Chapter no 55 – Kazi

Dance of Thieves

Take a good, long look and remember the lives lost. Real people that someone loved. Before you go about the task I have given you, see the devastation and remember what they did. What could happen again. Know what is at stake. Dragons eventually wake and crawl from their dark dens.

We stood at the mouth of Sentinel Valley, and I knew. I had done at least one right thing. Even justice couldn’t erase scars—it only delivered on a promise to the living that evil would not go unpunished. And maybe it also delivered hope that evil could be stopped for good.

That promise bloomed now, in the sky, the soil, the wind. The spirits whispered to me. My mother whispered to me. Shhh, Kazi. Listen. Hear the language that isn’t spoken, for everyone can hear spoken words, but only a few can hear the heart that beats behind them.

I heard the heart of the valley, the beat that still swelled through it. “No!” Bahr cried. “I’m not going down there! No!” As soon as he

spotted our destination, he began yanking against his chains.

Sarva and Kardos blustered similar protests. Some soldiers believed deserters could be sucked into the underworld, the dead recognizing their footfalls and reaching up through the earth to pull them under.

“You’ll go and you’ll walk the whole length—if you make it that far,” Synové said, wanting to add to his suffering. It would slow us down, but we’d promised Synové that the long ride would be the best torture she could inflict, and this much agony Bahr was owed.

Even the captain, who had no such Vendan superstitions, seemed to pale at the prospect of returning to the site of the infamous battle he had helped orchestrate. Phineas bent over and puked, and he hadn’t even seen anything yet.

Jase alone looked on with curiosity. He had never been here before. His eyes skimmed the towering cliffs, the ruins that sat upon them, and the peculiar green mounds of grass that rose up in the distance.

Eben drove the wagon behind us, and Natiya and Wren rode beside him, ready to shoot or cut down anyone who made an errant move other than walking straight ahead. Synové and I walked on either side of the prisoners. For at least a mile in, no one spoke. For some of us, the valley demanded reverence, but for others, like Bahr, I was sure they feared a noise might wake the dead. A shadow passed overhead and Bahr fell to the ground, frantically looking up, his nerves unraveling. Circling high above us were two racaa, probably wishing we were antelope. Synové smiled when she saw them. “Move along,” she ordered, motioning with her sword. Kardos eyed a decaying wagon, looking desperate, ready to pry anything loose to use as a weapon. Maybe he heard the voices too, or maybe he felt the dead

clawing at his feet.

The wind rustled, the grass moving in waves, like a message being passed. They’re coming.

Jase stopped at the bones of a brezalot, its giant bleached ribs pointing like spears to the sky. “What is it?” he asked.

Brezalots were not found on this part of the continent. “Similar to horses,” I explained. “Majestic, giant creatures, for the most part wild and unstoppable, but the Komizar managed to subvert their beauty and turn them into weapons. Hundreds of them died here too.”

Halfway in, we saw a rock memorial, a tattered white shirt on top of it, waving in the breeze. I watched Jase take it all in, the mass graves, the scattered human bones dug up by beasts, the rusted and abandoned weapons thick with grass, the occasional skull, grinning up at the cliffs. His eyes were dark clouds, sweeping from one side to the other. “How many died?” he asked.

“Twenty thousand. In one day. But as Sarva mentioned, this was just a spring picnic compared with what they had planned.”

He didn’t say anything, but his jaw was rigid. He turned, looking long and hard at Sarva, the same kind of hunger in his eyes as I saw in Synové’s when she looked at Bahr.

Kardos suddenly screamed, his foot falling into the soil up to his knee. He scrambled away and looked back. It was only a collapsed burrow, but they all looked at it with horror, even the captain, waiting for a bony hand to emerge. Yes, this was a torture of their own making.

As we neared the end of the valley, we spotted riders coming toward us. I noticed the captain visibly brighten, but then he cursed. They were Morrighese troops. A low shudder rolled through Torback.

“It began with the stars,” Phineas suddenly blurted out. I turned and looked at him. His eyes were glazed, his expression lost. “It was the tembris that showed us. The stars brought a—”

“Shut up!” the captain ordered.

“Why?” Phineas asked. “What difference does it make now? We’re all going to die anyway.”

“What do you mean, It began with the stars?” I asked. “Quiet!” Torback yelled.

“We’re not going to die!” Bahr growled. “There’s still time!”

“It’s too late,” Phineas said. “It’s too late for all of us.” He looked at Jase. “I’m sorry. There never was a fever cure. He knew what would make you listen. I tried to—”

“Stupid bastard—” Sarva lunged toward him. A warning arrow hissed through the air but at the same time, Bahr lunged toward Phineas too, his fist jamming into his gut. Wren, Synové, and I moved swiftly, knocking Bahr and Sarva to their stomachs and pressing swords to their backs. Eben and Natiya nocked arrows, ordering Jase, Torback, Kardos, and the captain down on their knees.

Phineas stood frozen, his mouth open, his eyes wide as if terrified by the sudden swirl of commotion. But then I saw a trickle of blood on the front of his shirt. He dropped to his knees, still unable to speak. I left Bahr facedown, ordering him not to move and went to Phineas just as he fell forward. A giant brezalot rib protruded from his back. I looked over at the captain, who had been directly behind Phineas. His expression was smug and remorseless.

We were prepared for them to attack us, but not one another.

I rolled Phineas to his side and pulled him up into my arms. His face was splotched with tears. “I’m sorry,” he gasped, every word an effort. “The olives. The casks.” He coughed, blood seeping from his mouth. “The room. Where you found me. The papers.” He let out a long, wheezing breath.

“What about the papers?” I said. “Destroy them. Make sure—”

His lips stilled. His chest stilled. But his eyes remained frozen on me, still afraid.

* * *

The captain didn’t look smug now. I saw the sweat bead on his upper lip as the king approached. We had arrived at the encampment just outside the southern entrance to the valley. The queen’s brother, Bryn, was the newly crowned King of Morrighan, his father having passed last year. He walked toward us leaning heavily on his cane. He was a young man, robust and healthy, but he’d lost his lower right leg in the attempt on his life. With every labored step, the king had a reminder of the captain’s treachery. We had the prisoners lined up for inspection, but the king approached me first.

“Your Majesty,” I said, bowing. Wren and Synové did the same. He stopped us mid-bow, reaching out and touching my shoulder.

“No,” he said. “I should be the one bending a knee to all of you. I would, but I might not get up again.” He was without pretense, much like his sister. He smiled. I knew he was trying to pretend this moment wasn’t affecting him as much as it was. He was a handsome man, but old for his years. The queen said he had once been her humorous brother, the prankster she often got into trouble with as a child. There was no humor in his eyes anymore.

His family had been decimated.

He told me he would be leaving twenty soldiers with us as escort and support, and then walked with me down the line of prisoners, looking at each one as I told him who they were and what they had done. First Kardos, Sarva, and Bahr, and then we came to Torback. He had actually been one of the king’s tutors when he was a child.

“You found a full snake’s nest. We didn’t know about him.” He stared at Torback for a long while, and when Torback buckled under the heat of his scrutiny, babbling for his life, the king silenced him.

“There was another scholar,” I explained. “The captain murdered him on the way here.”

“So I heard,” he said. “Phineas was hardly more than a boy himself when he disappeared from Morrighan. The conspiracy was a long time in the planning.” He stepped in front of the captain, his scrutiny searing. “As you well know, Captain Illarion. The one thing you will get that my brothers and thousands of others didn’t is justice. Since you aligned yourself with the Komizar, you’ll face Vendan judgement. My sister has a court waiting for you.”

The captain stared back, silent, maybe seeing the boy king he had betrayed, maybe retracing the choices he could have made. I saw Death standing behind him, waiting to take him. Maybe not here. Not today. Maybe on a windy turret in Venda justice would be served, when the Watch Captain’s neck snapped and it was time to move on to his final judgement.

“And who is this?” the king asked, stepping in front of Jase.

“The Patrei of Hell’s Mouth,” Jase answered, glaring at the king, “and I demand to be released.”

The king turned toward me. “And he’s here because?”

“Tell him, Kazi,” Jase said. “Explain to him why I’m here and not home protecting my family and empire.”

I swallowed, the answer trapped in my throat.

Griz stepped forward and answered before I could. “He gave the fugitives sanctuary and the supplies to build an arsenal of weapons.”

“Then he’ll face a noose too.”

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