Chapter no 9 – Jase

Dance of Thieves

I grabbed a long branch of driftwood tossed up on the bank and broke it in two, handing one to her. It would serve as both walking stick and protection if we needed it. I doubted the hunters would cross the river after us. We were only a commodity to them and it would cost them less time and trouble to ensnare new victims, but there were four-legged threats out here too. “We’ll sharpen them later,” I said.

We set out through the forest, maneuvering through the dense maze of yellow-ringed spirit trees. The trunks were thin, none much wider than my arm, but they grew closely, making our path an ever-constant zigzag. The floor of the forest was a thick mat of decaying leaves, a soft cushion on our bare feet. Other parts of the journey wouldn’t be this easy. We faced a river of scorching sand ahead, but if I paced it right, we would travel over it in the cool of night.

It was a gamble when I told her about the direction of the settlement. I wasn’t sure how well she knew the terrain. Even if she did, it was easy to confuse one forest or plateau with another out here, and she’d been unconscious the whole time in the hay wagon. My gamble paid off. She didn’t know where we really were—east or west of Hell’s Mouth.

I thought she’d go along easier if she thought she was headed for a Vendan settlement. The alternative was to carry her trussed up over my shoulder the whole way, which would take even longer. It was already going to take too long as it was. The river had taken us way off course, and

we wouldn’t be able to move fast with this chain between us—especially without shoes.

She wouldn’t like where we were going, which brought me some satisfaction as there was little else to be satisfied with at the moment. I needed to get home fast. More than ever, this was a time the family needed to be pulling together, showing a unified front. We needed to be fortifying our positions. Scouts had already been sent to outlying posts, watching for threats. Other leagues were always vying for a piece of Hell’s Mouth’s lucrative trade, hoping to displace the Ballengers. Paxton was a wolf sniffing the air for blood every time he came to town. If I wasn’t there, he’d sense weakness and whistle for more of his pack to follow. The same with the other league leaders. They would know something was wrong. The town would become restless too, wondering where I was. Every day, every minute I was gone only made my problems multiply. The others would be covering for me, searching, hoping for the best and putting on a show that all was well. Funeral plans would have to proceed. My fingers curled into my palm, wishing I could hit something.

Today would be the preparation and wrapping of my father’s body. My family would be doing it without me. Tomorrow the tomb would be opened and cleaned, a lantern lit and a daily prayer offered up by family in anticipation of his entombment, and in two weeks his body would be laid on the internment stone for the final good-bye, viewing, and sealing ceremony. And then, once the tomb was shut and sealed, the priestess would say a blessing over the new Patrei. But I wouldn’t be there. Visitors gathered to pay their respects would wonder at my absence, and the fears and whispers would run rampant. So would the wolves. My family was at risk. So was the town—all because of her.

I wondered if she was truly Rahtan. Yes, she was skilled, but she didn’t exactly possess brawn—even if she had managed to overtake me and slam me up against the wall. But juggling? Riddles? Her age. Her poise and demeanor was that of a cynical tested soldier, but her appearance—she was young, younger than me, I was certain. Her black hair fell in thick, long waves, and her hands were delicate, her fingers more suited for a piano than a sword.

Or for slipping keys from a belt.

My doubts doubled and I glanced sideways at her. Her cheeks were flushed with warmth, but she kept step with my brisk pace.

I thought about the queen who had sent her and my father’s last words.

Make her come. The leagues will notice. It will validate our position on this continent.

The Lesser Kingdoms and territories hadn’t been part of the battle, but everyone knew of the war between the Greater Kingdoms and the queen who had led a vastly outnumbered army to an astonishing victory. She could have plucked from any number of skilled soldiers or chosen assassins from three kingdoms to investigate treaty violations. Why this girl?

“Do you actually know the queen?” I asked.

Her glance at me was sharp, but her one word answer was languid. “Yes.”

Even in one simple word, I heard a hundred nuances—most of them haughty, condescending, and superior.

“How did you meet?”

She paused, considering her reply. “I met her when I pledged as a soldier.”

A lie.

“You know her well?” “Quite well.”

More questions only produced more terse answers, and I wasn’t sure any were true.

I stopped abruptly and stepped in her path to block her, the question I promised myself I wouldn’t ask bubbling up anyway. “Why don’t you like me?”

She stared at me, confused. “What?”

“Back at the river, you said that you don’t like me. I want to know why.” She rolled her eyes like it was obvious and tried to sidestep around me. Again, I moved to block her path. She looked at me then, her eyes as smooth and calm as a summer sea, and said without blinking, “Because

you’re an opportunist. You’re a cheat. You’re a thief. Shall I go on?”

My back stiffened, but I forced myself to deliver an unruffled reply. “Wouldn’t those all be the same thing?”

“There are differences. Can we walk and talk at the same time?”

“Maybe you’re right,” I replied, and we fell back into step. “I guess it would take a real thief to know the subtleties. I saw you steal those oranges.”

She laughed. “Did you, now? I paid for those oranges. You and your bunch of thugs were too drunk and full of yourselves to see anything beyond your own inebriated noses. I can see your kind coming a mile away.”

My kind?” I squared my shoulders, struggling to remain calm. She had no respect or fear for the Ballengers, and I wasn’t used to it. “You don’t know anything about me.”

“I know enough. I’ve read the long list of your violations. Skimming merchants. Caravan raids. Stealing livestock. Intimidation.”

I stepped in front of her path, blocking her again. “Ah, so there you have it—a list with the Vendan twist. Do your kind have any idea how hard it is to survive out here in the middle of everything and everyone? Surrounded by kingdoms on all sides? Everyone thinking it’s their right to enter your territory and take what they want? Moving in at the slightest sign of weakness? My world is not your world.” My temples burned and my voice rose. “Vendans sit behind their high, safe walls at the far edge of a continent, scribbling out new treaties and training their pretty, smart-mouthed, elite soldiers who have no idea what it’s like to fight to survive!” I lowered my voice to a growl. “And you, Kazi of Brightmist, have no understanding of the trouble you’ve caused me. I should be home with my family, protecting them, and instead I’m out here, chained to you!”

My chest heaved with anger, and I waited for a caustic comeback, but instead she blinked slowly and replied, “I may know more about survival than you think.”

Her pupils were deep black wells floating in a calm circle of amber, but her hands betrayed her, stiff at her sides, ready to strike. A war raged inside her, one she held back, biting it off like a poisonous snake with disturbing self-control.

“Let’s go,” I said. Our worlds had an impassable gulf between them. It was useless to try to make her understand.

We walked in silence, the clank of the chain between us suddenly amplified.

Her steely control made me angry at myself for losing mine. It wasn’t like me. That was one of the reasons my father gave for naming me Patrei. I wasn’t the oldest, but I was the least impulsive. It was a strength my father valued. I weighed the advantages and costs of every word and action before I acted. Some saw me as aloof. Mason said, with admiration, that it made me a stone-cold bastard, but this girl had pushed me to a reckless burning edge I didn’t even recognize, and her calm reply only pushed me further.

She knew something about survival. I wondered if she might even know more than me.

Each other. Hold on to each other because that is what will save you.

I hold back tears because others are watching, already terrified. I pile handfuls of dirt, brush, rocks, thing upon thing until his body is hidden. It is the best I can do, but I know animals will find him by nightfall. By then he will be far behind us.

How many more will I have to bury?

I shout into the air, a rush of tears and anger breaking loose.

No more of us, I scream.

The anger feels good, saving, a weapon when I have nothing else. I shove a stick into a hand. And then another, and another, until even the youngest holds one. Miandre balks. I squeeze my hand around hers until she winces, forcing her to take hold of her club. If we die, we will die fighting.

—Greyson Ballenger, 14

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