Chapter no 24 – KAZI

Vow of Thieves (Dance of Thieves, #2)

Paxton’s secrets came out over the course of the day, only when we could manage safe moments to talk alone. It began in the solarium, where we tossed rubble and overturned furniture as we talked, so it would appear we were searching the house—and not conspiring—in case anyone listened from below. Most of the windows of the solarium were still intact, but cold wind whistled through a broken one, keeping the air crisp. Our movement helped keep the frost from our bones.

The bush I had seen Jalaine meticulously clipping in the corner was now dead, its leaves brown and curled. We only had a little time to talk before the king would return to Tor’s Watch and we would return to the inn with him. I tried to absorb everything Paxton told me, even as I studied him, trying to understand who he was.

He told me that contrary to the official report issued by Banques, Rybart hadn’t led any attacks on Hell’s Mouth. He was just a convenient scapegoat, and once he and his men were dead, they couldn’t defend their names or intentions. The depth and breadth of Montegue’s conniving made me marvel. He was shrewd, patient, smart. He knew how to deceive and play people. He understood misdirection as well as I did.

It was the king who had murdered Rybart—or at least one of his guards did by his order—because the king never got his hands dirty. It could have just as easily been Paxton or Truko, but Rybart had made the mistake of standing to leave first. That was his downfall—his utter disgust with the king.

Paxton explained how they had all been called to the king’s chambers. None of them liked being summoned, Truko least of all, but Montegue was staying at the Ballenger Inn in unusually luxurious quarters that they knew were well beyond his means. That alone had piqued their interest. They joked about it as they walked there, wondering if he would stiff the

Ballengers or pay his debt by washing dishes. Once they were seated in the posh parlor of his suite, the king said he had a generous proposal for them all. He was taking over Hell’s Mouth and Tor’s Watch, and he was willing to cut them in on a percentage of arena profits in return for managing it. The king knew little about the trade business, and he needed their expertise to keep the revenue flowing. He told them he had the army and weapons to carry out his plan, and it was about time that the Ballengers were ousted.

Paxton remembered exchanging a snide glance with Rybart and Truko. He said they were probably all thinking the same thing—the king was insane. Paxton had stifled a laugh and was thankful now for that small bit of wisdom. Rybart stood to leave first, saying, “Not interested.” He didn’t try to hide his cynicism or offer the king even minimal respect. Though they all wanted a greater piece of the arena trade, they knew better than to try to steal it from the Ballengers, and the bumbling king was the last one they wanted to partner with.

“Bumbling,” Paxton repeated, his gaze briefly unfocused, like he was reliving the moment his eyes had been opened to the king’s true nature. “None of us could have been more wrong about him. Our biggest mistake was underestimating him.” He said he was on the verge of standing to say the same as Rybart when, the next thing he knew, blood was spraying across his lap and face, and the end of a sword was jutting from Rybart’s chest. The guard behind him pulled it free, and Rybart crumpled awkwardly back into his seat. Dead. And the king continued the meeting with barely a blink.

“What about you two?” Montegue had asked. “Interested?”

Yes was obviously the only answer—at least temporarily—or so Paxton thought. But again, he had underestimated Montegue. The army, for one thing. Before the meeting was over, they were already marching into town, and their numbers and weapons were formidable. The king had also known exactly how to sow doubt, turning one comrade against another, already bribing Paxton’s own men to turn each other in for disloyalty. Everyone now was on the king’s side, at least by appearances. Those who thought they could conspire with a colleague against the king found themselves being turned in and hanged. He’d been infiltrating Hell’s Mouth for months

with his own men. Plants. It made everyone tight-lipped and afraid to talk with anyone.

“I only have two in my crew that I still have regular communication with and I’m certain I can trust—Binter and Cheu. Other than that, I’m cut off from everyone. I think I can trust Truko, but we don’t talk much. I think he’s afraid too, but I can’t be sure. His straza have definitely turned. The king has infiltrated or subverted nearly everyone and everything. Whether they like him or not, they’re afraid to step out of line because they don’t know who is waiting to stab them in the back.”

“How does he get these backstabbers’ loyalty?”

“Greed and fear. He’s made extravagant promises, and more frightening threats—and he has the power to back up those threats.”

Paxton berated himself for not figuring it out. He had become suspicious when he was suddenly selling large quantities of ore from his mine to supposedly second-party dealers—which turned out to be fake. He traced the purchases back to the Ballengers. He knew Jase was up to something, but he wasn’t sure what. When the king began placing large orders for pig iron, he didn’t connect the two. “He claimed he was forging some new plows and farm equipment for his three farms—but I knew he had already sold two of them off. It was a very hushed transaction. No one was supposed to know about the land sales, but one of his foremen came to me asking for work. I thought his purchase of iron for more plows was just more of his spectacular mismanagement, and I was happy to sell him iron he’d never be able to use. I just didn’t put two and two together. I didn’t think he was capable of anything like this.”

“Selling off his holdings was how he paid for the mercenaries?”

“That was only a down payment. He has another payment that’s due soon.”

“So that’s why he needs the revenues from the arena so badly.”

“That’s right. A massive arsenal of weapons is only as good as the army that carries it.”

I shook my head. I still didn’t understand how it could be massive. “Jase told me about the supplies he had ordered. There was only enough for a small war at best, and most of those were used up with experimentation.”

“You really think Beaufort would be honest about anything, including supplies? They weren’t using up the supplies with experiments. They were stockpiling them and shipping them out. How, I don’t know. Or to where. They keep that a closely guarded secret—”

I gasped. The olives! The casks!

They weren’t the nonsensical words of a dying man. I remembered when Phineas had said them, blood sputtering from his lips. That was how they had accumulated such a huge arsenal. For months they had smuggled the explosives back out of Cave’s End in empty casks that once held wine or olives.

“They’re in olive and wine casks,” I said. “Phineas told me.”

“Casks?” he breathed out with wonder. He told me there were a hundred and four warehouses behind the arena and it was a daunting task to search them without arousing suspicion. He’d only been able to search maybe a dozen so far, but he had been searching for crates.

“Seventy-two,” I said. “Is there a warehouse with that number?” I told him about the paper I had nicked from the king.

He nodded. “Back near the paddocks. I’ll check it next.”

He went on, telling me about the ballistae they had created. “They’re even more deadly than the launchers. One shot was all it took to take the temple down. They’re forging more of those now.”

“But sooner or later they’ll run out of ammunition.”

“They claim they’ve only used a fraction of what they have and soon they’ll have more.”

“How is that possible? We destroyed the plans.”

“They have the perfected product in their possession, and they know all the ingredients. It won’t take the chemists he’s hired long to replicate the formula. It’s imminent.”

I remembered Beaufort’s last words to me. It will never be over. Not now.

A door has been unlocked.

But somehow we had to close that door again. The king already had Hell’s Mouth under his thumb. The only reason he would need more—

Paxton voiced my thoughts before I could finish them.

“He hasn’t said it outright, but his sights are set on other kingdoms. He wants their wealth to be his.” He had overheard Montegue and Banques talking about what was essentially blackmail—fees for crossing rights in the Cam Lanteux within two hundred miles from Eislandia’s borders. Fees for a lot of things the other kingdoms would have to pay, or else.

The else was going to happen whether they complied or not. Phineas had offered him the universe, and I had seen the fire in Montegue’s eyes. He would settle for nothing less.

“And maybe even more than their wealth,” Paxton continued, “he wants power and respect. He won’t hesitate to use any kingdom who defies him as an example to the others.”

“Like he did with Rybart to make you and Truko jump.” He sighed. “Yes, just like that.”

“King’s back! Heading out!” a voice bellowed from below. They banged something against a metal pipe in case we didn’t hear. No one kept the king waiting.

On our return to the inn, I rode next to Montegue and Nash at first, but upon hearing I had turned up nothing in my search, the king quickly resumed an animated conversation with Banques. Paxton’s grim warning had come to pass.

The chemists had done it. The formula had been re-created. Production would resume as soon as more supplies arrived. By year’s end, the king hoped to double his already formidable arsenal. The air was suddenly colder. Thinner. More dangerous.

I looked at Lydia, who rode with Banques, and gave her a bare nod. Assurance. Bide your time. This nightmare will soon be over. Even though it was becoming worse by the minute. She looked away, but I saw the veiled fear in her eyes.

Neither Montegue nor Banques cared when I fell back with Paxton. I had a plan brewing in my head. It was as perilous as cuddling with a viper. It screamed of failure, but I’d had it since I visited the cemetery this morning. It had seemed impossible then. To accomplish it, at the very least, I needed an ally.

And now I had Paxton.

Was he really an ally? The recurring worry thrummed in my head. He was a man Jase had loathed and a man I didn’t truly know. But as I had learned so recently, people could be many things they didn’t seem to be. Even Jase had turned out to be someone far different from whom I had imagined. Should I take a chance on another Ballenger? Or did Paxton have other motives than what he had told me?

Most people did. Our wants were rarely all wrapped up in one neat package. Even mine weren’t. I knew I had to get a better sense of Paxton first, before I brought him into my confidence. Was a short ride back to the inn enough time to build trust? It had to be. I had an overwhelming sense of time slipping away. At every turn, the game changed, the people changed, the stakes changed. His sights are set on other kingdoms. I feared time was running out for everyone, but especially Lydia and Nash. Until they were safe, I could do nothing to help anyone.

I glanced sideways at Paxton. I had never brought anyone else into my plans before. It created a whole new kind of fear inside me.

We let the distance between us and our entourage grow longer, and with the wind in our faces, it became safe to talk. The arrogant tilt of his chin, the flip tone in his voice, it was all still classic Paxton. But beneath the façade, another side emerged, a side much more serious and reflective that he had worked to keep hidden. When I steered our conversation into the personal, I watched him hesitate, squirm. He shook his head when he admitted that he was ashamed of what his drunken great-grandfather had done, ashamed of the scheming of his own father and how he had colluded with other leagues to get Tor’s Watch back, but he was just as angry that his cousins, the Ballengers, could never forgive the trespass of an ancestor and visited retribution upon all the spawn who came thereafter. His mother had worked to teach him the family history, saying it was his too and he should hold his head high.

“So that’s where the arrogant tilt of your chin comes from?” I chided. His eyes narrowed, and he grinned. “Something like that.”

“What about your run-ins with Jase? They’re legendary.”

A single brow arched. “Are they?” He huffed out a pleased breath. “I was hot-tempered back then—but so was he. And maybe sometimes I took

it too far.” A frown pulled at the corner of his mouth. “I threw him down a well once,” he admitted. “He was sixteen. I was eighteen. I told him to cool off. I thought it was an amusing metaphor he would appreciate. I also thought someone would come for him, but he nearly died. He was stuck down there for two days.” Paxton shrugged. “He’d done as bad to me. But I did regret that stunt. I think it pretty much killed my chances with Priya.”

“Priya?” I said in disbelief. “How could you think you ever had any kind of chance with her at all?”

Perhaps I was too blunt. His temples tinged with color, and he shrugged. “Long-held infatuations are resistant to logic, I suppose. I’d had a crush on her ever since I was a gawky, tongue-tied thirteen-year-old and she was a mature, sophisticated fifteen-year-old beauty. We had finally met formally, at a funeral. It seems that’s the only way us Ballengers ever get together. While she was grace and stars and glitter, and smelled like fresh summer blooms, I was a stumbling oaf, and that’s being generous. I tripped over every word I said. I even accidentally spit on her. It was a disaster. Our paths crossed in town from time to time after that, but she always made an obvious point not to look my way. I imagined that one day maybe she would appreciate my finer qualities. Truth is, I still get a little tongue-tied when I’m around her. Funerals and such. They’re not really conducive to good conversation.”

“You’re still infatuated with her?” Again, maybe too much disbelief was evident in my tone, and he adamantly shook his head to dismiss the notion.

“No. Of course not. We’re not children anymore. But the king was making me nervous. For a while he latched on to the idea of sparing Priya’s life and taking her as his wife—marrying old with new—appeasing everyone. Two kinds of royalty, he called it. A crazy idea, but it greatly appealed to him until recently. Now I think he may have moved on and set his sights elsewhere.” His gaze rested on me.

“Because he knows Jase wanted me,” I said. “But couldn’t have you.”

I understood. “He wants to best the Patrei in everything.” “Something like that.”

When we arrived at the inn, the king had already gone inside with the children, and as we dismounted, Banques told Paxton to escort me to my room. “You’re having dinner with the king tonight,” he said to me. “You’ll find some appropriate clothing in your room. I’ll send my lieutenant to retrieve you. Be ready.”

Retrieve. Like I was a piece of baggage. Maybe that was exactly how Banques viewed me—baggage he’d like to be rid of, especially if the king got too close to me. Banques was possessive of his attentions.

The appropriate clothing turned out to be an elegant evening dress that raised both Paxton’s and my brows. We talked as I washed up and changed, not knowing when we would get a chance to talk privately again. We both agreed that until Lydia and Nash were out of the king’s and Banques’s hands, we were helpless to stop their grander schemes. I laid out my plan to him. He balked.

“No. No, no, no,” he said, shaking his head. “It won’t work. They’re only small children. They would panic.”

“They’re stronger than you think. They can do this—as long as you can.” He bit his lip, thinking it over. He had no better plan, and he knew it was better to stay ahead of the danger instead of reacting to it. We had to do something. Soon. He sighed, conceding, but still hesitant. “I have my two men that I trust with my life—and with Lydia’s and Nash’s. All right. Tomorrow.” He rubbed his neck, still trying to get his mind around it.

“You’re sure?”

I nodded. “It was Jase who kept me alive, Paxton. When I thought it was impossible to go on, I heard him telling me to keep going. You can do it, he said. Just a little farther. That’s what we have now. Just a little farther to go. This will work. And once they’re free, so are we.”

A small moan rumbled in his chest. “All right. I’ll take care of it on my end one way or another. In the meantime, work on your limp.” And with those few words, I watched the shifty side of Paxton emerge again, coming out of hiding, and I welcomed it. I didn’t need the fearful Paxton—I needed the unscrupulous one—the one willing to throw his cousin down a well to teach him a lesson.

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