Chapter no 22 – KAZI

Vow of Thieves (Dance of Thieves, #2)

Tor’s Watch hadn’t been my home. Not yet. Not truly. When I had been here before, I had only been an interloper, an imposter wheedling my way past defenses. I’d been a soldier with an agenda, hiding beneath a false premise. I only saw a fortress that overflowed with secrets, and viewed every room as a potential hiding place. But still, even then, though I tried hard not to, I had seen the beauty of it, that it was a living testament to the devotion that had made the Ballengers who they were. It was like a perfectly cut jewel, and I had wondered in reckless moments what it would be like to be a part of it, sometimes settling into a chair in the empty dining room when I was sure no one was looking, imagining that it was always saved for me, the chair next to Jase.

When I had crept down hallways, my hands sweeping the walls, I had felt the centuries in every block of stone and wondered which generation had cut it and set it into place. I had seen the hard-won history that was recorded on Jase’s bookshelves. On the vault walls I saw the scrawling desperation of the original patchwork family, children who were sewn together by dire circumstance and somehow made it work, children who had, against all odds, survived. I felt an unexpected kinship with them.

This was the home and history that Jase had loved and made a vow to protect. This was what made the destruction before me all the more devastating. A dizzy wave of nausea struck me when I saw the fallen spires in the glaring bright of day. The hideous gaping hole that—

There’s a room on the third floor. It has a view that reaches to the horizon—and it’s away from everyone else. I think it should be ours. You can decide.

The room that would have been ours. It was gone now.

I pushed the thought away and buried it deeply, for fear the weight of it would snap me in two like a piece of tinder. I buried it with all the other things that would never be ours.

A jagged line of stone scarred the center of the main house. Spires on either side remained untouched. Inside the front gates, all of Tor’s Watch was transformed. The arbor that had once been heavy with flowers was barren with winter, and armed soldiers were the ones beating a path through it now. The king ordered Paxton to take Oleez and the children to Raehouse while he took me to the vault. I shot Paxton a condemning stare—Lydia and Nash were his kin—but it was an empty warning. He knew the rules I had to abide by. His gaze met mine, unmoved, his expression hard, his thoughts probably set on his lucrative rewards. He jumped at the king’s orders like a boneless bootlicker. A hot coal smoldered in me, and it took every bit of my strength not to fan it. I had to gain the king’s confidence, to make him believe his words and logic were winning me over. And gaining the king’s confidence meant not digging out Paxton’s eyes with my bare hands. I tossed a smile at him as he left. I guessed it worried him more than my glare.

I was grateful when we descended into the tunnel. It was the most

unchanged. Here there was no summer or winter, no broken stone blocks tumbled in my path, only torch-lit darkness and the musty scent of despair, and that was a scent I was used to.

The armed entourage marched ahead of us toward the vault, their heavy boots echoing through the stone cavern. I wondered what had happened to the poisonous dogs that were kept at the far end of the tunnel. Killed by the king’s men? Or perhaps the family had taken them into the vault? That thought lifted me. I would love to see them loosed on my current companions, even if I was bitten in the attack.

Why Montegue thought my voice would make a difference I wasn’t sure. Did he think that the word of a powerful distant kingdom could penetrate impossibly thick steel? Or maybe he was simply grasping at anything. Desperation can make the most calculating logic flee. Impatience burned in his expression and steps.

After I’d spent ten minutes calling to every possible Ballenger, my pleas only met with the persistent silence I had expected, Montegue screamed, pounding on the massive door, sweat beading on his forehead. His fury caught me by surprise. He turned away, combing the hair from his eyes, his face a knot of rage.

I looked at the expressions of the stoic guards holding long, sharp halberds in case the Ballengers emerged. They showed no surprise, and I wondered how many times this scene had already been played out. How many times had he pounded on the door and how many threats had he already hurled? If they were trapped, why did he care so much? They weren’t going anywhere. He could starve them out.

“I am the King of Eislandia,” he growled, almost to himself. “They’re going to regret this.” He stomped away, ordering me and the whole entourage to follow.

By the time we reached the T of the tunnel and turned down the next one, his heaving breaths had slowed and he had regained his composure.

“We need those documents,” he said calmly.

“You mean the plans for the weapons? I already told you, I destroyed them.”

“There are others. Different documents. Ones that were in the scholars’ quarters. They’re missing.”

My scalp prickled. The papers in the scholars’ quarters? Was he talking about the ones Phineas had told me to destroy? How would he even know about those, especially if they had disappeared? How could he—

A cold weight settled in my stomach. I quickly composed a few words, trying to keep them casual. “There are papers and ledgers all over Tor’s Watch. How would you know if a few were missing?”

“A servant told me.”

I looked sideways at him, my pulse speeding. “Oleez?” I asked, forcing my voice to remain even. My head pounded like drums at the gallows as I contemplated even the smallest lie. “I think she was the one who was responsible for cleaning their quarters.”

“Yes, Oleez told me they were missing. She noticed as she was straightening up one of the studies.”

Oleez was in charge of the main house—it consumed her days. She never went to Cave’s End, much less to straighten papers, of that much I was certain, and then I thought about another piece of paper—the one I had stolen at the arena from the king’s vest pocket. I chewed on my lip, then took a chance and cast my net a little wider. “What makes you think the papers are important? Did … Devereux say something?”

His steps slowed and his brows rose in a question. “You’re on a first- name basis with General Banques now? He must have taken a liking to you, after all. Count yourself lucky.”

I molded my face into indifference, but my mind reeled. Devereux was Banques? I was fishing, but I hadn’t expected this, not to find my game so far up the chain of command.

Zane had said it was Devereux who gave him money to hire labor hunters. Devereux Banques. The so-called general was doing the dirty work of stirring up trouble? He was sneaking around back alleys, preying on the citizens of Hell’s Mouth and the Ballenger family months ago. Before he was a mighty general, he was just a lowly back-alley thug with a satchel full of cash.

And he worked for the king.

Images flashed behind my eyes, doubts and pieces falling into place— using labor hunters and fires to create unrest and keep the Ballengers scrambling, choosing a settlement site that would antagonize the family, attacking settlers in the dark of night to implicate the Ballengers and bring down the wrath of the Alliance, the assault by Fertig and a well-trained gang that sounded alarmingly similar to these hired mercenaries, and finally, Beaufort looking back over his shoulder expecting someone to come to his rescue. He was waiting for the king—the sly king who feigned innocence at every step, the king who wanted respect and wouldn’t incriminate himself by rescuing a criminal. The king who was a more cunning liar than Beaufort and Banques put together. The cold weight in my stomach turned to ice in my veins.

We had caught the wrong dragon.

Montegue stopped walking and looked down at me. His eyes were clear.


It was too late to backtrack, to pretend that I hadn’t figured it out. That would be a lie, and he would know.

“Leave,” he ordered the guards. He watched them scuttle away, leaving us alone, then turned back to me. His perusal was suffocating.

“It was you all along,” I said. “It was you conspiring with Beaufort. Not the leagues. No one knew about those papers in Phineas’s room. Not even Beaufort. He thought everything was destroyed by the fire I set.”

A flame lit Montegue’s eyes. He was proud of this information.

“But Phineas had a little secret,” I said. “A side deal he shared with you

—copies of the plans.”

“No … not copies,” he answered slowly, his tone cryptic. “And far more than a side deal.” He leaned against the tunnel wall, staring at me, his head angled to the side like he was trying to see inside mine. “Beaufort had offered the continent to me … while Phineas offered me the universe.” He pushed off from the wall and walked toward me, everything about him changing—his shoulders wider, his eyes liquid black, sucking me into their darkness. “You see, the poor man was burdened by being the youngest and lowest ranking of the group—pushed around by the others—but he was also, by far, the most brilliant. A creative mind like his comes along only once every few generations. I recognized that and knew he was eager for a chance to prove himself. I gave him that chance.”

I stepped back as he approached, but my shoulders met the tunnel wall. “All of this, everything you’ve done, none of it was ever about restoring order,” I said. “Just the opposite. You were the architect behind it all.”

He stopped in front of me. Too close. “How does that make you feel?” he asked. “Does it impress you?” The light of an overhead torch flickered across his features, and his thick lashes cut a shadow under his eyes.

Horrified? Sick? But the answer had to be one he wanted to hear. “I can’t help but be impressed, but mostly it makes me feel stupid that I didn’t see it before.”

It was the right answer. He smiled. “If it were obvious, I wouldn’t be much of an architect, would I?”



Priya’s office was now the king’s. It seemed he had laid claim to some prime space in every place the Ballengers had previously owned. He was like a wolf marking territory—the inn in town, the apartments at the arena, and here at Tor’s Watch, the very serene and ordered office of Priya, the heart of the numerous Ballenger businesses.

He told me more about the side deal he had struck with Phineas—the one that offered him “the universe.” Phineas had had a theory, but he didn’t want to share it with the others. If it played out, his agreement with the king was that he would no longer be under the thumb of Torback or the others. He would have the freedom to pursue his own studies. “He had an intense curiosity about everything and felt stifled by them. His mind never rested. I promised him that freedom.”

“Except that Beaufort murdered him to keep him from talking.” He shrugged. “Phineas’s mind was strong, but his courage weak.”

I didn’t tell him that as Phineas lay dying, he pleaded with me to destroy his papers. “Before Phineas died, he said the tembris told them. What did he mean?”

His eyes brightened. “Haven’t you ever wondered about the tembris? Trees that reach to the heavens, taller than any others on the continent? Phineas wondered. I did too, from the first time I saw them. They’re unnatural. Not of this earth. They look like something fashioned for the gods. And the way they grow in that neat circular fashion, almost as if something had marked where they should grow. Perhaps where a fiery star had exploded into the earth?”

He went to the window that looked out on the Ballenger gardens. “And what about the racaa? Did you know they’re identical to sparrow hawks except for their size?” He turned to face me. “Phineas knew that. And then there’s the matter of the eight-foot giants who roam the continent. Men and women twice the girth and two heads taller than everyone else. But it’s not just about size. It’s about passion too. We’ve all heard stories about the devastation, the raging of seas that refused to calm, the shaking of the ground that swallowed cities whole, the fury of the mountains that bellowed smoke all the way to the sun. Passion that reached all the way into the belly of the earth.”

He reached into his vest and pulled out a tiny vial. He removed the stopper and tapped a small amount of its brightly glittering contents into his palm, then blew on it as he swept his hand through the air in a circular motion. Instead of the sparkling dust falling to the ground, something else happened. The crystals swirled, and his small puff of air became more—a strong wind that whirled about the room. Papers ruffled and fell to the floor. Wisps of my hair lifted from my shoulders, fingers of warm air circled my arms, then swept across my lips, suddenly hot and stinging. Montegue held his palm out, and the crystals returned and condensed just above it, following the circular movement of his hand. The wind ceased and the crystals sprinkled back into his palm in a tiny pile as if he had spoken a command to them. He carefully tipped his palm and returned the crystals to the vial.

I felt like a child watching a clever sideshow, trying to find the hidden strings. What had just happened? This was not simple sleight of hand.

“What is that?” I asked.

He smiled and looked at a shimmering fleck of crystal still in his palm, then licked his fingertip and dabbed the tiny grain to pick it up. He stared at it, mesmerized. “The magic of the stars,” he answered. “Desire. An element thrown to earth by the gods themselves that can reach into everything that exists and understand its need—what drives it. It imprints on whatever it touches. Grow, eat, burn, hunt, explode, conquer. Its entire purpose is to make things more than what they were, like a fish buried in a cornfield to make plants grow taller and stronger. What farmer doesn’t want that? The magic of the stars can make anything bigger, better, and more powerful.”

“That’s what’s in the munitions?”

He nodded. “That’s what opened the door. The star element is released with heat and fire. You can see what it does to just a small amount of the black powder. But Phineas managed to distill the element to its purest, most powerful form—making it possible to unleash the magic of the stars for everything. Everything and everyone is driven by something. This drives it more. Imagine the possibilities. Creating unstoppable armies, controlling wind, rain, fire, crops, the seasons. Maybe even day and night. The possibilities are limitless.”

Fire. I recalled a strangely scorched hillside on our way here. The edge of the forest was burned in an unusually straight line, as if it had been controlled.

“We already experimented on a few soldiers. The results were astonishing. If only we had more.”

My mind immediately sprang to Fertig’s iron grip, and his soulless eyes that had terrified me as he tried to choke me to death. He was driven by a crazed desire. Was he one of the “astonishing” soldiers? Sickly dread slithered through me like some dark poisonous creature. No Neck, Divot Head, Scar Eye. Their hands were like Fertig’s—and their eyes—as if something had crawled inside of them that wasn’t quite human—or maybe it had just made the inhuman part of them greater.

“This,” Montegue said, patting his vest where he had returned the vial to an inner pocket, “is all I have left. So you can see why those papers are so important. I will have them.”

At any cost. He didn’t need to say the words. They were clear in his tone.

Phineas offered me the universe. Was Montegue mad? Did he really believe he could control the universe?

He walked over to me, the stray grain of stardust shining on his fingertip like a tiny, perfect diamond. He held it close to my lips, studying me, and I feared he might try to put it in my mouth.

“Do you want to see what it’s like?” he whispered.

I didn’t respond, but he smiled as if he could hear the wild rush of blood pounding through me.

“No,” he said, retracting his offer. “Every grain is precious, and I don’t know what your true desire is. Yet.”

True desire? What was he talking about?

And then he licked the grain of dust from his fingertip.

I wasn’t exactly sure what happened next, but the light in the room seemed to change as if it all came from him. The hunger in his eyes ignited like a wildfire, and in one step, he had pinned me against the wall. His hand slipped around my waist, and his face pressed close to mine. “I wanted to kill you,” he whispered against my cheek.

His breaths were heavy, instantly hot, like a furnace had raged inside of him all along just waiting to be let loose. Kill me or kiss me? Now I knew. Kill.

“The minute you were captured, I wanted to kill you, more than I had wanted to kill any Ballenger.” He lifted my chin so I had to look in his eyes. A frightening brilliance gleamed in them. “You have no idea the problems your meddling caused me. I risked everything for this moment. I have years invested and everything I own—and in one thoughtless act, you burned up everything I’ve worked for.”

His arm tightened around me, pulling me closer. A quick jerk could snap my back. Heat radiated from his skin.

“Not everything,” I reminded him. “The missing papers are somewhere.

And you want me to find them.”

His grip eased, the fire retreating. “Yes,” he said slowly. “The papers.” His true desire. He released me and stepped away. “Banques convinced me you might be useful. And I am a forgiving and fair man. You know that, right?”

I nodded, feeling like I was trying to outrun an angry bear and with every step it was gaining ground.

He smiled. “Good.” He reached out and ran a knuckle along my jaw. “Besides, you were only an underling following orders. And now you follow mine.”



Garvin had told him I’d once been a thief. A good one. Which probably explained why the queen had sent me to retrieve Beaufort. Montegue said they had combed the entire estate, including several floors of archives in Raehouse, still certain the documents had to be somewhere. The attack on Tor’s Watch had been a surprise—no more than a moment’s notice as tarps were thrown free from wagons at the front gates and weapons were fired. But it was their first time shooting the oversized launchers, and their aim was off. Instead of taking down the wall, it took down the center tower of the main house. Screaming could be heard from within. Ballengers and employees alike were running for their lives.

I tried to block the thought, to feel nothing as he described it to me, but screams I hadn’t even heard carved holes through me. I imagined the panic. Vairlyn shouting orders, trying to rush everyone to safety. Searching for her children. Samuel. Was that how he died?

“Are you listening to me?” Montegue asked sharply.

“Of course,” I answered, shoving the growing fear far away. Montegue wasn’t an inexperienced monarch being led along by a power-hungry general. He was a cold-blooded plotter—the architect. He didn’t stumble upon an opportunity—he created it. How long had he been planning this? It made me think of the Komizar, who had built his army for years to create an unstoppable force. He’d also had an insatiable desire for more. Just how much more did this king want?

Montegue went on, telling me it wasn’t likely that the Ballengers had time to gather anything before they fled, much less a thick stack of parchments, and yet the coveted documents appeared to have vanished.

I wrinkled my brow, trying to appear appropriately perplexed. I worked for him now, and I wasn’t as far in the inner circle as I thought. In fact I was still scrambling on the edge, trying to keep one foot in.

“Find them,” he said. It wasn’t a request. It was an order from king to thief. What if I did find them? What would I do?

Destroy them. I heard the urgency in Phineas’s last words again. The fear. The regret. Great gods, what had he done? The magic of the stars. What did that even mean?

Imagine the possibilities.

I was sure the king and Banques already had.

I spent the next two hours searching every corner of Cave’s End, running my fingers along bookcases and desks, looking for hidden doors and secret nooks. I managed to find a few panels that led to hidden empty spaces. That was all. Divot Head served as my escort, and his dull lifeless eyes watched every move I made. It was obvious that all the rooms had already been searched. Bedding in the chambers was stripped and strewn. Wardrobe doors left open and emptied of contents—most of it littering the floors. The king’s logic was sound. I knew if the family was racing to get people into the vault, there was no time to gather food, much less Phineas’s papers.

Gunner probably didn’t even know for sure that they were of any value. The king had said Phineas wrote them in the language of the Ancients from which he had procured most of his knowledge of the elements, and it was a language only known to a few. He had promised to transcribe them and send them to the king soon, but then I had intervened.

We came to one room that was neat and orderly. “The lieutenant’s quarters,” Divot Head explained. “He has duties here and at the arena.”

“Do I search?”

Divot Head shrugged. “Already searched.”

I did a cursory search anyway. The only unusual thing I found was a woman’s chemise under the bed. Apparently this lieutenant had done some entertaining here. Other than that, the room was sparse. Whoever this lieutenant was, he wasn’t settling in for a long stay. I couldn’t blame him. The overwhelming gloom of abandonment hung in the air like a heavy cloud ready to burst with despair. Who could live among this desolation for any length of time?

We finally returned to Raehouse empty-handed. By then the king was gone, along with the children, to the arena. Banques stood over a table with Paxton and Truko, studying maps and ledgers and discussing goods that would bring the arena more profit. Why did they need money so badly? They controlled everything now. What else could they want?

When Banques’s tone turned sharp, I noticed Truko’s fist curl behind his back. He was used to being the one giving orders, not taking them. We were all learning new tricks. Jump? Certainly. How high, Your Majesty?

“Nothing to report from the search,” Divot Head announced succinctly, then left.

They all turned away from the table to look at me, and Banques sighed. “I hope I didn’t make a terrible mistake convincing the king you might be of some worth.”

Terrible mistake. The words. His voice. It whittled through my bones.

Devereux Banques.

“Who are you?” I asked. “Who are you really?”

He smiled, reached for a map, and began rolling it up. “I knew it was only a matter of time before you made the connection. But now that you’re

on our side, it doesn’t really matter anymore. You’re not that much different than me, I suppose, switching sides.”

Goose bumps rose on my arms. “Who are you?” I repeated.

He slipped the map into a leather cylinder and set it with a stack of others. “I’m afraid that, thanks to my treasonous older brother, I had to abandon one of my names six years ago. After he sullied it, all that name did was close doors for me.” He grabbed another map and began rolling it. “I was once a rising star in the Morrighan military. Did you know?”

“No,” I answered quietly.

“I was headed for great things and a distinguished career, but that ended when my brother betrayed the king. No one trusted me after that. I was a pariah, and my future was destroyed. I was practically run out of Morrighan. Luckily, the new young King of Eislandia took me on as his kingdom magistrate.”

I stared at him as he spoke, his image transforming. I saw him with more weight, more height, more years. Lines around his eyes. I saw his coal- black hair lighten to white. But the voice was the same. Brother.

“Devereux Banques Illarion,” he confessed. “But I actually prefer the name Banques. My mother’s ancestral line was much stronger. Regardless, it all worked out in the end. Now I’m leading a far more powerful army than I ever would have commanded in Morrighan. Wait until they see who I’ve become.” He smiled, the thought warming him as if he had already imagined the revelation many times.

He told me that his brother had come to him two years ago, still on the run and in search of refuge and funds—along with an interesting proposition. Unfortunately, the king had no funds to offer—but he knew who did—the Ballengers—and the timing was perfect. It couldn’t have worked out better. With a well-rehearsed story, it didn’t take long to get Beaufort and his crew entrenched in the Ballengers’ good graces. A slate of well-timed attacks on trading caravans also helped motivate the Ballengers into action so they wouldn’t drag their feet.

I remembered how he had choked me the first time we met. So you’re the one who—

Now I know what his unfinished thought was—the one who captured my brother and hauled him off for execution. “And how do you feel about me arresting your brother and turning him over to the queen?”

He laughed. “That part actually amused me.” “You never had plans to rescue him?”

“Oh, we will eventually.”

“He could have been executed already.”

He shook his head, a confident smirk pulling at the corners of his mouth that was so like Beaufort’s it was chilling. “No. My brother’s as slippery as they come—and with an unmatched golden tongue. He’ll tell the queen something that will stay her hand. A little sweating will do him good. After he’s squirmed for a bit and paid his penance for robbing a young captain of his career, his brother might just bail him out.”

“You aren’t afraid he’ll expose you and the king?” “He won’t, not if he wants his stake in this.”

“And what would that be?”

Banques smiled. “In good time, soldier. In good time.” He turned to Paxton. “Take her to search the main house. With all the rubble, we could have missed something.”



My chest was hollow as we headed to the main house. I was a fish that had been lured and hooked over and over again. The magistrate of Eislandia was Beaufort’s brother. No wonder when Jase’s father inquired about Beaufort’s past, the magistrate said he had no information on him. He didn’t want Karsen Ballenger to turn him away.

The deceptions deepened at every turn. I wasn’t even sure whom I was dealing with anymore. Even the most cunning quarterlord, at day’s end, was still only a quarterlord with the singular goal of chugging an ale and adding a few coins to his purse. Their secrets were few, and those few I uncovered easily. I understood them and what the consequences of defying them were. But here …

This was not my world.

I brushed a damp strand of hair from my forehead. Nothing and no one was who they seemed to be. Even the crafty Beaufort hadn’t foreseen that he might suffer at his own brother’s bitter hand.

I didn’t think I could be thrown any more off-kilter or kicked any lower

—but then we reached the main house. I wasn’t sure what I had expected. Destruction? Tumbled walls?

But whatever I had imagined, it hadn’t prepared me. Paxton and I didn’t speak as he escorted me in through an opening in a wall created by the blast. I heard the lonely trickle of water as we stepped into a hallway near the front foyer, but other than that, the house was unnaturally silent. Open books fluttered in the wind. The sky shone above us through a vicious gash in the roof. Water dripped from it like tears, soaking whatever lay below. The distinctive flowered washbasin from Priya’s third-floor chamber lay shattered in several pieces on the first-floor landing. The staircase was mostly intact except for a few crushed rails, and a tapestry still hung from a wall, untouched, while just across from it the enormous tower spindle from the roof lay atop a heap of stone, like the severed horn of a fallen beast.

I walked up the stairs, Paxton lagging somewhere far behind me. Every new broken thing carved away another piece of me, all the pieces in me that had come to care about Tor’s Watch as much as Jase did. But I wasn’t supposed to care. I couldn’t let Paxton know that every new piece of carnage gutted me. I stopped and stared at a white shirt hanging from a splintered rafter. The tattered fabric waved quietly in the breeze like a Ballenger flag of surrender.

At the second-floor landing, a pile of rubble was tangled with what might have once been a bed. Whose bed? Vairlyn’s? Gunner’s? Feathers swirled down the hallway like ghostly birds, sprung loose from quilts and pillows. And then I came across a lone shoe—the slipper I had borrowed from Jalaine. I stared at it. The emptiness closed in. It pressed on my chest as if I lay beneath the tons of rubble. A house that had been full of family was broken, scattered, destroyed. I reached for a wall, using it to steady myself. One misdirected blast had done all this.

I continued toward Jase’s room. That wing was still intact, though the force of the blast had sent rubble and splintered wood flying down

hallways. I pushed open his chamber door, and a different kind of destruction greeted me. Bedding was knifed, drapes torn away, bookcases overturned. This wasn’t caused by a blast but by an invader. Every book that Jase had spent a lifetime transcribing had been stomped beneath careless feet.

Jase had been so full of expectation and plans. And now this—

I stared at the utter chaos of the room, spinning his too-large signet ring on my thumb. I had made a promise to him. It all seemed like folly now. Was my hubris greater than the king’s? What if I couldn’t keep my vow? What if I couldn’t even save Lydia and Nash? Panic rose in me. I gasped for breath, then turned and fled the room. I ran down the hallway, then up the stairs, heading for the solarium, where I had last seen Jalaine—somewhere she had escaped to that was far from everything else, a place where she could shut out the world.

Paxton called after me, ordering me to stop. I heard his footsteps pounding after mine. He was right on my heels as I burst through the double doors of the solarium, but in an instant my panic flared to blind rage, and I leapt upon him, slamming him against the wall. In the same motion, I whisked the stolen scalpel from my boot and pressed it to the tender skin of his neck where a vein pulsed wildly.

“Put it down now,” he ordered, but his eyes were sharp with fear. He licked his lips. “You won’t kill me. You can’t. Think about the children. You know the rules.”

The rules?” I yelled, unafraid of anyone hearing me from the rooftop room. “The rules?” The scalpel trembled in my hand.

“He’ll do it. One nick on me, and he’ll kill them. You don’t know what he’s capable of.”

“Shut up!” I screamed. “Shut up, you miserable piece of horseshit! All that matters is what I’m capable of!” The scalpel shook in my hand. Tears streamed down my cheeks. I had never felt so out of control. The room pulsed with white-hot light. I hated that he was right. The cost of killing him was too great, and I knew I couldn’t do it. But the hunger to kill him was still crushing me, and I pressed the scalpel a little harder. A bright red

line of blood glistened on his neck. “He was your kin,” I sobbed, “and you hunted him down like an animal!”

Paxton leaned his head back against the wall, trying to pull away from the blade. His fear only made me want to kill him more, and the burning hunger inside me surged brighter. I watched tiny droplets of blood spring up along the line I had cut, wetting the blade.

“He’s alive, Kazi,” he whispered. “Jase is alive.”

My loathing for him sprang into something wild and feral. “You lying coward. You’d say anything to save your worthless skin.”

“Please.” He swallowed carefully. “I was going to tell you when I was sure it was safe. When I was sure I could really trust you. It’s true. I swear. He was alive, at least. He was hanging on by a thread when I took him to Caemus at the settlement. They’re hiding him in the root cellar. He and Jurga were cutting out the arrows when I left.”

Caemus? Paxton knows Caemus? And Jurga? He knows about the root cellar? I stared at him in disbelief. It was impossible. How could he know these things? I eased back with the scalpel. “What about Jase’s hand? The ring?”

“I took the ring from his finger before I left him with Caemus. I had to produce a body—or part of one, one way or another, or they never would’ve stopped hunting for him. It was the hand of a soldier that I killed. Not Jase’s.”

My head swam.

I couldn’t think.

Alive? Jase was alive?

And Paxton had saved him? I lowered the scalpel. It made no sense. I searched Paxton’s face, thinking it was another cruel trick, but his eyes remained steady, looking back into mine.



I doubled over, unable to breathe, like I was still pinned to the bottom of the deepest darkest sea, but I could see light shining on its surface and I was trying to reach it. My knees buckled, and Paxton grabbed me as I fell to the

ground. Rasping noises jumped from my chest, and I shook as I tried to inhale.

Paxton knelt and held me. The room rocked. He brushed the hair from my face with his fingers. “Breathe, Kazi, take your time. I know it’s hard. Breathe.”

I coughed. I choked. A hoarse breath finally filled my lungs.

He tilted my chin upward, alarm in his eyes. “When I saw you fighting to save his life, I thought—” He winced. “But I wasn’t sure. You really do care for him.”

I didn’t answer. He had already read it in my face.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you sooner,” he said, and then added more warily, “But I have to warn you, he was badly injured—very badly. And he only had Caemus and Jurga for healers. You need to know, he could be dead by now.” He eased his grip on me. “I haven’t been able to go back. It’s too dangerous. I might lead someone straight to him. I don’t know if—”

“He’s alive,” I gasped. “If anyone can hang on by a thread, it’s Jase. Caemus and Jurga, they’ll make sure—” A storm of emotion gripped my throat again, forcing me to slow and take several deep breaths, and then I squared my shoulders, trying to trick my body and mind into some measure of control. “Did Jase say anything when you left him?”

“He wasn’t conscious. He was barely breathing.” He grimaced. “There were five arrows, Kazi. One was in his chest. It didn’t sound good.”

“But he was alive?” I said, needing him to confirm it again. He nodded uncertainly and answered, “When I left him.”

Paxton was tender, sympathetic, saying he was sorry again for not telling me, but his primary concern had been Jase and the children, and he wasn’t certain if he could trust me. He hadn’t been able to trust anyone in a long while, and even though he saw me fighting to save Jase, I had, after all, whisked the Patrei away against his will. My actions had left him confused. He pulled a kerchief from his pocket and handed it to me. If I hadn’t been sobbing, I would have laughed. It was so like Paxton to have a neat folded kerchief. I took it from him, wiping my nose and eyes, but then sense flooded back in and I shoved him away.

“But you’re working for them. Why?

His neck lengthened like an arrogant rooster. “I’m not. Not any more than you are.”

“You’re running the arena. How can I believe anything you—”

“Who do you think got the medicine to you when you were locked up?

And the extra food?”

My next accusation vanished. That was him? I remembered the fear I sensed on the other side of my cell door when the medicine was dropped. I looked at him again—really looked. I wasn’t the only one who had lost weight. His cheekbones were sharper, and unkempt edges had appeared in the previously polished Paxton. He had a stubble of beard, as if he had ceased to care about fresh shaves and impeccable grooming. The signs of desperation were all over him, but I still couldn’t shake my misgivings about him. Paxton had harbored only animosity toward the Ballengers and Jase in particular.

“Why?” I asked simply. “What game are you playing?”

“If I’m not on the inside playing the traitorous Ballenger who has a history of selling out his kin, I’m on the outside, and that means I’m dead like those you saw hanging from the tembris—and so are a lot of other people. I wouldn’t be of use to anyone, including you. I don’t have the luxury of being a self-righteous loyalist. I’ll play the traitor as long as I have to. I’m guessing I’m playing the same game as you are.”

“I mean, why? I know why I care. Why do you care?”

His brows pinched with annoyance, and in that moment, he reminded me of Jase, that same Ballenger impatience sweeping across his face. My stomach twisted in half.

“A thousand reasons,” he answered. “Is it really so hard to figure out? I know Jase and I have had our outs over the years—our grains run in different directions—but I’m a Ballenger too, just as much as any of them. He and his family can’t steal that from me. All that history? That’s my history too. I have a stake in this. Most important, some of the family I may not care a horse’s ass for, but Lydia and Nash, they’re only children. They shouldn’t be used as pawns or as shields.”

A noble cause for the unscrupulous Paxton? But if protection ran hot in the Ballenger blood, maybe it ran in his too.

Then he told me everything—at least everything he knew. And it only got worse.

They thought themselves only a step lower than the Gods,

proud in their power over heaven and earth.

They grew strong in their knowledge but weak in their wisdom,

craving more and still more power, crushing the defenseless.

Morrighan Book of Holy Text, Vol. IV

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