Chapter no 57 – Kazi

Dance of Thieves

“And sometimes she likes to snip the eyelids away first so you have to look at her. It depends on her mood…”

I walked away as Synové concocted yet another punishment, describing it in gruesome detail to torture Bahr and the other prisoners. Mostly Bahr. These past weeks, she always managed to dip into a deeper well of creativity, making sure he was within earshot of her as she wondered aloud about the punishments the queen would dole out. I saw it wear on him. He no longer cursed her but listened in grim silence.

Mije and the other horses stood in the middle of Misoula Creek, drinking and cooling themselves. The sun was high and hot, the last days of summer taking a final bow. The break was a welcome respite. Even with troops to relieve us, I had rarely stepped away from the prisoners, always keeping my eye on them, wary that they would vanish before I could deliver them to the queen. The captain had a slippery history, but this wide, barren valley of sandstone and high cliffs was almost a prison in itself. He’d be going nowhere here.

I stopped at a sparkling shallow where fool’s gold glittered through the clear water, and I bent down to splash my face. The caravan was strewn out along the banks of the creek, but my attention settled on Jase. His hands were unshackled for the rest stop, and he was rinsing out his shirt. He’d gotten into another fight, this time with both Sarva and Bahr. They had said something to set him off, but he didn’t say what it was. It was Synové who

broke up the fight, saying she wanted to make sure Bahr lasted long enough to face the justice he deserved.

Jase had gotten a bloody nose out of the skirmish and had used his shirt to wipe his face. As he washed it, I noticed a group of soldiers looking at his tattoo, probably wondering at its significance, but certainly not understanding the story behind it, not understanding the reasons he got it when he was only fifteen, not understanding anything about the man who wore it, just as I hadn’t the first time I had seen it. I found myself wanting to tell them about the long history of Tor’s Watch, the recent settlement that Jase had helped build, the sluice, the root cellar, the small Vendan boy he taught to dig post holes. I wanted to tell them about the ongoing power wars that threatened Jase’s home, the town he kept safe, the secret enemies who battled to take it, the family who had clothed me and welcomed me to their table. Jase was more than just a prisoner they looked at with curiosity. He was a Patrei, and that symbol tattooed across his chest was a promise, centuries of promises, to protect. It was in his blood. His world was not our world.

But I had wanted it to be.

Now, with our days together coming to an end, I realized that with everything that I knew about him, there was still so much more I didn’t know—or hadn’t bothered to know. Like Sylvey. I’d heard Jase’s voice crack when he said her name.

I was going to tell you, I swear I was.

Sometimes it seemed the timing of the entire world was off, our intentions coming too soon or too late, life crowding up to blur our vision, and only later when the dust settles can we see our missteps. I could have given him that ring sooner. I could have saved him the worry. But there were questions I had wanted to avoid, just as he had wanted to avoid mine.

“Stop staring and enjoy the break while you can,” Wren said. I hadn’t heard her walk up behind me.

“Someone still with them?” I asked, craning my neck to look through soldiers and horses for Beaufort and the others. Wren knew that by “someone” I meant one of us. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust the Morrighese soldiers, but I trusted us more. We were too close now to take any chances. I’d had to choose between Zane and these men—I wasn’t about to lose them too.

“Relax. Eben and Synové are with them.”

I looked back at Jase. After two fights, we now kept him separated from the other prisoners.

“You have to stop beating yourself up, Kazi,” Wren said. “You gave him a chance to step aside. And according to Griz, it was an undeserved chance.”

“I know how it looks to Griz, but the bare facts don’t always tell the whole truth. I didn’t give him any chance. A Ballenger never steps aside. They hold their ground. They protect what’s theirs at all costs. And I knew that.”

Wren shook her head. “It’s that stubborn pride of theirs.” “It’s more than that. It’s their history. It’s who they are.”

We sat down together on the bank and cooled our feet in the water. “I’m still worried about what Bahr said to Phineas.”

“That ‘There’s still time’?”

I nodded. We had interrogated every prisoner individually, but none would say a word, not even with the hope of a deal to spare their lives, as if some other hope was still out there. “It’s as if they’re expecting a rescue, and if they are, that means they weren’t working alone.”

“He might have meant there was still a chance for them to escape.

They’ve done it before.”

Possibly. I had seen them watching for opportunities, eyeing weapons and stands of forests to disappear into. “But there was one other thing— when the captain first saw troops riding toward us, his face brightened, as if he thought they were somebody else.”

Wren thought for a moment. “It could be they were working with a league. Paxton maybe?”

“Yes. Or one of the others.” Or worst case scenario, several of them together. I remembered Rybart and Truko walking the streets together back in Hell’s Mouth.

“Even if they were working with a league to take down the Ballengers, the important thing is, by their own words, they didn’t have an arsenal yet. We got there in time and destroyed their plans. We saw them go up in flames. Plus, we have the architects for those weapons in custody. Whatever plans they had are finished. Life will go on as usual at Tor’s Watch.”

I thought about the captain’s reaction when we destroyed the plans—the piles of documents that were his key to riches. His fury at their loss was real. The same with Torback, all his work up in flames. I was certain by their reactions that they were all burned—but then what were the papers that Phineas wanted me to destroy? He had mentioned olives in his last breaths too. Olives? Maybe as he struggled with his last words he became confused. Maybe he meant the papers I had already destroyed.

“Break’s over!” Griz called. “Let’s move out.”

Wren dipped her handkerchief into the water and tied it in a cooling band around her head. “I better get back before Synové starts in on another gruesome end. We’ll never get her moving.” But neither of us begrudged any fear she wanted to inflict. Bahr had earned it. Synové and many others would have to live with the fear Bahr had inflicted on them for the rest of their lives.

With the call to move out, soldiers began putting their boots back on and saddling horses. Jase wrung out his shirt and slung the twisted fabric over his shoulder. He sloshed back along the creek’s edge with his boots in hand. His horse was tethered in the creek near mine. The axel on the wagon had broken more than a week ago, and we’d been forced to switch the prisoners to horses. While we made faster progress, it made for a tenser ride. Even with their hands tied in front of them and two horses tethered together, we had to keep a constant watch on our captives.

I waited at the bank’s edge until he caught up, my toes nervously curling into the sand. It had been days since we had really spoken. The last time I tried to talk to him, he had asked me to leave. He didn’t want to speak to me. I understood that.

He stopped in front me. “I get an escort back to my horse?” he asked.

I looked at his bare chest, the sweep of the tattooed wing seeming to wave me away now. I was an outsider again. I remembered when my fingernail used to outline the jagged edge of the feathers. “You should put your shirt back on so your back doesn’t burn.”

He stood ankle deep in the water, not moving, his shirt still dripping from his shoulder, the tilt of his head full of irritation. “What’s really on your mind, Kazi?” He reminded me of how he had looked that day on the riverbank after we had escaped from the labor hunters. Then, he’d looked like he was ready to bash in my head, and I’d thought the chain was the

only thing saving me. That seemed like years ago. He shifted weight, signaling his impatience.

“I was talking with Wren and Synové this morning,” I said. “They’re afraid that your family will retaliate against the settlement. It’s my worry too. Will they?”

“And incur the further wrath of the Vendan queen? You don’t need to worry.” He started to walk on.


He spun around. “I made a blood vow to protect them, Kazi. And the Patrei’s vow is his family’s vow. We don’t go back on our word. Call it that Ballenger pride you like to make fun of. Anything else?”

His expression was strained, as if he couldn’t stand to be next to me. I thought there was nothing left inside of me to crumble, but I was wrong. His contempt was more than I could bear. “No. Nothing.”

I began to step away when he lunged, pulling me with him as we tumbled to the ground. I didn’t have time to yell or react. He hovered over me, his chest pounding against mine, his expression impossible to discern. “A scorpion,” he explained. “You almost stepped on it.” He looked at me for a second longer, and I wondered if he was thinking the same thing as me. What happened to us? How did we get here? But the answer was clear. Once again, we’d been shoved down an unexpected path, and there was no clawing our way back to the one we’d been on. A simple chain we had both cursed had done the unthinkable—it forced us to see the world through each other’s eyes. Now we had to forget those worlds. Or maybe we would always be haunted by the memory of each other.

His grip on my arms tightened for a moment, a breath shuddering in his chest, but then he released me and stood. He grabbed one of his fallen boots then smashed it down. “It’s dead. You should put your boots back on.”

I got up and looked at the broken scorpion. A black ringtail. Its venom could kill you in seconds. I watched Jase walk away, uncertain if even he knew how strongly protection ran in his blood.

When we got back to where our horses were tethered, there was a commotion. Bahr had mounted his horse before his hands were chained or the horse’s lead was tied to another. While some soldiers had their arrows drawn and were ordering him off his horse, Synové screamed above them. “Stand down! I have this! I said, stand down!”

Griz motioned to the soldiers, and they lowered their weapons. He knew Synové’s archery skills, that she could easily take Bahr down on her own. But she didn’t. She was doing the opposite. Taunting him to run like she had before. His eyes were crazed and his lips twisted. Maybe Synové’s stories were finally getting the best of him. “Don’t worry,” she told him. “You have my word I won’t put an arrow through your skull. But you’re a coward, Bahr. A sniveling, weak coward who hides behind a sword. I bet you wouldn’t make it a day out there alone. You’ll save us the waste of a good rope if you run. Here! I’ll even help you out.” She tossed him her water skin, and he slung it over his shoulder. “Go,” she ordered. “Go!

He stared at her, uncertain what to do, freedom at his fingertips. His knuckles were white, gripping the reins.

“I won’t kill you,” Synové said softly. “I promise.”

Griz’s eyes were tight beads. He looked at Synové like she had lost her mind.

The whole camp was quiet, waiting, every breath held.

And then Bahr ran. He turned his horse and lit out as if demons chased behind him.

Griz glared at Synové. “Do something, or I will!”

Synové smiled. She walked over to her quiver of arrows and pulled out a blunt. Her movements were slow, smooth, calculated. Her chin lifted, her head turning, assessing the light wind.

Bahr was getting farther and farther away. A blunt would not stop him. She studied the horizon, waiting, adjusting the pristine glove the queen had given her, then she nocked the arrow. She lifted her bow and slowly pulled back, poised and calm as if she had choreographed every breath and breeze. Seconds passed and she finally let the arrow fly.

What was she doing?

It would not kill him. At this distance it likely wouldn’t even stun him.

He was at least two hundred yards away now.

I lost sight of the arrow in the bright sky, but then suddenly the water skin on Bahr’s back exploded with a dark liquid.

“What the devil is that?” Griz yelled.

A chill ran down my back as Synové grinned. I knew. “Blood,” she answered. “Rich, ripe antelope blood.”

It was only seconds before a dark cloud swooped across the horizon. It skimmed the parched valley floor like a winged rider heading toward us— toward Bahr, who still raced ahead. It happened fast. He was snatched up in its claws, and in seconds it was flying over us, Bahr writhing in its grip, screaming, and then, just as fast, they were both gone, the whoosh of the racaa’s wings drowning out the last of his screams.

Synové’s eyes narrowed, a grin still on her lips. “I guess I was wrong.

He’s not alone out there after all.”

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