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Chapter no 56 – JASE

Vow of Thieves (Dance of Thieves, #2)

It was beginning to look like the formidable arsenal we had always envisioned. More than enough to protect caravans from raiders. Nine launchers were laid out on the table, and beside them were a stack of loads. Twenty-eight, which translated into a hundred and twelve shots. That was a lot of damage and firepower.

But it wasn’t enough.

Paxton had tempered our elation quickly. “The king has a warehouse of munitions—thousands of loads—plus two hundred more launchers and enough soldiers to carry every one of them. The only reason he’s been guarding the town with a handful is because he can. He made a show when he roared in that first day, blowing up everything, and it worked. Everyone has a healthy respect for his power now.”

“You mean a healthy fear.” I stared at our stack of ammunition. My fingers tightened around the back of the chair. “We’ll get more, then,” I said. “Enough to make our own show. Where does he keep it?”

That was the question Paxton had been trying to answer since all this began. The king and Banques kept it a closely guarded secret. It was somewhere at the arena, he knew that much. Kazi had told Paxton to check warehouse seventy-two—the number that was on the piece of paper she had stolen from the king, but Paxton never got the chance to go there.

“Seventy-two is near the end of the third row. We could approach at night from behind through the pastureland,” Priya suggested.

“Getting to it is one thing,” I countered. “Hauling out thousands of pounds of munitions is another. I’ve been to the arena, and it’s crawling with guards, and our towers are manned with more of them. They can see everything.”

“Then we don’t haul it out,” Aram said. “We just commandeer the warehouse and claim it as our own. We have enough arms to defend it. If

it’s out of their hands, their power is gone.”

“Until they blow you to kingdom come, the same way we did with the icehouse,” Mason said. “They still have enough loaded launchers to do that.”

“Or we could blow up the munitions ourselves,” I suggested. “It would be an even fight then.”

“Even? He has five hundred trained soldiers,” Paxton said. “Mercenaries,” I corrected. “Their loyalty only goes as far as a full bag

of coins. On our side we have citizens prepared to take back their home.” “We could do it,” Judith said. Tiago and a few others echoed her

enthusiasm.

I watched Aram and Titus scan the room, sizing up our motley group in the vault. Several, like Tiago, were injured. Paxton still had an arm in a sling so he wouldn’t tear loose the stitches in his side. Their spirits might be willing, but their ability to fight was in question.

“There’s more in town who would gladly fight with us,” Aleski said as if he’d read my thoughts.

“Hundreds more,” Imara confirmed. “It won’t take long to get them organized. Every one of them is hiding some sort of weapon, whether it’s a sword, club, or hoe. We can—”

“Jase?”

I turned and saw Gunner walking toward me carrying Kazi. She was limp in his arms. I ran and took her from him. “What did you do?”

“Nothing, I swear. We were walking in the tunnel and her eyes rolled back and I caught her before she fell.”

The healer rushed over and felt Kazi’s head, and then her wrist. “What’s wrong?” I asked, trying to make sure she was breathing.

“Shhh, Patrei. Her pulse is steady. It’s only exhaustion and a full stomach that have overtaken her. Whatever she has been through in these last few days, you can be certain sleep was not part of it. The agony of the ashti is consuming. She needs rest. That is all.”

 

 

 

There will be times you won’t sleep, Jase.

Times you won’t eat.

Times you wish the world would stop for just one day.

This was one of those times.

I had stared at the ceiling for most of the night, except for when I was staring at Kazi. She slept soundly, her face serene. She needs rest. That is all. What had she been through these past days? As tired as I was, the question kept me awake. I knew she had only told me a small part of what she had endured. When I asked about Zane, she shook her head, and I saw fear return to her eyes. He still had a hold on her past, but now he knew it and had reopened the wound to his advantage. She said he threatened her with lies about her mother.

When I asked about Montegue she told me he was a power-obsessed monster, then added, But other than power, he was mostly obsessed with you, Jase. He remembered every detail of your first meeting when you were both children. I guessed we had that in common now, but I was obsessed with him in an entirely different way, and I was more interested in our final meeting, one I hoped to arrange soon. She told me how he had taunted her, and put a chain around her neck like she was an animal. Some things she couldn’t even say. Later, she said. I promise. But I saw the pain in her eyes. I wanted to kill him. That’s all I wanted to do. But I had a lot of other things I had to do too. Like keep everyone in here alive.

You’ll be torn a hundred ways … Remember that you have a family, a history, and a town to protect. It is both your legacy and your duty. If the job of Patrei were easy, I would have given it to someone else.

I rolled over and looked at her again. Right now the only job I wanted was to be Kazi’s husband. A good one. A husband who only made the right decisions. I never had a chance to ask my father about being a good husband. At his deathbed vigil, it was the last thing on my mind. Now some of the questions I had asked seemed far less important. There was still time to ask my mother, though, and I would. They’d had a good marriage. They had never hid their affections for each other from their children. More than once we had caught them on the stairs, in the kitchen, or in the gardens, in a passionate embrace. Priya would roll her eyes and ask, When will they get

over it? Maybe that was one of his secrets. Through all the hardships, the losses, the setbacks, he courted her until the day he died.

And now he had a baby coming that he would never see. It would be up to the rest of us to pass along his memory to our new brother or sister.

My mother had insisted on bunking in the study with Priya, so Kazi and I had the snug little room to ourselves. I warned everyone not to come banging on the door, not even with offers of food. We would come out when Kazi woke and not before. While she slept I had scrubbed my face clean, the rag turning the water in the bucket to a dark murky blue, and then I carefully removed the ring from my brow to return to Jurga. I didn’t want Kazi to wake to a face she wasn’t familiar with again. I slid my arm over her middle, tugging her a little closer, my lids finally heavy. Her body was warm against mine, and I fell into a deep sleep. I didn’t know how long I had slept when I felt a weight on my chest.

“Kisav ve, ra tazerem.” Kiss me, my husband.

Warm fingers raked through my hair. A knuckle brushed my cheekbone.

I opened my eyes. Kazi looked down at me, the candle barely illuminating her face.

“You’re awake,” I whispered. “You should be sleeping.”

“I’ve slept for hours. So have you. I don’t want to sleep anymore.” A worried crease pulled between her brows. “I want to know that this isn’t a dream. I want to know that this is real.”

She brought her face close to mine, our lips barely meeting.

“It’s real,” I whispered. I felt something wet fall on my cheek. I reached up and brushed my thumb beneath her eye. “Kazi, it’s all right. I promise it’s real.”

I rolled to the side so that now she was lying beneath me. “You’re here in the vault, with me, in my arms. We’re together, and we will stay together, no matter what.”

Her eyes glistened in the candlelight, fixed on mine as if she were afraid to look away.

“Kiss me, Jase. Hold me. Whisper to me. Touch me.”

She tugged part of my shirt free from my trousers, and I sat back, my knees straddling her hips. I pulled my shirt over my head. Her shirt came

next. I kissed her. I held her. I whispered to her. I touched her.

I understood her fear.

We held on to each other like it was the first time.

My lips grazed her skin, tracing her shoulders, the hollow of her neck, the small dip between her ribs, savoring every part of her, the warmth of her touch, her whispers, and the shiver of her breaths. And then my lips traveled up again to meet hers. I pulled her close, my breath shuddering in my chest, the scent of her skin reaching deep inside me, her breaths beating at my temple, and then, when my lips trembled against hers, she pulled me impossibly closer and whispered against them, “I love you, Jase Ballenger, and I will for all of my days.”

 

 

 

We lay next to each other, our energy spent. Her head nestled in the crook of my shoulder, and her fingers skimmed circles on my chest. We didn’t talk about the last few days, but recounted our days in the wilderness when we first met instead. I sensed she needed memories that would fill her up instead of drain her. Maybe I did too. A reminder of what I was fighting for, a normalcy I hadn’t felt since a skeleton bird fell from the sky. We talked. We disagreed. We remembered. We laughed. It was the first time I had laughed since we’d been separated.

And then, after a long silence, she said, “I failed miserably last night, didn’t I? I don’t know how to be a daughter or a sister in a family like yours, Jase. I never know what to say or do.”

“No one expects you to be anyone but who you are, and right now everyone thinks you’re a hero. I’d run with that if I were you.”

She sighed. “It was awkward around the table. You’re all a finely tuned machine, and I’m the oddly shaped cog that doesn’t fit.”

“You think we’re all alike? I’m as different from Gunner as he is from Priya as she is from Mason. We’re a family, that’s all, Kazi, one that has grown together. You may not see all the seams or gaps, but they’re there, just like with you, Wren, and Synové. There are just more of us. It tends to camouflage a lot.”

“But you have all that history together.”

“That doesn’t erase who we are individually, or how you fit in. A family’s not a puzzle with a set number of pieces. It’s more like a well—the fuller, the better.”

“Unless someone steals a bucket or two. You told them, didn’t you?” That she was a thief.

How she knew I didn’t know, but Kazi could interpret even the smallest glance.

I sighed. “I wasn’t keeping it from you, Kazi. I swear. There’s just been so much going on that—”

“I know, Jase. I know. We still have a lot to catch up on.” “They hardly flinched when I told them.”

I winced. Hardly flinched was not the most bolstering of word choices. “I haven’t told them you’re ambassador yet. There’s still that?”

A smirk pulled at the corner of her mouth. “Thank goodness for small surprises.”

 

 

 

It was later than I thought when we finally emerged from our small enclave. With no windows in the vault, it was hard to tell day from night, which was why everyone spent at least part of the day in the greenhouse. The small circle of cave-top light infused some sense of order and sanity into the days. Kazi sat with Wren and Synové in a corner of the kitchen in deep conversation, eating a late breakfast, which was, no surprise, venison and leek soup. The gamey smell clung to the air, the walls, to everyone’s

clothing. We sweated venison and leek soup.

Mason had sent me a quiet signal as soon as I emerged with Kazi. We needed to talk. Privately. I joined him, Priya, and Gunner in the storeroom.

Priya lifted up a burlap sack. It sagged at the bottom with only a few handfuls of grain. “This is all that’s left.”

Worse, the three of them had gone out to hunt this morning, and they had to quickly retreat back behind the falls—the mountain was crawling with soldiers.

“If the patrols don’t back off soon, next up is the goat. It only produces a few cups of milk a day, but it’s something for the children,” Mason said.

Gunner shook his head. “The soldiers won’t back off. Between me and Wren, and Paxton and Priya, we left a whole squad of them dead not far from here. Not to mention our little heist of Kazi yesterday. They’re like packs of rabid wolves out there, and they’re after our hides.”

It was Montegue who was driving them, the lead rabid wolf, who was probably frothing at the mouth by now. Did he know it was me? I didn’t think so. In my few seconds on the skywalk, he was huddled beneath a shield, his courage on display before the entire town. He was beating his chest now to make up for it.

“Don’t butcher the goat. Not yet,” I said. “We’ll go out when—” Suddenly the shelves in the storeroom vibrated.

The ground shook. The walls shivered.

Dust fell from the ceilings. I heard some shouts.

Children screamed.

“What’s going on?” Gunner wondered aloud.

We went into the kitchen. Most everyone had jumped to their feet, looking around. Others came in too. Titus, Aleski, my mother, and Samuel. The shaking seemed to have quieted as fast as it had descended, but then the ground quaked again.

“Devil’s hell,” Paxton said. “He’s blasting.”

“He told me he would,” Kazi added. “He’s blasting through the mountain to get to us.” She said only the valuable papers he wanted from inside the vault had kept him from blasting in the first place.

“Papers?” my mother questioned. “What kind of papers?”

“Ones that contained another fomula that Phineas had created. If anyone here has them, now would be a good time to hand them over.”

There was a stir of talk, confusion, but no one knew anything about any papers, and in these close quarters, it would have been impossible to conceal much of anything.

Another rumble shook the ground.

Paxton hissed. “It’s not papers he wants anymore. He just wants us dead.”

“We have to get everyone out of here,” Gunner said.

“Out where?” Mason asked, throwing up his hands. “Out the back entrance onto the mountain where all the soldiers are patrolling?”

“That’s exactly what that lowlife wants,” Synové growled.

“No,” I said. “Everyone stays put for now.” I knew with so many injured and weak, we wouldn’t have a chance. My mother was moving slow, and Tiago could never navigate a steep mountain with his injured leg, much less run if he needed to. They’d be picked off like lambs, not to mention those in the sickroom like Aunt Dolise who couldn’t move at all. We couldn’t just leave them behind. “We still have a huge mountain of solid granite around us,” I said, trying to reassure them. But the truth was, I didn’t know if time was running out. Food definitely was. The choice was being taken from us. We had nine launchers. Nine of us could make a run for the arena. At least one of us would make it. Without ammo, the king was powerless. “We have to get to the arena and destroy the munitions. Today.”

“Today.”

“I’ll go!”

“Yes, let’s make this an even fight.” Everyone murmured agreement.

Except for Kazi.

“No,” she said. She stood and rubbed her head like she was trying to remember something.

“What is it?” I asked.

She took a few steps, still thinking, and finally shook her head. “The munitions aren’t at the arena anymore. They moved them to Tor’s Watch.”

“What are you talking about?” Questions erupted around the room. Even Paxton questioned her. This was news to him.

“Underground,” she added. “They’re somewhere underground. Here.”

 

 

 

We reconvened in the study—behind closed doors.

While she was on the run, Kazi had seen Zane making an oddly timed delivery on the road behind Tor’s Watch—with an armed escort. She hadn’t had time to wonder about it because she was running for her life. But after

she had been captured, while she was half delirious with the poison and pain, she overheard the king tell Zane to finish moving the last two loads from the arena. That it was too dangerous to keep something there.

I remembered the armed caravan we encountered on the road escorting two wagons piled with hay. Now it all made sense.

Unfortunately, this changed everything.

Blowing up warehouse seventy-two behind the arena in the light of day was risky—maybe even a suicide mission that could reduce all the warehouses to rubble. But blowing up the entire store of munitions beneath Tor’s Watch might accomplish exactly what the king was trying to do, but faster—destroy the vault. And finding the ammo was another trick. There were large cellars under every house and outbuilding on the property. There was more storage beneath the stables. And we had an icehouse too that was mostly underground, not to mention Greyson Tunnel itself and the tunnels that branched off of it, like the one that led to the vault. We no longer had one place to search but many.

Paxton leaned forward and blew a puff of air through his hand. “With something worth guarding, they aren’t going to have just a small contingent of soldiers posted at Tor’s Watch anymore. They’ll be everywhere.”

“We can’t all waltz in and search the grounds in the light of day anyway,” Gunner said.

“Or wait for night and use torches,” Aram added.

A louder boom sounded through the room. Dust sprinkled down onto the table between us. Waiting for night wasn’t an option at this point.

“Dammit!” Priya pinched the bridge of her nose, then madly swiped away the dust.

Kazi cleared her throat. “There is someone who could waltz through Tor’s Watch in the light of day.”

I looked across the table at her. She had been silent until now, conspicuously quiet, almost as if composing a riddle. Now I knew the riddle she was trying to unravel.

“No,” I said.

“But—”

“No!” I said more firmly. “Rhea would never allow it either. You just—”

Kazi stood. “Listen here, Patrei. I’m part of this family now, and I say yes.”

Brows rose around the table.

Synové grimaced. “She’s got you there, Patrei.” “She’s Rahtan too, don’t forget that,” Wren added.

“Not to mention,” Kazi continued, “I’m the ambassador around these parts, and ambassadors trump Patreis.” She put her hands on her hips. “There! I guess everyone knows everything now.”

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