Chapter no 45 – JASE

Vow of Thieves (Dance of Thieves, #2)

We sat on a long bench at one of the tables in the empty kitchen. Dinner was past, and we ate what was left of a big pot of venison soup. My mother insisted. Wren, Synové, Paxton, and I agreed we would make our plans as we ate, but then Mason came and sat down opposite me, then Titus and Samuel, until the whole family, even Gunner, was crowded around the table. Aram brought over a chair cushioned with pillows made from empty grain sacks stuffed with leaves for my mother. He whispered to me that her pregnancy hadn’t been easy. There had been bleeding, and Rhea had ordered her to stay off her feet. It was too soon for the baby to come.

There was awkward silence as we ate. The clink of spoons against metal bowls was the only sound.

“How many archers do we have?” I finally asked. Left. That was what I meant. How many had survived the attack.

“One,” Priya answered. “You may have seen him in the sickroom.”

One? We’d had sixteen archers stationed at Tor’s Watch. At any one time, we had as many as eight posted.

Priya told us about the pandemonium that struck the day the army blasted down the center tower of the main house and then the fortress wall. The posted archers had fought valiantly, and more came to fight beside them, but they had no chance against the powerful launchers. Their fight did buy time for those inside the gates, though. Mother had been in the garden, and had run to each of the houses, ordering everyone into the vault. Aunt Dolise had been in the kitchen and swept pantry staples and medicines into a bag. She and Uncle Cazwin were the last ones running for the vault when they were hit by rubble from another blast. Aram, Priya, and Drake dragged them and the supplies the rest of the way into the tunnel and then the door was sealed. They didn’t know where Trey and Bradach were. Our cousins had been in town visiting friends when the attack began. There had

been no sign of them since, and Priya assumed they were being hidden. At least she hoped that was what had become of them.

As we spoke, vault refugees filtered into the room—Tiago, Hawthorne, Judith, and more—perhaps curious about their returned Kbaaki Patrei, or eager to hear news from the outside, or maybe searching for hope. They settled in quietly, sitting on tables and chairs or leaning against walls.

My family took turns telling me details, but Gunner was noticeably silent. When there was a lull, Mason leaned forward and asked, “How? After everything she did to us, how did you end up with her?” His dark eyes skimmed Wren, Synové, and Paxton. And them. But he didn’t say it aloud.

Synové heard it just the same. Her spoon slipped from her hand and rattled against her bowl.

I told them everything, starting at the beginning with Beaufort and what I had learned on our long trek to Marabella. I spared no gruesome detail, especially the ultimate fate Beaufort and his crew planned for us, the details they took pleasure in torturing me with, including what they intended to do with Priya, Jalaine, and Mother once they had killed the rest of us. They needed to hear it too, to know the ugly specifics so they would fully grasp just what we had escaped. Beaufort had played the ultimate game of bait and switch on us, keeping our eye on one prize, while he prepared another one for us.

“There never was a cure,” my mother said quietly. I heard shame in her voice, like some part of her had known all along that it was too good to be true.

I shook my head. “No. The only thing awaiting us was another Ballenger massacre,” I said, then looked at Gunner and added, “If not for Kazi.” I knew he felt my gaze, even if he wouldn’t meet it.

“Once we made it to Marabella, Kazi spoke to the queen not just on my behalf, but on all of our behalves. She told her how Beaufort had first wheedled his way into our lives with his promise of a fever cure. She told the queen about Tor’s Watch’s place in history and our long stewardship of Hell’s Mouth. She told her how we had all pitched in and rebuilt the settlement at our own cost. The queen was very grateful—and curious about our world. She wanted to hear more, so I told her. When I was finished, she

and the King of Dalbreck made a proposal to me, an important proposal, and I accepted it.” I looked around the table and the room, making sure they were all listening.

“The Queen of Venda and the King of Dalbreck conferred, and they agreed that Hell’s Mouth should be returned to us. They also agreed we should be a recognized kingdom of the Alliance. The first kingdom,” I said.

“Because of Kazi,” Wren added.

“That’s just one of the many reasons Jase ended up with her,” Synové said, her tone bitter as she looked pointedly at Mason.

There was stunned silence.

And then some tears and disbelief. “A kingdom?”

“The first kingdom?”

I heard Kazi’s name on their lips as they sent up prayers. “A blessing from the gods…”

“The girl Kazi, watch over her.” “Keep her safe.”

“There’s more you should know,” Paxton interjected. It was the first time he had spoken up, but his cocky edge had returned, his hand chopping the air to make his point, his annoying habit of the past that always made me want to punch him. It didn’t anymore. He had some stored-up anger too. There was noticeable bristling on the other side of the table as he spoke. He was only being tolerated because of me, and the fact that my mother had publicly embraced him.

He told them things he hadn’t even told me yet. “She killed four men trying to save Jase from an ambush. I saw it happening as I raced to get there. It was the most horrible, frightening, and awe-inspiring thing I’ve ever seen, and any one of us can only pray that someday someone will love us as much as Kazi loved Jase to sacrifice everything, including her life. She stayed behind to fight more soldiers off after she sent his horse into the forest to give him time to get away from them. That’s when she was stabbed and captured. And then by sheer fortitude, because they were barely feeding her, she recovered, with the burning goal of saving Lydia and Nash next. And she did. She—”

“How?” Priya asked, her eyes drilling into Paxton. “Drake died trying to rescue them. We were afraid to try again, not until we had more help. We sent a messenger to Cortenai, the nearest kingdom, but there’s been no word. We’re not sure if the messenger even made it past the patrols. How could Kazi do this? She’s not a magician. How?

Paxton froze, his mouth hanging open as he stared back at Priya. He was oddly speechless.

“Before she was a soldier,” I intervened, “Kazi was an experienced thief. It’s what she’s good at. She stole Lydia and Nash from beneath the king’s nose and hid them.”

A thief?” several said at the same time. “Hid them where?” Priya asked cautiously. “She hid them in Sylvey’s empty crypt.” Horrified expressions circled the table.

“But…” my mother said, “the crypt isn’t empty.”

“Yes, I’m afraid it is, Mother,” I replied. And then I told them what I had done. What Kazi had known. What she had done to save them.

“You desecrated Sylvey’s tomb?” Titus asked. “Yes,” I answered.

There was another long uncomfortable silence, maybe as they tried to reconcile the lie I had perpetrated for all these years—the crime—with the fact it had saved Lydia and Nash. Maybe trying to absorb that Kazi had another life as a thief that they had known nothing about, or that she had murdered the guard, who now lay rotting in the sanctified Ballenger tomb. Or maybe that Sylvey was buried in an unhallowed grave high on the mountain. It was a lot to take in at once.

“A thief,” Mason said, still mulling it over. He knew she had been an orphan on her own since she was six, but I hadn’t told him how she had survived. I could see it all adding up in his eyes now.

My mother combed her fingers through her hair, her eyes squeezed shut. I knew the truth about Sylvey was an enormous blow to her. It wasn’t just that I had committed a serious crime, or that her daughter’s body was not resting in peace where she and my father had laid it, but that I had kept this lie a secret from them all for so long. She finally opened her eyes, folded

her hands in front of her on the table, and lifted her chin. “What’s done is done,” she said. “When this is all over, we’ll have a quiet ceremony at Breda’s Tears with a priest to consecrate Sylvey’s final resting place. This news will go no farther than this vault.” She looked around the room, steel in her eyes, as if she dared anyone to challenge her decision.

My mother, always moving forward. That’s what mattered. This led us back to her original question that brought us to the kitchen table. She wanted to know about my marriage.

I told her the same thing I had told Gunner, that we married weeks ago on our way back home. She asked for the details of the marriage. There weren’t many to tell, only a few about a ribbon, vows, and feastcake.

“And it was only the two of you,” she said. I nodded.

“They had horses for witnesses,” Samuel mused, the barest hint of a roll in his eyes.

“Mije and Tigone,” Wren clarified, her eyes pinning Samuel to his seat, and then flashing a glare at the still-silent Gunner. “Horses that are smarter and more loyal than most people I know.”

“And there was no priest,” my mother added, mostly to herself. I saw the glances around the table. No witnesses. No priest.

“But there was feastcake,” Synové said enthusiastically. “And nothing says married like a polished-off feastcake.”

She smacked her lips and smiled at Mason. He looked away.

My mother pressed her palms together in front of her. “But vows were spoken?”

“Yes,” I answered.

She leaned back and nodded. “Very well, then. I not only have a new daughter, but one who has sacrificed everything to save our family. We must find a way to get my daughter and your wife back.”

The room remained silent. Instead of a rallying cry, I only heard hushed despair. They had already tried and failed with Lydia and Nash.

I stood. “We’re not defeated unless we give up. We are going to be a kingdom—and we’re going to rescue my wife because she has risked everything for us and time is running out for her.”

“I can still lift a sword,” Tiago called from the back of the room. “So can I!” from Judith and others.

“We can storm the inn!” from someone else. “An ambush!”

“We’ll break her out!” “Poison their water!”

“Blast our way in with your weapon!”

The room came alive with ideas, but few inside these walls had seen the town and what we were up against. A charging brigade of cooks and caretakers, and even a fierce but injured straza, was no match for heavily armed soldiers posted on every rooftop. Not to mention there were all the townspeople, whom we couldn’t put at risk. We had to find a way to get to Kazi without killing citizens in the process. And getting her killed too. Blasting our way in would likely do just that.

Synové and Wren glanced at me, hearing the futility of the suggestions. Gunner stood up. “We could make a trade.” The room quieted.

“Trade what?” Priya asked. “A bag of sour grain?”

“Me,” he answered. “As far as they know, I’m the Patrei. I’m sure they’d like to get their hands on me. They want to kill all the Ballengers. Why not give them the top one?”

I stared at him. We all knew it wouldn’t work. He probably did too. I had already wrestled with the thought myself. I shook my head. “If they were people of their word, maybe, but they’re not. With the gross imbalance of power, the logistics of a trade are impossible. They would take you and keep Kazi too. A noble gesture, though.” I heard the bitterness in my voice. I would not show him gratitude when he had brought this about. Now that he knew we were going to be a kingdom he was sorry? I couldn’t forgive him for what he had done.

More ideas continued to be thrown out, none of them viable. It was getting late, time running out, and my gut churned as I ruled out each one. I felt desperation taking hold inside me. We needed to find a solution now. I needed to think and rethink. I had to retrace every step. Think of every possibility. Don’t go doing something crazy, Caemus had warned me, but maybe that was exactly what I needed to do, something that no one would

expect. I told everyone to go turn in, we’d talk more in the morning. But I had no intention of sleeping—not until I figured out a way to get Kazi back.



I stared at the shimmering red votive. The alcove at the end of the entrance tunnel had been made into a prayer niche. When Wren and Synové started to follow me here, I told them I needed some time alone to think. They went off with Paxton into their own corner to do some thinking.

My initial idea of using my weapon to get more weapons was fine for fighting an army but only begged for disaster when it came to rescuing Kazi. I couldn’t shoot any guards holding her without killing her too. I couldn’t blast my way in without endangering her, and we had no way of knowing exactly where they held her. Paxton said it could be anywhere in the inn, from cellar to attic, or even at the arena. We would only know exactly where she was when they marched her out on the skywalk to be hanged. I considered the idea of a trade again. Me. Yes, they would keep us both, but at least I would be with her. But what if they held me somewhere else, and I wasn’t with her at all?

I had knelt when I reached the niche. I had planned to pray when I got there, but every prayer had already been wrung from me. I sat back on my heels and stared at the prayer candle, thinking of all the vows I had made, the priest marking my forehead with ashes. Sanctifying—

There was no priest?

I knew that would disturb my mother. The Ballengers had traditions.

Births, deaths, weddings. Priests were part of them all.

I had warned Kazi this would happen. She had been sitting on my stomach eating berries, occasionally slipping one into my mouth, her finger lingering, tracing my lips.

You know, I had told her, my mother will expect us to marry again in the temple.

She had popped another berry in my mouth and frowned. Why? A Vendan wedding isn’t good enough for you Ballengers?

I had pulled her toward me, and the berries in her hand spilled to the ground. What’s wrong with getting married again? I would marry you a

hundred times over.

She kissed me, berry juice still on her lips. Only a hundred? she asked.

A thousand times.

She pulled away, her brow raised, and she looked down at me, her interest suddenly roused. Would there be feastcake each time?

Mountains of it, I promised.

She laughed and swooped down to nibble my ear. Then I suppose we shall marry in the temple.

But the temple was no longer there.

“A thousand times over, Kazi,” I whispered. “I would marry you more than a thousand times.”

The scuffle of footsteps jarred me from a windswept wilderness back into the musty dark tunnel. It was Gunner.

I stood.

His eyes were red. He shook his head but was silent, like words were dammed up inside him.

“Go on,” I said. “Say what you have to say and leave me alone.”

He swallowed. “I’m sorry, Jase. I’m sorry.” His voice was barely a whisper.


He stepped forward, his arms reaching out, and he clutched me. My shirt pulled as he grabbed fistfuls of cloth in his fingers. I reluctantly lifted my arms and held him as he cried. My oldest and toughest brother sobbed in my arms, and I didn’t know what world I was in anymore.

His chest shuddered as he tried to explain and then he pulled away, shaking his head again as if ashamed, but now the words poured out like he couldn’t stop them. He said I was right, that he didn’t listen, but he thought I was dead, and he was so angry and tired and busy. These past weeks had been hard—every day someone dying, digging graves in the greenhouse, hunting, just trying to keep everyone fed, sneaking down to town for more medicine, almost getting caught, not knowing how they would ever get Lydia and Nash back.

“And Jalaine—” He choked on her name. “If I hadn’t put her back on at the arena. If I—” He slid against the wall to the floor, clutching his skull,

sobbing again. “I can’t get the image out of my head, watching her fall.”

I closed my eyes, trying to shut out the horror of the image. Gunner’s sobs tore through me like they were my own. I joined him on the floor and he told me when Kazi appeared, he blocked out everything she said. He didn’t want to listen. He only wanted revenge. “I was wrong, Jase. And I know ten of me isn’t worth one of her, but I would trade my life for hers if I could.”

“I know,” I answered. “I’m sorry too, brother.” He wasn’t the only one carrying a load of guilt, or the only one who had made mistakes. Priya was right. I had let hatred rule my head. Gunner judged too quickly. So had I.

He wiped his face and looked at me. His eyes were wide and he looked slightly demented. “I have an idea,” he said. “It probably won’t work. It’s crazy, but what else do we have?”

Crazy? We had nothing else.

“It involves pulleys. They’re still there.” I knew exactly what he was suggesting. “But we have no rope.”

His face lit up. “Wrong. We have enough rope to tie up all of Hell’s Mouth twice. Overstock in the storeroom.”

I leaned back against the wall beside him, my mind spinning. It was crazy.

Catch them off guard. Take them by surprise, Aleski.

It might work.

That was what we would do.

Shifty, a thief, a trick of the eyes.

I knew the answer to Kazi’s riddle. And mine.

Me thought they were gone. Me thought it was safe. But more scavengers always come. Miandre went to the forest for herbs and they took her. They won’t give her back. Now, she shouts at the gate with them. Calls us names. She is one of them now. But she is not. I have seen her look back over her shoulder at me. I see her eyes. She wonders when we will come for her. Soon, I want to tell her. The next time they come we will be hiding in the forest. Waiting. The others say it is impossible. The scavengers are bigger than us and too many. I tell them, there is always a way to make the impossible, possible. We will find that way. I pray that I am right.

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