Chapter no 50 – Kazi

Dance of Thieves

We walked to the dining room, trying to pretend it was a night like any other. Our weapons were stowed in our rooms, ready to put on, riding leathers and boots laid out, other supplies already stuffed into saddlebags. I listened to the gentle tap of our slippers on the wooden floors, the hush, while my heart fluttered like a moth caught in a web. This was not how it was supposed to be. It was not like me. When I lifted a fleece, palmed an egg, juggled a fig into my pocket, even when I took the tiger, a calmness always fell in the final moments of execution, like every detail belonged to me and was mine to mold. For a few short minutes, I was master of a small universe. I knew why that calm eluded me now. Jase. My universe was tilting because of him.

“There they are,” Mason said, his gaze lighting on Synové.

In the next moment, Jase’s eyes met mine. They pierced me as if searching for something. He finally smiled, and my stomach reacted against my will.

No one was seated yet. All of them had been talking quietly at the far end of the room. Now everyone ambled toward their seats. Jase pulled out my chair for me and kissed my cheek. “Are you all right?’ he whispered quietly.

“Of course.” I knew I had to make more of an effort at acting normal, though I wasn’t sure what that was anymore. His hand slid to my thigh beneath the table, and I reached down and cupped my hand around his.

“What’s that?” he asked and lifted my hand to where he could see it. He looked at the ring on my finger.

“I got it at the arena yesterday,” I explained.

He didn’t ask the question, but it stewed in his eyes: Did you pay for it?

“It was a gift from a merchant,” I said.

A slight pull at the corner of his mouth. Sure it was.

“It’s nice,” he replied with great effort, sliding our hands back beneath the table.

As usual, the busyness of a family dinner erupted, conversations intersecting one another across the table, pitchers of water and ale passed, goblets clinking as they were filled. Natiya brought in baskets of clover buns and carefully set first-course plates in front of everyone. They all admired the artistry of the elegant zucchini roulades shaped like roses, a black-bean paste between the thin petals. “You’re spoiling us, Natiya,” Vairlyn said.

“Hope you enjoy, ma’am.” Natiya was doing twice the work tonight, covering for Eben while he was occupied with delivering special dinners to the gate guards and other tasks.

Vairlyn was about to offer thanks when Jalaine appeared at the doorway, and a quiet fell. She hesitated at the entrance. “I’m sorry I’m late.”

Jase seemed surprised by her arrival and jumped up from his seat. He went to her place and pulled out her chair. “Not too late, sister,” he said. When she reached it, Jase pulled her into his arms and held her. He wasn’t just a brother holding his sister, but a Patrei, holding her for the entire family, pulling her back into their circle. He whispered something into Jalaine’s ear. Forgiveness? An apology? Vairlyn blinked, a faint smile curling her lips.

Once they were both seated again, Vairlyn bowed her head and offered thanks to the gods for our meal. When she finished, Lydia and Nash said, as they had every night since I taught them the words, “Le’en chokabrez. Kez lo mati!

They looked to me for approval, and I nodded. “Me too.” How quickly they had drawn me into the small routines of their lives. A lump grew in my throat.

Wren, Synové, and I dug in right away, hoping to set an example.

“It’s my favorite vagabond dish,” Synové said. “What do you think, Mason?”

He chewed and swallowed his first forkful. “Good,” he agreed. “Very good.”

Jase paused with his first bite, as if he didn’t like it, but then swallowed. “You don’t care for it?” I asked quietly. I held my breath. The Ballengers weren’t picky eaters, and this was one of the most irresistible vagabond dishes. Aram’s and Samuel’s helpings were already gone.

“No,” he answered. “It’s very good. Just a different taste.” He ate the rest, but it looked like he was only being polite.

When the last rose roulade was gone, Priya and Titus cleared the dishes, setting them on the sideboard, and soon Natiya came in with platters of roasted game hens and carrots. Vairlyn filled and passed the plates.

Wren and Synové both tried to eat their food with some degree of enthusiasm. I noticed Samuel scowling as he stabbed a carrot. He was usually the most cheerful of the Ballenger clan, and I wondered if he was growing impatient with his bandaged hand. In spite of Wren trying to engage him, he mostly looked down at his plate and uttered simple replies. Jalaine was quiet, but at least she was here.

Jase announced that he had gotten word this morning that the houses at the settlement were finished. Wren, Synové, and I voiced our appreciation. “Maybe we can all go out there next week and look over the progress,” he suggested. He looked at me expectantly, waiting for my response. Our few days at the settlement had been a new beginning for us. Maybe he hoped it would happen again. “That would be wonderful,” I answered, forcing just the right amount of smile, just the right amount of my gaze lingering in his, just the right amount of juggling.

“The teacher left for the settlement today,” Gunner piped up. “I told her to enlist Jurga’s help. She’s going to have to teach the adults too.” His eyes lit up when he mentioned Jurga.

Wren and I exchanged a glance, and I knew she was finding this conversation as difficult as I was. I was grateful when Titus brought up the new mare they’d acquired from Gastineux breeders. Still, each minute dragged by like an hour.

And then the first yawn came.

Vairlyn rubbed her eyes and shook her head. “I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I’m going to have excuse myself and turn in early tonight. I guess it’s been a long day.” She hurried Lydia and Nash along, in spite of their protests that they weren’t tired, and took them with her. Priya and Jalaine agreed, both blinking and yawning, and they left too. Minute by minute, the dining room quieted as another Ballenger left, suddenly overwhelmed with fatigue. Except for Jase.

I finally said I was tired too and was going to bed. “I’ll walk you,” Jase offered, but as he stood I saw a slight stumble. He smiled. “I only had one ale. Promise.” He tried to shake it off, but as we walked up the flight of stairs he stumbled again.

“I think Titus refilled your mug twice,” I said. “Maybe you had more ale than you thought. Let’s get you straight to your room.”

He leaned heavily on me, and when we got to his room he fell against the door. “I don’t know what—”

“It’s all right, Jase. We’re almost there.” I opened the door, and he staggered inside. I eased his fall as he crumpled to the floor. I knelt down beside him and saw his eyes briefly trying to focus on me. And then they closed.

“Jase,” I whispered. He didn’t stir.

I raked his hair back and stared at him, touched the fading cut on his cheekbone, the bruise I put on his jaw yesterday. I felt his warm skin beneath my fingertips and the ache in my chest for all the tomorrows he stole, the ones he made me believe could be ours. You lied to me, Jase. You’ve lied to me over and over again. You’ve conspired with fugitives against all the kingdoms. But even as I stirred the embers of my anger, other treasonous feelings surfaced, feelings that I loathed but couldn’t shake. A poison I couldn’t flush out. My throat clamped tight.

I stood, looking down at him one last time before I left. “Damn you, Jase Ballenger,” I whispered. “Le pavi ena.”

And I’m afraid I will forever.

* * *

We crept through the Darkcottage tunnel. Synové, Natiya, and Eben had arrows drawn, guarding us before and behind. We all wore bandoliers

studded with throwing knives—small, silent, and deadly—a last resort. We wanted our game alive. Long swords were too risky because of the noise they could make, but Wren wore her ziethes and the rest of us had long daggers on our belts. I carried a smaller one in my hand and a pouch of birchwings hung from my hip. The rest of our gear was stowed on the hay wagon. Natiya carried a timepiece and signaled us each time ten minutes had passed. Since we left the dining room, twenty minutes were already gone.

I eased the door at the end of the tunnel open a crack. When I saw it was clear, I slipped out onto the terrace and hid behind a pillar. I paused, taking in every shadow, sound, and movement. One by one, I signaled the others out when I was sure it was safe, pointing to the position each should take.

The terraces of the long house were cloaked in darkness, but soft light streamed from a few of the rooms. Because of the summer heat, most of the doors were open, trying to catch a breeze. I made my way across the next section of terrace. When it was clear, I again signaled the rest to follow. I turned my head, listening, and heard the faint rumble of voices. I pointed to the room it was coming from and signaled the rest to wait while I got closer to see how many were there. The room was brightly lit with candles. Sarva and the captain were bent over a table playing some sort of game. Kardos, Bahr, and one of the scholars were lounging in overstuffed chairs around a cold hearth, drinking and throwing pits into the gray ashes as they ate olives, laughing and competing to hit some target. None of them were armed. One of the scholars, the younger one, was missing. I lifted my fingers to the others. Five. I went in search of the other one, looking into one room and then the next. I found him two rooms down, hunched at a desk, studying papers and writing notes in a ledger. I signaled Eben to come join me. When the time was right, he whined low in the perfect pitch of a wolf. The scholar’s attention pricked upward. He stood to investigate, probably to shut the terrace door, but he was caught off guard by the unexpected sight of me, bending down on one knee on the terrace, pretending to tie my boot. When he stepped out, Eben grabbed him from behind, clapping one hand over his mouth and holding a knife to his throat with the other.

I stood. “Make any noise,” I whispered, “and it will be your last.


The white of the scholar’s eyes shone in the darkness, and he nodded as much as he dared. Eben loosened his hold on his mouth just long enough for me to learn his name. Phineas.

I checked him for hidden weapons, but as expected there were none. These men were in a protected enclave—the only threat they had to fear was a drunken fall down the stairs.

“Interior,” I whispered to Eben. He went in the house with the scholar still in his grip, and I went back with the others.

We got into position and waited. It was almost too easy. Unarmed, half-drunk men who suspected nothing. My greatest worry was Synové and the moment she saw Bahr face-to-face, though she had already assured me the shock had passed. She had latched onto the idea of the long journey home and the agony she was going to inflict. When I saw Eben’s shadow in the hallway, I motioned to Wren and she whistled six notes of a night thrush. Eben burst in from the rear of the room, shoving the scholar into the center, and we entered from the other side. Synové, Natiya, and Eben had bows taut with arrows, their eyes cold beads on their targets. Wren’s ziethes were drawn. I had cording in one hand and a dagger in the other.

A moment of confusion and disbelief erupted, all of them jumping to their feet, uncertain what was happening, the captain blustering about the intrusion like we were servants who had forgotten to knock. But even in the midst of the chaos, there was a splintered second when fullness engulfed me. The dragon was in our grasp at last.

The dawning truth came first to Chievdar Kardos. He knew Rahtan when he saw them. “An ade fikatad.

“By order of the Queen of Venda, the King of Morrighan, and the Alliance of Kingdoms, you are all under arrest and will stand trial for treason and murder,” I announced as a matter of necessity. “And now, gentlemen, do exactly as we order because we are not bound to bring you back alive.”

Synové’s arrow was trained on Bahr’s head, and his eyes were trained on her. He knew all he had to do was make a sudden move for an arrow to fly.

The captain was still trying to dissuade us. “I’m afraid you’ve all made a terrible mistake. We’re not—”

“No mistake, Captain Illarion.” I motioned to the floor. “All of you, down on your stomachs. Now. We have some housekeeping to do before we

go for a little ride.”

No one moved, and Synové let an arrow fly, the whoosh sucking air from lungs. It grazed Bahr’s ear and he howled, clapping his hand over the bloody flesh.

“Maybe the wax is out of your ear now,” she said. “You were told to get down on your stomachs.”

They all complied.

Wren and I tied their hands behind their backs while Governor Sarva tried to convince us we would never get away with it. “We do not recognize the queen’s right to rule!”

“But the people of Venda do, and so does every kingdom on the continent,” Eben said, hauling him back to his feet. “Now shut up.”

I mixed the birchwings with a pitcher of water and poured each one a glass, ordering them to drink up. “It will make for a more pleasant ride.”

The older scholar, Torback, wailed, refusing to drink what he thought was poison. Synové aimed her arrow at his chest, and he drank. I explained to them they would be asleep soon. In the meantime, we were going to gag them to ensure their silence, but we reminded them there were more permanent forms of silence and we wouldn’t hesitate to use them.

Bahr spit and mumbled under his breath, “Filthy Rahtan.”

I glanced at Synové, her hand hovering over her knife. A tremor ruffled her eyelids like a thousand barbed switches were shaking behind them, and I wondered if Bahr was better left here with his throat slit than facing the agonies she planned for him.

“Forty minutes,” Natiya said. We were ahead of schedule. It was only a short walk down the covered terrace walkway to the back gate where the hay wagon and horses were waiting. I pulled the gag from Phineas.

“The plans for the weapons, where are they?”

The captain moaned beneath his gag, furiously shaking his head. Sarva and the others had similar responses, still trying to preserve their treasures. Phineas hesitated, listening to their groans. I shrugged. “Who do you think you should listen to? Them or us?” Every one of our weapons was trained on him.

“The second outbuilding near the gate,” he responded. “It’s our workshop. All the formulas are there.”

It was on our way. The gods were watching over us.

Before I stepped out onto the terrace, I pointed to the row of throwing knives on our chests in case they got any foolish ideas about fleeing in the darkness. “I wouldn’t try to make a run for it. Tell them what Rahtan means, Kardos.”

He mumbled beneath his gag.

“That’s right. Never fail. Got that, Captain?”

He nodded, an angry line creasing the crescent scar on his forehead.

I stepped out onto the terrace. The grounds beyond were black with a moonless night. If there was a stray guard who wasn’t in a birchwings sleep by now, he would not see us. The air was still, not so much as the ripple of a breeze, and the only sound was the warble of a thrush answering Wren’s call.

We made our way down the stairs to the grassy grounds that led to the gate, the six men shuffling between the others, silent and afraid, as I walked ahead scouting our path. We were halfway to the gate when I heard a rustle. It was too dark here to signal so I whistled, a low warble to stop them.

Another rustle.

And then the sky lit up like dawn.

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