Chapter no 61 – Kazi

Dance of Thieves

The queen made me no promises. She had listened carefully to everything I told her, and I watched her expressions change as I spoke. Sometimes I saw anger, surprise, confusion, and sometimes I saw sadness, or maybe I was only seeing myself reflected in her eyes. I kept to the facts, only telling her things that pertained to the kingdoms and what I observed. I didn’t tell her about Jase and me together, nothing about the wilderness, because that was a story that would take me a lifetime to tell.

When I finished, she told me she would consider everything I said— including what I had boldly asked for—but she had to see the prisoner for herself. She had to speak to him, look him in the eye, get a sense of who he really was, and then she would decide, but she sped up the process, calling him to the receiving hall immediately.

I was right behind the queen in the passage as she walked to address Jase, but just before entering, I stopped and pressed myself up against the wall. I couldn’t go in. I couldn’t face him. I’d heard his angry shouts echoing down the hallway—his resentment and bitterness. There were some things I could try to make right for him, but some things would be forever broken.

“Kazimyrah,” the queen called, “is this the prisoner you told me about?” I had no choice but to enter the room. I pushed away from the wall and created composure where there was none, molding my dread and regret into one step and then another, calling upon old tricks, fooling myself one more

time that I could do this. Juggle Kazi. Pivot. But there was nothing left to juggle, no more directions to turn.

“Yes, Your Majesty. It’s him.”

I fixed my eyes on the far wall, listening to the charges, waiting. It felt like giant hands pressed down on my shoulders, like every one of my bones was about to crack under the strain. I wasn’t sure how much longer I could stand, but after only a few minutes, I knew. I heard it in her voice. It was firm and familiar, a voice I had first heard six years ago when I spit in her face. Bring her along to the Sanctum. Back then, I couldn’t hear the compassion in her voice. I was too frightened, too angry. But I heard it now, and I wondered if this was another one of those things you could only perceive from a distance.

I watched her closely as she listened to him tell the Ballenger history, gauging and interpreting her every move and blink. I knew she heard the pride in his voice, the determination, and the responsibility he bore. She was seeing all the same things in Jase that I saw, who he really was, and everything he could still be.

It was all going well, better than I could have hoped. Tor’s Watch was to be recognized for what it was, the first realm of the land. I took a chance and looked at Jase. He was leaving. He was going back. It was what I had wanted, what I hoped for, because Hell’s Mouth did need him. His family needed him. But then he looked at me, and my mind became a windstorm, memories whirling in a riotous tunnel, and I saw it all sweeping away, out of my reach.

Then the path suddenly veered terribly, and everything spun out of control, the storm exploding right in the middle of the receiving hall. My head pounded, trying to quickly retrace where it all went wrong.

I’m not sure I can really trust you, Jase Ballenger. I don’t think it’s safe to let him go.

What do you think, Patrei? Do you think I should trust you?

I was frozen, afraid to move, my eyes locked on his, my breath trapped in my chest waiting for Jase’s reply. Say yes, Jase! Tell her! Tell her you’ll keep your word!

But instead he hesitated.

Tell her!

He looked back at the queen. “No,” he answered. “I don’t think you can trust me at all. I might slip back into my old habits.”

What was he saying? Had they all gone mad?

“That’s just what I thought,” the queen replied. “I’m afraid I’d need someone who was equal to your sly ways, someone clever enough to keep you in line. Someone already familiar with Tor’s Watch.” The queen looked up at me. “What about you, Kazimyrah? Would you be willing to take on this position? Would you be willing to go back with the Patrei?”

I looked at her, trying to grasp what was she saying. Go back? The room bloomed with stifling heat, the air sucked out in a sudden whoosh. Ambassador? She didn’t understand. “I’m afraid, Your Majesty, that would be impossible. I’ve left considerable ill feelings behind me in Tor’s Watch. I wouldn’t be a wise choice for a liaison.” I looked at Jase, my eyes stinging. “And I’m sure the Patrei wouldn’t want me to go back with him. Everyone there despises me by now.”

There was a long, fragile silence, then Jase shook his head. “Not everyone.”

He crossed the room, and no one tried to stop him. He walked up the steps and looked down at me, his eyes searching mine, and then he pulled me into his arms, crushing me, his face nestled in my hair. “I already told you,” he whispered in my ear, “and I won’t take it back. I love you, Kazi of Brightmist, and I will never stop loving you, not through a thousand tomorrows. Come back with me. Please.”

My face buried in his shoulder, breath jumping in my throat. Make a wish. One will always come true. My fingers curled into his shirt, holding on to what I had thought was far beyond my reach, trying to understand what was happening, and then words tumbled from my mouth, words I didn’t want to hold back any longer, no matter how risky they might be. I didn’t care if every god in the heavens was listening. “Le pavi ena.” I gasped. “I love you, Jase Ballenger.”

“I know,” he said. “I’ve always known.”

I turned my face to his and our lips met, a kiss that was salty with tears. “My tomorrows are yours, Jase. I want them all to be with you.”

We held on to each other, tight, as if weaving some solid part of us together so nothing could ever separate us again, and when we finally

parted there was no one left in the room but us, and I guessed the queen knew that my answer to her was yes.

* * *

Jase helped me with Mije’s saddle and pack. This time on our trek across the wilderness together we would have ample supplies and boots on our feet. We’d already said good-bye to the queen and king, and Jase had signed the necessary papers to begin the process of Tor’s Watch becoming a recognized nation on the continent.

He buckled the strap on my bag. “So does this mean I have to call you Ambassador Brightmist now?” he asked.

“Or perhaps Magistrate Brightmist,” I answered. “I think that is the queen’s intention.”

He pulled me into his arms. “I’ll definitely be misbehaving, just to make sure you have something to report. I wouldn’t want you to lose your job.”

We kissed again, like it was all delicate and new, and wondrous, a turn neither of us saw coming, and I knew I would fiercely fight to stay on this path, no matter what it took or what it cost me.

“Stop, would you?” Synové called.

Jase and I stepped apart as she and Wren walked over. Synové held up a small package tied with twine. “Just a little good-bye treat for the trail.”

“I’m not sure there’s room for one more thing,” I said.

“Trust me, you’ll appreciate it once you’re out there in the middle of nowhere.”

“I’ll find room,” Jase offered and took it from me. When he turned his back, Synové made all kinds of suggestive eye signals. Wren only rolled hers. I wished they could come back to Tor’s Watch too, but the queen had another mission for them once they had rested. I also suspected she wanted to spend some time with Synové to review how Bahr met his fate. It was already becoming legend throughout the settlement.

Wren shifted on her feet. Hissed. Pulled out her ziethe, spun it, and shoved it back in its scabbard. She shook her head. “You sure about this? Who will have your back?”

“I’ll be fine,” I answered, though I was still uneasy too. I knew Wren had heard the same deadly threats I had in those first hours after we had

taken Jase and the prisoners. His family had been quite articulate in their rage. No doubt the whole town held similar thoughts by now too. I would be a prime target.

Jase finished stuffing the package in my bag and turned around. “I’ll have her back, and I promise you, once I tell my family everything, they’ll be grateful to Kazi.” Jase told me Bahr and Sarva admitted to him they planned to kill the whole family, taunting him with some of the ugly details, especially regarding his sisters and mother. It had prompted their last scuffle. Once they no longer had a use for Jase, provoking him brought them sick pleasure.

Wren still looked unconvinced, but she nodded.

Synové leaned up unexpectedly and kissed Jase’s cheek. “Give that to Mason for me, will you?” she chirped. “I know he must be missing me terribly by now. Let him know I got here okay. It will be such a relief for him.”

Jase couldn’t suppress a grin, and maybe a bit of an eyeroll. We’d heard Mason’s threats too, not to mention we’d only seen him grudgingly tolerate her attentions in the first place. “I’ll let him know.”

We stood there awkwardly, none of us wanting to say good-bye. I shrugged. “Then I guess this is it.”

Nooo,” Synové said and winked. “It comes later.”

Wren jabbed her with her elbow, then hugged me. Synové joined in. “Blink last,” Synové whispered before she let me go.

“Always,” I answered.

“Remember, Patrei,” Wren warned as they walked away, “watch her back, or we’ll come after yours.”

* * *

Late afternoon we stopped at a spring to water the horses and to rest. We’d been estimating how long it would take us to get back to Tor’s Watch. Three to four weeks at minimum, depending on the weather. The crispness of autumn nipped the air.

“First thing I need to do when I get home is to make amends with Jalaine and put her back on at the arena,” Jase said. “She loves her job even if she complains about it.” He paused and looked at the ring on my finger as

I filled a waterskin. The gold glinted in the sun. “And you’ll need to take that off before we get back.”

“This?” I spun the ring on my finger. “Why?”

“You think it’s wise to wear something you stole from the king? Especially when we want him in a congenial mood toward us when he receives the proposal.”

“What are you talking about? I already told you, I got this fairly.” I explained about the merchant who gave it to me in return for a riddle.

Jase corked his water skin and lay down on the shady patch of grass beside the spring. He folded his hands behind his head. “My mistake. Garvin told me he thought you had nicked something from the king and I assumed—”

“Well, actually … I did,” I admitted and sat down beside him, “but it was only a piece of paper with a name on it, maybe a pig-iron dealer. I think Paxton may have given it to him. Devereux something.”

Jase turned his head like he didn’t hear me correctly. “What?” “Devereux seventy-two. That’s all it said.”

He sat up. “Devereux? You’re sure?” “Why? Do you know him?”

And that was when he told me about Zane. Everything about Zane. That he’d been a Ballenger employee. About the setup and Gunner bringing me to the fountain to see if Zane recognized me. About the interrogation that followed. That was how Gunner was able to bring him out to me so fast that night. They had been holding him prisoner in the warehouse.

“That’s why I didn’t tell you right away, Kazi. I was trying to find the right words and timing once I knew for sure he was the same man you described. I was afraid I’d lose you if you knew he’d been our employee.”

It took me a minute to absorb this revelation—an employee but now their prisoner. He would still be at Tor’s Watch when we got there.

“You’re sure Zane said the man who gave him money was named Devereux too?” I finally asked.

Jase nodded.

We discussed what this might mean. Was the man who gave Zane money for labor hunters the same man named on the king’s slip of paper— the paper Paxton may have given to him? Just who did Devereux work for? These past weeks someone had been campaigning to oust the Ballengers.

There were five leagues who’d had run-ins with Jase’s family over the years, all of them hungry for control of Hell’s Mouth and the very profitable arena. Devereux likely worked for one of them, and now the finger was pointing at Paxton.

“Maybe Devereux is Paxton’s new hawker by day,” Jase wondered aloud, “and by night he’s taking care of another kind of business.”

“What about the king?” I asked. “I did find the note on him. Could Devereux be his man?”

Jase frowned. “Not the king I know. I think Montegue would wet himself if he ever ran into someone who frequents dark alleys, never mind have the guts to hire him. And for what? He doesn’t head a league. He’s a farmer. He has no stake in this game.”

And then we both wondered about Beaufort. Was it possible he had been working with one of the leagues? Having them undermine the Ballenger’s foothold in town in return for a piece of the pie? Was Zane their go-between? Or was the scheming unrelated? One conspiring faction? Or two separate ones? Paxton’s threat to me resurfaced, Crossing the wrong person can get you into more trouble than you bargained for. Watch your step.

Jase shook his head, thinking. I knew it burned in him that he wasn’t home. “Last time I was away, Gunner managed everything well,” he finally said. “He will this time too. And we still have Zane in custody. My family won’t let him go. We’ll get more answers out of him when we get back.” He squeezed my hand. “And we’ll get your answers too, Kazi. That comes first. I’m sorry for what Gunner did.”

I glanced down, remembering Gunner’s taunts. “Emotions were strung tight, and he was afraid for you,” I replied, trying to understand, but Gunner’s cruelty was still a raw wound inside me. He dangled Zane in front of me like food to a starving animal, then snatched him away. I’d been worried about the family forgiving me, but now I wondered if I would ever be able to forgive Gunner. We’ll get your answers too. The thought chilled me. What if I was wrong? What if my mother wasn’t dead? What if Death had tricked me?

Jase looked at me, his eyes dark with concern.

I blew out a long, cleansing breath. “Don’t worry. We’ll figure it out,” I said, “but this time there will be no secrets between us, and we’ll be working on the same side.”

He smiled. “The Ballenger odds have just doubled.” He nudged my shoulder until I was lying back on the grass, and he kissed my cheek. “Before I forget, I still owe you something.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“The riddle I promised you. The good one. It took me a while. Turns out it’s not that easy to find the right words.” He lifted my hand, kissing my fingertips as if he cherished each one. “But sometimes you need to say what is in your heart while you can, because you might not get a chance later. Every word is as true as I can make it, Kazi, so I may as well tell you now.”

He pulled his shirt loose from his trousers. “Jase,” I said. “Just what are you—”

“Shhh,” he whispered. “Wait.” He took my hand and slipped it beneath the fabric, pressing it flat to his chest. His skin was hot under my palm, and I felt the light beat of his heart beneath my fingers. “Ready?” he asked. “Listen carefully, because I won’t repeat myself, Ambassador Brightmist.”

I smiled. “Don’t worry, Patrei. I’m a good listener.” He began, still pressing my hand to his chest.

“I have no mouth, but my hunger is fed, With glimpse, and touch, and kindness said. I have no eyes, but see a soul,

The only one that makes me whole. I swell beneath a soldier’s palm,

Its touch my breath, my blood, my calm. I am utterly lost, but completely found, Captured, taken … a prisoner bound.”

My throat ached. I knew the answer, but I played the game. “A key? The wind? A map?” His lips brushed mine between each wrong guess.

“It may take me a while to figure this out,” I said.

His mouth was warm against mine, his tongue gentle, his hands curling through my hair. “Take as long as you like.”

We were in no hurry.

We were alone, we had each other, and we had a whole wilderness ahead of us.

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