Chapter no 53 – Kazi

Dance of Thieves

I stooped at the creek’s edge, filling the last water skin. Broken stone walls jutted up from the landscape around me. I had been grateful for the ruins last night and the dark cave they gave me to sleep in away from everyone else. It was likely the last shelter we would have for a while.

I corked the full water skin, and when I stood and turned Eben was there watching me.

“I’ll help you with those,” he said. He gathered five skins up in his arms, paused and looked at me again. “You all right?”

It wasn’t like Eben to ask a question like that. You had to be all right, always. “What do you mean?”

He looked at me hesitantly. “That was him back there?”

Him. My blood rushed a little faster. Now I understood. Of all his secrets, how could Jase have not told me this? He knew what Zane had done. “Yes,” I answered. “That was him.”

Eben’s lip lifted in disgust. “The bastard. But you did the right thing, Kazi. I know it wasn’t easy for you to leave him behind. There will be another chance. We’ll go back.”

I shook my head. “No, Eben. We both know he won’t be there. By then he’ll be long gone, hiding in some other faraway hole. I can’t spend another eleven years looking for him.”

“I’m sorry.”

“No need to be sorry,” I said, trying to force cheer into my voice. Instead my words came out wooden. “Look at the other bastards we caught. The one we set out for and a bonus of five.”

“Six,” he corrected. “What about the Patrei?” I swallowed. “Yes. Six. The Patrei too.”

But there was something I needed to tell Eben. Something I had to tell them all, including Jase.

* * *

It was the laughter.

It had always been the laughter that needled through me, a repeated stitch that surfaced over and over again.

Laughter reveals in the same way a sigh or a glance does. It’s an unintentional language. Worry, fear, deceit—they hide in the things unsaid.

Something about the laughter hadn’t felt right that first night I discovered the captain and the others in the enclave, but the shock of their words had overshadowed it.

Last night when I had disappeared into the shadows I heard it again, all of them laughing, thinking Jase had gotten the better of me. That he had driven me away.

It wasn’t laughter filled with merriment. It was filled with smug derision. The kind I remembered hearing from merchants when they tricked someone into paying more than they should, the kind of laughter that always came later, after their sucker was gone.

It was that kind of laughter I’d heard that first night when I heard them discussing the Ballengers. It wasn’t a laughter of mirth but of mockery. The captain and his cohorts had been laughing at the Ballengers.

Was it a double-cross? A betrayal?

Thanks to the Ballengers, our riches will only become greater.

Was Illarion using them?

The queen had said he was an average swordsman and commander, but he’s an above average deceiver. His skill is in his patience.

Just as he had played two roles at the citadelle in Morrighan, had he played two roles at Tor’s Watch? The role he wanted Jase’s family to see,

and his hidden role to benefit himself? I was certain the Ballengers had been duped.

“Let’s be honest, Kazi,” Natiya said when I gathered them at the creek’s edge to tell them my suspicion. “Are you sure you’re not just seeing the things you want to see because you still care for Jase?”

“That’s over,” I answered. “Some betrayals run too deep.” His lie about Zane left me raw, and I saw the bitterness in his eyes too, when he caught me at the enclave. Our mutual betrayals had shattered anything we once had. I shook my head. “This isn’t about Jase and me. It’s about knowing the truth. Setting a trap for the queen? Jase’s dismissal of the accusation was swift and genuine. I know that much about him.”

“You thought other things about him were genuine too,” Wren said.

I sat down on the tumbled wall at the creek’s edge trying to sort it out, what was real and what was false, but I knew what I’d heard and the thirst for revenge against the queen had been thick in Illarion’s voice. Jase would have nothing to gain from it. “Putting a noose around the queen’s neck was the captain’s agenda,” I said. “For him, it’s as much about revenge as riches. When he joined forces with the Komizar, he’d hoped to become a wealthy man, and instead the queen made him a hunted one. And putting all the kingdoms under his thumb? Jase’s world is Hell’s Mouth, Tor’s Watch, the arena, and that’s it. He doesn’t want more than that.” I looked to Wren, Synové for confirmation. “You both know.”

They nodded.

“Even if it was a double cross, that still doesn’t exonerate the Ballengers,” Natiya countered.

Eben agreed. “They were hiding known fugitives for what they thought were their own purposes. Weapons.”

And that was the crux of it, the one thing we couldn’t ignore.

“To be accurate, the Ballengers only hid one fugitive,” Wren corrected. “Even we didn’t know the others were alive, and there was no warrant for them.”

“Harboring just one fugitive is enough to charge him with conspiracy,” Natiya said. “The Alliance of Kingdoms is very clear on that. It’s in the treaties. We’ll have to leave it to the queen to decide his fate.”

Eben and Natiya left to start loading the prisoners back in the wagon. Today we would rendezvous with Griz and the troops who would escort us

the rest of the way.

“When are you going to tell Jase?” Wren asked.

“Before we leave. I want him to know before we reach Sentinel Valley.”

Synové frowned, swishing her bare feet through the shallow water. “You can’t let him drive the wagon once he knows. He might drive the whole bunch of them off into a gorge. Bahr will not be going that way.”

Wren and I both eyed her suspiciously. I had seen her watching Bahr, hunger in her expression. She had taunted him to make a run for it more than once. “How will he be going, Synové?” I asked.

She hopped out of the water, splashing us both. “However the queen chooses, of course,” she answered and walked away, saying she was going to help with the prisoners.

“She’s right about the wagon,” Wren said. “He’ll try something. The Ballengers don’t take betrayal well.”

How well I knew that. Priya had already pledged her revenge on me in multiple ugly ways. I was probably the number-one criminal listed on a warrant in Hell’s Mouth by now.

“We’ll chain his leg to the footbed,” I said. “Jase takes his role of Patrei too seriously to take his own life.” And that way he wouldn’t be able to jump over the seat and attack them either. I had seen what his fist was capable of.

“He wouldn’t be here at all if he’d stepped aside like you ordered. And then he all but let you take him down to use as a shield. I’m not sure we’d have gotten out of there otherwise. Every one of those Ballengers had blood in their eyes.”

“What? That’s crazy. I took him by surprise.”

“He knows your tricks by now. I don’t think he was surprised. And I saw him at the settlement, wrestling with his brothers. He’s quick.”

“Even so, I know what happened, and you were behind me where you couldn’t see as well.”

She shrugged. “Maybe so. But some things you can see better from a distance.”

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