Chapter no 6 – Kazi

Dance of Thieves

We intercepted the Vendans leaving the apothecary—a husband and wife. Their eyes were lined with fatigue. Leaving Venda for the unknown was not an easy choice, and yet it was their only hope for something better. The fact that they were still here, trying, showed how desperately they wanted to make it work. The settlement locations had been carefully chosen, approved by every kingdom in advance, usually near sizable cities so there was a greater potential for trade and growth—and protection. But they were receiving the opposite here.

It wasn’t only the major powers of Morrighan and Dalbreck who wanted the Vendans divided and dispersed, the Lesser Kingdoms did too, afraid of their numbers and the strength they had once amassed, but the queen had never held it out as threat, only that it was the right thing to do. These were people who hoped for a brighter future.

Troops would come if disputes couldn’t be resolved, but before troops came, a darker trouble needed to be uncovered here—discreetly. Any whiff of what we were really after and our prey might vanish entirely, as he had before. Not this time, the queen said. I saw the ghosts in her eyes. Even for her, I thought, they never go away.

“So you can’t identify the attackers either?” I asked. “No, we—”

“What’s going on here?”

I sighed. The bevy of bacchanals had followed us. I turned and faced them, eyeing the bloodshot leader of the group. “Move along, boy,” I ordered. “This doesn’t concern you.”

His eyes went from bloodshot to flaming. “Boy?” He stepped closer, and in one swift movement, I brought him to his knees and slammed him up against the apothecary wall, a knife to his throat.

His crew jumped forward but then stalled when they saw the blade firm against his skin.

“That’s right, boy. Call off your misbegotten posse and move along as I ordered, and maybe I won’t cut your pretty neck.”

His muscles strained beneath my grasp, his shoulder a knot of rage—and yet the knife was snug against his jugular. He considered carefully.

“Back off,” he finally told his friends. “Sensible,” I said. “Ready to move along?” “Yes,” he hissed.

“Good boy,” I said, though it was now clear to me that there was nothing boyish about him.

I pulled the knife from his belt and shoved him away. He didn’t protest or try to double back, but instead took his time to stand. He faced me and waved back the others, who were ready to jump to his defense now that his neck was safe from my knife. Seconds stretched and he studied me as though he was memorizing every inch of my face. Revenge burned in his gaze. He lifted his arm and Wren and Synové tensed, raising their weapons, but he only raked his thick hair back from his face, and then, his eyes still boring into mine—he smiled.

A chill danced up my spine. Smiles like his unsettled me. I had a history with them. They meant something else, but he only dipped his head in good-bye, and said, “I wish you a pleasant stay in Hell’s Mouth.” He turned and walked away by himself, his friends going in the opposite direction, as though he had sent them some private communiqué. I knew about subtle signals—Wren, Synové, and I often used them to silently communicate our moves—but if he had used one, I hadn’t seen it.

I puzzled over it for a moment then returned my knife to its sheath, eyeing him as he disappeared down an avenue. Synové and Wren did likewise with their weapons, and the noise around us, which had hushed

with the commotion, slowly resumed. I turned back to the couple, but they both stood stiff, their eyes wide with horror.

“It’s all right,” I said. “They’re gone—”

“Do you know who that was?” the woman asked, her voice trembling. “It was—”

“The Patrei,” her husband answered before I could finish.

I had a very clear description of Karsen Ballenger—a robust man, somewhere near forty, dark brown hair, dark eyes, a scar across his chin— and the swaggering dirty blond was not remotely him.

“The Patrei is Karsen Ballenger,” I said. “He’s—”

“Karsen Ballenger is dead,” the man replied. “He died yesterday. That was Jase, his son, the new Patrei.”

New Patrei? Karsen Ballenger dead? Yesterday? No. They were mistaken. I was told that Karsen was young, fierce, and healthy. How could

The ring.

My stomach spun. The gold signet ring. It was on his finger. I caught a glimpse of gold when I held him against the wall, but I didn’t think anything of it. It was supposed to be on an older man.

My mind whirled, and I felt myself being whisked down an unexpected path. I could see Natiya raging already, Griz roaring, and the queen burying her face in her hands.

I sucked in a deep breath. There is still time to save this. If I was going to get under anyone’s skin other than Karsen Ballenger, his son was the next best choice. This could still work. In fact, maybe it was perfect timing.

I looked in the direction he had walked. Alone.

He had wanted me to follow him. I was told that Karsen Ballenger had a large ego. It was obvious his son did, too—maybe bigger. He wasn’t going to let this humiliation go.

“Guard the end of the street,” I told Wren and Synové. “Don’t let his crew follow me,” and I went after him.

* * *

It was a quiet avenue, strangely void of anyone, lined with the back sides of shops, trash bins, and the trunks of giant trees. Shadows crisscrossed the

buckled and rutted cobbled street. I couldn’t see him, but I knew he was here. Somewhere. I felt the hot trail of rage he left behind. Yes, I wanted him angry but not so much that he would kill me—that was not part of the plan. It was eerily calm, and I pulled my sword halfway from its scabbard, scouring the shadows on either side. I listened for sounds, and a little farther down the road I heard a scuffling noise, a grunt, a soft clatter. A repeat of the same sounds. I turned my head, trying to pinpoint where it came from. I took another step and determined it came from an intersecting lane only a few yards ahead. I stepped forward, cautiously, and saw him, but not in the way I expected. He was bound and gagged, blood running from his temple, and he was in the grips of an enormous man almost the size of Griz. They both spotted me, and I stepped out into the middle of the lane.

“What do you think you’re doing?” I called. I didn’t think it could be a trick. The blood was real.

“No concern of yours, missy. Just cleaning up street trash. Go about your business.”

I pulled my sword free. “Let him go,” I ordered.

“Nah, I don’t think so. He’s a strong one. We’ll get a lot for him.”

And then I spotted a hay wagon not far behind them both, with tall sides and a heavy tarp thrown over the top. Labor hunters? A vision swirled before my eyes. A long-ago voice I couldn’t block out punched the air from my lungs. I blinked, trying to force the memories away.

“By order of the Queen of Venda, I demand that you release him now.

He is in my custody for treaty violations.”

Jase Ballenger’s eyes grew wide, and he groaned and struggled beneath his gag but the man’s arm was a vise around him. For a moment, I regretted taking his knife. He might have avoided this quandary.

The man grinned. “You mean he’s under arrest? Well, if you put it that way…”

His voice was thick with sarcasm, and the memories clawed me again.

You’ll bring a nice profit.

Jase groaned louder.

“Release him! Now!” I ordered.

It was then that I heard a sound behind me. I whirled but it was too late. Something hard and heavy struck my head, and my feet flew out beneath me. My cheek crashed into the muddy cobbles, and I caught a hazy glimpse

of boots shuffling near me, stepping on the sword that was still in my hand. I felt him pull it from my grip, his boots scuffling closer, the toe of one nudging my shoulder, and then the cloudy haze darkened until it was black.

* * *

I thought it couldn’t get worse. I didn’t open my eyes when I first woke, trying to get my bearings, listening instead to the noises around me, feeling the rock and sway beneath my back, sweat trickling between my breasts, the throb of my head, something sharp cutting into my wrists. I slivered my eyes open. My wrists were chained, but worse, my boots were gone and my ankle was shackled to Jase Ballenger.

He sat across from me, his gag gone, swaying with the wagon, the side of his face crusted with dried blood, the rest shining with perspiration. He saw that I was awake. His expression was grim. He was probably far beyond angry now, and most certainly fantasizing about how slowly he would kill me if he ever got the chance. His scrutiny was smothering, and I turned my head. That was when I caught the view out the back of the wagon. There were no trees, no streets, no mountains or even hills. We were in the middle of a wide-open plain, with nowhere to hide, and nowhere to run. How long had I been unconscious?

This was more than an unexpected turn. It was an unchecked slide into hell.

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