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Chapter no 35 – JASE

Vow of Thieves (Dance of Thieves, #2)

“Did you hear that?” Wren asked.

I had just finished doling out coins for the stable master when the faint noise rumbled.

“Thunder,” the stable master called after us as we walked out the door. When we reached the yard where Synové was waiting with the horses,

she looked up at the sky and asked, “What was that?” Her brow was riddled with suspicion.

“Not thunder,” I answered. There was a crack to it—a hard, snapping sound I recognized. A launcher. But it was somewhere in the distance, not here in town. Soldiers practicing? Or were they destroying more of my home, trying to wipe out all evidence of the Ballengers?

As we rode our horses to the west artery out of town, we could see there was some sort of commotion going on. Soldiers were running with weapons drawn, bursting into businesses on the boardwalks, searching for something. Down the smaller avenues, I could see them doing the same with homes. When we reached the end of the artery, it was blocked. There was a throng of people pressing toward the guards, wanting answers. I got off my horse, keeping my hat low and my head down, and pushed my way through the crowd to where the soldiers stood behind a blockade.

“Wez do not live here,” I explained. “Wez need to go.”

“Nobody’s leaving. Town’s shut down. Come back in a few hours. The roads should be open by then.”

“But—”

“Move along!” he ordered, pressing his halberd to my chest. I carefully backed away.

We tried to get out through the other arteries, but they were all blocked too. There was a tight net around the town. Synové asked a shopkeeper what the soldiers were searching for. She wouldn’t answer, especially to

strangers like us. Everyone in town had grown accustomed to being very tight-lipped, but then we heard a soldier pounding on a door, and when the elderly man who lived there opened it, the soldier had to repeat himself twice so the aged man could hear. They were searching for an older woman with gray hair.

“Have you seen her? She’s missing.”

The old man shook his head, but they searched his house anyway.

What had she done to make them shut down the entire town? Whatever it was, I hoped it cost them plenty, and I applauded her bravery. We checked back in a few hours later. The roads were still closed. Even I could see, there was no getting through. Whoever this woman was, she was trapped and would be found—unless she had escaped already. I prayed for the latter. I wasn’t the only one furious with our plight. There was grumbling among the townsfolk who had business at the arena, but they knew better than to grumble too much. Instead they went about decorating the town, like docile pets, but I knew what it really meant. They had heard the promise from Aleski. By the end of the day, every storefront had garlands woven of herbs, hay, or greenery. It was time to celebrate the birth of the

gods—and, soon, the bloody departure of the king.

We took our horses back to the livery and used the time to study the town. Just as Imara had told us, there were twelve rooftop guards armed with launchers at the center plaza. Another two on skywalks. And one on a recently erected platform that was used for announcements—and hangings. There were no hanging bodies now, but empty nooses still dangled from the tembris. Altogether in the plaza alone, there were fifteen guards with launchers who could see every move we made. Along each avenue there were another two to three on skywalks, and at every entrance into town, another three or four.

“By my count, we’ve got sixty-four of those badass bruisers up there,” Wren said. I wasn’t sure if she was talking about the soldiers or the launchers, but either way, my count was the same. On the streets there were about the same amount of troops, though they were harder to count because they were always moving. The ground troops were armed with only the usual types of weapons, perhaps in case any crazed townsperson got ideas

about commandeering one of those launchers—which was probably on the mind of every single person in the city.

Aleski had estimated about a hundred and thirty soldiers were on duty at all times. There were more posted at the arena and Tor’s Watch, plus a special detail assigned just to the king and his officers. Lothar estimated the entire forces were somewhere between four and five hundred. The Ballengers had about half that many with employees alone, and a town of thousands that would fight on our side. The king’s army could easily be taken down—if not for the weapons. They trumped any power I could muster. The king held the winning cards.

And Lydia and Nash.

Aleski said Oleez was looking after them, and now of course, Kazi was too. My mother was probably wild with worry, but Lydia and Nash knew what to do. They had been schooled. Wait it out. Play along the way Miandre did. Help will come. But they were so young—younger than she had been. And more innocent. My fingers curled into a fist.

Know your enemies as well as you know your allies. Know them better.

Make their business yours.

But I hadn’t known the king was an enemy. Neither had my father. And now it seemed that was exactly how he planned it. Neither of us ever suspected he was working with Beaufort. Our eyes and suspicions were always on hungry league leaders and new players who wanted to make a name for themselves—like the ones who had murdered Mason’s parents. Them, we paid attention to. We made their business ours.

The king was only a farmer to us, and not even a good one. We had no reason to suspect him. We might as well have been told that horses could fly, and that was what he was counting on. For how long? Beaufort had been with us for a year, so he had to be scheming long before that.

I could count on one hand the number of times Montegue and I had met face-to-face. He rarely came to Hell’s Mouth and then only stayed for a handful of days, and now I wondered if that was by design too. Could he only keep up the charade for so long?

The first time we ever met was when we were children and my father gave his father a brief tour of the arena. I couldn’t remember much about

that encounter except that Montegue was a few years older than me and gawky, all elbows and angles and constantly tripping over his own feet. His hair was a mess too. Always in his eyes. Everything about him was disheveled. I’m not sure we even spoke.

Maybe that encounter had cemented my image of him. But for the most part, I had forgotten he even existed until years later, when his father died and he was crowned the new king. It wasn’t until a year after that he finally showed up in Hell’s Mouth.

By then we were the same height.

“So you finally found your way up here,” my father had said. “I wasn’t sure you’d ever come, but then your father rarely did either.”

Montegue had mumbled a few words about harvests, then mentioned the collected taxes being short.

“I’m afraid that’s all you’re getting, boy,” my father answered. “It takes a lot to run a city. If you need more, you’re going to have to work for it like everyone else.”

Boy. Montegue didn’t flinch but I remember his eyes shifted to me. I thought he wasn’t quite sure who I was. “Jase Ballenger,” I said.

“I know who you are. We met nine years ago.”

His response had surprised me. I wondered about it at the time. I had changed dramatically since I was a seven-year-old—by over a hundred pounds, two feet, and a lot more muscle. Had he asked someone who I was? But that would mean he was watching me from afar.

I should have paid attention to that detail, but he smiled and shrugged, forgetting about the taxes, and said he needed to be on his way. The fields wouldn’t plant themselves.

The next time I saw him was in Parsuss. I’d gone with Mason and Titus to talk to the new Valsprey handler in the kingdom message office—to work out a side deal with him. Commerce was growing at the arena, and we needed faster communications with merchants in other kingdoms. Montegue had just been leaving an inn, a spot of spilled gravy staining his tunic, when our paths crossed. He had asked how things fared in Hell’s Mouth, motioning his hand in entirely the wrong direction.

“North,” I said. “Hell’s Mouth is north.”

“Which is that way,” Mason added, pointing.

Montegue chuckled. “Easy mistake.” And then he asked about taxes again.

“They’re not due until the end of the year,” I answered. “You do know when that is, don’t you?”

“Send them along early, will you? Funds are short.”

We left without saying good-bye. And we didn’t send the taxes early.

I only saw him periodically after that, mostly just in the last year or so. He seemed to come to the arena every few months, chasing after some new losing venture. He never mentioned taxes again. His mind was on his new endeavors. And now I knew those endeavors didn’t include farming.

Wren grabbed my arm. The ground vibrated, and we both froze.

“Out of the way!” a soldier yelled as he turned the curve and galloped toward us. “Out of the way!”

A carriage came rumbling just behind him, and Wren and I jumped to the side. Soldiers on horses pounded along beside it. I fought for a glimpse inside, but it went by too fast. It stopped in front of the Ballenger Inn. There were urgent shouts, commotion, orders to open the door, but I could only see a huddle of cloaks and hoods rush into the inn.

Once all the soldiers were gone and the carriage was standing empty, I went and peeked inside. The seat was covered with blood.

For two more days, the town remained shut down without explanation, and I was torn between wanting to leave and wanting to stay. I didn’t know who the blood belonged to, but during those two days, I never saw a single glimpse of Kazi, or Nash, or Lydia. Or the king.

When the roads finally opened again, I knew I had to go. It was the hardest thing I ever had to do—to leave them behind when I knew they were here. But this was not something I could do alone. I needed help. I needed the family.

Before I left, I pulled the red ribbon from my saddlebag and tied it to a garland wrapped around a post outside the Ballenger Inn.

“Hey, what are you doing there?” a soldier called, waving me away. “For yours festival, no? Showing support of town? Shall I takes down?” “No,” he answered. “That’s fine. You can leave it.”

I finished tying it off and left. If Kazi saw it, she would know I was alive, and I was here, and help was coming.

Do not pass a rose without stopping to smell it.

It is a gift that may not always be there.

I think that is what my mother had said about roses.

All these years later, it comes to me, as I sharpen our spears.

I have not seen a rose since the day she said it. I cannot even remember what they look like anymore.

I’m not sure why she thought a rose was important.

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