried talking to her. You have to speak to her.

My mother had intercepted me after dinner, pulled me aside. Talk to her.

I watched Kazi walk away to her room—our room. I wanted to go after her, but I saw the worry in my mother’s eyes.

I tapped on Jalaine’s door and called to her. She didn’t answer.

I knocked a little louder.

“Jalaine, open up. I need to talk to you.”

Patrei never apologizes for decisions he’s made. And my father never did. This was one of his deathbed instructions—right after he had said I’d be faced with countless decisions. I didn’t regret pulling Jalaine from the arena. I didn’t regret our talk in the study or reprimanding her, but my anger was still loose and hot when we were in the dining room that night. When I had seen Kazi pinned beneath Fertig and soaked in blood, something furious and ugly had ripped through me. I wanted to tear something apart. Or someone. I shamed Jalaine in front of the family.

She was sixteen years old. She made a mistake. A serious one that nearly cost us our lives, but she was still my sister. She was family. And Patreis made mistakes too.

“I shouldn’t have shamed you in front of the family,” I whispered through the door. “I’m sorry.”

There was no answer.

If the job of Patrei were easy, I would have given it to someone else.

Sometimes, I wished he had. I wasn’t just having to live with my bad decisions, but his too, even decisions that seemed right at the time but now were all wrong, ones that had grown rotten over time, like forgotten eggs in the larder.

* * *

I stepped lightly through the hall, careful not to wake anyone. I had a new understanding of my father. There were decisions he had made that I had vehemently disagreed with. Decisions he put off that I railed against. And decisions he had made that I never blinked at. Like hiring Previzi drivers.

How can you look the other way?

And now I couldn’t. Kazi had described Zane, our man who coordinated deliveries at the arena, and the only one we trusted to make discreet deliveries to Beaufort. We didn’t want it to become common knowledge that he and his men were here. Zane was thirty-three, an older version of the cook’s husband.

“Mason,” I whispered and pushed his shoulder to wake him.

He lunged from his sleep, knocking me to the floor, a knife in his hand.

He blinked, realizing it was me. “Are you crazy?” he asked, his eyes wild, still coming awake. “I could have killed you.”

I should have known better than to push his shoulder to wake him. Mason always slept with a knife under his pillow. He was too young to remember details about his parents’ deaths, but he still had vague haunting memories of the night they died. They were killed in their sleep—an attack by a league that no longer existed. My father had wiped them out. Mason’s father was my father’s closest friend. That was when he became part of our family.

“It’s the middle of the night,” he groaned, still annoyed. “What do you want?” He pushed off me and stood, giving me a hand up.

“I’m hungry.”


“Let’s go to the kitchen and find something to eat.”

He hissed but grabbed a shirt from the end of his bed and pulled it over his head.

I lit an oil lamp and brought a pitcher of milk from the larder and two thick slabs of currant cake.

“We haven’t done this in a while,” Mason said, more of a question than a statement. Middle-of-the-night visits to the kitchen were reserved for disasters or planning for them. A few embers still glowed through the grill on the stove. The quiet of a midnight kitchen seemed quieter than anywhere else in the house, maybe because in a large family like ours it was usually filled with so much noise—the constant sounds of dough being punched, dishes clattering, meat being cleaved, the cutting, the stirring, the pouring, the chatter, and someone always coming in for a taste. It was the most comforting room of the house, its sole purpose to nurture. Maybe that’s why I wanted to talk to Mason here.

He looked at me, waiting. “You should have eaten dinner.” He knew this wasn’t about being hungry.

“You know Zane?” I asked.

He grabbed forks from the sideboard drawer. “What kind of question is that? Of course I do.”

I set the plates on the kitchen table, and we both pulled out chairs and sat. “What I mean is, do you know details about him? The routes he drove when he was a Previzi? Maybe most important, do you remember … does he have a mole on his wrist?”

Mason’s brows pulled down. “What’s going on?”

I explained why Kazi reacted the way she had when she saw the Previzi at the arena, and how she had described Zane to me right down to his greasy black hair.

Mason hissed, trying to absorb it. “On her own since she was six?” I nodded but didn’t tell him how she survived as an orphan.

He cut off a piece of his cake with the side of his fork. “I don’t know about routes, maybe Zane went to Venda, but I do remember his wrist.” He looked up at me and sighed. “There’s a large mole.”

If Kazi had remembered correctly, Mason and I both knew what it meant. Zane had a past with labor hunters. And that meant he probably had a present with them too. He wasn’t just Kazi’s problem. He might be ours too.

We agreed we were going to have to question him, carefully, so he wouldn’t suspect anything. Previzi had the nose of a wolf and could sniff trouble before it arrived—and they were just as good at disappearing. If he thought we suspected him of being involved with the labor hunters who had come into Hell’s Mouth, we’d never see him again. And if he was involved, we needed to know who he worked for—maybe the same person Fertig had taken orders from. We may have crippled their operations by killing twelve of their crew, but I wanted the rest of them too. I wanted them to pay for Samuel’s hand, pay for torching the Vendan settlement, pay for burning homes in Hell’s Mouth and stealing citizens off the street, pay for raiding caravans, pay for choking Kazi and nearly killing her. Their debt ran deep.

“It’s hard to believe Zane’s involved,” Mason said. “He’s a hard worker.


“We’ll find out. I have to make this right.”

“Sorry, brother, but something like this can’t be made right.”

“But I can make sure it doesn’t happen under our noses again.” I told him I was calling a family meeting first thing in the morning—everyone’s plans were on hold until we talked about ousting the Previzi or making them adhere to a new set of rules.

I rubbed my head. “There’s something else,” I said. And maybe it was my darker worry because I wasn’t exactly sure what it was. It was something that didn’t feel right. “Did you notice anything a little off at dinner tonight?”

He looked at me, surprised. “Yes … as a matter of fact, I did notice. Synové talked a lot, more than usual, but she was back to guessing my height, bringing up old conversations like she was distracted, like we had just met—”

“Like you hadn’t already run your hands over every inch of her body?”

Mason lowered the forkful of cake he was about to shovel into his mouth.

“Yeah, I know about you two. Why’d you hide it from me?”

He moaned and leaned back in his chair. “I don’t know. Embarrassed, I guess. After telling you not to get tangled up with Kazi—” He shook his head. “I don’t know how I got mixed up with Synové, but she makes me laugh. And she is so damn…”

He didn’t need to finish his sentence. His strong attraction to her was evident.

“What about you and Kazi?” he asked. “I thought we’d be getting a summons to the temple by now. What’s holding you back?”

I looked down, mashing the crumbs on my plate with my fork. “She says she’s bound by duty to go back to Venda. We avoid talking about the future, and I promised her I wouldn’t bring it up again.”

“But you—” He hesitated to use the word but finally said it anyway. “You love her?”

I looked up at him. Love didn’t even seem like the right word to explain how I felt about her. The word seemed too small, too used, too simple, and everything I felt about her seemed complicated and rare and as wide as the world. I nodded.

He must have seen something in my expression. “She loves you too, brother. Don’t worry. I’m sure of it. No one puts on an act that good.”

I thought so too, but tonight I had seen hatred in her eyes. Even through tears, it was as pure and hot as molten glass. She and I never said the word love. It was a strange agreement between us and I wasn’t sure why. Maybe it had started out in the wilderness. Everything about it was so temporary. But I had felt it growing then. What is this, Kazi? Because even then it felt like more, something lasting and sure. I know she felt it too. But there had been the secrets between us. I had lied about the settlement. She had lied to me about—

No one puts on an act that good. I looked back at Mason. “You didn’t trust her when you first met her. What about now?”

He put his last forkful of cake into his mouth and washed it down with the rest of his milk. “It’s hard not to trust someone when they’ve put their life on the line for you. They all did.”

He stood, gathering his dishes and taking them to the sink. “Maybe tonight was off because Kazi was rattled by seeing the Previzi, and Synové and Wren were trying to fill all the gaps with talk. When Synové gets anxious, that’s what she does. They’re a close crew.”

He was right. They were. And tonight, when I couldn’t find Kazi, I couldn’t find them either. I had gone to their rooms, trying to find her.

I stood and grabbed my dishes. “Go on to bed. I’ll wash these. We’ll talk more in the morning about Zane.”

Mason left and I turned the tap, hot water splashing into the sink. Hot running water was a feature my grandfather had added to Tor’s Watch. I had never thought much about it before. I had no heat. No hot baths. I saw everything through her eyes now. I had known Venda was poor, and Garvin had said Brightmist was the poorest quarter, and I had known her upbringing had been difficult but even my imagination hadn’t plumbed the lonely depths she had to scrabble through. No one cared if I lived or died.

Maybe that was what was off. Me. Because every word she had said ate through me like a worm. I retraced our steps in the wilderness, seeing it differently, her feverish focus as we walked across an open plain, her dizzy steps when she looked up into a star-filled sky.

If Zane was responsible for this, he would pay.

After I put the dishes away, I paused, looking at the storage room just off the kitchen where the medicines were kept. I unlocked it and went inside. Vials and flasks, pouches and dried herbs were neatly ordered along the

shelves. With so many at Tor’s Watch—both family and workers—we kept a lot of remedies on hand. I found the canister labeled Birchwings—the one Wren had asked about. It was full. Enough to knock out half of Hell’s Mouth. I thought about Mason’s question again, Why would she want that much? My reply to him, that she wanted to take it back to Venda, seemed like a reasonable one. We had unusual merchandise from all over the continent here. There were probably a lot of wonders in Hell’s Mouth that they would like to take back with them. Birchwings was only one of them.

When I left, I checked the lock on the door. It would be an easy five minutes for a common thief.

And less than that for an uncommon one.

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