Chapter no 52 – Jase

Dance of Thieves

The horizon turned from black to misty blue. The stars of Hetisha’s Chariot retreated. The sun was coming up. “The horses need to rest,” I said.

“I’ll tell you when the horses need to rest.”

“All right then, need to rest.” And I did. I ached—my shoulders, my back, my head, my eyes. I wasn’t sure how much longer I could keep them open and focused.

“Tell your family to go home, and then we can all rest.”

We had stopped for an hour during the night to water the horses, but there had been no rest for us. My family, straza, and guards circled around, torches blazing, waiting for Kazi to let up, make a mistake, succumb to fatigue or their taunts.

She didn’t.

Not even when Sarva and the others started in. Once their gags were removed so they could drink, they were relentless. I knew what they were doing, trying to provoke her, trying to get her to lose her concentration and turn toward them so I could disarm her. But they went too far.

“Bet that Zane had a real fine time with your mother,” Bahr sneered. Then Sarva began to describe the things he would have done to her.

“Shut up, Sarva!” I yelled. He said things I wouldn’t say to save my life. I felt Kazi’s arm quiver against my back, but the blade stayed steady over my shoulder, her eyes frozen on the dark trail ahead.

I thought she’d waver or collapse by now—at least doze off as the wagon rumbled through the darkness and tedious miles. She wouldn’t tell me where we were going. Her crew, who rode nearby, wouldn’t tell me either. Right now, we were headed south, but I figured we were going to cut east soon.

“Are we going all the way to Venda?” “None of your concern.”

She had barely uttered a word to me, and the ones she had were hostile. I knew she must be exhausted too. She slumped beside me, but her knife was still in slashing range of my throat. I blinked, trying to shake off the fatigue. I heard snores from behind us. At least someone was getting sleep.

I tugged on the reins. “Whoa!”

Kazi sat up straight. “What do you think you’re doing?” “Telling them to go home.”

Wren, Synové, Eben, and Natiya circled, defending the wagon as Mason, Gunner, and the others rode closer.

“Go home, Gunner!” I called. “Take everyone with you. Watch over the town until I return.”

Mason rode his horse close to Synové’s, trying to intimidate her, his eyes dark and angry. “We’re not leaving without you,” he called back.

“Yes, you are.” I told them that somewhere ahead there would be troops waiting, and I couldn’t afford for all of them to be taken into custody too. We were leaving the arena and everything else at risk. Mother, Nash, and Lydia couldn’t manage it alone. The rest of them needed to be there to keep things going and safe until I got back.

My assertion that I’d be back rested in their eyes like a question.

Gunner grimaced but finally nodded. He knew I was right. “We’ll keep it going.” He signaled the rest to follow him as he turned back in the direction of home.

Priya rode up boldly to the wagon. Wren moved to block her path, but Priya still made eye contact with Kazi. “I warned you that I’d make you regret it if you hurt my brother. You will. This will never be forgotten. Ever. You’ll pay for this.”

Kazi didn’t respond. She just met Priya’s icy glare with a steady gaze.

Priya looked at me, her expression filled with worry. “Be safe, brother.” “I will,” I answered, and she turned and rode off.

When they were far enough away, Kazi lowered her knife and got down from the wagon. I followed and let myself collapse on the ground, my back pressing against the uneven earth, my muscles twitching.

Kazi and her crew took care of the horses and their captives in the back of the wagon, then took turns standing watch and sleeping themselves. Everyone was exhausted—except for maybe Beaufort and the rest, who I had heard snoring during the night. I dozed and slept in fits, and I wondered what hell I was in that for the second time since my father died I was a prisoner being hauled somewhere against my will.

We were given rations of water and dried beef, and when Bahr was unchained so he could go relieve himself, Synové taunted him, saying he should make a run for it while he could. I think he considered it for a moment, but he had no weapon and there was nowhere to run. The terrain was mostly flat now, with only a few distant groves to offer anywhere to hide.

I leaned up against the wagon wheel, chewing on my dry slice of beef, staring at Kazi, wondering what was going on in her head. She saw me watching her and looked away. I remembered what the seer had told me: Guard your heart, Patrei. I see a knife hovering, ready to cut it out.

I realized now it wasn’t the raiders she had meant. She was warning me about Kazi.

She suddenly whipped around, her eyes blazing. “Stop it!” she ordered. “Stop looking at me!”

“Or what?” I answered. “What are you going to do, Kazi? What’s left that you could possibly do to me?”

* * *

Since there was no room in the back of the wagon for me, I continued to drive it, but Kazi now rode alongside on Mije, apparently too repulsed to even sit on the wagon seat beside me. With my family and their threat gone, she could sufficiently guard me from a distance. Even that didn’t last long. She traded positions with Wren and fell back with Eben and Natiya, our so-called cooks turned captors.

I shook my head, thinking about Darkcottage and its history, and the murderous lover who was brought into the fortress in the middle of the

night by a Ballenger himself. When did you become so stupid, Jalaine? My own angry words flew back in my face like a well-aimed fist.

I gave you a chance. I gave you every chance.

She did. Why didn’t I step aside? Why didn’t I just let her go?

It wasn’t only because I wanted to keep our investment safe. Tension was high, tempers higher, all of it about to spin out of control. I had been afraid. I was afraid she’d be killed.

When did you become so stupid, Jase?

She invaded my family, my home.

With every mile we traveled, my anger grew, not just at Kazi and her crew but also at the queen herself, for ordering soldiers into my realm, on my land, behind my walls. It was an invasion into my territory. If I had done the same, it would be considered an act of war, and I would be facing a noose.

“You were pretty slow-footed back there, weren’t you Patrei?”

I looked at Wren. She eyed me with that lethal stare of hers. “Go torment someone else.”

Surprisingly she did. She rode ahead with Synové. No doubt it was she who’d be keeping a close eye on me next. It wasn’t as if I could go anywhere. My team of horses could never outrun them, and if I tried my back would be a sure target for one of Synové’s arrows.

“We can take them,” Beaufort said when he realized no one was there to hear.

I looked back at him over my shoulder. “No,” I answered. “They’re armed and they’re Rahtan.”

Sarva’s lip lifted in a snarl. “But they still have soft skulls like anyone else.”

Bahr lifted his shackled wrists. “Next time they unchain us to leak our lizards, we grab a rock and bash in their heads—”

“We’re not bashing in heads,” I said.

“Easy for you to say,” Kardos jeered. “You don’t know their queen. She’ll have all our heads on pikes before we can say hello—including yours.”

“He’s right,” Beaufort said. “She has a vicious streak, and a vendetta against anyone who defied her.”

“You all fought against her?”

“Except for the scholars,” Sarva answered. As usual, the scholars remained silent. They both seemed terrified.

“The rest of us fought with the Komizar,” Bahr said. “Now, that man was a real leader.”

The man who chopped off children’s fingers?

I had heard rumors about him. That he was twelve feet tall. That his sword was made from the teeth of dragons. That he was an Ancient who had survived the centuries. That he wasn’t really slain because it was impossible to slay a man who was part god. The stories surrounding him were as embellished as the ones that explained the stars in the sky. By the time information reached Hell’s Mouth, it was hard to tell fact from myth. Even Bahr’s firsthand account seemed more myth than truth. No one disobeyed his commands. He could silence the devil with a whisper.

His cruel punishment of children was the only story that didn’t feel like myth. I remembered Kazi’s eyes when she flung her fingers up in front of me. Look at my fingers, Jase! Take a good long look. In that moment, her eyes told me everything. I saw the desperate life she’d been forced to live.

* * *

Synové had caught some game—a small antelope—and its split carcass sizzled over a spit. We were camped in a copse of spirit trees that sprouted up among ruins. Trees walked up circular staircases and perched in windows like thin ghosts. Bahr didn’t seem so brave about bashing in heads now. His head turned at every rustle, and I doubted he’d want to step alone into the dark to leak anything now.

I was chained to a tree. We all were. I had a shackle around my ankle once again.

Kazi was off tending Mije. She managed to avoid me all day, which took some effort since we were headed in the same direction.

Natiya reached over the fire and split the ribs of the antelope to help it cook faster.

“Hungry?” I asked. “Are you still eating for two? Or maybe it’s eight by now? Your lies seem to multiply like maggots.”

“Watch your mouth, Patrei,” Eben warned, brandishing his knife. At least that much of what Natiya had said was true, he was good with a knife.

“Just eating for myself,” she answered, cheerfully patting her flat stomach.

“Your queen never intended to come, did she? She’s not just an invader but a liar too.”

“I said, watch your mouth!” Eben snapped. “Her letter was a farce,” I snarled.

“My letter to her was a farce,” Kazi answered. All our heads turned. She stepped out of the shadows into the light of the fire. “And the queen knew it. I gave her ample clues—ones you and your brothers didn’t see. Golden thannis? It’s poison. I asked her to bring you a gift of poison.” Her tone was thick with sarcasm. “I would never have asked her to come to Tor’s Watch.” She said it with scorn, like my home was beneath the queen. I stared at her. From the very beginning, everything was a lie. “Was there ever

anything truthful about you?”

She met my gaze. “You will not lecture me about truth. Ever.” “I was under no obligation to tell you about family business.”

“Business? That’s what you call it? Stockpiling an arsenal of weapons?” “Yes! That is our business! And we had every right—”

“To put all the kingdoms under your thumb? To put a rope around the queen’s neck?”

“There you go with your Vendan embellishments again!” “You were hiding known fugitives!”

“And you were—”

“Back, both of you!” Eben came between us, pushing us apart, our chests still heaving. I hadn’t realized I had stood up or that she had stepped so close we were screaming inches from each other.

She glared at me, her breaths still coming in gasps. “The queen is not a liar. She couldn’t submit to your thinly veiled demand to come to Tor’s Watch because she’s confined to her bed. She can’t travel. Or I promise you she would be here to take this scum back to face justice herself!”

Her eyes glistened. “Don’t ever talk to me about truth again.” Her voice was broken, shaky. She turned on her heel and disappeared back into the shadows.

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