Chapter no 59 – Kazi

Dance of Thieves

Scouts had ridden ahead of us, so long before we arrived the news had spread. By the time we neared the gates of Marabella, large crowds had gathered. Soldiers lined our path to keep everyone back, but mostly the crowd was still and surprisingly silent. A deathly pall had fallen as if ghosts rode at our sides. These were not prisoners they ever expected to see. Mouths hung open. Eyes glistened. A man as big as Griz wept. They may not have recognized Beaufort and Torback, but they knew Governor Sarva and Chievdar Kardos. I watched the stunned faces fill with terror and then hatred. No doubt many had experienced loss at these men’s hands or knew someone who had. Sarva and Kardos looked straight ahead, refusing to meet their gazes.

Beaufort began looking around, his head craning back nervously. “Still expecting a rescue?” I asked.

He looked at me, and that was when I saw real terror. He’d never expected to face the queen again—at least not on her terms. He had thought his patience would pay off once more, and he would never meet his fate.

“It’s over, Captain. No one is coming for you. This is the end of the line.”

His face contorted as if struggling with this truth and finally his lip lifted in a snarl as he scrutinized me. He shook his head with disgust. “By worthless street trash. By a crapcake like you.”

That’s right. By someone like me.

A drop of sweat trickled over his half-moon scar. “It will never be over.

Not now. A door has been unlocked. More like me will always come.” “Maybe so. But more like me will always be there to stop them.”

He looked over his shoulder one last time, as if still hopeful, but all he saw were the Vendan crowds closing in, erasing the path behind him.

* * *

I clutched the jail log in my hand. As lead on the mission, it was my job to present it to the queen—the names of the prisoners we had delivered into the warden’s custody. She would address the prisoners later.

I sat on a stone bench outside her personal chamber, waiting, my knee bouncing. I fingered the wish stalk in my pocket that I had bought from a merchant just outside the outpost walls.

A servant opened the door, and I jumped to my feet. “The queen will see you now,” she said. I was escorted in and the servant left. The room was cool and dim. The sweet fragrance of roses hung in the air. With the curtains drawn, I didn’t see her at first.

“Kazimyrah,” she said softly, walking toward me. She was in a dressing gown and her hair was loose around her shoulders.

I dropped to a knee. “Your Majesty.”

“Enough of that.” She lightly touched my arm so I would stand, then drew me into her arms. She hugged me tightly, as if she’d been worried, and I found myself hugging her back, holding her in a way I had never done before, my breaths uneven, my throat stabbing, and somewhere deep within I felt a tug, like a stitch pulling tight, and I imagined its color to be silver. “Welcome home,” she whispered.

When she drew away I noticed her belly. The large round bump was gone and my heart jumped. She must have seen the fear on my face.

“No. Everything’s fine. Come.” She guided me to a cradle beside her bed.

My chest swelled. “She—he?—is beautiful.”

The queen smiled. “She. I can’t stop looking at her. I watch every twitch, every smile, every pout of her lip.” She leaned over and scooped the sleeping baby into her arms, kissing her forehead, then touching her tiny fingers, wonder filling her face.

“Have you named her?” I asked.

She nodded and her eyes glistened. “Aster,” she answered. “I named her Aster. The saving angel.” She kissed the baby again and gently laid her back in the cradle.

“And you have made her world safer, Kazimyrah. I am indebted to you and your team. A thank-you is not nearly enough.”

My throat squeezed. “I am honored to serve, Your Majesty.” “Will you ever call me Lia?”

“Griz doesn’t approve.”

She shook her head. “Come,” she said. “Tell me about your journey.”

We sat on the settee beneath the window, and she poured us each a goblet of water. I presented her with the prison log, but she wanted to hear about the prisoners from me. She had already heard we had come back with more than we set out for. First I told her about the prisoners who had died en route, then Torback, and then I told her about the captain. She let out a slow breath, and I saw the relief in her face that he was finally captured. But there was also turmoil in her eyes, as if she revisited the pain he had wrought, not just upon Morrighan and Venda, but upon her family. She said she wished her father had lived long enough to see this day.

When I told her about Governor Sarva and Chievdar Kardos, she shook her head in disbelief, shocked that they were still alive. She had known them when she was held prisoner in the Sanctum and remembered their cruel, vindictive ways.

“Captain Illarion still thinks he’s going to get away,” I warned.

“That doesn’t surprise me, but there’s no chance of that now,” she said. “He murdered Captain Azia, one of my husband’s best officers. Rafe will probably guard Illarion himself until he sees him hanging from a rope.”

She assured me that all the prisoners would remain under heavy guard while they awaited trial.

“There’s one other prisoner I need to tell you about,” I said. I dug my nails into my palms, trying to force the wobble from my throat. “This one may take a while.”

The queen’s brows rose with interest, and she sat back on the settee, curling her feet beneath her. “I’m listening.”

Some said it began with the stars.

They brought a magic the world could not contain.

No, my grandfather said, it began with the anger of men.

However it began, we are the end. I was five when the first star struck.

I have no memory of my family, only my grandfather, one of the most powerful men in the world, the leader of a once-great nation, scooping me into his arms and running.

Running is all I remember. Years of running.

I will never run again.

—Greyson Ballenger, 16

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