Chapter no 25 – JASE

Vow of Thieves (Dance of Thieves, #2)

Caemus had never said anything about a general. Soldiers, yes, but a general meant something more. It meant something larger and more organized than a league leader seizing power and throwing a few weapons into willing hands. I had already added up how many soldiers Paxton, Truko, and maybe Rybart could pull together by pooling their resources. Maybe a mismatched lot of two hundred at the most.

But a general meant some sort of formal army. I turned it over in my head when I wasn’t thinking about people hanging from trees. Just what had Beaufort been planning? And who was in charge now that Beaufort was no longer a partner in this scheme?

The storm had stopped, but the snow it left was still high enough on the ground to make the narrow pass I had planned to take impossible to navigate—which also made it one of those kinks Wren had warned me about. We had to circle around and take a more time-consuming route on a southern face where the snow was only a few inches deep.

Synové cursed and pointed to Mije’s rump. “We missed some blood there.”

I looked behind me and saw the telltale spots, dark and crusty on his black coat. “Whoa, gutra hezo,” I said and swung down from the saddle. We had cleaned the blood from our faces, furs, and weapons—it was important that we not be implicated in the deaths of six men should they be found, nor did we want to attract the attention of other predators on the mountain, like the packs of wolves that ranged here in winter. I glanced up at the sky. Or a hungry racaa who had perhaps acquired a taste for human flesh after Synové’s stunt with Bahr. I poured water into my hand and rubbed it into Mije’s coat.

Gutra hezo?” Wren said.

“Mije’s used to hearing it from Kazi. I thought—” I didn’t finish. I didn’t know what I thought except that I wanted to hear Kazi’s voice, even if it was me saying her words. I wanted to repeat and remember every word that had ever passed between us, to keep it all alive.

“You spoil that horse as much as Kazi did,” Synové chirped. She used the opportunity to tell me about the day Kaden, the Keep of Venda and one- time Assassin, gave Kazi the horse. She had been eyeing Mije in the paddocks for weeks. Synové, Wren, and Kazi were all thirteen years old and had been approved to advance on to Rahtan training, and that meant they would each be given their own horse to keep, care for, and train with.

“All Rahtan horses run on the hot side, but Mije was more of everything. Kazi ached with wanting that horse, but Kaden had already told her no. He said Mije was strong willed, and too much horse for Kazi.”

Synové said Kazi didn’t let up, though, and one day she jumped into the paddock with Mije. He was a young horse and full of snarl and spit, but that was what Kazi loved about him. He stamped and tried to scare her off, and she stamped right back at him. It was a stunning standoff, with Kaden yelling at her to get out of the ring, but then she called to the horse and held out her hand to him.

“That crazy wild beast came straight to her, nuzzled her palm, and the rest is history,” Wren said. “The Keep couldn’t deny Kazi, and the horse became hers that very day.”

“She bribed Mije,” I said.

Their heads both spun toward me. “What?” they said at the same time. “She’d secretly been sneaking him dried berries from the kitchen pantry

for almost two weeks. That’s why he came to her. He was expecting a treat.” Kazi had told me the whole story, pleased with the shocked expression on the Keep’s face.

“I’ll be damned,” Synové said, smiling at this revelation, apparently pleased that Kazi had left nothing to chance. “Seems you two told each other everything.” She looked slyly at me, her eyes narrowing. “What about me and Mason? Did you tell her about us?”

Wren rolled her eyes. “Not much to tell there.” I nodded. “Kazi was surprised.”

Wren’s attention whipped to Synové. “What about you and Mason?”

Synové laughed and told Wren there was more to the two of them than she had let on. “We might have stolen a kiss once or twice.” This time it was Synové who rolled her eyes, implying that it was more than a kiss.

It ignited a small squabble between the two of them, Wren telling her it was dangerous to get involved with the enemy. “Look at the trouble it got Kazi into—” She caught herself and looked at me.

“Am I still the enemy?” I asked.

“You’re a pain in the ass is what you are, but not the enemy—for now.” Strangely, coming from Wren, it almost sounded like a compliment.

Synové scoffed at her. “Are you saying you aren’t eager to see Samuel again?”

Wren glared. “No. I am not eager. Nothing happened with Samuel and me.”

“But you wanted it to.” She tapped her chin. “Or maybe it was Aram? I still can’t tell those two puppies apart.”

Wren hissed out a frustrated breath and rode a pace ahead, finished with the conversation. “Blazing saints,” she mumbled as she rode forward. “I need Kazi here.”

Synové continued to chatter about Mason, imagining he would be very happy to see her in spite of their caustic parting and the threats they had hurled at each other, but all I could think of was Samuel.

My little brother, I had always teased. He was a half inch taller than me. I hadn’t told either of them about the note saying he was dead. I had discounted it, convincing myself it couldn’t be true, but now, after seeing the tumbled walls at Tor’s Watch, knowing an army had taken over Hell’s Mouth, knowing my family had run for their lives and were hiding in the vault—it didn’t seem impossible now.

My throat swelled, thinking of him dead, and a choked sound slipped out. I coughed to mask it. Wren looked back at me, suspicious. She never missed anything—maybe that was why she was angry she hadn’t caught on to Synové and Mason.

“How did Mason really get that scar on his neck?” Synové asked.

Silence never lasted long around her.

“He didn’t tell you?”

“A drunk barber, he claimed.” She sighed. “Mason and I didn’t talk much—at least not the way you and Kazi did. It was more of a physical thing with us.”

I remembered Mason confessing his attraction to Synové, but I was certain it was more than just superficial attraction. I remembered his voice, his eyes darting nervously to the side when he said she makes me laugh. It was a hard admission for him, caring about someone like that.

“If it was only a physical thing between you two, then why do you care how he got it?”

“A girl can be curious, can’t she?”

Synové might be my temporary wife, but Mason was my brother. I didn’t give away his secrets. “You’ll have to ask him yourself.”

She grumbled under her breath, mostly in Vendan, but the last word she said sounded a lot like toad.

Maybe she knew that when and if she met up with Mason again, he wasn’t likely to speak to her at all. Maybe it wasn’t just physical like she claimed. Maybe she knew him better than she let on. One thing about Mason, he had a long memory. Even if they didn’t talk a lot, Synové had figured out that much. He had lost both of his parents to betrayal. Synové was dead to Mason.



Wren walked on one side of me, her shoulder casually brushing mine, and Synové, good loving wife that she was, held my hand.

We drew stares. Not because I was Kbaaki walking with my two wives, but because we were here at all. Home was a long way north for us, and winter had descended. Our excuse for being this far south had to be told over and over, first at the stables where we were required to leave our horses. It was a rule the Ballengers had initiated years ago. We’d decided that it made for a better buying and trade experience, instead of having the narrow avenues of the arena clogged with horses, mules, and wagons. We had runners who would transport merchandise to the stables for customers. I regretted that rule right now. It made a quick getaway more difficult.

I knew it wasn’t just being here out of season that drew stares—part of it was that Kbaaki were always slightly intimidating. They were quiet, watchful sorts, which was what made them such good hunters. But their quiet ways and stares unnerved some people. They were a large people too, not Griz large, but tall and broad-shouldered—even the women. Synové was a large girl, almost as tall as me, and easily passed as Kbaaki. Wren was smaller, but her intimidating stare more than made up for her size. Mostly, though, I think people always thought there was something slightly unearthly about Kbaaki and their mysterious knowledge of potions and poisons.

“Keep your eyes straight ahead, husband,” Wren warned.

Synové squeezed my hand. “Remember, we’re just a family in search of spirit wood.”

My eyes had been sweeping every corner of the arena. It was hard not to. Impossible maybe. I was looking at the changes before we ever got inside the arena. Soldiers were positioned on the bridge over the entrance— launchers slung over their shoulders. My launchers. The ones I had paid for

—dearly. More soldiers were stationed on the floor where we shopped, but they were only armed with halberds or swords. I searched the faces but hadn’t recognized anyone yet. Where did they all come from? And where were the Ballenger employees? Dead?

I had no doubt that more soldiers spied us from positions in the eight towers that looked over the arena floor. What had become of Garvin? Was he dead? Forced to work for them? Or maybe he had escaped. He was good at slipping away unnoticed. Somewhere up there, Paxton and Truko might even be eyeing me right now—maybe from the Ballenger apartments while they drank Ballenger wine and ate our food.

And somewhere in this arena maybe they were holding Kazi.

Knowing her ability to disappear, she had to be somewhere very secure.

Or she was hurt. Or—

I couldn’t think of any more possibilities. “Over there,” I said, tilting my head at a man standing near one of the tower entrances. “Him.” I finally saw an employee I recognized—Sheridan. A squarely built man with bushy red brows to match his beard. He hadn’t worked for us for long. Titus had

hired him, and I had only spoken briefly to him once. He was one of a dozen floor security, tasked with defusing squabbles before they could escalate. But they were also there to direct customers to the merchandise. The arena was large and like a city in itself, not to mention the rows of warehouses and paddocks that sprawled behind it.

“He’s a big one. You sure?” Wren asked.

“Looks like he could be loud too,” Synové added.

I was sure. He was either caught up in the takeover and forced to work the arena or he had willingly joined their ranks, and I was about to either make his day much better—or much worse.

Sa dre foraza? Eh, eh—” I called to him, pretending I was struggling with the language. “Spe reet wud. We are looking for—”

“Spirit wood? You might be able to find that in warehouse eighteen. Late in the season to be carrying it, but they’re a specialty vendor who has a bit of everything. Through that tunnel. Just look for the numbers on the—”

I shook my head apologetically. “Your numbers. I do not—read.”

He tried to explain and even wrote the number in air, but I only creased my face with more confusion. He finally gave up and waved us forward. “This way. I’ll show you.”

The thing about spending half of your time in the arena as you were growing up was that you knew places, all the hidden places no one else knew—and didn’t want to know. Places every Ballenger parent had forbidden their children from going but we did anyway. It was a rite of passage, older cousins leading the younger down dangerous paths to frighten them. Most important, I knew places a security team couldn’t see from the towers—the only blind spots we had.

I walked next to Sheridan, heading for the short tunnel that led to the warehouses behind the arena. Wren and Synové followed close behind us. With their bulky fur cloaks, they provided a convenient shield. As we approached the tunnel, I saw that it was clear.

“The arena,” I said as we entered the tunnel, “eez different since I was here last.”

“New management,” he explained. “No more Ballensher?”

“No.” He laughed. “They’re long gone.” “They sell?”

“Run out of town. Bad management.”

He went on to disparage the Ballengers and then admitted they were holed up in that mountain of theirs, probably dead by now. He only hired on because he knew they were going to be replaced.

“How? You have seer?” I asked.

He laughed again. Apparently I was quite amusing. “No,” he answered. “Inside connections.”

Sheridan was a plant? Someone to help in the takeover?

He didn’t see it coming. One second he was walking straight ahead, and the next my weight was shoving him sideways into the black shadows of an abandoned stairwell. Wren and Synové jumped in front of me, throwing open a door. My arm was crooked around his neck, but he was fighting back. Until I held a knife to his chest.

“Quiet,” I ordered as I dragged him deeper into the hidden bowels of the arena, stepping over tumbled stones and passing through dusty webs. Synové lit a candle as Wren relieved him of his weapons—a knife and a club—then ran ahead opening one door and then another, sometimes having to force it with her shoulder.

“A dead end,” she said when a landing ended in a pile of rubble.

“No, back this way,” I said. With little light, it was hard to see, but a small walkway to the side of the stairs led to a jagged hole in the wall and another set of stairs. We finally emerged into what my siblings and I called the cemetery—a vast underground world filled with the Ancients’ metal carriages. The air was heavy, filled with a peculiar dusty scent that was almost sweet. I tried not to think too much about what it was. Poor ventilation in this nearly sealed tomb was what helped keep the carriages— and other things—from crumbling into dust.

Synové groaned when she set her flickering candle on the runner of one of the carriages and it illuminated the Ancient still sitting inside. He wasn’t the only one. There were hundreds of petrified remains, Ancients trapped in the sealed tomb when their world came crashing to an end. Sheridan began to struggle under my grip, no longer caring about the knife at his chest, and

I shoved him away. He stumbled back against one of the tall carriages, and the impact made the rusted carcass shift and settle.

“You can scream all you want to down here, Sheridan,” I said. “No one will hear you.”

This time I would get my answers—no matter how long it took—and there was no worry that anyone would interrupt us.

He looked around, taking in the vast cavern, the single candle illuminating just a small portion of it. Hundreds of carriages and just as many bones glowed in the dim circle of light. Ancient people were slung over open doors or hanging out windows, many still bearing their discolored brittle skins and horror-stricken expressions. He looked back at me and then studied Wren and Synové. Their drawn weapons shimmered with the flickering golden light. He wasn’t laughing anymore.

“How do you know me?” he asked.

“You used to work for me,” I answered. I pulled my hat off. Raked back my hair.

With my inked face, he still didn’t recognize me. “Jase Ballensher,” I said with the accent.

He cursed.

“Hmm,” Wren agreed. “You never know when a little loyalty might come in handy, do you?”

“I’m going to make this simple for you, Sheridan,” I said. “I ask questions. You answer them. And every time you lie to me, my friend here is going to cut something of yours off. And trust me, I’ll know if you’re lying.”

Wren spun her ziethe.

“Where’s the Vendan soldier?” I asked.

His hands curled into fists at his sides. “That girl? They’re holding her in town.”

Holding her. A brief moment of relief filled my lungs. That meant she was alive.

“Who’s holding her?” I asked. “Banques? The general? Paxton? Who’s in command?”

“In command of what?”

“The town, the arena. Everything.”

“The king,” he said uncertainly, as if he didn’t understand the question. “What king? Which kingdom?”

His face screwed into a question mark. “The King of Eislandia, you fool!


The words couldn’t quite sink in.

“Montegue invaded the town? You’re trying to tell me that bumbling fool is running everything here?”

“That’s exactly what I’m telling you. It’s within his rights. His kingdom, his town. His Vendan soldier to take into custody for attacking a squad and killing four of them.” He paused, a grin lighting his eyes, and added, “His Vendan soldier to do with however he pleases.”

I jerked forward, ready to twist his head off, but Wren held me back. “Don’t bite, Patrei. He’s just baiting you.” I knew that. He wanted me to jump him. Did he think he’d wrestle away one of my weapons in the scuffle?

“What about Zane?” I asked. “What about him?”

Blessed gods, I prayed Gunner had killed Zane before all this went down. That he wasn’t loose and—

“Is he alive?” I asked.

Sheridan smiled. “He’s had a promotion since he worked for you. He’s a lieutenant in the king’s army now. Probably in charge of that Vendan soldier you’re so concerned about.”

Wren’s grip on my arm tightened.

Sheridan used that moment to lunge, not for me, but to the side, aiming for the candle on the runner only a few feet away. He dove, his hand knocking it over, and then the light was gone. Complete blackness engulfed us. There was shuffling, then the sound of pounding footsteps and, over it all, shouts. Ours.

The candle! Find it!

Where is he?

None of us dared swing our weapons because we couldn’t see one another. Synové’s flint box sparked again and again, until she was finally able to catch the corner of her fur cloak and a small flame glowed bright enough from it for us to locate the candle and relight it.

I heard more scuffling, grunts, and panting from somewhere deep within the cavern, far beyond our circle of light. Carriages wheezed and collapsed as he stumbled into them in the dark.

“Come out, Sheridan!” I yelled. “There’s nowhere to go.” He didn’t answer.

Wren cursed. “We’ll never find him in there.”

I stared into the dusty blackness. “We don’t have to,” I answered.

We left, wedging every door shut behind us, though between the smothering darkness and the maze of crumbling carriages, he would never find the doors anyway. Sheridan had sealed his own fate. In a matter of days, if not hours, his horror-stricken face would join the army of those already down here.

Errdwor is their leader. He tells me his name and pounds his chest. He shakes with rage. He is older than me. Bigger than me. Stronger than me. He says I must obey. That I must open our gate. But he is not angrier than me. He was one of those who killed my grandfather.

—Greyson Ballenger, 15

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