Chapter no 32 – KAZI

Vow of Thieves (Dance of Thieves, #2)

Clouds of swirling pink steam hovered above the spring in the pavilion. They were the breaths of the gods, according to legend, and the mineral- rich hot spring was their gift to mortals.

Just beyond the rails of the pavilion, there were more breaths—those of the dead. I felt them stepping closer, their sighs whispering through the pines. Gods, ghosts, and maybe angels, they all watched. Waiting.

On the ride here, my mind was consumed with every detail, including backup plans in case something changed, something as unpredictable as rain or snow, but the sun had at last peeked out from behind gray clouds, adding some cheer to the day. I took it as an omen. If the king could take his father’s untimely death as an omen from the gods, I could take the appearance of intermittent sunshine as a sure nod from them.

I had awoken before dawn, my pulse skittering like a snared bird, but when I caught sight of the graveyard, a strange calm descended. It felt familiar. I remembered: The wild anxiety was always followed by calm. It didn’t matter if it was a square of cheese, or a starving tiger, or two small children. My mind shifted as we drew near, focusing not on everything that could go wrong but on everything I had to do right. Once step at a time. You can’t panic when you’re walking a tightrope over a pit of vipers.

I stood at the pavilion rail, waiting for Montegue.

Several yards away, I heard him dismissing Banques, Paxton, and Truko to go on to Tor’s Watch, saying we would catch up with them soon—it was only a short way up the hill from the graveyard. I had walked the distance with Jase on my first day here. Montegue’s tone was impatient. I was sure Banques was not happy being displaced by me, even temporarily, but he didn’t argue. Paxton had planted a bug in his ear too, one that made him eager to continue on to review more arena records. The king’s safety was never part of the discussion. He would be fine. Squads of soldiers still

blocked each end of the road that was adjacent to the graveyard. No one could get in, and a small contingent within the graveyard was there to provide additional protection. One soldier—Broken Nose—was assigned to supervise the children, and three more who weren’t familiar to me were posted around the pavilion to protect the king.

As Paxton rode away, I noted that he was particularly well-groomed today, the sides of his head freshly shaved and his russet ponytail gleaming in a neat line down his back. Maybe he at least wanted to look presentable hanging from a tembris if he was caught.

When Montegue turned back toward the pavilion, he patted his vest as he approached. It was an unconscious habit of his. Anyone who carried treasure on them—whether it was keys, a gold signet ring, a purse of coin, or for Montegue, a tiny vial that contained the promise of unlimited power

—checked their treasure often. Who wouldn’t? His hand returned to his side. His treasure was still there. Safe.

I remembered how Griz had mocked him. How I had mocked him. But he was more cunning than all of us. That was what made me nervous, staying ahead of what smoldered inside of him—what he managed to keep so well hidden. He was only twenty-three, but he seemed like an old man too, filled with three lifetimes of ambition and cynicism. Someone like Phineas only comes along once every few generations.

And maybe someone like Montegue too.

Lydia and Nash were already off playing among the tombstones. Once within the safe protection of the graveyard, with its sheer mountain wall and forest cover on one side and heavily armed squads on the other, Montegue couldn’t be rid of the children fast enough, though they were on especially good behavior today. They’d been coached by Paxton and Oleez this morning. They were to cause their guard no reason to drag them back to the pavilion before the appointed time. Play quietly in the graveyard, recite the history of Fujiko twice, and then it would be time to return.

Montegue’s pace was deliberate and eager. It seemed it didn’t matter if it was possessing the magic of the stars, controlling a continent, a kingdom, or a true kiss from a lowly thief that his adversary had desired, they were all balms that could heal the slivers festering beneath his skin and each had the

power to finally make him whole, make the world fall into balance, make his story true.

He walked up the steps and stopped in front of me. His need was visible. I saw it in his hooded eyelids as he imagined what could be. I listened. Pretended I heard his heartbeat. For these few seconds, he was fragile, human. Hungry. I couldn’t see him as a monster. I had to see him as a man. A man was beatable.

“So now that you’ve slept on it, are you still wondering?” he asked.

I had hoped it would take him longer to get to the subject that burned him.

“Yes. I—”

“You don’t have to wonder, you know?”

A few more minutes. That’s all I needed until— He pulled me into his arms and kissed me.

My pulse rushed and my mind raced, trying to take command of the situation again, trying to—

But now I was immersed in it. I sensed that every move of his was planned, perfected, timed. He had wanted to catch me off guard. Surprise and show me. His kiss was gentle at first, his lips barely grazing mine. He whispered my name against them, Kazimyrah, but then his lips pressed harder and his tongue was in my mouth. His grip grew stronger, like iron, and I remembered his warning: I’m stronger and could overtake you easily. He pulled me closer as if proving it, every part of him pressed against me, his breaths growing heavier, and I feared this was no longer an orchestrated kiss, but one that was quickly veering out of control. Where were they? Why did we choose Fujiko? We should have chosen a shorter history. But I met his kisses with eagerness of my own. My hands slid upward along his sides until I was gently cupping his face, every move designed to convey I was entranced. Where were they?

“Well?” he whispered against my lips.

I answered by pressing my mouth to his. Yes, a king is a step up from a


“Excuse me?”

I gasped and pulled away, and we both turned. Lydia stood on the first step of the pavilion, Nash just behind her.

“What are you doing here?” Montegue bellowed. “Go play!” He glared at Broken Nose, who stood just behind them.

“But I have to go,” Lydia said woefully.

“Go?” he replied, not understanding at first, and then it hit him. “You mean?” He growled with exasperation. “Then find a tree and pee! You’re not a baby!”

“I’m afraid to go by myself,” she whined. “I heard howling.” “Take her into the woods!” Montegue said to Broken Nose. Lydia’s lip trembled. She didn’t move.

“I have to go too,” Nash added, his voice filled with as much woe.

I sighed and put my hand on Montegue’s arm. “She’s of an age and more shy about that kind of thing. Maybe she’d be more comfortable with me. Let me go with them both to take care of their business, and then I’ll get them settled over by the wash searching for eyestones. That should keep them occupied for a good long while so we can have some—time—without interruption.”

He sucked in a frustrated breath between clenched teeth. “Hurry,” he ordered. And then to Broken Nose, “Once she has them settled, do not bring them back until you hear me call. Do you understand?”

Broken Nose nodded, betraying no emotion, but I guessed that he seethed with resentment for being saddled with this job. I was grateful it wasn’t No Neck watching them today. He would have been more difficult.

We quickly left to take care of the urgent matter. Broken Nose grumbled once we were out of earshot of the king, insulted that he’d been charged with playing nursemaid. “I’d have drowned them both like feral kittens a long time ago if I had my way.” There was no jest in his tone, and if the king or Banques gave the nod, I knew he would gladly do it. Lydia and Nash didn’t flinch at his remark, and I wondered at the horrors they had endured every day as prisoners of the king, because though he tried to paint it differently, there was no question—they were his prisoners.

Jase would be enraged but proud too at how they had held up under this strain, showing more strength than many adults could muster. Jase would—

My chest tightened. I had already decided not to tell them they would be seeing him soon. I didn’t know what kind of shape he would be in, or if he even—

He could be dead by now.

I wished Paxton had been less honest with me.

We walked briskly to a copse of shrubs about halfway into the graveyard. Broken Nose waited on the other side to give Lydia privacy, but he kept an eye on me. Every minute counted so Lydia and Nash finished their business quickly.

As we continued on toward the dry creek bed, I asked him to slow his steps for the sake of the children. “Do you have a name?” I asked. “So I don’t have to keep calling you Guard?”

He brushed away the question, saying a name wasn’t important, but with a little more prodding, he finally admitted his name was Lucius.

“How did you break your nose, Lucius?”

“The butt of a halberd,” he answered, then smiled. “But the fellow who swung it fared far worse.”

“Good to know.” Lucius. A helpful detail. The wash came into view, but then I stopped short, putting my hand out to stop the children too, as if I was afraid.

“Wait,” I whispered. “What is that?” I pointed into the shadows at the Ballenger tomb. The door was partway open. “Grave robbers?” I said. “Should we go get someone?”

Broken Nose scowled at me with offense. “What do you think I’m here for? I’m not just here to play nursemaid to them.” He pulled his sword free and walked cautiously toward the tomb. I ordered the children to stay put and followed close behind. When we were a few yards away, he called toward the dark entrance. “Come out!”

No one appeared, and he edged closer, craning his neck to see what threat might be inside, forgetting about the one right behind him.

I had never killed anyone this way before. Whenever I had plunged a knife or sword between someone’s ribs, it had been in combat—noisy, messy, desperate, and fast. This was slow. Stalking. Waiting for the perfect

moment. I didn’t like it, and yet I welcomed it. I had never killed someone for a better reason.

Every step was calm. Except for the steady whoosh of my heart in my ears.

“Do you see anything?” I whispered.

“Nah,” he answered, as if disappointed, and stepped inside. “Nothing.” At least the children wouldn’t see it happen.

One step. Two. He turned. And I plunged the scalpel into his throat and slashed.

Swift, silent, exact. As precise as juggling an orange. And more permanent than the butt of a halberd.

He couldn’t call out, couldn’t lift his sword. I took it from his hand before he fell to his knees with a thunk, facedown on the floor. I wasn’t sure he even knew it was me, but I did know he wouldn’t be drowning anything again—children or feral kittens. I pulled his cloak away before it could be soaked with his blood and set it on the center internment stone along with his long sword, dagger, and push knife, then went to the door and waved the children forward.

“Don’t look,” I said, when they reached the tomb. “He’s dead and can’t hurt you.” And then everything went from slow to rushed. There were fifty crypt spaces in the tomb, each marble front approximately a two-foot square. More than half of them were already occupied, Ballenger names engraved on the outer marble faces.

I knelt down so I was eye level with Lydia and Nash and hurried to tell them everything they needed to know. “By this time tomorrow, you’ll be safe with friends, but the next several hours will take tremendous courage, the kind the Patrei has—the kind you have too. Do you understand?”

Lydia nodded, her jaw set hard.

Nash’s chin dimpled, trying to keep tears back.

“I can’t stay here with you. I have to lead them away. But no matter what you hear, no matter who calls to you or threatens you or threatens me, you will not answer. You will even hear me calling for you, but I’m only pretending to not know where you are. You must remain completely silent, even if I scream. It’s all part of the plan.” I squeezed both of their hands.

“And it will fail if you call out—remember, we are not just saving ourselves, we’re working to save all of Hell’s Mouth—so you mustn’t cry, whimper, or even whisper to each other. It will be dark, and it will be cold, but once it is night, someone will come for you and take you away to where you’ll be safe. And you’ll ride your own horses. No more riding with the king. You’ll like that, won’t you?”

“Yes,” they both answered quietly.

And then I told them where I was going to hide them. “But Sylvey’s body isn’t there. It never was. It’s just an empty chamber.” But no one else will know that.

“Where’s Sylvey?” Nash asked. He never knew her. She died when he was just an infant, but he knew of her. Ballengers never forgot their history

—or their family.

“She’s buried in the Moro mountains.”

Tears puddled in Lydia’s eyes, worried for a sister she had no memory of. “Will the gods be angry that she’s gone?”

“No,” I said, pulling her and Nash into my arms. An ache clutched my throat. “The gods know where she is. It’s a beautiful place where she was meant to rest. The gods are pleased.” I had never been so grateful for a broken law in my life. Thank the gods Jase had stolen her body. Even if they went so far as to search the tomb, no one would ever break into a crypt they believed was occupied with a sanctified body.

I pushed them both away so I could look into their eyes. “And now you must tell me one last thing. It’s very important. Do you know if there’s another entrance to the vault?”

They looked at each other and then back at me. “We aren’t supposed to tell. We didn’t even tell the king. Only family is allowed to know.”

“But I am family. I’m your sister now. Jase would want you to tell me.


“You’re our sister?” Nash said.

“You’re never going away again?” Lydia added. “Because family doesn’t go away.”

“Never,” I answered, guilt stabbing me, because I knew sometimes family did go away even if they didn’t want to.

Nash looked at the dead guard in the corner to make sure he wasn’t listening. “It’s by the waterfall,” he whispered.

“There’s a cave. Left, left, right, left. I memorized that,” Lydia said proudly. “Once inside, those are the tunnels you take.”

“And there’s bats. Lots and lots of bats in the first big cave,” Nash added.

“Which waterfall? Where?” I asked. There had to be a hundred waterfalls in the mountains behind Tor’s Watch.

They both looked at each other, unsure. “It’s a long ways up the mountain. I think,” Lydia answered. They began reciting the few hazy details they remembered. A long, skinny meadow. A toppled tree with roots that rose higher than a house. A giant blue rock that looked like a bear standing on its hind legs. That was all they could remember, and I prayed it was enough.

I went to Sylvey’s crypt at the end of the middle row and unscrewed the rosette fasteners, then carefully removed the marble front and set it aside. Next I removed the inner shutter and looked into the long dark space, hoping there was no trace of a body ever being in there. It was clean, and there was plenty of room for two small children. I laid out the guard’s cloak inside and lifted them both up onto it, then wrapped it around them to keep them warm.

“Remember,” I whispered, “once it is night, someone will come for you.

Until then, not a peep.”

They both nodded. I started to bend down to replace the shutter and marble front, but Nash reached out and grabbed my arm. “Vatrésta,” he said.

“No, Nash,” I corrected. “Vatrésta is for a final good-bye. We will see each other again. Chemarr is for a short farewell.”

Chemarr,” they both said back to me, and then I sealed them in the crypt. I pressed my fingers to my lips and then to the face of marble that had Sylvey’s name engraved on it. Chemarr. Watch over them.

Relief and fear flooded my chest at the same time as I pressed my back to the tomb door, wedging my feet against the ground while I shoved it closed one grunt and push at a time, sealing them inside.

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