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Chapter no 39 – JASE

Vow of Thieves (Dance of Thieves, #2)

I landed on top of him and then we were both rolling, slugging, and wrestling for control over each other.

“Dammit!” he yelled. “Get off me, you stupid Kbaaki!”

Almost as fast as I had leapt, I heard Wren cursing and Synové ordering me back. “I have him! Back off!” She was ready to shoot an arrow between his weasel eyes.

And then I pinned him, my knee on his chest, my hands wrapped around his throat.

“Stop!” he rasped, pulling at my fingers. “I should have done this a long time ago.”

His eyes widened, not because I was choking him but because he recognized my voice.

He stared at me like I was the mythical beast of the Moro mountains. “Jase? You stupid bastard! Let me go!”

“Get some answers first,” Wren said. “Then kill him.”

But before I could ask him anything, he started giving me answers to questions I hadn’t even asked.

“It was me, you idiot! I was the one who took you to the settlement! I’m the one who took your ring!”

My grip on him loosened. I didn’t know who took me to the settlement, but I was certain it wasn’t him. He was up to something. “What game are you playing now, Paxton?”

I let him push me off. He rolled away, crouched on his knees, and grabbed his bleeding mouth. “Devil’s hell! That’s the second time you’ve done this to me! If I lose this tooth—” I saw his tongue fishing around in his mouth. He spit out blood.

“You think I care about your teeth? All I care about—”

His head turned sharply, his eyes blazing like a demon. “Shut up! Do you hear me? Shut up and listen! I don’t have time to explain! Kazi’s here, somewhere on this blasted mountain, running like me! Trying to get to the vault. But she’s hurt, and I don’t know how bad. Things went wrong. We stole Lydia and Nash!”

 

 

In this steep terrain, two riders were too much for one horse, so I walked next to Paxton, leading Mije behind us while he told me everything he knew. He dabbed his split lip from time to time with one of those ridiculous monogrammed handkerchiefs of his. For the first hour I couldn’t shake my distrust of him. It was ingrained in me. But I forced myself to listen. He knew secrets no one else knew—things Kazi had told him about us. She had told him about Sylvey’s empty crypt. She trusted him, so I tried to trust him too, but it didn’t come easy. He told me he was strong-armed by the king to work the arena, but he didn’t do it just to save his own skin. He confirmed that the king was behind the attacks and invasion. Paxton wanted to find a way to break his stranglehold on the town—working from the inside instead of the outside.

Why? I thought. Why did he want to help us?

“Isn’t the arena what you’ve always wanted?” I asked, still skeptical.

He looked sideways at me, his eyes angry slits again. “The arena? Sure, I wanted it. But not so much that I would steal it from my—” He stopped short, avoiding the word. The word didn’t fit between us. Family. We might be blood cousins, but we were more like comfortable adversaries. I had grown used to him as an annoying thorn in my side.

“You don’t know anything about me, Jase,” he continued. “There’s lots of things I want. Right now I just want to make sure Kazi’s safe and get those power-hungry devils out of Hell’s Mouth. The rest I’ll figure out later.” Protect. Sometimes I forgot he was a Ballenger too.

It seemed impossible that we had a mutual goal now.

He told me he used my ring to fake my death. That was why they stopped looking for me. “Kazi took it hard, but it was the only way I could get them to call off the search. And to be honest, I wasn’t sure if I could

trust her. She turned on me one day and held a blade to my throat, sobbing that I had hunted you down like an animal. I’m pretty sure she intended to kill me. When I confessed that you were alive, she collapsed in my arms. That’s when I knew for sure, that nothing between you two had been a farce.”

His voice changed when he talked about her. He liked her, respected her maybe. It was a side to him I had never seen. “She told me you were what had kept her going when she wanted to give up. Something about promises you had made to each other and hearing your voice telling her to keep going

—just a little farther. And that’s what she did.”

I swallowed. Cleared my throat. I remembered shouting those words out in anger and desperation as I held her chin up and we floated wildly down the river. I had shouted them to an enemy because my survival had been completely entwined with hers by a chain. Now I couldn’t survive without her for a different reason.

As Paxton and I climbed the mountain on foot, Wren and Synové spread out, trying to cover as much ground as we could, Synové riding ten lengths to one side, Wren ten on the other when the terrain allowed it, all of us looking for any signs that Kazi had passed this way.

Paxton said both he and Kazi knew there was another entrance to the vault but didn’t know exactly where it was. All Paxton’s grandfather had passed on was that it was in a cave, which left a lot of mountain to cover. Kazi was going to question the children for more specifics before she left them in the tomb, but he didn’t know what she had found out.

I wasn’t sure how much they remembered anyway. My mother and I took them there about a year ago. Nash had been fascinated with the bats. He would remember that much, I was sure. And I remembered Lydia reciting, left, left, right, left, determined not to forget the paths in the caves.

“You’re sure Lydia and Nash made it to the settlement?” I asked.

Paxton nodded. “The tomb was empty. I went back late that same night to be sure. Binter and Cheu took them. They left a mark so I would know it was them.”

His straza. I remembered them well. They didn’t just have brawn. They were sharp and crafty and as nasty as scorpions. Not much could stop them.

Tiago had once said we should try to hire them. But they were loyal too. Paxton had chosen well.

He told me that Oleez had been in on it too and had gone into hiding. I realized then that it was her that the soldiers had been searching for. Dinah, a girl who had worked in our kitchen, had betrayed them. That was how things spun out of control.

“You said Kazi was hurt. How?”

“Not hurt bad enough that she couldn’t run, but she was blasted off the road above the canyon. She fell a long way. For a while she was leaving a trail of blood.”

“Blasted?”

“They tried to stop her with a launcher.”

Those were the sounds we heard three days ago. Montegue was hunting down Kazi with weapons we had created.

Paxton said it wasn’t until the next morning that they caught on to his involvement and he had to run. He tried to leave hints that he was headed back to Ráj Nivad. “There’s a price on her head. Probably mine now too. Montegue will do anything to get her back. Besides stealing Nash and Lydia, she stole something else of his—”

“Found something over here!” Wren called, waving us over.

Tracks. Muddy boot prints on a slab of rock. They were Kazi’s, I had no doubt. Wren and Synové agreed.

We increased our pace, but saw nothing else for another hour, until we were almost there, and then on the ground, almost covered in a litter of leaves, I spotted a torn piece of fabric. “Over here!” I called. I picked it up and rubbed the fabric between my fingers. It was thin and stained with blood. Synové took it from me and examined it. She smiled. “Her chemise,” she said. “She’s using it for a bandage of some sort. She made it this far.”

Then she made it all the way. The entrance was just a little farther ahead. I bent over, my hands on my knees. I closed my eyes, sucking in deep breaths. Everything inside me had squeezed tight.

“Keep going, Patrei?” Wren asked.

I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. How many weeks had I been waiting for this moment, afraid it would never come? All the days in the

root cellar, the wondering that drove me mad, the fear that I would never get the chance to hold her in my arms again, or tell her how much I loved her. Tell her how sorry I was that I hadn’t been careful, that when I saw the fallen spire, I ran toward my family instead of thinking of the family at my side.

I blew out a cleansing breath. The waiting was over, but before I could straighten or even open my eyes, Paxton nudged my arm. “We have visitors.”

 

 

Our path was blocked ahead.

“Those some of the mountain creatures you told us about?” Synové asked. “They don’t look too friendly. Do I start shooting?”

But two of them already had arrows drawn, and Synové had a good ten steps to reach her bow and quiver on her horse. The advantage was theirs.

I counted four, but they blended into the forest, covered with dirt and leaves and fauna so it was hard to tell how many more might be surrounding us. But the stance of one of them caught my attention. It was familiar. The way his legs were planted, the chin tilted, obstinate. Gunner?

“Gunner!” I called. He shook his head, bewildered.

He stared at me for a long while and finally answered, “Jase?

“Yes! It’s me!” I threw off my fur hat so he could see my hair, and ran toward him and the others.

They called my name over and over again, and then when I reached them, their hands were touching my face as if making sure it was really me. Priya, Mason, Titus, Aram, all of them hugged me, and then I was back to Gunner again.

“You’re supposed to be dead,” he said, his voice filled with confusion. His gaze shifted to Wren and Synové, who were walking up behind me with the horses. They had pulled their fur hats free too. Paxton walked with them. Mason, Priya, and Aram lifted their bows again. The joy drained from their faces. “What are you doing with them?” Gunner asked.

“Put your weapons down. They’re helping me. Where’s Kazi? Is she inside?” I asked.

“Them? Helping you? What’s the matter with you, Jase?” Gunner said, his question thick with suspicion. “Where have you been?”

“Where’s Kazi?” I asked again.

“Gone. We don’t have to worry about her anymore.” “What do you mean gone? Was she here?”

“She was, but we got rid of her. I threw her into one of their snares, and a patrol grabbed her. I was going to kill her immediately, but this way is actually better. Let her body rot up on the tembris like all the others.”

I stared at him, not believing what he had just told me. I grabbed fistfuls of his shirt. “Tell me you’re lying, brother. Tell me you’re lying before I kill you!”

“Did you forget what she did to us? How she used us? She deserves what she got! How could you not know that?”

“How long ago?” I asked, desperately praying there was still time to go after her.

“Hours. This morning. She’s in a cell by now. Or maybe hanging already if we’re lucky.”

I shook my head. “No. No! She came here for help! Did you listen to her?”

“Why would I listen to anything she said? That’s what started all this! Listening to her lies! You listening to her lies! She’s been helping the king, for gods’ sakes! She earned her fate. What’s the matter with you?”

“Did you even give her a chance? She came to you! To the family! Did she tell you I was alive?”

“Yes, but—”

“That she was forced to say those things about me? That Lydia and Nash were safe?”

He didn’t answer, but his eyes were hard beads staring into mine. She had told him.

“You’re a fool, Gunner! A stubborn fool who never listens! Who doesn’t think before he acts! And this time you’ve gone too far!”

He jammed his hands against my chest, pushing me away. “What’s happened to you? Working with them and defending her against the family? I don’t even know who you are!”

I slammed him up against a tree, my hand around his throat, feeling like I could snap his neck with one squeeze. “I am the Patrei! And you will help me get her back or—”

“Or what, Jase? What are you going to do? I am your brother!” My chest heaved. “And Kazi is my wife!”

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