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Chapter no 23 – JASE

Vow of Thieves (Dance of Thieves, #2)

We had to approach from a northern route in case we encountered anyone. The extra time it ate up crawled under my skin like vermin. I felt like a miserable summer dog covered with fleas, but keeping our disguises believable required that everything add up. Kbaaki would never approach from the south. Coming at this time of year at all was suspect, but we already had an excuse in place for that.

We created our own trails through the Moro mountains, passing through a forest where, in the past, we were more likely to run into one of the mythical beasts of Ballenger lore than another human. But this wasn’t the past. Wren and Synové hadn’t known any more than Caemus, but they confirmed his observation—an army had moved in, and they swarmed everywhere—searching for Ballengers, no doubt. The peace and certainty of an empty forest were gone. I was on alert, listening for every sound.

“What makes you think we’ll find any of your family outside of that hole in your mountain? Caemus said no one’s seen them, and word is they’re all trapped in there.”

Wren, unfortunately, was no longer broodingly silent. She and Synové had wanted to ride into Hell’s Mouth demanding answers as representatives of the queen. I told her all we’d end up with was two more prisoners to worry about. If Paxton had run the Ballengers underground, had commandeered the town and arena, and had taken Kazi as a prisoner, he wouldn’t hesitate to do the same to them. But as Kbaaki traders, we’d get some answers at the arena, and then more information from my family. Once we knew exactly what and whom we were dealing with, we’d make our moves. Still, Wren had poked and prodded me ever since we left, trying to unravel my plan. I stopped Mije. The itching, the worry, the fear was finally getting the best of me.

“What do you want me to do? Nothing?” I shouted. I heard the strain in my voice, the lack of control, and I hated it.

“Whoa, slow down, boy,” Synové ordered. “We’re on the same side, remember?”

I swallowed. Same side. Sometimes it didn’t feel like it.

Wren raised an unaffected brow. “This is what I do, Patrei. I work out the kinks in plans, and yours has them all over the place.”

“There’s something he’s not telling us,” Synové said. “I can see it in his eyes.”

The only kink I had was the one in my neck from Synové always trying to interpret what I was thinking, and from Wren, who kept asking questions I had no answers for.

“There’s nothing in my eyes but trail dust.”

“Give it up, Patrei,” Wren demanded. “Come clean with us.”

“You just have to trust me,” I answered. There were some things we didn’t share outside of the family—ever.

Wren rolled her eyes. “Trust you?”

But she knew she had to. I knew this mountain. I knew trails she could never find. I knew my family. And most of all, I knew where one of those powerful weapons was hidden. Paxton and Truko had declared a war, and I was going to give it to them—once I got Kazi back. Everything hinged on that first. What about Rybart? Caemus hadn’t mentioned him. Maybe he was cut out of Paxton and Truko’s plans. I might have to make a side deal with him and enlist his help.

“Remember,” Synové chirped, “we’re only pretending to be your trusting, loyal wives.”

“And that’s only if we encounter anyone in these forsaken woods,” Wren added. “In the meantime, we’re Rahtan looking for a fellow soldier.”

I shot her a skeptical glance. I knew Kazi was far more than just a fellow soldier to them. They were twisted almost as tight as I was. Not to mention, they were—

I shook my head. My wives. They were dressed as Kbaaki too, their faces painted like mine. Synové wore a jeweled earring in her brow too. There was no more jewelry at the settlement, so Wren had pulled her fur hat low,

forcing her dark curls over her brows. It made her piercing eyes peeking from beneath them appear even more ominous.

I sighed. I had Kbaaki wives looking over my shoulder.

There were so many things I didn’t want to think about. That we were sneaking into my own territory. That Samuel might be hurt—or worse if the letter was true. That Beaufort had played the Ballengers for complete and utter fools. That Paxton had taken over everything. That I hadn’t killed him one of the many times I’d had the chance.

Most of all, I didn’t want to think about Synové’s dream. Kazi chained and bloody, lying on a dark prison floor. Still as a statue, she had said. I had grabbed her arms and shouted, But was she alive, Synové? Her tears had stopped, but her eyelashes were still clumped together in wet spikes, her eyes swollen and red. Her mouth fell open. I don’t know, she had whispered. She was soaked in blood. She wasn’t moving. I don’t know if she was alive. And then she began crying again. Caemus had shot me a wary glance, as if Synové confirmed his suspicions, and I stormed out of the shed. Wren had found me leaning against a wall trying to breathe. I was still bare chested, and she laid a cloak over my shoulders and whispered, Kazi said sometimes dreams are only dreams, the same as any other. That’s all it was. We have to believe that.

Only a dream, I told myself. That’s all it was. An ugly dream that I couldn’t shake.

I watched the sky grow darker as we crossed a ridge. Once we were on the north face of the mountains, the wind became fierce, whipping at my cloak and hat. In minutes the sky filled with rolling black clouds. “Dammit,” I said under my breath, looking at the heavens. Were the gods against me? No doubt Wren would toss this up as one of the kinks in my plan. I could taste the storm in the air. Salt, metal, and pine, the taste of mountain being swept into the sky. A heavy storm was coming, the kind that sent animals running into their caves and dens, the kind of storm that brought inches, maybe even feet of snow—not the dust we’d been getting. We’d have to make camp early. I knew of a sizable ruin less than a mile away that would shelter both us and the horses.

By the time we reached the ruin, tucked in a dark part of the forest, the snow had already begun swirling in biting gusts, the air so cold the coin- sized snowflakes clung to our furs whole and bright, refusing to melt. Synové and Wren both looked like they were wearing sharp, glittering crowns.

I got a fire going quickly, and while Wren unwrapped food and cut a fat loaf of bread that Jurga had sent with us, I mentally recalculated our path. If too much snow fell, some narrow trails would be impassable and other routes would make our trek even longer. I pulled the saddle from Mije, angry, twisting carelessly to set it down, and a sharp pain stabbed at my side. I doubled over and dropped the saddle, forcing back the groan in my throat. I didn’t want Wren and Synové to think I was a liability. On the outside the wounds were healing, but inside, some parts were still torn and raw.

It didn’t escape Wren’s notice. “Those were some pretty spectacular wounds you got, Patrei. No one ever taught you to roll and duck?”

My stupidity burned in me. I should have pulled back as soon as I saw the tumbled spires. I should have retreated into the forest with Kazi and assessed the threat. But it had been so still, so quiet. So empty. No lights shone from any of the remaining towers. It all looked so desolate and I was drawn into its black void. Instead of turning away from the threat, I had raced right into it, determined to save my home, risking something I loved even more—Kazi. I would never forgive myself if—

I straightened, defying the pull in my gut. “My wounds aren’t so spectacular. And you could call me Jase.”

They looked at each other as if weighing the thought, then laughed.

“So, Patrei,” Synové said as she laid out our cloaks around the fire, “you and Kazi ever get a chance to open that gift I gave you?” She plopped down on the soft fur, her long copper braid gleaming in the firelight, and smiled, waiting for a full accounting.

“Yes, we did,” I answered. “Thank you.” She and Wren frowned.

And?” Synové prompted.

I knew what she wanted to hear, and maybe she deserved to hear it. The words hovered on my tongue but then I couldn’t speak. Everything froze inside of me, and all I could see was Kazi.

She was blushing, and her cheeks were like a hot smoky sunset. I had never seen her squirm like that. She had stared for the longest time at Synové’s gift resting in her palm.

The package had practically unraveled in my hands. Maybe I had helped it along. I wasn’t sure, but I was curious, something inside of me eager.

What is this, Kazi?

Our words sounded in my head, clear as the moment we said them.

A feastcake, she had answered.

And then she lifted the cake, curious too, and there, tucked beneath the waxed cloth, was a long red ribbon. I lifted it, and it caught in the breeze, the red satin waving between us. What is this for?

Kazi shook her head. I’m afraid Synové got carried away. These are for

She took a deep breath, her lips rolling tight over her teeth. Never mind.

I looked at her lowered lashes, maybe some part of me knowing already,

a strange anticipation growing in me. Tell me, I said. I want to know.

Her mouth pulled, uncomfortable, and I wanted to kiss away her worry.

A feastcake and red ribbon, she said, are part of a Vendan ceremony.

I had relived that moment again and again. When I was barely alive in the root cellar, I was certain that memory was all that kept me anchored to this world—“Patrei?

“Jase!”

I looked up. Both of their gazes were fixed on me like I had grown horns.

“What’s the matter with you?” Wren snapped.

“It’s not important,” Synové said, furrows lining her forehead. “You can tell us when you’re ready. We don’t—”

“Tell me about your gift,” I said. Synové’s dream was suddenly urgent in my head again. “I need to know. The gift your queen has, the one you have, the one that—”

Wren lifted both of her hands in denial when I looked at her. “Not me,” she said. “I don’t have anything.”

Synové puffed a loose strand of hair from her face. “Everyone has something,” she countered and sat back on her heels, eager to talk about it. She told me the gift was a kind of knowing. “Almost like another kind of language, the queen says, one that’s buried deep inside us, but we don’t always understand it. It’s another sense that needs to be nurtured. It’s what helped the Ancients survive after the devastation. The queen says when they had nothing else, they had to return to the language of knowing to survive.”

She said it manifested itself in different ways for different people. The queen sometimes saw visions, sometimes heard a soft voice, and sometimes it was only a warning beat crouching low in her gut. Synové’s own gift leaned more toward dreams, but she had a hard time discerning which ones actually meant something. “I’m still trying to figure it all out. The queen tells me to be patient, to nurture my gift, but sometimes it scares me.”

“It always scares you,” Wren added.

“What about Death?” I asked. “Do you see him?”

She and Wren looked at each other, some sober thought passing between them. They knew about Kazi. “No,” Synové answered quietly. “I don’t. Not the way Kazi does.” She shivered. “And I think what Kazi has is more of a curse than a gift.”

Wren frowned. “Maybe. Maybe not.”

Synové hugged her arms. “I’m surprised she told you. She doesn’t like to talk about it, even with us.”

I nodded. “She told me that when Fertig’s crew attacked us and he was choking her, she saw Death standing over his shoulder, pointing at her.”

“Death was not in my dream, if that’s what you’re wondering,” Synové said, her fingers nervously twisting the end of her braid. “That much I know for sure.”

“But if you’re looking for certainty, Patrei,” Wren added, “you’re not going to get it from the gift anyway.”

And that was exactly what I wanted. Certainty. My blood raced with the hunger of it, and it burned hotter with every mile we traveled. It wasn’t

fleas under my skin now but sparks, countless days of healing and waiting and uncertainty building up that I couldn’t stand anymore. I wanted all things hard and sharp and solid and sure. I wanted stone, and steel, and sword. I wanted the razor edge of a knife slicing a throat, and hot blood dripping over my hand. Paxton’s blood. And then Truko’s, and anyone else who had betrayed us. I wanted the certainty of Kazi back in my arms. And anyone who had tried to take that certainty away from me would suffer before they died. I wanted my family safe and whole and ready to avenge it all. I wanted Gunner, Priya, Mason, and Titus taking charge in my absence, already making a plan.

I looked into the fire, my anger rising, and caught Wren watching me. Her eyes glowed with the flames as she shook her head. “No one wants to be on the wrong side of what’s burning inside you, PatreiThat is certainty I’d be willing to bet on.”

“Me too,” Synové added.

Neither one offered me assurances that Kazi was fine, or even that she was alive. They knew the uncertainties of life. Kazi had told me that their parents had been brutally murdered. They knew that people we loved died, and like Caemus had said, no amount of wanting or anger or bargaining with the gods could change that, or bring them back.

And yet, I still bargained with the gods every mile we traveled.

Please don’t take her away from me. I will do anything.

Anything.

 

 

Wren handed me a thick trencher of bread with smoked rabbit and sliced apples piled on top. As we ate, we washed it down with weak Vendan ale that we passed around in a skin between us. Synové snapped her fingers at me if I sipped too long. She had talked almost nonstop, somehow still skillfully downing her trencher and meat as she happily told us about draining antelope blood into skins. She glowed with satisfaction as she recounted Griz’s outrage over dispatching Bahr before he was delivered to the queen. “Technically, I didn’t dispatch him. Everyone saw it was the

racaa’s doing,” she reasoned, licking the glistening rabbit fat from her fingers. “Racaa don’t digest bones, did you know?”

“No, I didn’t know,” I answered and handed the skin of ale to Wren. “They vomit them up like an owl. I’m sure one day I’ll find Bahr’s pile

of bones in the Cam Lanteux, woven together in a nice little ball with his undies. A perfect end for—”

Wren put her hand out, and Synové was instantly silent. Her dark curls bobbed as she turned her head, listening for something. Between the wind whistling outside and the nickers of the horses, I hadn’t heard anything, but now hairs rose on the back of my neck. A vibration. Pounding. Something was close.

I set my half-finished trencher on my cloak and stood as I drew my sword from my scabbard. The quiet whine of steel on steel pierced the air as horses galloped into the foyer of the ruin. Three men rode in first and then, just on their heels, three more. We had visitors. My first thought was that we were outnumbered, and my second was, would any of them recognize me? Would the disguise work? They pulled back when they saw me ready with my sword, Synové with an arrow nocked and aimed, and Wren with a ziethe gripped in each hand.

“Whoa, friends. We’re just riding in from the storm. It caught us by surprise,” one man called. I didn’t recognize him, but I heard the Shiramar drawl, which meant he was likely one of Truko’s men. I resisted the impulse to pounce on him and demand information. I knew how to get it, but the numbers weren’t in our favor. He rode closer. “Mind if we share this shelter? That’s all we want. I’m Langston,” he added, patting his chest, as if knowing his name would ease our minds.

I exchanged a glance with Wren and Synové, then nodded to him. The only answer had to be yes. Wren and Synové sat back down on their fur cloaks, and we stored our weapons but kept them near. People with nothing to hide would always share a safe haven in a storm—especially Kbaaki.

“Welcomes, friends,” I said, laying on my thick accent. “Warm yourselves.”

Langston swung down from his horse. The others followed his lead, stomping their boots and shaking off layers of snow from their cloaks,

beards, and hats, and pulling away scarves. Two men, apparently lower ranking, were left to tend the horses, removing saddles and shaking out blankets while the rest came over to warm themselves by our fire. As far as I could tell, I didn’t know any of them. It could be they were traders from Shiramar, except that no trader would be on these remote trails unless they were lost. My gut told me they were also Truko’s men, part of the army that had taken over Hell’s Mouth.

“Kbaaki, huh?” Langston said, raising bushy brows still dusted with snow. He pulled off his gloves, stuffing them in his vest. “A little late in the season to be so far from home, isn’t it?”

The practiced ruse was ready on my tongue. “The king’s daughter ez sick. His siarrah says only smoke of spirit wood will cleanse the demons from her. He offered us a full chest of gheirey for spirit wood, so here we are.”

Langston nodded, knowing a full chest of gheirey was a fortune and worth a trip in winter. He made quick introductions of his three companions who had joined us around the fire. “Cain, Ferrett, and Utreck,” he said. Cain, who stood just on the other side of me, was tall and muscular, and I assessed that he was the greatest threat. His eyes scanned our belongings as if taking inventory—from the furs spread around the fire, to our weapons set nearby, to our packs piled in the corner. It was not simple curiosity. They were the eyes of a scout, searching for signs.

“Going to the arena for the wood?” he asked.

I nodded. “Faster than the forest.” The nearest forest of spirit wood was sixty miles south, and chopping the rubbery wood was no easy task, not to mention messy. Buying it at the arena from a dealer was logical, since someone was sick and we were in a hurry, but I still wanted to turn the questions back to him as quickly as I could. “And why are you out in this fury?”

“A different kind of reward,” Langston answered, but he didn’t elaborate on what kind.

“On patrol,” Utreck offered. “Looking for—”

“Game.” Langston cut him off, but the answer was already spilled. Scouts didn’t “patrol” for game. They were hunting down people. He eyed

Wren and Synové, who still hadn’t spoken. Their efforts at Kbaaki accents had failed, so it was agreed they would remain silent if we encountered anyone. “These are?”

“My wives,” I answered. “Ghenta and Eloh. I’m Vrud.” Wren and Synové nodded to him. His gaze lingered on them a bit longer than I liked. Was he suspicious, or did he have other things on his mind?

Ferrett, a short hefty man, sidled close to Wren and smiled. He was missing a front tooth, and the rest were crooked and looked like they were about to go missing too. Wren shot him a warning glare, Stay away.

“You too good for a friendly hello?” he sneered. “They only speak Kbaaki,” I said.

Langston looked down at my sheathed sword lying on the furs. “Since when do Kbaaki carry long swords?” The weapons were a problem. At the settlement we gathered together what we could. Caemus gave us axes, and the rest of Synové’s and Wren’s weapons were doled out between us. I got Synové’s sword. Kbaaki usually carried a long machete-type saber.

“It was a gift from the king. I’m not sure I like it but didn’t want to insult him.”

“You’ll get used to it,” Cain said. “A little heavier than those machetes of yours, but the weight can be an advantage once you get the hang of it.”

I nodded as if I appreciated his insight. And then the other two men, done with their work, joined us. One was introduced as Arman, but the other I already knew—it was Hagur from the livestock auction—the one who had cheated us. I wasn’t sure if he would recognize me, but I wasn’t going to make it easy. I looked down so he wouldn’t see my eyes. He’d seen his imminent death in them once—before I gave him a second chance

—and that was something he wasn’t likely to forget. The sparks simmering beneath my skin grew hotter. How many Ballenger employees had abandoned the family and were working for Paxton now?

Cain spotted the half-eaten trencher I had hastily set down when they rode in. His eyes darted to me. I knew what he was thinking before he said it. I thought it myself when Jurga packed the thick loaf, thinking it would be long eaten before we encountered anyone.

Cain said the word that was already clanging in my head. “Bread?”

Feet shifted. Silence deepened. The crackle of the fire disappeared.

I kept my gaze down. “It was a gift,” I explained. “From a traveler we passed.”

Langston scrutinized me more closely. “You seem to be one lucky man, Vrud. Two wives, gifts from kings, and way out here, fresh-baked bread?” His hand went to his hunting knife.

Wren sighed dramatically, drawing his attention away from me, flinging her role away like an old soup bone. She spoke in flawless Landese. “You got a problem with one little loaf of bread, Langston?”

They all stared at her. The ruse was already up, but now Wren had given me a one-second lead, and one second meant everything.

I dove for my sword, rolling over the furs, lobbing it upward, and sending the loose scabbard flying into Ferrett’s chest.

Wren shoved the rattled Ferrett into Utreck, and Synové kicked Langston in the back, sending him stumbling over the fire, and as he fell, Wren planted her ziethe into his gut. The others were all drawing weapons now.

Cain was on top of me in seconds, pouncing like a ravenous wolf, catching me before I could stand, pressing with all his weight as he tried to stab his dagger into my neck. My arms shook, struggling to hold him back, my head close to the fire. I saw the hunger in his eyes. Hunters, they were all hunters. And then a knife struck his cheek.

Synové had dived for her weapons belt and was sending a barrage of throwing knives through the air. Cain fell back, howling like a mad dog, blood gushing from his mouth, and I turned his dagger on him, shoving it into his chest. In almost the same moment, Hagur charged past me after Synové. I was still on the ground but lunged for my sword and swung it, slicing into his lower leg. He screamed and crashed to the ground, but on his heels Ferrett hurtled toward me with his ax raised over his head. I rolled, trying to avoid him, but then with the precision of a hawk swooping in on its kill, Wren whirled and sliced his head from his shoulders.

Arman fell last, an earsplitting scream seeming to propel him as he rushed forward, swinging a mace over his head. Cain’s dagger flew from my hand and lodged in his skull, sending his mace crashing against a wall.

Down. They were all down.

“Everyone okay?” I asked, limping toward the still body of Utreck to make sure he was dead. I had seen Synové wrestling with him, but there was no blood—then I saw the side of his skull was caved in, maybe from the heel of Synové’s boot.

Synové leaned forward, her hands on her knees, catching her breath. “Fine,” she answered.

Wren looked at her cloak and growled. Ferret’s head had fallen onto it, leaving a pool of blood. She pulled on the cloak, sending the head rolling off into the wall where his body already lay. She scowled at her stained cloak.

I looked around at the bloody carnage. All of them dead—except Hagur.

I stared at him, remembering him begging for a second chance on the steps of the temple. His fingers had been laced together and his expression was molded to look like one of the stautes of forlorn saints that were within. And I had given that second chance to him. He lay on the floor now, his lower leg angled to the side. Except for a small piece of flesh, it was severed at the calf. His eyes were wild as they met mine, still uncertain who I was. His breaths were shallow, panting, like a small puppy. His head wobbled.

“Hello, Hagur,” I said. He blanched, his already pale face turning the sickly color of a grub. He knew for sure who I was now. I pulled a belt from Cain to use as a tourniquet as I walked toward him. His elbows pushed against the floor, trying to scoot away from me, but he couldn’t even move inches.

Once, I thought, just as the gods forgave us once. That is all. “You’re dead,” he rasped.

“The gods have brought me back to life,” I answered. “But no more second chances for you.”

His face glistened with oily perspiration. He was dying. I knelt beside him and worked quickly, wrapping the belt around his stump. He screamed as I tightened it. He wasn’t going to bleed out until I got answers.

Once the blood flow was stopped, I asked my first and most important question, “Where is Kazi?”

“I don’t know any—”

“The Vendan soldier who was here!” I grabbed his vest and yanked him forward. “Where is she?”

He screamed in pain. His eyes rolled in his head. “I swear—” he gasped. “I’ve been on the mountain. On patrol. I haven’t seen her. But Banques—he has prisoners. Some of them he’s already hanged—”

“Hanged?” Wren yelled. “Hanged who?” Her normally cool temperament cracked with desperation.

“Loyalists,” Hagur gasped.

“Where are they? Where is he holding them?” I demanded. “Some in town. Some at the arena. Some at—”

He hadn’t had time to explain more when Synové demanded a different answer. “Who is Banques?”

“The general,” he whispered, his voice barely audible. “Second in command.”

A general? Every answer he gave us only created more questions. “Who is first in command?” I asked. I knew there was precious little time left for answers. He was barely conscious. “Paxton? Truko?”

“He’s smarter than you think. He won’t ever—”

His eyes closed and his head rolled to the side, and I slapped his face, trying to wake him. “Who? Tell me, you bastard!”

I grabbed his vest again, lifting him forward, ready to shake him awake, but Wren stopped me, pushing him back to the floor. “Don’t waste your energy, Patrei. He’s dead.”

I stared at him, my fists still curled in his clothing, not willing to let go of this two-time traitor. I was ready to cut him open and dig out the answers with my fingers. Where is she?

“Leave it, Patrei,” Wren said softly, pulling my hands loose from Hagur’s vest. “Let’s go catch ourselves a live one. One who can talk.”

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