Chapter no 7 – Jase

Dance of Thieves

The last thing Gunner and the others would have expected was for me to disappear in a hay wagon. Keep the straza at your sides. My mother had said it a hundred times. Her order was as matter-of-fact as brushing the hair from our eyes every time we left Tor’s Watch. I had heard it since I was a child. These are uncertain times. She said it to my father too. It was her good-bye. We had become numb to it. The times were always uncertain, and our straza were always there, a presence at our sides like a knife or sword. They only had to be seen, not used. The main difference between straza and everyone else was their title, and maybe the severity of their scowls. My brothers and I were all capable of fighting our own battles, and we had one another’s backs. Usually.

But we didn’t see this battle coming. I was blind with rage when I signaled Mason. The faintest nod to the side that he read and understood. Go with the others or she won’t follow. Circle around and meet me at the livery. This Rahtan is going to cool her heels. I was still blind with rage as I walked down that alley. Boy. She didn’t know who I was, I figured that much, but I also knew it would be only a matter of seconds before the dawning came and she’d be trailing after me. Move along and I won’t cut your pretty neck. She said it with venom—and sincerity. She would have done it. There was no doubt that she was driven, by what I wasn’t sure. She didn’t even know me.

But I was driven too. This was my town, and she wasn’t going to spit out orders.

As soon as I started down the alley, I should have known. My father had always warned me, If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. Trust your gut.

In those first steps, something seemed off, but my gut was woozy with a night of ale, and halfway down the alley my stomach caught up with my rage and I doubled over to vomit. As I wiped my mouth, an anvil pounded in my head and I blamed it on her—that was when the labor hunter hit me, knocking me to the ground. I hadn’t heard him approach and didn’t even understand who or what he was at first. As he gagged and bound me, I thought maybe he was Rahtan too, but then he called to another man farther down the alley, saying I’d bring a good price.

And then she appeared and demanded my release.

I looked at her now, lying across from me. She hadn’t stirred all morning, and I wondered if she would wake at all. I didn’t know why I tried to warn her that the brute was sneaking up from behind. Maybe because I saw her as a chance to get away. I’d seen how fast she could move when she kicked my legs out from under me back in Hell’s Mouth. I mulled that over too, or maybe it was more like I seethed over it.

My stomach was still raw, empty. The hunters hadn’t given us anything but water since they took us yesterday. I watched her chest barely rise, her breaths so shallow sometimes I thought she wasn’t breathing. He’d hit her hard, and I guessed she had a good-sized egg on the back of her head. She had hesitated in the alley when she spotted me, as if something had distracted her. Her demands had disappeared and a puzzled expression had crossed her face. Maybe it was only seeing her prey snatched from beneath her nose.

Rahtan. I turned the word over and what I had thought it meant. I had seen Rahtan before in Ráj Nivad, but none had been like her. They looked like killers and brutes, and they were big. She barely reached past my shoulder. And they sure as hell never juggled. Nothing about this added up. Could she be an imposter? Someone sent by Paxton? But I had overheard her speaking Vendan when we first approached. No one spoke like that around here, except other Vendans.

Her lids fluttered. She was finally coming to, but her eyes remained closed, even though her chest rose and her breaths became fuller. She was awake. Just assessing her predicament. I could tell her. It was bad. Very bad.

Scum like this hadn’t ventured close to Hell’s Mouth in years. They feared the Ballengers. But with settlements moving in, they probably thought they could too. Give up a handful and you will lose it all. My father was right. All the Ballenger generations had been right. We would give up no more; not a single fistful of soil would be shared.

Her eyes opened and her gaze shot to her chained hands first, then our shackled ankles, and finally her eyes rose to mine. I said nothing, just stared at her, letting it all sink in.

Still plan to arrest me? Maybe not.

I had already spent the whole night trying to loosen the chains or pick the locks with a sliver of wood I had pried from the wagon. The locks were secure, and we were stuck. She turned her head, staring out the back of the wagon, and for the first time, she flinched. If it was fear, she muffled it quickly and pulled herself up to sit against the side of the wagon. She winced as she rose. I wondered if she had broken anything when she slammed against the cobbles. Half of her face was still covered with dirt. She looked around, finally taking note of the others chained in the wagon— six of us altogether.

“Welcome to the party,” I said.

She looked at me, unflustered. Her eyes were smoky golden moons, her pupils pinpoints, shrewd, scheming, or maybe it was just the blow to her head that made her look that way. Her focus turned back to her chained hands, and then she stared at our shackled ankles again, examining them for long, studious minutes. I suspected that rankled her the most. If she hoped to jump out of the back of the wagon and run, I was her anchor. She slowly surveyed the others. We were the only ones with leg shackles, maybe because of our position at the back of the wagon, but all their hands were similarly bound like ours. Their expressions were empty, despondent. I recognized two of them from Hell’s Mouth, one from the cooperage and another from the smithy. Her gaze shifted to the driver. She studied him for a long while too, and then her chin lifted as it had when she told me to move along. I knew something was coming.

“Driver!” she called. “Stop the wagon. I have to pee.”

The driver laughed and called over his shoulder. “You missed piss break, darling. You gotta go, you do it right there.”

“I’d rather not,” she called back.

“And I’d rather not listen to your caterwauling. Shut up!” Her eyes narrowed.

I nudged her with my foot. Don’t, I mouthed. He had pummeled one of the other prisoners senseless when he wouldn’t stop moaning, and I didn’t want her messing up my own plan for escape. I had spotted an ax under the driver’s seat. Easy to get to, if the opportunity arose.

A grin lit her eyes. A grin. What was the matter with her? She was going to push him.

Let it go,” I whispered between gritted teeth. “Driver, I really need to pee.”

He whipped around, furious, but before he could speak, she said, “I’ll give you a gift for your trouble?”

His rage turned to a chuckle. “I already got all the valuables off you.

Sword. Knives. Vest. Those fancy boots.”

She leaned forward. “What about a riddle? Something to occupy your mind for all these long, dreary miles? That’s a treasure in itself, no?” His expression changed. No doubt any proposal containing the word treasure caught his greedy attention. When there was nothing tangible left to take, this prize appealed to him.

“Give it to me,” he demanded. “Pee first.”

“Riddle first.”

She sat back. “Very well. But I warn you, you won’t get the answer until I pee.”

He nodded, happy with his deal, and told her he was ready for it.

I watched her expertly pushing him against a wall, but I wasn’t even sure what the goal was. All this to pee? I didn’t think so.

“Listen up,” she instructed, her voice cheerful, like it was a fun diversion for her.

“My gaze is sharp, my scales thick,

I jump, I pounce, but I’m still not quick.

I have two feet, yet cannot stand, My head is full of rocks and sand.

I breathe out fire, but my light is dim, I’m easy prey to chance and whim.

My chest is empty, the treasury bare, I do not grieve, for it was never there.

I am less than nothing, and more of the same, A white chit tossed in a high-stakes game.”

“A lizard!” the driver guessed immediately. He made more guesses, focusing on only one clue at a time, not putting any of them together. A desert! A horse! A dragon! She answered no to every guess, and he shifted angrily in his seat. He ordered her to repeat the riddle several times. She did, but all his guesses only garnered a no from her. The more his frustration grew, the more at ease she became. Her hands stretched, fingers wiggled, as if anticipating something.

Tell me!” he demanded. “Pee break,” she replied.

He roared a string of curses then yelled, “Whoa!” pulling on the reins. He shouted to the hunters ahead of us who were scouting the path, “Hold!” His face was purple with rage. He jumped down from his seat and stomped to the back of the wagon. I had no doubt he intended to beat the answer out of her.

Tell him,” I whispered. “Now! I don’t want to be chained to a bloody pulp.

She peered at me and smiled. “I’ve got this, pretty boy.” I wondered if she had lost all sense when she was hit in the head. She reached up and pulled her shirt from her trousers so it was loose, just as the driver appeared at the back.

“Tell me,” he growled. “Now! Pee break after.” “How do I know that—”

He grabbed her shoulders, jerking her forward. She leaned into him and in a single move, as smooth as air, she palmed the keys hooked at his side without so much as a tug or jingle, and slid them beneath her shirt. “All right!” she said, caving to his demand. “All right! Here is your answer.”

He pushed her away, waiting.

“A fool. An empty-headed fool.” She tweaked her head coyly to the side. “And I was so certain you would get it.”

For once, he didn’t miss her point and his arm swung, the back of his fist meeting with her jaw. She fell back, and he glared at her. “Who’s the fool now? I got the answer, and you got no pee break. Piss your pants, bitch.”

He stomped back to his seat and drove the wagon forward again.

She sat up, getting her bearings, blood trickling from the corner of her mouth, and her eyes met mine. Even the others hadn’t seen what she did. She motioned toward my hands. I leaned forward and she slipped the keys from her shirt and with a slow, guarded motion, unlocked my chains. I quietly laid them on the floor of the wagon. The others noticed, and I pressed my finger to my lips so they wouldn’t make a sound. I took the keys from her and did the same with the chains on her wrists. The others rustled anxiously, seeing what was going on, and thrust their hands out to be freed too, the clinks of their strained chains making a ruckus. The driver thundered back over his shoulder, “Quiet!” We all froze and then I cautiously unlocked the man next to me. He took the keys and did the same for the man next to him.

The girl kicked my foot and nodded at our legs as the keys traveled out of our reach. Our ankles were still chained together. I waved to the last two men to pass them back, but they were panicking, unable to get the key in the locks, afraid the driver would turn and see them. I pressed my fingers to my lips again warning them, but one began struggling and sobbed to the other, “Hurry!” The other prisoner freed him at last, but not before the driver turned and saw what was happening.

“Scatter!” I yelled, hoping for distraction as I lunged for the keys that had fumbled from the last man’s fingers to the floor. The others ran over us, jumping from the back of the wagon, kicking the keys from my reach.

The driver was screaming, alerting the men who rode ahead, and I saw him reach down for the ax beneath his seat. The girl lunged too, as the keys were kicked in the bedlam of the prisoners stampede for freedom. I almost had them in my hand when the girl screamed, “Above you!” I rolled just as an ax splintered the wagon floor where my head had been. I grabbed the handle as he pried it free, and we battled for its control. I made it to my feet, but I had less leverage with one leg chained.

“Keep it, you bastard fool!” I yelled and let go of the ax, pushing him. As he stumbled for balance, my arm shot forward, my fist crushing his throat, caving it inward. His eyes bulged and he fell from the wagon onto his back, his throat wheezing, unable to draw a breath. He was as good as dead, but then another hunter on horseback, with a spiked mace in hand, doubled back toward us after taking down one of the other prisoners. His eyes were fixed on me.

The girl had snatched up the keys in her fist and was trying to fit the key into the lock at our ankles to free us, but I yelled, “Run!” There wasn’t time for locks. I grabbed her arm and pulled her with me. We stumbled onto the dirt as the hunter’s mace swung over our heads, his horse trampling around us. We scrambled together beneath the wagon just as the mace split the wood over our heads. We crawled to the other side and ran, our paces clumsy with the chain between us. “This way!” I shouted.

The hunter was close behind us, but I knew what was up ahead, and I only prayed she could keep step with me. If we stumbled, we were finished. She managed to keep pace, the chain rattling between us, the keys still firm in her grip. The flat plain gave way to a long, steep incline that led to the river below. In one jump, we leapt and rolled, head over heels, tumbling, the shackles cutting into our legs as we pulled apart and came together in what felt like an endless cascade down the loose dirt, unable to break our fall until we hit a flat crest above the river.

“The keys!” the girl shouted. Her hand was empty. She had lost them in the long tumble.

We untangled ourselves and got to our feet, both of our ankles bleeding where the irons had cut into them. We looked back up the incline, hoping to see the glint of a rusty key.

“Devil’s hell!” I hissed. The hunter was traversing the steep embankment on his horse, still coming after us.

Fikat vide,” the girl growled and glanced behind us for escape. There was nowhere to go but the river, and it was a long way down.

“Can you swim?” I asked. “I don’t want your dead weight dragging me under.”

“Let’s go, pretty boy,” she said, glaring at me, then jumped, pulling me with her.

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