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Chapter no 33 – KAZI

Vow of Thieves (Dance of Thieves, #2)

“There!” I said, smiling as I dashed up the pavilion steps. I let true victory shine in my eyes—the hardest step was behind me—though the king would interpret my triumph differently. “All done. They’re happily searching for eyestones.” I shed my cloak and weapon belt, laying them over the railing beside Montegue’s.

He was already sitting on the first step, soaking his feet. “What took you so long? I was about to send a guard to get you.”

“I wanted to give them some extra incentive and found this.” I pulled a large, colorful eyestone from my pocket that was about the size of my little finger—just the right size—and held it up. “I told them whoever found the most stones would get this one as a prize. They’re searching in earnest now. They’ll be occupied for a good long while.”

He smiled. “Well played, soldier.” He motioned to the step next to him. “Come soak your foot.”

I sat on the lone bench in the pavilion, which was across from him, stalling for time as I slowly took off my first boot. I had to draw this out for at least another half hour.

“The town looked festive this morning, didn’t it?” I said, a topic I knew he would like, proof he was winning them over.

“Yes,” he agreed. “They’re finally coming around. Moving on. I knew they would. I ordered the hanging bodies removed from the tembris. It seemed like the right response. They will see me as a fair ruler willing to meet them more than halfway.”

The right response? Cutting down innocent rotting bodies? Such a kindness. I checked the revulsion rolling up my throat. “A wise move,” I agreed and pulled off my sock, tucked it in my boot, and began unlacing the other. “And it will certainly help elevate the festive mood.”

He talked about other changes that he and Banques had in the works, assigning new magistrates nominated by the townspeople for the districts, rebuilding the livery that had been burned down, and breaking ground on a new temple that would be bigger and better than the last one. “And soon I won’t need to travel with the children at all.”

I pulled off my boot and set it beside the other. “What will become of them?” I asked cautiously, biting back my next words. Would you kill them? But he managed to anticipate my thoughts anyway.

“I would not kill them, if that’s what you’re wondering. I’m not a monster.”

“I know that,” I answered quickly, trying to soothe his injury. “I was thinking of Banques. I heard him call them a necessary evil.”

“We have to do what is best for the kingdom. We’ll send them away where they can forget about being Ballengers. They’ll have a nice fresh start.”

A fresh start? Or would they simply be prisoners somewhere else? He spun everything into a golden solution that eliminated his culpability. I twisted the sock I had just pulled off around my fingers. Even though I knew that now he would never get his hands on them again, his words still plagued me—the things he planned that I hadn’t even begun to grasp. “Send away? Where?”

“Zane knows places. He—”

Zane?” I blurted out before I could stop myself.

“I told you—you have to bury your grudges with him. Zane is useful to me, and as a former Previzi driver, he knows of places not that far from here that will take them in for us.”

He was going to give them to Zane. Zane.

“Places? More than one?” I asked. “You plan to separate them?”

“Yes, we decided it would be easier for them to make a clean break from their past that way.”

And ensure that they forget. I knew what it was like to be isolated. Alone. No one to tell you stories. Memories drifted away. I was Nash’s age when I lost my mother, and Lydia was only a year older. Yes, Montegue,

send them away and eliminate two young Ballengers who might grow up and challenge you one day. Break them, destroy them, but at the same time, keep them close just in case you need to bring them back again to serve some scheming purpose of yours. You are a brilliant monster.

I struggled to keep my mind fixed on the endgame. A game that had new rules that I had made—not him. He won’t be able to do any of these things, Kazi. Stay focused on each step. You’re almost there.

“What about the Ballengers?” I asked. “What if they come out? They’ll want their kin back.”

“There’s been no signs of life. They’re probably all dead. And if they aren’t, they soon will be. If you don’t find the papers soon, we’ll begin blasting. I can’t wait much longer. I’ll have to take my chances that the papers won’t be destroyed in the process.”

“Blast through a mountain of solid granite? Do you know how long that will take?”

“Or the blasting might drive them out.”

Of course. He didn’t really believe they were dead.

“Paxton drew us maps,” he said. “He used to be a Ballenger, before his line of the family was thrown out on their ear. His great-grandfather told him about the layout of the vault. We’ve estimated that the shortest route to the grand hall should only take three or four days of blasting.”

Grand hall? There was no grand hall. The vault was not an underground palace! The rooms were roughly all the same size, one room connected to another, connected to another, plain and functional. Paxton was lying to them, and he had even drawn maps! Maybe that was the bug he planted in Banques’s ear—maps that would take them in all the wrong directions. I was beginning to love that man and every devious bone in his body.

I rolled up my trousers and went to join Montegue, but before I could step into the pink waters, he reached out, lightly brushing the bruise on my ankle with his thumb. “Tender?” he asked softly. Proving, courting, pretending he cared. I am not a monster. No doubt preparing to show me in greater depth just how kind he could be.

I winced. “A little.” The stain produced by an overnight poultice of fruit skins and flower petals made for a colorful and very painful-looking bruise.

“But the soak should help. Thank you for being so thoughtful.”

“I want you healed and strong,” he said, his hand lingering on my ankle then sliding up my calf. “That’s what’s important. I noticed your limp was worse this morning.”

“It’s only stiff after a night of rest. I need to work it out. This will help.” The hot water might also make the stain disappear. A miraculous healing. I was sure even Montegue wouldn’t buy that. But he wasn’t likely to ever look at my ankle again after this moment. Soon, he wouldn’t care about my ankle at all.

I sat on the top step beside him, and he closed his eyes and breathed in the steam surrounding us—the strength of the gods. The veins in his neck were raised, and I wasn’t sure if it was from exhilaration or strain. I let out a pleased moan as if I was already feeling the curative action of the water. Twenty more minutes. And somewhere in that twenty, I had to kiss him one more time. Hold him.

“Did he make you promises?” he suddenly asked.

Promises? Surprise thumped in my chest. I couldn’t stay ahead of his thoughts. I didn’t have to ask who he was.

I shrugged, molding indifference across my lips. “If he did, I can’t remember.”

Montegue grabbed my upper arm, making me look at him. “Remember.” I nodded. “Yes.”

Truth. Jase promised me a lifetime with him. He promised a mountain full of trees and a family that would grow to love me again. He promised we would write our own story.

And I made promises too.

I stared at Montegue, letting his eyes look into my soul, command it, own it, get lost in it. Drown in the fantasy.

“On our return trip, he promised that I would grow to love him one day,” I said.

“And?” His eyes sank deeper into mine.

“He seemed so sure about everything. It made me wonder. Could I possibly grow to love a man I hated? I had been wrong about so many things. I had made so many mistakes.”

“But?”

An orange in the air.

“But some things are true. You feel them in your gut and can’t force them. You can’t—”

Another orange.

I reached out, my hands holding either side of his face. “Some things—” He leaned forward and his mouth met mine, then he pushed me back so we lay on the floor of the pavilion. His kisses were heated, hungry. True.

His fingers just as zealous, fumbling with my shirt.

My hands slid beneath his vest, across his chest, searching, hungry too.

His weight pressed down on me, pinning me beneath him. “Montegue,” I whispered. “The guards.”

“They aren’t watching.”

“They are,” I said. “They shouldn’t see the king like this. Maybe we should go on to Tor’s Watch. The office. It’s private.” I pushed against him.

He looked at me, his pupils shrinking to pinpoints, knowing I was right. The most powerful king on the continent, of course, should not be rutting like a buck in a forest.

He rolled off me and yelled to the back of one of the guards who dutifully pretended he didn’t know what was going on in the pavilion, “Get the children! We’re leaving.”

The guard left, and Montegue hurried to put on his boots. I did the same. He didn’t notice that my bruise had vanished. A piece of the fantasy filled his eyes instead—delivered by a thief.

 

 

By the time we were booted and belted and our cloaks were in place to leave, the guard came running back without the children. “They’re gone,” he said, his face ashen. “I can’t find them.”

“What?” I snapped, whipping around to fully face him. “Where—”

Montegue cut me off. “How can they be gone? Where’s the guard who was watching them?”

“I can’t find him either.”

I stormed down the steps. “What do you mean? How—”

“They have to be here,” Montegue said, looking out at the graveyard. “They must be hiding. Playing one of their games.”

“Lydia!” I called. “Nash! It’s time to go!”

The graveyard remained still. The guards, Montegue, and I all spread out, calling their names. Montegue’s voice grew angrier and louder the farther we went into the graveyard with no response.

“They were all at the wash when I left them,” I said, my tone sufficiently worried. “They have to still be there.”

But when the wash came into view, it was empty. I turned and faced Montegue, shoving him with my hands. “What did he do with them? Do you even know that guard?” I yelled. “Where is he?”

Montegue whirled and headed back for the pavilion, taking two of the guards with him. “Keep looking here!” he ordered over his shoulder, his cloak waving behind him. “We’ll check with the squads on the road. Maybe they tumbled down the embankment.”

Once he was gone, I told the remaining guard to search all the bushes near the base of the bluff. “I’ll go check the stand of sycamore at the far end.”

We parted ways, but before I reached the sycamore, I stooped at the base of a tall old spruce with thick, gnarled roots at its base, and pulled away the mounds of needles I had piled between them to hide the dead guard’s weapons. I replaced my dull sword and dagger with his very sharp ones, and added his short but deadly push knife to my belt.

“Lydia!”

“Nash!”

The calling continued in the distance. And then it became oddly silent.

I headed back toward the pavilion, prepared to ask for news and suggest we search Tor’s Watch next, but then I saw Montegue walking toward me. Slowly. Deliberately. Behind him was a squad of soldiers, and one of them held a launcher.

And walking just a step behind him was Dinah.

Blood drained to my feet. Nothing about this was right, but I kept walking forward, playing it out. Montegue’s face was hard, his chin lifted as

he looked down at me. Really seeing me. “Where are they?” he asked flatly.

Dinah shook her finger at me as the pitch in her voice rose higher with every word. “Her! It was her! She did it! Oleez told me! She said the children weren’t coming back. That we had to leave. But I had nothing to do with it! Nothing! I came as soon as I knew! I’m loyal to His Majesty. I’m—”

“Shut up!” Montegue ordered. But she didn’t shut up, and his hand swept backward, hitting her face and knocking her to the ground.

I stared at her, horrified. Dinah betrayed us? Stupid girl. What have you done? Oleez had been certain she could trust her and needed to bring her with when she escaped. Did Dinah think this would gain her favor with the king, or was she just hysterical with fear? She lay there whimpering, and Montegue turned back to me.

His jaw was rigid. All the passion that had consumed him just minutes ago was now channeled in a new direction. His attention dropped to my feet. “I see your limp is gone.”

I nodded. “A miraculous healing.”

His cheek twitched. “We can still work this out,” he said, making a poor effort to soften his voice. He had no intention of working it out. I saw the inner workings of his mind—he was an architect working on a new plan. “You were frightened for the children,” he continued. “I can understand that. I—”

“Really, Montegue? You would forgive me? How lucky I am. Because of course, you are not a monster, as you have told me so many times.”

His stance shifted at my sarcasm.

“How brave will you be now without children to shield you?” I asked. “Will you still ride freely among your adoring subjects?” I laughed just to rub it in, because I knew how much he hated disdain, and I wanted him to feel this moment all the way to his marrow.

He was immovable, a stone standing in front of me. “Where are they?” he repeated.

“Out of your clutches and far away by now,” I replied. “They have a good hour lead and a skilled soldier helping them. Lucius is quite

remarkable.” “Lucius?”

One of the guards behind him answered, “The soldier who was assigned to them.”

“He was in on it too,” I said. “See? I know your own soldiers better than you do. How many of those standing behind you right now are really on our side? How many of them might be aiming an arrow at your back even as I speak?”

Blink last. He knew the game too, and he resisted the urge to turn around, but I saw the flutter of his lashes and the doubt that swept through his eyes. He glanced at the dull, useless weapons at my side, already planning a new strategy.

As he eyed me, I eyed other things. In a split second I judged the positions of the soldiers behind him, two with arrows nocked, four with swords drawn, and four with halberds poised to charge. I eyed the soldier who aimed a launcher at me. He couldn’t fire it. He was in too close of range, and the blast would surely injure or kill the king as well. I noted the clouds passing overhead, and the shifting light and shadows, and when the sun might be in the soldiers’ eyes. I tried to remember how many steps to the wash behind me, and what trees, tombs, and gravestones stood in the path for cover, and then I tried to remember the steepness of the embankment along the road, and where the soldiers stationed below were positioned, and then the distance to the deep canyon just beyond it. Pivot. A new plan. It all flashed through my mind in a few short seconds. I had to decide whether it was viable, but it was obvious the odds were not in my favor. Not remotely. Not this time.

Montegue smiled as if he knew what I was thinking and stepped closer.

“There’s nowhere for you to go. Put your weapons down, and we’ll talk.”

A grin lit his handsome face, and his voice was warm. But I saw the flush at his temples, the tension in his shoulders, the rage that seethed in him. I would be thrown into a cell and left there to rot until he had wrung every bit of information out of me that he could. That was not an option either. I would never reveal where Lydia and Nash were.

His eyes drilled into me, judging the timing of his moves too. And then he lunged. Because he was stronger and could overtake me easily. Because he had the gods on his side.

But this time I didn’t have a pickle fork clutched in my hand. Beneath my cloak, I gripped something else in my fist.

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