Chapter no 28 – KAZI

Vow of Thieves (Dance of Thieves, #2)

I burst into the room, stumbling past Zane to put distance between us. I was propelled like I was racing down a Vendan alleyway, searching for a shadow, needing a dark stairwell to hide behind, a place to disappear.

Montegue noticed. Sudden moves by me were still suspect. Whatever he was saying to the circle of young women surrounding him, he cut off mid- sentence and stared at me. I nodded, acknowledging his gaze, then stepped more confidently into the middle of the room, trying to erase my shaky entrance. His attention returned to his admirers, who hung on his every word.

We were in the expansive parlor of the Ballenger Inn. The iron chandeliers overhead glowed with flickering lights, and the conversation of dozens of the king’s many cohorts buzzed through the room. Judging from Banques’s rigid order, I was expecting a small, interrogation-filled dinner with the king, but this looked more like a party. A celebration? For what?

Truko was passing by, a tankard of ale in each hand, and I stopped him. “What’s going on?” I asked.

“You didn’t notice? The town began decorating today for Winter Festival. General Banques is pleased and thought a celebration was in order.” Truko himself had a pleased expression. Maybe it was the bottomless pitchers of ale that lit his face with a smile, or maybe he was fully in partnership with the new leadership now, all those arena profits too tempting. Paxton said he thought he could trust him, but I wasn’t so sure. Jase had told me he was the greediest of the league leaders, that he would steal the socks off a baby if there was profit in it. He continued on his way, saying someone was waiting for their tankard, and the celebration closed in tighter around me, the room growing increasingly hot.

The townspeople were decorating for a festival. Gaiety on the streets of Hell’s Mouth? It was a well-aimed punch in my stomach.

They’re forgetting the Patrei. Moving forward.

Was the king right? Was I the one who had misjudged the murmuring crowd? Resentment shot through me. Of course the general was pleased. But if loyalists backed off and moved forward, what would that mean for Lydia and Nash? For the rest of the Ballengers still trapped in the mountain? Tomorrow seemed a lifetime away. Where was Paxton? I strained to find him in the mass of bodies.

I moved farther into the room. A long table arranged down the center was already overflowing with food and decorated with gay ribbons and garlands. Tall brass candelabras twinkled with candles. More tables around the room were set in a similar manner to accommodate all the guests. For someone worried about finances, Montegue seemed to be spending coin freely. I finally spotted Paxton over in the corner speaking with Garvin. He eyed me briefly, then looked away, as if he feared detection, and I looked away too. I was always afraid I was being watched, if not by Montegue, then by someone who had his ear.

Oleez filled steins with ale and goblets with wine, and Dinah delivered them to guests. I spotted the women from the dinner party several nights ago, now dressed in even more extravagant gowns—and there were others too. The king’s admirers appeared to be growing in pace with his growing domination. But I knew at least two—Oleez and Paxton—were not among them. Maybe there were more who pasted on smiling, obedient expressions for fear of their lives. I scanned the crowded room and wondered who any of them might really be—allies, enemies, or maybe undecided. Were they frightened and just trying to survive? Were they hanging garlands on their homes too? Were they forgetting the Patrei? Of course they are, Kazi. You called him a convicted criminal who was served justice. You said he was dead and told them to move on. Did Paxton loathe playing the traitor as much as I did?

I spotted the seer I had met at the Ballenger party. She sat in a corner, alone, a small goblet of drink her only company. Her hood was still pulled over her head as if she expected to leave any moment, or maybe it was just that she wanted to remain unnoticed, a dark shadow in the corner. Was she the one who had warned the king about a bitter season coming? I knew her

gift was genuine. Jase had told me about her as we burrowed beneath a blanket on a cold plain.

The seer warned me about you. She said you were coming to cut out my heart.

She spoke true. It didn’t hurt too much, now, did it?

It hurt plenty. But I don’t want it back. It’s yours to keep—forever.

I had unbuttoned his shirt and kissed his chest then, like I was kissing a wound, his skin hot against my lips, while my hands explored other places. Forever, I had whispered. I’m holding you to that, Patrei.

Forever. We had tossed the word around easily. We owned the world. For those few weeks, the word seemed fashioned just for us. We were headed back to establish a new kingdom. To establish a new family.

He wasn’t conscious. He was barely breathing. He could be dead by now.

And then there were other words that I crushed beneath my feet, refusing to hear. Once Paxton told me Jase was alive, I couldn’t accept anything else. Five arrows, Kazi. One was in his chest. It didn’t sound good.

I looked back at the seer. Did she work for the king now? Surely a seer couldn’t switch sides—she only knew what she knew. But did I dare go near her? Would she see my secrets as she had before? Or would she have news of Jase?

I crossed the room before I could think about it any more. Maggielle, Jase had called her. I knelt before her, looking up into the shadows of her hood, my heart bunched into knots, hoping she could offer me something. News.

“Is there something I can get for you, Maggielle? Another drink perhaps?”

Blue ice glowed beneath her wrinkled lids, and wild spirals of black and silver hair circled her face.

She shook her head. “There is nothing I can do for you. I see no face or name, but I do see betrayal. You will be caught up in its snare.” Her head turned like she was trying to see deeper into my thoughts. “Guard your tongue. Guard your trust even more.”

But instead of guarding my tongue, desperation took hold of it. “Jase.

What do you see of him?”

“The Patrei,” she said slowly, letting each syllable roll through her graveled throat. The grim sound made my stomach twist. Her lids lowered so only a sliver of blue showed beneath them, but in that fleeting moment, I saw time, stars, and galaxies pass through them. She looked up abruptly, her eyes skimming the room. She grabbed her goblet in her crooked fingers and took a shaky sip. “It is time for you to go. Hurry. I see nothing else.”

Nothing? No, she had seen something, but she didn’t want to tell me. Because she didn’t trust me, or because it might destroy me? I stood and stumbled away, forgetting to even thank her, unsure why she had dismissed me so abruptly. She was worried about betrayal? Nearly everyone in this room had betrayed me already. And earning my trust was already a rare feat.

Dinah was suddenly at my elbow. “The king said to bring you this.” She held out a large goblet of deep red wine, the surface shivering.

I took it from her shaking hand. “What’s wrong, Dinah? Are you cold?” “No, ma’am,” she said quickly and hurried away. Nervous. Perhaps

afraid of spilling a glass and incurring the wrath of—nearly anyone. Or afraid because she, too, didn’t know whom to trust.

The evening proceeded, it seemed endlessly. Was there really so much for these constantly evolving circles of people to laugh and chat about? Without Wren and Synové here to help me navigate a party, I was lost and drifting. I wondered what they were doing now, how they were, and what mission the queen had sent them on. Paxton was an ally, but he was no Wren and Synové. I didn’t know if he even had any fighting skills or only relied on his straza to get him out of tight spots. But he had been able to whisk Jase away without detection, and I prayed that feat was all devious craft and no luck.

I moved around the room, trying to look like I fit in—like I was truly, in name and heart, now a converted and loyal employee of the king. Chatting happily with potential Ballenger traitors was not easy, so I imagined I was in the jehendra, smiling, strolling, juggling, while I eyed a fat, juicy pigeon to slip beneath my coat. But instead of stealing food, I tried to procure information, because after tomorrow my hands would no longer be tied and I would have a new mission—find where Banques and the king had the

ammunition stored, and then somehow destroy it—without destroying the entire town.

A dinner bell was finally rung, and guests were shown to their seats. I noticed that Montegue was seated at the end of the table with Banques, Paxton, Truko, and Garvin, and they were already in deep conversation about something. I was led to the other end of the table and startled when I saw that Zane was seated across from me. My stomach crawled up my throat. It was going to be a very long evening. I kept my eyes down, trying to remember that tomorrow all this would be over—if Paxton did his job as planned. I stared at the dishes servers laid before me and nudged the contents with my fork, but I couldn’t eat them. My appetite was gone. I focused instead on silverware, and a napkin I continually adjusted in my lap. Montegue was absorbed in food and conversation so I at least didn’t have to perform for him. Everyone ate, minutes passed, my food grew cold. I eyed the silver knife next to my plate shimmering beneath the candlelight, begging to be used. Die tomorrow, Kazi, for everyone’s sake, die tomorrow. Not today. But averting my eyes from the knife couldn’t block out the sounds, and I still heard Zane speaking to guests around us as if everything in the world was right for him. His words wrapped around me like a sickening shroud. I sank into a black world, a world where a stick was too far out of my reach.

Come out, girl!

He spoke of other things, but all I heard were words that refused to die.

You’ll bring a nice profit. Where is she?

Where is the brat?

My eyes shot up, and then I couldn’t take them away. They were frozen on his face the way they had been that long-ago night, and it felt like the room held only Zane and me. Only us, connected by my mother and five terrifying minutes. I found myself crawling out of a dark prison inch by inch. I looked at the mole on his wrist, his bloodless skin, his stringy hair and black eyes. He felt my glower and turned. I dipped my knife into the cold crockery dish, spun it cleverly around so butter curled upward in ruffled circles like meat being shaved from a hock. Zane’s next words hung

in the air, unsaid, his black eyes shifting from me to the knife and back again. I slathered the curled butter onto a thick slice of bread, then dipped the knife back into the crock for more, spinning it again, imagining it boring into Zane, curling flesh, cutting away a piece of him at a time.

“Very clever how you do that,” the woman seated next to Zane said.

I slathered another curl of butter on my bread, then dipped the knife in for more.

“You like butter, do you?” another guest noted.

“No,” I answered, “in fact, I detest butter. I only like the way the knife feels cutting through it. So smooth and easy.”

Zane’s eyes froze with fear. Maybe not because he thought I would stab him, but that at any moment I might burst out and tell everyone about him, that I would steal his life from him the way he stole mine. My mind was what he feared, and the dark plans it might be fashioning. My mind was something he couldn’t control. Not even with the promise of seeing my mother again. She is gone, Kazi. Gone.

But I heard her voice. Fresh. New. There. My chiadrah. Eat, my darling.

You must eat.

I couldn’t let it go. Hope. It rose up from some hidden place inside me.

Damn him to the hottest corner of hell for doing this to me again.

I released the knife, letting it clatter loudly against the crockery, and ate my cold dinner. Food should never be wasted.

Dinah nudged me. “The king is asking you a question,” she whispered.

I looked up. The king and everyone at the other end of the table was staring at me.

“Is there a problem?” Montegue asked.

I wiped my mouth with my napkin and set it aside. “No, Your Majesty. Just hungry and absorbed with the food.” I apologized and asked him to repeat his question.

“I understand that you tell riddles. Will you entertain everyone and tell us one now?”

Riddles? My temples burned, wondering how he knew. I had never told riddles to anyone but Jase and—

Garvin must have seen the confusion on my face. “Mustafier,” he spoke up. “A merchant who sells trinkets on the arena floor. He sings your praises.”

Mustafier. I didn’t know his name, but I did remember him. The logophile who gave me the vine ring as payment. Still, I wondered at the king’s motives. Entertain everyone? I doubted that. There was nothing he loved more than hearing his own voice. Maybe his point was that he knew things about me, things I didn’t even realize he knew. He had ears and eyes everywhere.

I stood and thought for a minute. The room remained quiet, waiting.

“All right,” I said. “Here you go.” I told several short riddles, easy ones about trees, eggs, and noses. After each one, muttering circled the table as guests discussed possible answers, but the king was always the first to answer.

“Surely you have something harder for me to guess?” Montegue said after the fourth one.

Many. But sometimes the point of a riddle wasn’t its difficulty but the depth of its distraction. “Let me think for a moment,” I answered, but I already knew one that would offer sufficient distraction. “Listen carefully,” I said. “I won’t repeat myself.” He nodded in reply, and I began.


“I sleep in a cave, dark and small, Rarely do you see me at all.

But an angry word can lure me out, Slashing and roaring, and tearing about. Sometimes I sneak slow, my prey in sight, I’m deceptive, stalking, with lethal bite.

My mighty stabs, my stinging whip, Catch my enemy in their brutal grip. But sweet delights draw me out in haste, Luring me, naked, with seductive taste. Honey, wine, cakes so sweet,

Sugared cookies, fruited meat,

But desire’s tug can seduce me too,

I’m always searching for a kiss that’s true.”


This time there were no mutterings. Several mouths hung open. They were either stumped or words like naked, seduce, and kiss had sent their minds skittering in breathless directions. I noted the bare hint of a swallow in Montegue’s throat. His eyes sank deep into mine. He knew the answer.

“A rather lofty riddle for such a simple piece of flesh,” he finally said. “Simple? On the contrary, Your Majesty. The tongue outlives the body. It

can topple kingdoms—and create them. It can lead armies and destroy them. Its power is not in its size or beauty, but its cleverness and enduring strength.”

“How can something be powerful if it’s easily seduced?”

I shrugged. “Maybe that’s the curse of our humanity. We all need sustenance of some kind, don’t we?”

“A true kiss?” Garvin called out, laughing. “Do you really believe in such a thing?”

Yes, you backstabbing asshole, though I would never expect you to experience anything true.

But I tilted my head thoughtfully and answered, “It’s only a simple riddle, Garvin. Meant for entertainment. Take from it what you will. But just because you’ve never experienced anything true doesn’t mean it couldn’t exist. You’ve never washed behind your ears either. It doesn’t mean that, by some miracle, it couldn’t one day happen.”

Everyone laughed. Montegue only offered a small distracted smile. His mind was elsewhere.




Dessert tables were filled, and guests once again meandered in circles, chatting and laughing. I was ready to poke my eyes out with the glut and pretense. All I wanted to do was excuse myself and return to my room, but then Oleez swooped in at my elbow, pretending to refill my already full glass. She smiled as she whispered, “I understand I should speak to you.”

My heart kicked against my ribs. He did it. Paxton had convinced the king. He said he would pass the word to me through Oleez. I had seen him

and the king leaning close during dinner, deep in conversation, Montegue absently rubbing his cheek in thought.

“Yes,” I answered quietly, looking around to make sure we were a safe distance from any prying ears. There was no time for more than the barest details, so I kept my instructions short. “Tomorrow morning you will be sick. Vomiting. Unable to accompany the children where we are going. You’ll suggest to the king they’ll be fine on their own with one of the guards watching over them. You must be convincing. Once we’re gone, you’ll leave the inn and go into hiding. It won’t be safe here for you anymore. Do you have someone you trust who will hide you?”

She nodded.

“Good. Then you must disappear completely. And tell no one.”

Her eyelids creased with fear. “I’ll be safe, but what about the children?” “Keep smiling, Oleez. You never know who is watching,” I warned, then laughed, trying to undo any damage her stricken expression may have done. “I will do my very best to keep them safe, but it won’t be easy or without


“They’re already in danger. He hates Ballengers,” she whispered through a smile. “All of them. I see him stare at the children sometimes. His expression frightens me. Every day I worry that he will—”

She stepped away, the carafe she held sloshing with her quick movement.

“I need you in my study.” I whirled to face the king. “There’s something we need to discuss. Now.” He walked away without looking back, knowing I would follow.

Had Paxton’s suggestion backfired? Something had gone wrong

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