Main Dance of Thieves
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I wanna read it bc I was inspired bye tiktok lol?
03 April 2021 (05:57)
Same reason hahaha inspired by tiktok.
14 May 2021 (15:57)
boutta start this bc of tiktok too lmao
19 May 2021 (17:13)
I've read this, and if you have any interest in strangers-to-lovers, you'll love it. It is absolutely beautiful. Mary E Pearson won my heart with this duology, and honestly saying, it is one of the most underrated books I've ever read
28 May 2021 (01:26)
to all from tiktok, same !!
28 May 2021 (13:43)
mmm it's cool I guess..
02 June 2021 (12:02)
came here from tiktok just like y'all
05 June 2021 (00:41)
Tiktok said this was an enemies to lovers book, but I’m not sure it is...
07 June 2021 (19:12)
gonna try this out bc of tiktok as well lamo
08 June 2021 (05:30)
personally, i think its boring. i mean it started off well but then i now dont care to read any further. i still havent finished it tbh. But its a good book. its a nice book. u should read it. i just cant seem to care to finish it lol. but i will someday..
08 June 2021 (12:30)
So were all here right now because of tiktok
20 June 2021 (06:07)
Okay so bookstagram definitely brought me here (surprise!) but I wanna know…is it worth the hype? Also, asking for a friend, is it sulk of romance? Does it consume the plot? because I like to know what I’m getting into before reading a novel; I don’t always trust bookstagram recommendation, if you know what I mean ;)
24 June 2021 (01:20)
someone pls lmk if it worth it!
25 June 2021 (07:59)
i personally love this book but not bcs of the enemies to lovers but bcs of the women in this book but ye the men r cool too ig HAHAHAH
30 June 2021 (12:40)
ok cool...I'll have to give it a go sometime soon
08 July 2021 (23:01)
Ain't here bc of Tik-Tok, fuck tiktok for all I care
Uninstall your tik-tok apps, then study!
10 July 2021 (10:54)
I'm not here because of TikTok tho
15 July 2021 (15:31)
Not here cz of tiktok thou
23 July 2021 (17:08)
shaylee MAYNARD MATTHEWS
Tiktok. Yes. Indeed.
04 August 2021 (03:18)
Loved it. It's a gud book
08 August 2021 (08:53)
i heard is a 500 pages book but when I downloaded it, it was 398 pages, it's the book complete?
09 August 2021 (03:43)
^ ebooks have different fonts and formats than actual books love, so it affects the pages too
09 August 2021 (05:47)
Thanks tiktok hahaha
20 August 2021 (13:03)
Idk Booktok loves this one but I read the first three chapters and gave up. Didn’t understand very much what was happening, but please keep in mind that English is my second language so that makes it harder for me.
30 August 2021 (16:08)
Also here because of TikTok ?
19 September 2021 (19:08)
That's great aleksandra. Like reading in a different language. That seems interesting.
13 October 2021 (20:48)
And not here because of tiktok.
13 October 2021 (20:48)
Begin Reading Table of Contents About the Author Copyright Page Thank you for buying this Henry Holt and Company ebook. To receive special offers, bonus content, and info on new releases and other great reads, sign up for our newsletters. Or visit us online at us.macmillan.com/newslettersignup For email updates on the author, click here. The author and publisher have provided this e-book to you for your personal use only. You may not make this e-book publicly available in any way. Copyright infringement is against the law. If you believe the copy of this e-book you are reading infringes on the author’s copyright, please notify the publisher at: us.macmillanusa.com/piracy. For my fierce and unstoppable girls, Ava, Emily, and Leah Write it down, he had told me. Write down every word once you get there, Before the truth is forgotten. And now we do, at least the parts we remember. —Greyson Ballenger, 14 CHAPTER ONE KAZIMYRAH OF BRIGHTMIST The ghosts are still here. The words lingered in the air, each one a shimmering spirit, cold whispers of caution, but I wasn’t afraid. I already knew. The ghosts, they never go away. They call to you in unexpected moments, their hands lacing with yours and pulling you down paths that lead nowhere. This way. I had learned to mostly shut them out. We rode through Sentinel Valley, ruins of the Ancients looking down upon us. My horse’s ears pricked, watchful, a rumble deep from his throat. He knew too. I rubbed his neck to calm him. It had been six years since the Great Battle, but the scars were still visible—overturned wagons eaten up with grass, scattered bones dug from graves by hungry beasts, the skeletal ribs of giant brezalots reaching skyward, birds perched on their elegant bleached cages. I felt the ghosts hovering, watching, wondering. One of them slid a cool fingertip along my jaw, pressing a warning to my lips, Shhh, Kazi, don’t say a word. Natiya led us deeper into the valley, unafraid. Our gazes scanned; the rugged cliffs and the crumbling devastation of a war that was slowly being consumed by earth, time, and memory, like the awkward swallowing of a fat hare by a patient snake. Soon, all the destruction would be in the belly of the earth. Who would remember? Midway, as the valley narrowed, Natiya stopped and slipped from her saddle, pulling a folded square of white cloth from her saddlebag. Wren dismounted too, her thin limbs gliding to the ground as silently as a bird. Synové hesitated, watching me uncertainly. She was strongest of us all, but her round hips remained firmly planted in her saddle. She did not care for talk of ghosts, even in the brightness of a high sun. They frequented her dreams too often. I nodded to reassure her, and we both slid from our horses and joined them. Natiya paused at a large green mound as if she knew what lay beneath the woven blanket of grass. She absently rubbed the fabric between her delicate brown fingers. It was only for a few seconds, but it seemed to last forever. Natiya was nineteen, only two years older than us, but she suddenly looked much older. She had actually seen the things we had only heard stories about. Her head shook slightly, and she walked toward a scattered pile of rocks. She began picking up the fallen stones and puzzling them back into place on the humble memorial. “Who was it?” I asked. Her lips rolled tight against her teeth. “His name was Jeb. His body was burned on a funeral pyre because that’s the Dalbretch way, but I buried his few belongings here.” Because that’s the vagabond way, I thought, but said nothing. Natiya didn’t talk much about her life before she became Vendan and a Rahtan, but I didn’t talk much about my earlier life either. Some things were better left in the past. Wren and Synové shifted uncomfortably on their feet, their boots pressing the grass into small, flat circles. Natiya wasn’t prone to sentimental displays, even if they were quiet ones like this, especially if they delayed her well-planned schedule. But now she lingered, just like her words that had ushered us into the valley. They are still here. “He was special?” I asked. She nodded. “They all were. But Jeb taught me things. Things that have helped me to survive.” She turned, giving us a sharp glance. “Things I have taught all of you. Hopefully.” Her scrutiny softened, and her thick black lashes cast a shadow beneath her dark eyes. She studied the three of us as if she were a seasoned general and we were her ragtag soldiers. In some ways, I supposed we were. We were the youngest of the Rahtan, but we were Rahtan. That meant something. It meant a lot. We were the queen’s premier guard. We didn’t rise to these positions because we were bumbling fools. Not most of the time, anyway. We had training and talents. Natiya’s gaze rested on me the longest. I was lead on this mission, responsible for making not just the right decisions, but perfect ones. That meant not only achieving success, but keeping everyone safe too. “We’ll be fine,” I promised. “Fine,” Wren agreed, impatiently blowing a dark curl from her forehead. She wanted to be on her way. The anticipation was wearing on all of us. Synové anxiously twisted one of her long persimmon braids between her fingers. “Perfectly fine. We’re—” “I know,” Natiya said, putting her hand up to stop Synové from embarking on a long explanation. “Fine. Just remember, spend some time at the settlement first. Hell’s Mouth comes after. Only ask questions. Gather information. Get what supplies you need. Keep a low profile until we get there.” Wren snorted. A low profile was certainly one of my specialties, but not this time. Getting into trouble was my goal for a change. Galloping broke the tense exchange. “Natiya!” We turned toward Eben, his horse kicking up soft clods of grass. Synové’s eyes brightened like the sun had just winked at her from behind a cloud. He circled around, his eyes fixed only on Natiya. “Griz is grumbling. He wants to leave.” “Coming,” she answered, then shook out the square of fabric she was holding. It was a shirt. A very handsome shirt. She touched the soft fabric to her cheek, then laid it over the rock memorial. “Cruvas linen, Jeb,” she whispered. “The finest.” * * * We reached the mouth of the valley, and Natiya stopped and looked back one last time. “Remember this,” she said. “Twenty thousand. That’s how many died here in a single day. Vendans, Morrighese, and Dalbretch. I didn’t know them all, but someone did. Someone who would bring a meadow flower to them if they could.” Or a Cruvas linen shirt. Now I knew why Natiya had brought us here. This was by the queen’s order. Look. Take a good long look and remember the lives lost. Real people that someone loved. Before you go about the task I have given you, see the devastation and remember what they did. What could happen again. Know what is at stake. Dragons eventually wake and crawl from their dark dens. I had seen the urgency in the queen’s eyes. I had heard it in her voice. This wasn’t only about the past. She feared for the future. Something was brewing, and she was desperate to stop it. I surveyed the valley. From a distance, the bones and wagons blended back into a calm sea of green, hiding the truth. Nothing was ever quite what it seemed. * * * Griz’s grumbling to break camp was nothing new. He liked to make camp early and leave early, sometimes even when it was still dark, as if it were some sort of victory over the sun. His horse was already packed when we returned, and the campfire doused. He watched impatiently as the rest of us buckled up bedrolls and bags. An hour’s ride from here, we would go our separate ways. Griz was headed to Civica in Morrighan. The queen had news she wanted to share with her brother, the king, and she trusted no one else to deliver it, not even the Valsprey she used for other messages. Valsprey could be attacked by other birds or shot down and messages intercepted, whereas nothing could stop Griz. Except, perhaps, a quick side trip to Terravin, which was probably why he was in such a hurry. Synové liked to tease that he had a sweetheart there. It always made him explode in denial. Griz was old-school Rahtan, but the Rahtan was not the elite, rule-bound ten it once was. There were twenty of us now. A lot of things had changed since the queen came to power, including me. When I began folding my tent, Griz came and stood over my shoulder and watched. I was the only one who used a tent. It was small. It didn’t take up much room. He had balked the first time he had seen me use one on a mission to a southern province. We don’t use tents, he’d said with utter distaste. I remembered the shame I felt. In the weeks that followed, I turned that humiliation to determination. Weakness made you a target, and I had promised myself, long ago, I would never be a target again. I buried my shame deep beneath carefully crafted armor. Insults couldn’t penetrate it. Griz’s brooding stature cast a mountainous shadow over me. “Doesn’t my folding technique meet with your approval?” I asked. He said nothing. I turned and looked up at him. “What is it, Griz?” I snapped. He rubbed his bristled chin. “There’s a lot of open territory between here and Hell’s Mouth. Empty, flat territory.” “Your point?” “You’ll be … all right?” I stood, shoving my folded tent into his belly. He took it from me. “I’ve got this, Griz. Relax.” His head bobbed in a hesitant nod. “The real question is,” I added, long and drawn out for effect, “do you?” He eyed me, his brow furrowed in a question, and then he scowled, reaching for his side. I smiled and held his short dagger out to him. His scowl turned to a reluctant grin, and he replaced the dagger in its empty sheath. His bushy brows lifted, and he shook his head in approval. “Stay downwind, Ten.” Ten, my hard-won nickname. It was his acknowledgment of confidence. I wiggled my fingertips in appreciation. No one, especially not Griz, would ever forget how I had earned it. “You mean upwind, don’t you?” Eben called. I glared at Eben. And no one, especially not Eben, would ever forget that my life as Rahtan began the day I spit in the queen’s face. CHAPTER TWO KAZI The queen had been walking the narrow, dirty streets of the Brightmist quarter when I spotted her. I hadn’t planned it, but even events unplanned can whisk us down paths that we never expected to travel, changing our destinies and what defines us. Kazimyrah: orphan, invisible street rat, girl who defied the queen, Rahtan. I had already been shoved down one path when I was six, and the day I spit in the new queen’s face I was sent reeling down another. That moment had not only defined my future, but the queen’s unexpected response—a smile—had defined her reign. Her sword hung ready in the scabbard at her side. A breathless crowd had waited to see what would happen. They knew what would have happened before. If she were the Komizar, I would have already been lying headless on the ground. Her smile had frightened me more than if she had drawn her sword. I knew at that moment, with certainty, that the old Venda I knew how to navigate was gone, and I would never get it back again. I hated her for it. When she learned I had no family to summon, she told the guards who had grabbed me to bring me along to Sanctum Hall. I thought I was so very clever back then. Too clever for this young queen. I was eleven years of grit and grovel by then, and impervious to an interloper. I would outwit her just as I did everyone else. It was my realm after all. I had all my fingertips—and a reputation to go with them. In the streets of Venda, they called me “Ten” with whispered respect. A complete set of fingers was legendary for a thief, or an alleged thief, because if I had ever been caught with stolen goods, my nickname would have been Nine. The eight quarterlords who dispensed the punishment for stealing had a different name for me. To them, I was the Shadowmaker, because even at high noon, they swore, I could conjure a shadow to swallow me up. A few even rubbed hidden amulets when they saw me coming. But just as useful as the shadows was knowing the strategies of street politics and personalities. I perfected my craft, playing the quarterlords and merchants against one another as if I was a musician and they were crude drums rumbling beneath my hands, making one boast to another that I had never pulled anything over on him, making them all feel so very smart, even as I relieved them of items I could put to better use elsewhere. Their egos were my accomplices. The twisting alleyways, tunnels, and catwalks were where I learned my trade, and my stomach was my relentless taskmaster. But there was another kind of hunger that drove me too, a hunger for answers that were not as easily plucked from the wares of a bloated lord. That was my deeper, darker taskmaster. But because of the queen, almost overnight I witnessed my world dissolving. I had starved and clawed my way to this position. No one was going to take it from me. The cramped, winding streets of Venda were all I had ever known, and its underworld was all I understood. Its members were a desperate coalition who appreciated the warmth of horse dung in winter, a knife in a burlap sack and the trail of spilled grain it left behind, the scowl of a duped merchant realizing he was short an egg in his basket—or, if I was feeling punitive, the whole chicken who had laid it. I had walked away with bigger and noisier things. I liked to say I stole only because of hunger, but it wasn’t true. Sometimes I stole from the quarterlords just to make their miserable lives more miserable. It made me wonder, if I ever became a quarterlord, would I cut off fingers to secure my place of power? Because power, I had learned, could be just as seductive as a warm loaf of bread, and the small bit I wielded over them was sometimes all the food I needed. With new treaties signed among the kingdoms allowing settlement of the Cam Lanteux, one by one those whom I thieved for and with left to go live in wide-open spaces to begin new lives. I became a plucked bird flapping featherless wings, suddenly useless, but moving to a farming settlement in the middle of nowhere was something I would not do. It was something I could not do. I learned this when I was nine and had traveled just a short distance beyond the Sanctum walls in search of answers that had eluded me. When I looked back at the disappearing city and saw that I was a mere speck in an empty landscape, I couldn’t breathe and the sky swirled in dizzy currents. It hit me like a smothering wave. There was nowhere to hide. No shadows to melt into, no tent flaps to duck behind or stairs to disappear under—there were no beds to hide beneath in case someone came for me. There was no place to escape to at all. The structure of my world was gone—the floor, the ceilings, the walls—and I floated loose, untethered. I barely made it back to the city and never left again. I knew I would not survive in a world of open sky. Spitting in the queen’s face had been my futile stab at saving the existence I had carved out. My life had already been stolen once. I refused to let it happen again, but it happened just the same. Some rising tides cannot be held back, and the new world slipped around my ankles like water at the shore and pulled me into its current. My first months in Sanctum Hall were turbulent. Why no one strangled me I still wasn’t certain. I would have. I stole everything in sight, and out of sight, and hoarded it in a secret passage beneath the East Tower staircase. No one’s private chambers were immune. Natiya’s favorite scarf, Eben’s boots, the cook’s wooden spoons, swords, belts, books, armory halberds, the queen’s hairbrush. Sometimes I gave them back, sometimes I didn’t, bestowing mercies like a capricious queen. Griz roared and chased me through the halls the third time I stole his razor. Finally, one morning, the queen applauded me as I walked into the Council gallery, saying it was evident I had mastered thieving, but it was time I learned additional skills. She rose and handed me a sword I had stolen. I locked eyes with her, wondering how she had gotten hold of it. “I know that passage well too, Kazimyrah. You aren’t the only sneak in the Sanctum. Let’s put this to better use than rusting in a dark, damp stairwell, shall we?” For the first time, I didn’t resist. I wanted to learn more. I didn’t just want to possess the swords, knives, and maces I had acquired. I wanted to know how to use them too, and use them well. * * * The landscape was getting flatter now, as if huge hands had anticipated our passing and smoothed out the wrinkles of hills. The same hands must have plucked the hills clean of ruins. It was strange to see nothing. I had never traveled long on any path where some evidence of an earlier world wasn’t in view. The Ancients’ ruins were plentiful, but here there wasn’t so much as a single crumbling wall to cast a measly shadow. Nothing but open sky and unfettered wind pressing on my chest. I forced in deep, full breaths, focusing on a point in the distance, pretending it held a magical shadowed city waiting to greet me. Griz had stopped and was conferring with Eben and Natiya about meet-up sites. It was time to part ways. When he was finished, he turned and cast a suspicious eye at the vastness ahead of us like he was searching for something. His gaze finally landed on me. I stretched and smiled as if I were enjoying a summer outing. The sun was high and threw sharp shadows across his battle-scarred face. The lines around his eyes deepened. “One other thing. Watch your backs through this stretch. I lost two years of my life near here because I wasn’t looking over my shoulder.” He told us how he and an officer from Dalbreck had been pounced upon by labor hunters and dragged off to work in a mining camp. “We’re well armed,” Wren reminded him. “And there’s Synové,” I added. “You’ve got this covered, right, Syn?” She fluttered her eyes like she was seeing a vision, and nodded. “Got it.” Then she flicked her fingers in a sweeping motion and whispered happily, “Now go enjoy your time with your sweetheart.” Griz bellowed and threw his hand in the air, waving away the notion. He mumbled a curse as he rode away. We managed to depart with no further instructions from Natiya. It had all been laid out already, both the ruse and the real. Eben and Natiya were going south to Parsuss, the seat of Eislandia, to speak with the king and make him aware we were intervening on his soil. He was a farmer first, like most Eislandians, and his entire army consisted of a few dozen guards who were also laborers in his fields. He was short on resources to deal with disturbances. Griz had also described the king as meek, more of a handwringer than a neck one, and at a loss for how to control his distant northern territories. The queen was sure he wouldn’t object, but she was bound by protocol to inform him. It was a diplomatic precaution in case something went wrong. But nothing would go wrong. I had promised her. Even then, the Eislandian king would only be told the ruse of our visit, not our real mission. That was too closely guarded a secret, not to be shared even with the ruling monarch. I tucked the map away and nudged my horse forward in the direction of Hell’s Mouth. Synové looked back, watching Eben and Natiya go their own way, judging how far apart they rode and whether they were exchanging words. Why she had an affection for him I didn’t know, but there had been others. Synové was in love with love. As soon as they were out of earshot, she asked, “Do you think they’ve done it?” Wren groaned. I was hoping she meant something else, but I asked anyway. “Who did what?” “Eben and Natiya. You know, it.” “You’re the one with the knowing,” Wren said. “You should know.” “I have dreams,” Synové corrected. “And if you both tried a little harder, you’d have dreams too.” Her shoulders shivered with distaste. “But that’s one dream I don’t care to have.” “She does have a point,” I said to Wren. “Some things shouldn’t be imagined or dreamed.” Wren shrugged. “I’ve never seen them kiss.” “Or even hold hands,” Synové added. “But neither is exactly the affectionate type either,” I reminded them. Synové’s brow squiggled in contemplation, none of us saying what we all knew. Eben and Natiya were devoted to each other—in a very passionate way. I suspected they had done far more than kissing, though it wasn’t something I dwelled upon. I really didn’t care or want to know. In some ways, I supposed I was like Griz. We were Rahtan first, and there was time for little else. It only created complications. My few brief dalliances with soldiers I had pledged with only led to distractions that I decided I didn’t need—the risky kind, ones that stirred a longing in me and made me think about a future that couldn’t be counted on. We rode along, with Synové doing most of the talking, as she always did, filling the hours with multiple observations, whether it was the waving grass brushing our horses’ fetlocks or the salty leek soup her aunt used to make. I knew at least part of the reason she did it was to distract me from a flat, empty world that sometimes bobbed and weaved and threatened to fold me into its open mouth. Sometimes her chatter worked. Sometimes I distracted myself in other ways. Wren suddenly put her hand out as warning and signaled us to stop. “Riders. Third bell,” she said. The sharp edge of her ziethe sliced the air as she drew and spun it, ready. Synové was already nocking an arrow. In the distance, a dark cloud skimmed the plain, growing larger as it sped toward us. I drew my sword, but then suddenly the dark cloud veered upward, into the sky. It flew close over our heads, a writhing antelope in its claws. The wind from the creature’s wings lifted our hair, and we all instinctively ducked. The horses reared. In a split second, the creature was already gone. “Jabavé!” Wren growled as we worked to calm our horses. “What the hell was that?” Griz had neglected to warn us about this. I had heard of these creatures, a rumor really, but thought they were only in the far north country above Infernaterr. Apparently not today. “Racaa,” Synové answered. “One of the birds that eat Valsprey. I don’t think they eat humans.” “Think?” Wren yelled. Her brown cheeks glowed with fury. “You’re not sure? How much different could we taste than an antelope?” I slid my sword back into its scabbard. “Different enough, we can hope.” Wren recomposed herself, putting her ziethe away. She wore two of them, one on each hip, and kept them razor sharp. She was more than capable of taking on two-legged attackers, but a winged attack required a moment of reassessment. I saw the calculations spinning in her mind. “I could have taken it down.” No doubt. Wren had the tenacity of a cornered badger. The demons that drove her were as demanding as mine, and she had honed her skills to a sharp, unforgiving edge. She had watched her family slaughtered in Blackstone Square when her clan made the deadly mistake of cheering for a stolen princess. The same with Synové, and though Syn played the cheerful innocent, there was a lethal undercurrent that ran through her. She had killed more raiders than Wren and I put together. Seven by last count. With her arrow back in its quiver, Synové resumed her chatter. At least for the rest of our ride she had something else to talk about. Racaa were a whole new diversion. But the racaa’s shadow sent my thoughts tumbling in another direction. By this time next week, it would be us swooping down on Hell’s Mouth, casting our own shadow, and if all went well, within a short time I would be departing with something far more vital than an antelope in my claws. Six years ago a war was waged, the bloodiest the continent had ever seen. Thousands died, but only a handful of men were its architects. One of those men was still alive, and some thought he was the worst—the Watch Captain of the citadelle in Morrighan. He betrayed the very kingdom he had sworn to protect, and slowly infiltrated the fortress with enemy soldiers in order to weaken Morrighan and help it to fall. Some soldiers who had been under his command had simply disappeared, maybe because they became suspicious. Their bodies were never found. His crimes were numerous. Among them, helping to poison the king and murder the crown prince and thirty-two of his comrades. The Watch Captain had been the most hunted fugitive on the continent ever since. He had twice escaped the kingdoms’ clutches, and then he seemed to have vanished completely. No one had seen him in five years, but now a chance sighting and a merchant eager to share information had become a hopeful lead. He gave over his own kingdom, the queen had told me, and the lives of thousands to feed his greed for more. Hungry dragons may sleep for years, but they do not change their eating habits. He must be found. The dead demand justice, as do the living. Even before I visited the valley of dead, I already knew the cost of lurking dragons, ones who crept through the night, crashing into a world and devouring whatever pleased them. The queen’s fugitive would pay because he stole dreams and lives without ever looking back, not caring about the destruction he left in his wake. Some dragons might slip away forever, but if Captain Illarion, who betrayed his countrymen and brought about the death of thousands, was there, Tor’s Watch could not hide him. I would steal him away, and he would pay—before his hunger killed more. I need you, Kazimyrah. I believe in you. The queen’s belief in me had meant everything. It was a job I was uniquely qualified for, and this mission was an undeserved chance to redeem myself. A year ago, I’d made a mistake that almost cost me my life and put a blemish on the near perfect record of the queen’s premier guard. Rahtan meant “never fail,” but I had failed dismally. Hardly a day passed that I didn’t think of it. When I had mistaken an ambassador from Reux Lau for someone else, it had unleashed something wild and feral in me that I didn’t know was there—or maybe it was a wounded animal I had been secretly feeding for a long time. My hands and legs were not my own, and they propelled me forward. I hadn’t intended to stab him, at least not immediately, but he lunged unexpectedly. He survived my attack. Luckily my knife hadn’t slashed deeply. His wound only required a few stitches. Our whole crew was arrested and thrown in prison. As soon as it was determined I acted alone, they were released—but I sat in a prison cell in a southern province for two months. It took the queen herself to smooth it over and obtain my release. Those months gave me a lot of time to think. In a split second, I had abandoned my control and patience—the very things I took pride in and that had saved my skin for years. And maybe worse, the mistake made me question my own memory. Maybe I didn’t remember his face anymore. Maybe it was gone like so many other memories that had faded, and that possibility terrified me even more. If I didn’t remember, he could be anywhere and anyone. Once we returned, it was Eben who told the queen about my past. I didn’t know how he even knew. I had never told anyone, and no one really cared about where a street rat came from. There were too many of us. The queen had called me into her private chamber. “Why didn’t you tell me about your mother, Kazimyrah?” My heart beat madly, and a sick, salty taste crawled up my throat. I forced it down and locked my knees, afraid they might buckle. “There’s nothing to tell. My mother is dead.” “Are you certain she’s dead?” In my heart I was certain, and I prayed to the gods every day that she was. “If the gods are merciful.” The queen asked if we might talk about it. I knew she was only trying to help me, and I did owe her a fuller explanation after all she had done for me, but this was a confused knot of memory and anger I hadn’t untangled myself yet. I excused myself without answering her. When I left her chamber, I cornered Eben in the stairwell and lashed out. “Stay out of my business, Eben! Do you hear me? Stay out!” “You mean stay out of your past. There’s nothing to be ashamed of, Kazi. You were six years old. It’s not your fault that your—” “Shut up, Eben! Don’t ever bring up my mother again or I’ll slit your throat and it will happen so quickly and quietly, you won’t even know you’re dead.” His arm shot out, and he blocked my way so I couldn’t pass. “You need to confront your demons, Kazi.” I lunged at him, but I was out of control and he wasn’t. He expected my attack and whirled me around, pinning me to his chest, squeezing me so tightly I couldn’t breathe even as I railed against him. “I understand, Kazi. Believe me, I understand what you feel,” he had whispered in my ear. I raged. I screamed. No one could understand. Especially not Eben. I hadn’t yet come to grips with the memories he stirred. He couldn’t know that every time I looked at his stringy black mop of hair hanging over his eyes, or his pale, bloodless skin, or his dark, menacing gaze, all I saw was the Previzi driver who had crept into my hovel in the middle of the night, holding a lantern in the darkness asking, Where is the brat? All I saw was myself cowering in a pool of my own waste, too afraid to move. I was not afraid anymore. “You’ve been given a second chance, Kazi. Don’t throw it away. The queen stuck her neck out for you. She can only do that so many times. You’re not powerless anymore. You can make other things right.” He held me tight until there was no struggle left in me. I was weak when I finally pulled free, still angry, and I skulked away to hide in a dark passage of the Sanctum where no one could find me. I learned later from Natiya that maybe Eben did understand. He was five when he witnessed an ax being planted in his mother’s chest and he watched while his father was burned alive. His family had tried to settle in the Cam Lanteux before there were treaties to protect them. He was too young to identify who did it or even to know what kingdom they were from. Finding justice was impossible for him, but his parents’ deaths remained etched in his memory. As I got to know Eben better and worked with him more, I no longer saw the Previzi driver when I looked at him. I just saw Eben along with his own quirks and habits—and someone who had his own scarred past. Make other things right. It was a turning point for me, yet another new start. More than anything I wanted to prove my loyalties to someone who had not only given me a second chance, but had also given all of Venda a second chance. The queen. There was one thing I could never make right. But maybe there were other things that I could. Gather close, my brothers and sisters. We have touched the stars, And the dust of possibility is ours. But the work is never over. Time circles. Repeats. We must ever be watchful. Though the Dragon rests for now, He will wake again And roam the earth, His belly ripe with hunger. And so shall it be, For evermore. —The Song of Jezelia CHAPTER THREE JASE BALLENGER As far as you can see, this land is ours. Never forget that. It was my father’s and his father’s before that. This is Ballenger territory and always has been, all the way back to the Ancients. We are the first family, and every bird that flies overhead, every breath that is taken, every drop of water that falls, it all belongs to us. We make the laws here. We own whatever you can see. Never let one handful of soil slip through your fingers, or you will lose it all. I placed my father’s hand at his side. His skin was cold, his fingers stiff. He’d been dead for hours. It seemed impossible. Only four days ago, he’d been healthy and strong, and then he gripped his chest as he got up on his horse and collapsed. The seer said an enemy had cast a spell. The healer said it was his heart and nothing could be done. Whichever it was, in a matter of days, he was gone. A dozen empty chairs still circled his bed, the vigil ended. The sounds of long good-byes had turned to silent disbelief. I pushed back my chair and stepped out to the balcony, drawing in a deep breath. The hills reached in hazy scallops to the horizon. Not one handful, I had promised him. The others waited for me to emerge from the room wearing his ring. Now my ring. The weight of his last words flowed through me, as strong and powerful as Ballenger blood. I surveyed the endless landscape that was ours. I knew every hill, every canyon, every bluff and river. As far as you can see. It all looked different now. I backed away from the balcony. The challenges would come soon. They always did when a Ballenger died, as if one less in our numbers would topple us. News would reach the multiple leagues scattered beyond our borders. It was a bad time for him to die. First harvests were rolling in, the Previzi were demanding a greater take of their loads, and Fertig had asked for my sister’s hand in marriage. She was still deciding. I didn’t like Fertig, but I loved my sister. I shook my head and pushed away from the rail. Patrei. It was up to me now. I’d keep my vow. The family would stand strong, as we always had. I pulled my knife from its sheath and returned to my father’s bed. I cut the ring from his swollen finger, slipped it on to my own, and walked out to a hallway full of waiting faces. They looked at my hand, traces of my father’s blood on the ring. It was done. A rumble of solemn acknowledgement sounded. “Come on,” I said. “It’s time to get drunk.” * * * Our steps echoed through the main hall with singular purpose as more than a dozen of us headed toward the door. My mother stepped out from the west antechamber and asked me where I was going. “Tavern. Before the news is everywhere.” She slapped me on the side of the head. “The news was out four days ago, fool. The vultures sniff death before it arrives and circle just as quickly. They’ll be picking at our bones by next week. Now go! Alms at the temple first. Then you can go drink yourself blind. And keep your straza at your sides. These are uncertain times!” She shot a warning glower at my brothers too, and they dutifully nodded. Her gaze turned back at me, still iron, thorns, and fire, clear, but I knew behind them a wall had been painfully built. Even when my brother and sister died, she didn’t cry, but channeled her tears into a new cistern for the temple instead. She looked down at the ring on my finger. Her head bobbed slightly. I knew it unsettled her to see it on my hand after twenty-five years of seeing it on my father’s. Together, they had strengthened the Ballenger Dynasty. They had eleven children together, nine of us still living, plus an adopted son, a promise that their world would only grow stronger. That is what she focused on, instead of what she had lost prematurely. She lifted my hand to her lips, kissed the ring, then pushed me out the door. As we walked down the porch steps, Titus whispered under his breath, “Alms first, fool!” I shoved him with my shoulder, and the others laughed as he tumbled down the steps. They were ready for a night of trouble. A night of forgetting. Watching someone die, someone who was as full of life as my father, who should have had years ahead of him, was a reminder that death looked over all our shoulders. My eldest brother, Gunner, sidled close as we walked to our waiting horses. “Paxton will come.” I nodded. “But he’ll take his time.” “He’s afraid of you.” “Not afraid enough.” Mason clapped me on the back. “Hell with Paxton. He won’t come until the entombment, if he comes at all. For now, we just need to get you snot drunk, Patrei.” I was ready. I needed this as much as Mason and everyone else. I needed it to be over with and all of us moving on. As weak as my father had been before he died, he managed to say a lot in his last breaths. It was my duty to hear every word and vow my allegiance even if he’d said it all before—and he had. He’d been telling me my whole life. It was tattooed inside my gut as much as the Ballenger seal was tattooed across my shoulder. The family dynasty—those both blood and embraced—was safe. Still, his final labored instructions dug through me. He hadn’t been prepared to let go of the reins this soon. The Ballengers bow to no one. Make her come. The others will notice. That part might prove a little harder. The other vultures who came circling, hoping to take over our territory, were what I needed to crush first, Paxton foremost among them. It didn’t matter that he was my cousin—he was still the misbegotten progeny of my long-ago uncle who had betrayed his own family. Paxton controlled the smaller territory of Ráj Nivad in the south, but it wasn’t enough for him. Like the rest of his bloodline, he was consumed by jealousies and greed. Still, he was blood and would come to pay honor to my father—and to calculate our strength. Ráj Nivad was a four-day ride from here. He hadn’t heard anything yet, and if he had, it would take him just as long to get here. I had time to prepare. Our straza shouted to the tower, and they in turned called down to the gate guards, clearing our passage. The heavy metal gates creaked open, and we rode through. I felt the eyes on me, on my hand. Patrei. Hell’s Mouth sat in the valley just below Tor’s Watch, only parts of it visible through the canopy of tembris trees that circled it like a crown. I had told my father once that I was going to climb to the top of every one. I was eight years old and didn’t realize how far they reached into the heavens, even after my father told me the top of the tembris was the realm of the gods, not men. I didn’t make it far, certainly not to the top. No one ever had. And as high as the trees stretched, the roots reached to the foundations of the earth. They were the only thing more rooted in this land than the Ballengers. Once we were at the base of the hill, Gunner shouted and took off ahead of the pack. The rest of us followed, the trampling of hooves pounding in our bones. We liked to make our arrivals into town well announced. * * * The bell chimed softly, as delicate as crystal goblets meeting in a toast. The ring echoed up through the stone arches of the temple unchallenged. As disorderly and loudly as we pounded into town, the family respected the sanctity of the temple even if cards, red-eye, and barrels of ale swam in our visions. Five more bells and we would be done. Gunner, Priya, and Titus knelt on one side of me, Jalaine, Samuel, Aram, and Mason on the other. We took up the whole front row. Our straza—Drake, Tiago, and Charus—knelt behind us. The priest spoke in the old tongue, stirring the ashes with calf’s blood, then placed a wet, ashy fingertip on each of our foreheads. Our offerings were taken by the sober-faced alms bearers into the coffers, deemed acceptable by the gods. More than acceptable, I would guess. It was enough to fund another healer for the infirmary. Three more bells. Two. One. We stood, accepting the priest’s blessing, and walked solemnly in a single file out of the dark hall. Chiseled saints stood on lofty pillars looking down upon us, and the cantillating benediction of the priestess floated after us like a protective ghost. Outside, Titus waited until he was at the bottom of the steps before he pealed out a shrill whistle—the call to the tavern. Drinks were on the new Patrei. Decorum in the face of death brought emotion too near the surface for Titus. Maybe for all of us. I felt a tug on my coat. The seer was huddled in the shadow of a pillar, her hood covering her face. I dropped some coins in her basket. “What news have you?” I asked. She pulled on my coat until I knelt to eye level with her. Her eyes were tight azure stones, and appeared to float, disembodied, in the black shadow of her hood. Her gaze latched on to mine, her head tipping to the side like she was slipping deep behind my eyes. “Patrei,” she whispered. “You heard.” She shook her head. “Not from without. Within. Your soul tells me. From without … I hear other things.” “Such as?” She leaned close, her voice hushed as if she feared someone else would hear. “The wind whispers they are coming, Patrei. They are coming for you.” She took my hand in her gnarled fingers and kissed my ring. “Gods watch over you.” I gently pulled loose and stood, still looking down at her. “And over you.” Her news wasn’t exactly news, but I didn’t begrudge the coins I had tossed her way. Everyone knew we would face challenges. I hadn’t gotten to the bottom step when Lothar and Rancell, two of our overseers, dragged someone over and threw him to his knees in front of me. I recognized him, Hagur from the livestock auction. “Skimming,” Lothar said. “Just as you suspected.” I stared at him. There was no denial in his eyes, only fear. I drew my knife. “Not in front of the temple,” he pleaded, tears flowing down his cheeks. “I beg you, Patrei. Don’t shame me before the gods.” He grabbed my legs, bowing his head and sobbing. “You’re already shamed. Did you think we wouldn’t find out?” He didn’t answer, only cried for mercy, hiding his face in my boots. I shoved him away, and his gaze froze onto mine. “No one cheats the family.” He nodded furiously. “But the gods showed mercy to us,” I said. “Once. And that’s the Ballenger way. We do the same.” I sheathed my knife. “Stand, brother. If you live in Hell’s Mouth, you are part of our family.” I held out my hand. He looked at me as if it were a trick, too afraid to move. I stepped forward, pulled him to his feet, and embraced him. “Once,” I whispered into his ear. “Remember that. For the next year, you will pay double the tithe.” He pulled away, nodding, thanking me, stumbling over his steps as he backed up, until he finally turned and ran. He would not cheat us again. He would remember he was family, and one did not betray one’s own. At least, that was the way it was supposed to work. I thought about Paxton and the seer’s words again. They are coming for you. Paxton was a nuisance, a bloodsucking leech who had developed a taste for wine. We would handle him, just like we handled everything else. The scavengers have fled, our supplies now theirs. Gone? he asks. I nod. He lies dying in my arms, already dust and ash and a ghost of greatness. He presses the map into my hand. This is the true treasure. Get them there. It’s up to you now. Protect them. He promises there is food. Safety. He has promised this since the first stars fell. I do not know what safety is anymore. It is from a time before I was born. He squeezes my hand with the last of his strength. Hold on to it, no matter what you have to do. Never give it up. Not this time. Yes, I answer because I want him to believe in his last moments that all his effort and sacrifice are not wasted. His quest will save us. Take my finger, he says. It’s your only way in. He pulls a razor from his vest and holds it out to me. I shake my head. I can’t do this to my own grandfather. Now, he orders. You will have to do worse things to survive. Sometimes you must kill. This, he says, looking at his hand, this is nothing. How can I disobey? He is the chief commander of everything. I look at those surrounding us, sunken eyes, faces streaked with dirt and fear. I barely know most of them. He shoves the razor into my hand. Out of many, you are one now. You are family. The Ballenger Family. Shield one another. Survive. You are the surviving remnant that Tor’s Watch was built for. I am only fourteen and all the rest are younger. How can we be strong enough to withstand the scavengers, the winds, the hunger? How can we do this alone? Now, he says again. And I do as he orders. He makes no sound. Only smiles as he closes his eyes and takes his last breath. And I take my first breath as leader of a remnant, charged by my grandfather and commander to hold on to hope. I am not sure I can. —Greyson Ballenger, 14 CHAPTER FOUR KAZI Livestock pens were broken and scattered like tinder, and the stink of scorched grass burned our lungs. Rage blazed beneath my skin as I took in the destruction. Wren and Synové rumbled with fury. Our task suddenly fractured and multiplied like an image in a shattered mirror. In the end, the anger would serve us. We all knew it. Our sham excuse for coming here—investigating treaty violations—had suddenly grown, full-bodied, sharp, all teeth, claws, and venom. The settlement consisted of four homes, a longhouse, a barn, and multiple sheds. They had all suffered damage. The barn was completely destroyed. We spotted a stooped man, furiously hoeing a garden, seemingly oblivious to the carnage around him. When he saw us coming, he raised his hoe as a weapon, then lowered it when he recognized Wren’s cloak made with the patched fabrics of the Meurasi clan. My leather waistcoat was embossed with the revered thannis found on the Vendan shield, and Synové’s horse had the tasseled nose band of the clans who lived in the eastern fens. All distinctly Vendan if you knew what you were looking for. “Who did this?” I asked when we reached him, though I already knew. He straightened, pushing on his bowed back. His face was lined with years in the sun, his cheekbones tired hills in a sagging landscape. Partial faces peeked around doors and between cracked shutters in the dwellings behind him, more settlers too afraid to come out. His name was Caemus, and he explained that the marauders had come in the middle of the night. It was dark and they couldn’t see their faces, but he knew it was the Ballengers. They had come just a week earlier with a warning to the settlers to keep their shorthorns off their land. They took one as payment. Wren looked around. “Their land? Out here? In the middle of the Cam Lanteux?” “It’s all theirs,” he answered. “As far as they can see, according to them. Every blade of grass belongs to them.” Synové’s knuckles whitened with rage. “Where’s your livestock?” I asked. “Gone. They took the rest. I guess as payment for the air we breathe.” I noticed there were no horses either. “And the Ravians that Morrighan gifted you?” “Everything’s gone except for one old dray horse for our wagon. A few of the others went into town to buy more supplies. They won’t be able to get much. Vendans pay a premium.” His jaw was set hard, his fingers tight around the hoe. Vendans didn’t scare off easily, but he said he was afraid some might be too fearful to return to the settlement. “You won’t be paying a premium to anyone, nor payment for the air you breathe,” I said. I took a last look at the damage. “It may take a while, but reparations will be made to you.” “We don’t want more trouble from—” “The other settlers will return, and it is you who will receive payment.” He looked at me, doubtful. “You don’t know the Ballengers.” “True,” I answered. “But neither do they know us.” And they were about to. * * * Hell’s Mouth was twenty miles away. It was a remote, mysterious city, far from the seat of Eislandia, that few knew anything about, other than it was a growing trading center. Until a few months ago, I had never heard its name. But it was supposedly a large enough town that it offered the opportunity for buying and trading for the settlement. I was tired and irritable as we rode. I hadn’t slept well last night, even in my tent. This miserable flat wilderness pecked at me like a relentless sour bird, and it seemed impossible that any sizable town existed way out here. It felt like I hadn’t taken a deep breath in days. Synové chattered nonstop, and I snapped at her like a shrill crow when she brought up the racaa again. “I’m sorry,” I said after a long silence. “I shouldn’t have jumped on you.” “I’m afraid I’ve run out of fresh subjects,” Synové answered. I was truly wretched. And she was right—she knew. I didn’t like the silence, and she was only trying to fill it for me. I was used to the noise of the city, the constant hum, the bang, the wail, the sound of people and animals, the tinny patter of rain on roofs and the slosh of wagons in muddy puddles, the chant of street peddlers trying to entice someone to buy a pigeon, an amulet, or cup of steaming thannis. I longed to hear the roar of the river, the jingle of soldiers as they marched down a lane, the heave of a hundred men pulling the great bridge into place, the sounds of remembrance bones clacking as they swung from a thousand belts, all of it teeming together like something alive and whole on its own. All those things helped me to hide. They were my armor. The windswept silence left me naked. “Please,” I said, “tell me about how they give birth again.” “Eggs, Kazi,” Wren interrupted. “You weren’t listening.” Synové cleared her throat, her signal for us to be quiet. “I’ll tell you a story instead.” Wren and I both raised our brows, dubious, but still, I was grateful. It was one she had told many times before, but she often added an unexpected twist to make us laugh. She told the story of the devastation, the way the Fenlanders told it. She reverted to her thick, easy drawl. The angel Aster played large in this version. The gods had become lazy, not tending to the world as they should, and the Ancients had elevated themselves to godly positions, soaring among the heavens, ravenous in power but weak in wisdom, crushing all in their path, and so Aster, who was guardian of the heavens, swept her hand through the galaxy, gathered a fistful of stars, and threw them to earth to destroy the wickedness that dwelled there. But there was a Remnant on the earth she found to be pure of heart, and to them she showed mercy, leading them away from the devastation to a place of safety behind the gates of Venda. “And to the Fenlanders, of course, supreme over all, she gave a fat roasted pig with a glittering star in its mouth.” Every time she told the story, Aster always bestowed the Fenlanders with a different gift—usually a fat, juicy one—depending on how hungry Synové was at the moment. Wren took a turn too, telling the story with the details from her own clan. There were no roasted pigs in her version, but plenty of sharp blades. I had no version of my own, no clan that I belonged to—even among Vendans I was anchorless—but one thing was constant in all the versions I heard, the gods and angels destroyed the world when men aspired to be gods and mercy had fled their hearts. No one was spared except for a small Remnant who found favor, and that was how all the kingdoms began, but as the queen often warned, The work is never over. Time circles. Repeats. We must ever be watchful. Now it seemed, we needed to be watching the Ballengers. Wren had the eyes of a hawk and called out first. “There it is!” Hills rippled the plain in the distance, and scattered ruins finally appeared, flecking the landscape with rich, lush shadows, but far beyond them, tucked at the foot of a misty lavender mountain, a dark blotch grew larger. It took form and color as we got closer and sprawled like a giant beast lying at the feet of its brooding master. What kind of beast was Hell’s Mouth, or, maybe more important, who was its master? An oval of deep green appeared to hover over it all like a foreboding spiked tiara. Trees? Strange, unearthly trees. Nothing like I had ever seen before. Synové sucked in a breath. “That is Hell’s Mouth?” My pulse quickened, and I stepped up in my stirrups. Mije snorted, ready to break into a gallop. Not yet, boy. Not yet. Glimpses of ancient streets began to appear, like the backs of subterranean snakes surfacing as if they traveled just below us. “By the gods,” Wren said. “It’s as big as Sanctum City.” I took a deep relaxed breath and sat back in my saddle. This was going to be easy. * * * The city was just inside the border of Eislandia, a Lesser Kingdom shaped like a large falling tear, and Hell’s Mouth was at its apex, distant and remote from the rest of the kingdom. Just outside the border, the Ballenger stronghold overlooked it all, but their fortress was impenetrable according to a report the queen had received. We would see. Unlike the Sanctum in Venda, there were no walls around this city, no Great River to hold it prisoner. It ambled with the boldness of a warlord, nothing daring to hold it back. Its homes and hamlets reached out with strong crooked fingers, and the whole city seemed to be hemmed in only by the circle of trees that towered over it like a mystical wreath. There were multiple points of entry, and far off we could see many other travelers making their way into the city too. While still a good distance away, Wren picked out a suitable abandoned ruin as we passed, and she and Synové stowed some packs there before we continued on. Though many travelers entered the city, when we rode in we drew stares. It could be they saw the Vendan crest on our tack, or maybe they saw something in our faces. We weren’t there to buy or sell goods. We weren’t there for any reason they perceived as good. They were right. Wren hissed. Shook her head. Grumbled. “I don’t like it.” She pulled out her ziethe, spun it, and shoved it back in its scabbard, the hilt snapping against the leather. Synové and I exchanged a glance. We knew this was coming. It was Wren’s ritual, as she recalculated every risk in the minutes before we actually took the risks. “You sure? They’re a powerful family. If they lock you up—” “Yes,” I answered before she could propose something else. It was the only way this was going to work. “Like I told Griz,” I said, our gazes meeting, “I’ve got this. So do you.” She nodded. “Blink last.” “Always,” I confirmed. There were all kinds of unwritten laws that we lived by on the streets. Wren knew that was one of mine. Blinking last wasn’t just an occupational tip to reel in a target, it was a survival aspiration. We proceeded forward, gawking at the strange city, taking turns pointing out oddities, like the web of rambling structures looming overhead where the thick, muscled arms of tree branches held them securely aloft, rope suspension bridges connecting them to more structures—homes, shops, even a large, sprawling inn that ascended into the trees—shadows upon shadows and endless paths to follow. The architecture of the city was a mix of old and new, ruins repurposed into homes and shops. The pitted ancient stones of another time were joined and fitted with newly polished marble. In some places, the giant trees were a staunch troop of sentries huddled close together, their trunks as wide as two wagons, and only dappled light danced through their soaring canopies. In the center of town, the sentries took a step back, leaving an opening for the sun to shine unobstructed into Hell’s Mouth. It shone now on a white marble building ahead, giving it an ethereal glow. A temple. It was the focal point of a wide, circular plaza that was thick with people, bustle, noise, and—and everything I loved. I paused, taking it all in, and then for a handful of seconds I held my breath. It was a fruitless habit I couldn’t shake, and I scanned the crowd for a face that haunted me but was never there. I sighed with both relief and disappointment when I didn’t see it. As we circled around, I noticed that the avenues were laid out like the spokes of a wheel with the plaza at its center. We found a livery to feed and water our horses, and while Wren and Synové got our horses settled in stalls, I asked the stable master for directions to the magistrate’s office. “Right here. You’re looking at him.” The magistrates I had met in Reux Lau didn’t muck stables on the side. “You also enforce the law here?” “I keep watch. There’s ten of us.” His shoulders pulled back and he squinted one eye. “What’s this all about?” I told him who I was, here by the authority of the King of Eislandia, which was only a slight stretch of the truth, and also by the Queen of Venda to investigate treaty violations. He didn’t try to disguise his slow perusal of me from my boots to the sword and knives belted at my side. His gaze lingered there. “Don’t know anything about violations.” Sure you don’t. I moved closer and he eased back a step. Apparently even he knew of Rahtan. “As an enforcer of the law for your king, I instruct you to tell us anything you know.” He shook his head and shrugged. Nothing. I was ready to twist the little weasel into a braided loaf, but it was too soon for that. I had bigger game to hunt. “There are Vendans here in town buying supplies. Have you seen them?” He seemed relieved to see me on my way. “Sure,” he answered, now eager to talk again. “Saw them headed that way this morning.” He pointed down an avenue across the plaza. “There’s a mercantile there—” “Where Vendans have the privilege of paying double?” He shrugged his indifference. “Don’t know anything about that either, but I’ll tell you, folks here are loyal, and the Ballengers own this town. They always have.” “Interesting,” I said. “Are you aware that Hell’s Mouth is part of Eislandia, and not the Ballenger dynasty?” A smirk lifted the corner of his mouth. “Hard to tell the difference sometimes. Half those here have some relation to them, and the other half are in debt to them.” “Really. And which are you, Magistrate?” His taciturn demeanor bloomed again, and he only grinned. I turned and left but was only a few steps away when he called after me. “Just a friendly warning. Be careful whose toes you go stepping on.” Friendly. I gathered up Wren and Synové, and we asked a few questions as we made our way to the mercantile. The responses we garnered were similar to the magistrate’s. They knew nothing. I wasn’t sure if it was because we were Rahtan or if they were too afraid to speak about the Ballengers to any form of law. Outside the mercantile, a striped awning stretched over barrels and crates brimming with food—grains, dried beans, salted meats, pickled hocks, colorful fruits and vegetables—all displayed in neat rows. The abundance surprised me, but it always did when I traveled to other cities. Inside, the store appeared to sell more food and other wares. Through the windows, I viewed shovels, bolts of fabric, and a wall full of tinctures. A dray pulled by an old draft horse was parked nearby, and I wondered if it belonged to the Vendan settlers. As we approached, I watched a clerk chase off children who were playing near stacked crates of oranges. My tongue prickled. Bright, luscious oranges. I had tasted only one in my whole life—when I stole into the home of a quarterlord. I was searching for something else but found it sitting on the middle of his table like a revered ornament. I sniffed it, then joyously peeled it, scattering the dimpled skin across the tabletop so the quarterlord would see that his treasure was appreciated. With every tear of the peel, I breathed in the heavenly spray of its scent. As soon as it passed my lips, I knew it was divinely inspired and had to be the first food the gods ever created. My cheeks ached with the memory of golden wedges bursting in my mouth. Even the way it was fashioned had fascinated me, impossibly organized into neat little half-moons packaged in gilded perfection. It was the first and last time I had had one. Oranges rarely made their way to Venda on Previzi wagons, and when they did they were a luxury reserved only for quarterlords or governors—usually as a gift from the Komizar—like the other rarities that only he could conjure. I understood the children’s lust for the mysterious fruit. A woman leaving the mercantile called to the children, and they ran to the dray, jumping into the back, taking the goods she carried from her arms. Once the goods were stacked, their eyes turned longingly back to the oranges. Wren called to the woman in Vendan, and her eyes immediately widened, surprised to hear her own tongue. Here they spoke Landese, which was essentially identical to Morrighese, the predominant language of the continent. Once we were close, Synové asked, “Are you from the settlement?” The woman glanced nervously around her. “Yes,” she said quietly. “I’m afraid we had some trouble. Some of our provisions in an outbuilding were burned, so we had to come to the city for more.” She told us that this had used up the last of their money. I heard the fear in her voice. Her group had come here to avoid the starving seasons of Venda where life could not be scraped out on the devastated and fallow land. A colossal Vendan army had been disbanded in hopes of something better, but the something better was turning into something else for them, a harshness of a new kind. I explained that we were Rahtan sent by the queen to check on their welfare and asked about the raiders. Her story was the same as Caemus’s—it was dark so they couldn’t see—but the Ballengers had demanded payment. “Where are the others you came to town with?” I asked. She pointed down the street and said they were gathering what they needed from various shops and they all planned to leave as soon as possible. When I asked if the mercantile had charged her double, she looked down, afraid to answer, saying softly, “I don’t know.” I eyed an empty burlap sack in the back of the dray. “May I borrow that?” Her eyes pinched with worry but she nodded. I shoved it into Wren’s hands and signaled for her to follow me. She immediately knew why and rolled her eyes. “Now?” “Oh, yes. Now,” I answered, and walked over to the clerk who supervised the merchandise under the awning. I pointed at the crate of oranges. “How much?” I asked. His response wasn’t quick, instead inventing an answer just for me. He had seen me talking to the Vendan woman and by now had probably guessed I was Vendan too. “Five gralos each.” Five. Even as a foreigner in these parts, I knew that was a fortune. “Really,” I replied, as if contemplating the price, then I grabbed one and tossed it into the air. It landed with a firm slap back into my hand. The clerk’s brows pulled down in a deep V and his mouth opened, ready to bark at me, but then I grabbed another and another and still another, juggling them in the air, and the clerk forgot what he was going to say. His mouth hung agape, his eyes twirling along with the spinning oranges. I smiled. I laughed. Even as a knife slid through me, the same knife that had slid through me a hundred times, and the more I smiled, the more I bled, the faster the oranges twirled, the hotter my anger burned, but I laughed and chattered as I had so many times because that was part of the trick. Make them believe. Smile, Kazi. It is just an innocent game. It was a trick I reserved for the most suspicious quarterlords, those who had no mercy or compassion for any of the street rats like me. Even though the prize was only a half-rotten turnip or a square of hard cheese to fill an empty belly, it was worth the risk of a lost finger. Each victory would get me through another day, and that was another trick of surviving in Venda. Make it one more day. Die tomorrow was another one of my rules. How many times had I hypnotized merchants this way? Smiling to deceive them, spinning to rob them, drawing crowds to their stands to make them forget, using near misses, calls to those in the crowd, and tossing the same fruit into their arms to distract them so they never noticed the ones that disappeared. The clerk was sufficiently mesmerized as I continued to grab orange after orange, juggling, tossing, and redistributing them into a tall neat stack in another crate, even as I discussed the wonder of oranges and how fine his were, the best I had ever seen. One thrown to a crate, one dropped into the waiting burlap sack at Wren’s feet. Once four were safely ensconced in the bag, I juggled the last piece of fruit onto the pile, making a perfect pyramid. The clerk laughed and admired the stack in wonder, never noticing a single missing orb. “Your oranges are lovely, but I’m afraid too steep for my pocket.” It didn’t pass his notice that several townspeople had wandered over to watch the show and now were perusing his goods. He handed me one of the smaller, scarred oranges. “With my compliments.” I thanked him and returned to the dray, Wren following close behind with the sack. Even the children were not aware of what was inside. I sniffed the scarred orange, inhaling its perfume, then dropped it in with the others, tucking the sack between other supplies for them to discover later. We continued down the street to talk with more Vendans we saw leaving the apothecary. That was when I spotted trouble coming. A throng of young men, full of swagger—and a night of carousing, judging by their disheveled appearance—walked toward us. The one in the middle hadn’t even bothered to button his shirt, and his chest was half exposed. He was tall, his shoulders wide, and he walked like he owned the street. His dark-blond hair hung in disarray over his eyes, but even from a distance it was easy to see they were bloodshot with drink. I looked away, exchanging knowing glances with Synové and Wren, and we moved on. Karsen Ballenger, patriarch of the lawless family, was my ticket into Tor’s Watch and the center of our target. This sloppy group was not the kind of trouble I could be bothered with. CHAPTER FIVE JASE I felt a shove and my face slammed into the floor. “Wake up.” I rolled over and saw the bench I had fallen from and Mason looming over me. I squinted against the bright light streaming in through the tavern windows and reached up to feel my skull, certain a cleaver was lodged in it. I cursed Mason and reached for a hand up, then noticed my bare arm. “Where’s my shirt?” “Anyone’s guess,” Mason answered as he hoisted me up. He looked as bad as I felt. I’d bought drinks for half the city last night, and I was certain just as many had bought them for me. There were no grand coronations when a new Patrei was named, though at the moment it seemed a far better idea than the rites that had passed last night, and I didn’t remember half of them. Everyone wanted to be part of a ritual that only occurred once every few decades—if we were lucky. This one had come too soon. I spotted my shirt strewn across the bar and stumbled over to it, kicking the boots of Titus, Drake, and others sprawled on the floor as I went. “Get up.” Gunner groaned and grabbed his head just as I had, then vomited across the floor. The smell made my own stomach lurch. Never again, I swore beneath my breath. Never. “Up!” Mason yelled to them all, then said more quietly to me when I winced at the noise, “There’s visitors in town. Vendan soldiers—Rahtan—at least that’s what one of the magistrates is saying. They’re asking questions.” “Son of a bitch,” I hissed, but not too loudly, still rubbing my temple. I grabbed a half-empty pitcher of water and splashed my face, then threw on my shirt. “Let’s go.” The avenues were crowded. The first harvest had come in, and farm workers swelled in the streets, spending the fruits of the season on everything Hell’s Mouth had to offer—and the Ballengers made sure no need was unmet. Traders from other kingdoms rolled in too. Everyone was welcome into Hell’s Mouth, except Vendan soldiers—especially not ones asking questions. Rahtan. The queen’s elite guard. Maybe I could turn this to our favor after all. “There. Up ahead. That must be them,” Mason said, his eyes still bleary. Half of our crew still lay on the floor back at the tavern, but I put my hand out to stop Gunner, Titus, and Tiago, who followed behind us. I wanted to observe these Vendans first, see just what they were doing, and they didn’t seem to be asking questions. There were three of them outside the mercantile—women—and one of them was juggling. I blinked, thinking the magistrate had made a mistake. This was a girl I might have eagerly bought a drink for last night, but there was no mistaking she was outfitted for trouble, a sword hanging from one hip and two knives from the other. Her long black hair hung loosely over her shoulders, and she laughed and chatted with the store clerk as she continued to juggle, and then— I jabbed Mason. “Did you see that?” “See what?” “She just nicked an orange!” At least I thought she did. I rubbed my eyes, uncertain. Yes! She did it again. “Let’s go,” I said, moving toward her. She spotted me, her eyes connecting with mine, slowly perusing me like I was a bug, then nodded to those with her and they walked away. Like hell. CHAPTER SIX KAZI We intercepted the Vendans leaving the apothecary—a husband and wife. Their eyes were lined with fatigue. Leaving Venda for the unknown was not an easy choice, and yet it was their only hope for something better. The fact that they were still here, trying, showed how desperately they wanted to make it work. The settlement locations had been carefully chosen, approved by every kingdom in advance, usually near sizable cities so there was a greater potential for trade and growth—and protection. But they were receiving the opposite here. It wasn’t only the major powers of Morrighan and Dalbreck who wanted the Vendans divided and dispersed, the Lesser Kingdoms did too, afraid of their numbers and the strength they had once amassed, but the queen had never held it out as threat, only that it was the right thing to do. These were people who hoped for a brighter future. Troops would come if disputes couldn’t be resolved, but before troops came, a darker trouble needed to be uncovered here—discreetly. Any whiff of what we were really after and our prey might vanish entirely, as he had before. Not this time, the queen said. I saw the ghosts in her eyes. Even for her, I thought, they never go away. “So you can’t identify the attackers either?” I asked. “No, we—” “What’s going on here?” I sighed. The bevy of bacchanals had followed us. I turned and faced them, eyeing the bloodshot leader of the group. “Move along, boy,” I ordered. “This doesn’t concern you.” His eyes went from bloodshot to flaming. “Boy?” He stepped closer, and in one swift movement, I brought him to his knees and slammed him up against the apothecary wall, a knife to his throat. His crew jumped forward but then stalled when they saw the blade firm against his skin. “That’s right, boy. Call off your misbegotten posse and move along as I ordered, and maybe I won’t cut your pretty neck.” His muscles strained beneath my grasp, his shoulder a knot of rage—and yet the knife was snug against his jugular. He considered carefully. “Back off,” he finally told his friends. “Sensible,” I said. “Ready to move along?” “Yes,” he hissed. “Good boy,” I said, though it was now clear to me that there was nothing boyish about him. I pulled the knife from his belt and shoved him away. He didn’t protest or try to double back, but instead took his time to stand. He faced me and waved back the others, who were ready to jump to his defense now that his neck was safe from my knife. Seconds stretched and he studied me as though he was memorizing every inch of my face. Revenge burned in his gaze. He lifted his arm and Wren and Synové tensed, raising their weapons, but he only raked his thick hair back from his face, and then, his eyes still boring into mine—he smiled. A chill danced up my spine. Smiles like his unsettled me. I had a history with them. They meant something else, but he only dipped his head in good-bye, and said, “I wish you a pleasant stay in Hell’s Mouth.” He turned and walked away by himself, his friends going in the opposite direction, as though he had sent them some private communiqué. I knew about subtle signals—Wren, Synové, and I often used them to silently communicate our moves—but if he had used one, I hadn’t seen it. I puzzled over it for a moment then returned my knife to its sheath, eyeing him as he disappeared down an avenue. Synové and Wren did likewise with their weapons, and the noise around us, which had hushed with the commotion, slowly resumed. I turned back to the couple, but they both stood stiff, their eyes wide with horror. “It’s all right,” I said. “They’re gone—” “Do you know who that was?” the woman asked, her voice trembling. “It was—” “The Patrei,” her husband answered before I could finish. I had a very clear description of Karsen Ballenger—a robust man, somewhere near forty, dark brown hair, dark eyes, a scar across his chin—and the swaggering dirty blond was not remotely him. “The Patrei is Karsen Ballenger,” I said. “He’s—” “Karsen Ballenger is dead,” the man replied. “He died yesterday. That was Jase, his son, the new Patrei.” New Patrei? Karsen Ballenger dead? Yesterday? No. They were mistaken. I was told that Karsen was young, fierce, and healthy. How could— The ring. My stomach spun. The gold signet ring. It was on his finger. I caught a glimpse of gold when I held him against the wall, but I didn’t think anything of it. It was supposed to be on an older man. My mind whirled, and I felt myself being whisked down an unexpected path. I could see Natiya raging already, Griz roaring, and the queen burying her face in her hands. I sucked in a deep breath. There is still time to save this. If I was going to get under anyone’s skin other than Karsen Ballenger, his son was the next best choice. This could still work. In fact, maybe it was perfect timing. I looked in the direction he had walked. Alone. He had wanted me to follow him. I was told that Karsen Ballenger had a large ego. It was obvious his son did, too—maybe bigger. He wasn’t going to let this humiliation go. “Guard the end of the street,” I told Wren and Synové. “Don’t let his crew follow me,” and I went after him. * * * It was a quiet avenue, strangely void of anyone, lined with the back sides of shops, trash bins, and the trunks of giant trees. Shadows crisscrossed the buckled and rutted cobbled street. I couldn’t see him, but I knew he was here. Somewhere. I felt the hot trail of rage he left behind. Yes, I wanted him angry but not so much that he would kill me—that was not part of the plan. It was eerily calm, and I pulled my sword halfway from its scabbard, scouring the shadows on either side. I listened for sounds, and a little farther down the road I heard a scuffling noise, a grunt, a soft clatter. A repeat of the same sounds. I turned my head, trying to pinpoint where it came from. I took another step and determined it came from an intersecting lane only a few yards ahead. I stepped forward, cautiously, and saw him, but not in the way I expected. He was bound and gagged, blood running from his temple, and he was in the grips of an enormous man almost the size of Griz. They both spotted me, and I stepped out into the middle of the lane. “What do you think you’re doing?” I called. I didn’t think it could be a trick. The blood was real. “No concern of yours, missy. Just cleaning up street trash. Go about your business.” I pulled my sword free. “Let him go,” I ordered. “Nah, I don’t think so. He’s a strong one. We’ll get a lot for him.” And then I spotted a hay wagon not far behind them both, with tall sides and a heavy tarp thrown over the top. Labor hunters? A vision swirled before my eyes. A long-ago voice I couldn’t block out punched the air from my lungs. I blinked, trying to force the memories away. “By order of the Queen of Venda, I demand that you release him now. He is in my custody for treaty violations.” Jase Ballenger’s eyes grew wide, and he groaned and struggled beneath his gag but the man’s arm was a vise around him. For a moment, I regretted taking his knife. He might have avoided this quandary. The man grinned. “You mean he’s under arrest? Well, if you put it that way…” His voice was thick with sarcasm, and the memories clawed me again. You’ll bring a nice profit. Jase groaned louder. “Release him! Now!” I ordered. It was then that I heard a sound behind me. I whirled but it was too late. Something hard and heavy struck my head, and my feet flew out beneath me. My cheek crashed into the muddy cobbles, and I caught a hazy glimpse of boots shuffling near me, stepping on the sword that was still in my hand. I felt him pull it from my grip, his boots scuffling closer, the toe of one nudging my shoulder, and then the cloudy haze darkened until it was black. * * * I thought it couldn’t get worse. I didn’t open my eyes when I first woke, trying to get my bearings, listening instead to the noises around me, feeling the rock and sway beneath my back, sweat trickling between my breasts, the throb of my head, something sharp cutting into my wrists. I slivered my eyes open. My wrists were chained, but worse, my boots were gone and my ankle was shackled to Jase Ballenger. He sat across from me, his gag gone, swaying with the wagon, the side of his face crusted with dried blood, the rest shining with perspiration. He saw that I was awake. His expression was grim. He was probably far beyond angry now, and most certainly fantasizing about how slowly he would kill me if he ever got the chance. His scrutiny was smothering, and I turned my head. That was when I caught the view out the back of the wagon. There were no trees, no streets, no mountains or even hills. We were in the middle of a wide-open plain, with nowhere to hide, and nowhere to run. How long had I been unconscious? This was more than an unexpected turn. It was an unchecked slide into hell. CHAPTER SEVEN JASE The last thing Gunner and the others would have expected was for me to disappear in a hay wagon. Keep the straza at your sides. My mother had said it a hundred times. Her order was as matter-of-fact as brushing the hair from our eyes every time we left Tor’s Watch. I had heard it since I was a child. These are uncertain times. She said it to my father too. It was her good-bye. We had become numb to it. The times were always uncertain, and our straza were always there, a presence at our sides like a knife or sword. They only had to be seen, not used. The main difference between straza and everyone else was their title, and maybe the severity of their scowls. My brothers and I were all capable of fighting our own battles, and we had one another’s backs. Usually. But we didn’t see this battle coming. I was blind with rage when I signaled Mason. The faintest nod to the side that he read and understood. Go with the others or she won’t follow. Circle around and meet me at the livery. This Rahtan is going to cool her heels. I was still blind with rage as I walked down that alley. Boy. She didn’t know who I was, I figured that much, but I also knew it would be only a matter of seconds before the dawning came and she’d be trailing after me. Move along and I won’t cut your pretty neck. She said it with venom—and sincerity. She would have done it. There was no doubt that she was driven, by what I wasn’t sure. She didn’t even know me. But I was driven too. This was my town, and she wasn’t going to spit out orders. As soon as I started down the alley, I should have known. My father had always warned me, If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. Trust your gut. In those first steps, something seemed off, but my gut was woozy with a night of ale, and halfway down the alley my stomach caught up with my rage and I doubled over to vomit. As I wiped my mouth, an anvil pounded in my head and I blamed it on her—that was when the labor hunter hit me, knocking me to the ground. I hadn’t heard him approach and didn’t even understand who or what he was at first. As he gagged and bound me, I thought maybe he was Rahtan too, but then he called to another man farther down the alley, saying I’d bring a good price. And then she appeared and demanded my release. I looked at her now, lying across from me. She hadn’t stirred all morning, and I wondered if she would wake at all. I didn’t know why I tried to warn her that the brute was sneaking up from behind. Maybe because I saw her as a chance to get away. I’d seen how fast she could move when she kicked my legs out from under me back in Hell’s Mouth. I mulled that over too, or maybe it was more like I seethed over it. My stomach was still raw, empty. The hunters hadn’t given us anything but water since they took us yesterday. I watched her chest barely rise, her breaths so shallow sometimes I thought she wasn’t breathing. He’d hit her hard, and I guessed she had a good-sized egg on the back of her head. She had hesitated in the alley when she spotted me, as if something had distracted her. Her demands had disappeared and a puzzled expression had crossed her face. Maybe it was only seeing her prey snatched from beneath her nose. Rahtan. I turned the word over and what I had thought it meant. I had seen Rahtan before in Ráj Nivad, but none had been like her. They looked like killers and brutes, and they were big. She barely reached past my shoulder. And they sure as hell never juggled. Nothing about this added up. Could she be an imposter? Someone sent by Paxton? But I had overheard her speaking Vendan when we first approached. No one spoke like that around here, except other Vendans. Her lids fluttered. She was finally coming to, but her eyes remained closed, even though her chest rose and her breaths became fuller. She was awake. Just assessing her predicament. I could tell her. It was bad. Very bad. Scum like this hadn’t ventured close to Hell’s Mouth in years. They feared the Ballengers. But with settlements moving in, they probably thought they could too. Give up a handful and you will lose it all. My father was right. All the Ballenger generations had been right. We would give up no more; not a single fistful of soil would be shared. Her eyes opened and her gaze shot to her chained hands first, then our shackled ankles, and finally her eyes rose to mine. I said nothing, just stared at her, letting it all sink in. Still plan to arrest me? Maybe not. I had already spent the whole night trying to loosen the chains or pick the locks with a sliver of wood I had pried from the wagon. The locks were secure, and we were stuck. She turned her head, staring out the back of the wagon, and for the first time, she flinched. If it was fear, she muffled it quickly and pulled herself up to sit against the side of the wagon. She winced as she rose. I wondered if she had broken anything when she slammed against the cobbles. Half of her face was still covered with dirt. She looked around, finally taking note of the others chained in the wagon—six of us altogether. “Welcome to the party,” I said. She looked at me, unflustered. Her eyes were smoky golden moons, her pupils pinpoints, shrewd, scheming, or maybe it was just the blow to her head that made her look that way. Her focus turned back to her chained hands, and then she stared at our shackled ankles again, examining them for long, studious minutes. I suspected that rankled her the most. If she hoped to jump out of the back of the wagon and run, I was her anchor. She slowly surveyed the others. We were the only ones with leg shackles, maybe because of our position at the back of the wagon, but all their hands were similarly bound like ours. Their expressions were empty, despondent. I recognized two of them from Hell’s Mouth, one from the cooperage and another from the smithy. Her gaze shifted to the driver. She studied him for a long while too, and then her chin lifted as it had when she told me to move along. I knew something was coming. “Driver!” she called. “Stop the wagon. I have to pee.” The driver laughed and called over his shoulder. “You missed piss break, darling. You gotta go, you do it right there.” “I’d rather not,” she called back. “And I’d rather not listen to your caterwauling. Shut up!” Her eyes narrowed. I nudged her with my foot. Don’t, I mouthed. He had pummeled one of the other prisoners senseless when he wouldn’t stop moaning, and I didn’t want her messing up my own plan for escape. I had spotted an ax under the driver’s seat. Easy to get to, if the opportunity arose. A grin lit her eyes. A grin. What was the matter with her? She was going to push him. “Let it go,” I whispered between gritted teeth. “Driver, I really need to pee.” He whipped around, furious, but before he could speak, she said, “I’ll give you a gift for your trouble?” His rage turned to a chuckle. “I already got all the valuables off you. Sword. Knives. Vest. Those fancy boots.” She leaned forward. “What about a riddle? Something to occupy your mind for all these long, dreary miles? That’s a treasure in itself, no?” His expression changed. No doubt any proposal containing the word treasure caught his greedy attention. When there was nothing tangible left to take, this prize appealed to him. “Give it to me,” he demanded. “Pee first.” “Riddle first.” She sat back. “Very well. But I warn you, you won’t get the answer until I pee.” He nodded, happy with his deal, and told her he was ready for it. I watched her expertly pushing him against a wall, but I wasn’t even sure what the goal was. All this to pee? I didn’t think so. “Listen up,” she instructed, her voice cheerful, like it was a fun diversion for her. “My gaze is sharp, my scales thick, I jump, I pounce, but I’m still not quick. I have two feet, yet cannot stand, My head is full of rocks and sand. I breathe out fire, but my light is dim, I’m easy prey to chance and whim. My chest is empty, the treasury bare, I do not grieve, for it was never there. I am less than nothing, and more of the same, A white chit tossed in a high-stakes game.” “A lizard!” the driver guessed immediately. He made more guesses, focusing on only one clue at a time, not putting any of them together. A desert! A horse! A dragon! She answered no to every guess, and he shifted angrily in his seat. He ordered her to repeat the riddle several times. She did, but all his guesses only garnered a no from her. The more his frustration grew, the more at ease she became. Her hands stretched, fingers wiggled, as if anticipating something. “Tell me!” he demanded. “Pee break,” she replied. He roared a string of curses then yelled, “Whoa!” pulling on the reins. He shouted to the hunters ahead of us who were scouting the path, “Hold!” His face was purple with rage. He jumped down from his seat and stomped to the back of the wagon. I had no doubt he intended to beat the answer out of her. “Tell him,” I whispered. “Now! I don’t want to be chained to a bloody pulp.” She peered at me and smiled. “I’ve got this, pretty boy.” I wondered if she had lost all sense when she was hit in the head. She reached up and pulled her shirt from her trousers so it was loose, just as the driver appeared at the back. “Tell me,” he growled. “Now! Pee break after.” “How do I know that—” He grabbed her shoulders, jerking her forward. She leaned into him and in a single move, as smooth as air, she palmed the keys hooked at his side without so much as a tug or jingle, and slid them beneath her shirt. “All right!” she said, caving to his demand. “All right! Here is your answer.” He pushed her away, waiting. “A fool. An empty-headed fool.” She tweaked her head coyly to the side. “And I was so certain you would get it.” For once, he didn’t miss her point and his arm swung, the back of his fist meeting with her jaw. She fell back, and he glared at her. “Who’s the fool now? I got the answer, and you got no pee break. Piss your pants, bitch.” He stomped back to his seat and drove the wagon forward again. She sat up, getting her bearings, blood trickling from the corner of her mouth, and her eyes met mine. Even the others hadn’t seen what she did. She motioned toward my hands. I leaned forward and she slipped the keys from her shirt and with a slow, guarded motion, unlocked my chains. I quietly laid them on the floor of the wagon. The others noticed, and I pressed my finger to my lips so they wouldn’t make a sound. I took the keys from her and did the same with the chains on her wrists. The others rustled anxiously, seeing what was going on, and thrust their hands out to be freed too, the clinks of their strained chains making a ruckus. The driver thundered back over his shoulder, “Quiet!” We all froze and then I cautiously unlocked the man next to me. He took the keys and did the same for the man next to him. The girl kicked my foot and nodded at our legs as the keys traveled out of our reach. Our ankles were still chained together. I waved to the last two men to pass them back, but they were panicking, unable to get the key in the locks, afraid the driver would turn and see them. I pressed my fingers to my lips again warning them, but one began struggling and sobbed to the other, “Hurry!” The other prisoner freed him at last, but not before the driver turned and saw what was happening. “Scatter!” I yelled, hoping for distraction as I lunged for the keys that had fumbled from the last man’s fingers to the floor. The others ran over us, jumping from the back of the wagon, kicking the keys from my reach. The driver was screaming, alerting the men who rode ahead, and I saw him reach down for the ax beneath his seat. The girl lunged too, as the keys were kicked in the bedlam of the prisoners stampede for freedom. I almost had them in my hand when the girl screamed, “Above you!” I rolled just as an ax splintered the wagon floor where my head had been. I grabbed the handle as he pried it free, and we battled for its control. I made it to my feet, but I had less leverage with one leg chained. “Keep it, you bastard fool!” I yelled and let go of the ax, pushing him. As he stumbled for balance, my arm shot forward, my fist crushing his throat, caving it inward. His eyes bulged and he fell from the wagon onto his back, his throat wheezing, unable to draw a breath. He was as good as dead, but then another hunter on horseback, with a spiked mace in hand, doubled back toward us after taking down one of the other prisoners. His eyes were fixed on me. The girl had snatched up the keys in her fist and was trying to fit the key into the lock at our ankles to free us, but I yelled, “Run!” There wasn’t time for locks. I grabbed her arm and pulled her with me. We stumbled onto the dirt as the hunter’s mace swung over our heads, his horse trampling around us. We scrambled together beneath the wagon just as the mace split the wood over our heads. We crawled to the other side and ran, our paces clumsy with the chain between us. “This way!” I shouted. The hunter was close behind us, but I knew what was up ahead, and I only prayed she could keep step with me. If we stumbled, we were finished. She managed to keep pace, the chain rattling between us, the keys still firm in her grip. The flat plain gave way to a long, steep incline that led to the river below. In one jump, we leapt and rolled, head over heels, tumbling, the shackles cutting into our legs as we pulled apart and came together in what felt like an endless cascade down the loose dirt, unable to break our fall until we hit a flat crest above the river. “The keys!” the girl shouted. Her hand was empty. She had lost them in the long tumble. We untangled ourselves and got to our feet, both of our ankles bleeding where the irons had cut into them. We looked back up the incline, hoping to see the glint of a rusty key. “Devil’s hell!” I hissed. The hunter was traversing the steep embankment on his horse, still coming after us. “Fikat vide,” the girl growled and glanced behind us for escape. There was nowhere to go but the river, and it was a long way down. “Can you swim?” I asked. “I don’t want your dead weight dragging me under.” “Let’s go, pretty boy,” she said, glaring at me, then jumped, pulling me with her. CHAPTER EIGHT KAZI Swim? Not well. There were few opportunities in Sanctum City for swimming. The Great River was too cold and too violent. I’d had some training as Rahtan but didn’t get past the basics of floating. There was simply nowhere to practice. But his accusing question galled me. Dead weight dragging him under? He was the one who passed the keys to others before freeing us. He was the one who pushed us down an embankment, making me lose the keys. The hunter was quickly approaching, another just behind him with their weapons poised to bash in our heads, or at least disable us enough to drag us back to the wagon. There was no other choice. The river was a long way down, but this time I would be the one doing the pushing. I grabbed his arm and jumped. It seemed forever before we hit, the surface surprisingly hard as we broke through. It viciously slammed into my ribs, and then we were tumbling in the current. I didn’t know which way was up, and my lungs were bursting searching for a breath. I kicked, struggled to find the surface, find air, find the way up, but there were only thousands of bubbles, flashes of light, swirls of darkness, and a vise clamping down on my chest, the last breath I had gulped seeping away as I kicked desperately, and then I felt something gripping my arm, fingers digging in, jerking me upward, and I broke the surface, gasping for air. “Lean back!” he yelled. “Cross your legs! Feet forward!” Jase pulled me so I was between his arms, leaning back against his chest, rapids splashing over us, spinning us, but each time he righted our course and we shot down the river like aimless leaves swept away on its surface. The riverbanks on either side weren’t far away, but they were lined with boulders and we were moving too swiftly to risk grabbing on to one. I choked as rapids splashed into my mouth and up my nose. His arms held me tight, pulling me backward when I tried to lean up. “Relax against me,” he ordered. “Go with the current. When it widens and calms, we’ll make our way to the side.” His survival depended on mine and mine on his. We truly were anchors to each other. The only good thing about the fearsome ride was it was taking us far from the labor hunters. The current finally slowed, and stretches of sandy banks began to appear. “A little farther,” he said, his face tucked next to mine, “to make sure they can’t follow.” We had already gone a mile down the river, or more. My legs throbbed, and I was relieved when he started maneuvering us toward a sandy bank. I finally felt my feet touch bottom, and we both stumbled out. We collapsed on the bank, gasping. My hair was a mass of tangles in front of my face, my heart still pounding. I glanced to the side. He lay next to me on his back, his eyes closed, his chest heaving, and his hair dripping in wet strings. I may have put one threat behind me, but now I was chained to another—in the middle of nowhere. There was no pretending that we were friends, and now I had no weapon. Neither did he, but he was undeniably bigger and stronger than me, and I had seen what his fist could do. It was clear I needed to strike at least a temporary truce. Once I caught my breath, I asked, “What now?” His head rolled to the side and he looked at me, a long searing stare. His eyes were clear, bright, the haze of drink long vanished from them, and his irises were the same deep brown as the earth he was lying on. “Did you have something in mind?” he asked. I wasn’t sure if it was sarcasm or humor. Maybe both, but his eyes remained locked on mine. An uneven breath squeezed my lungs. “I’m just saying, I know you don’t like me, and I don’t like you, but until we can be free of each other, I guess we’ll have to make the best of it.” He blinked. Long and slow. Definitely sarcasm. And distaste. He turned away and looked up into the sky as if he was thinking it over. “You have a name?” he finally asked, without looking at me. I paused. I wasn’t sure why it felt risky to tell him. It was strangely personal, but I was the one who suggested we make the best of it. “Kazi,” I said, waiting for him to deride it. “And your family name?” “Vendans don’t use surnames. We’re known by where we’re from. I’m known as Kazi of Brightmist. It’s a quarter in Sanctum City.” He quietly repeated my name but said nothing more, staring upward. I was sure he was conjuring all the possible ways he could be rid of me. If only he had that ax to hack away my foot that bound me to him. He finally stood and held his hand out, waiting for me to take it. I cautiously grabbed hold of his wrist and he helped me to my feet, but he didn’t release my arm, tugging me closer instead. He looked down at me. “And I do have a name too, even though you’re fond of calling me pretty boy. Jase Ballenger,” he said. “But you probably already knew that, didn’t you? Considering you intended to arrest me.” Uneasy seconds passed, his grip still strong. Dark clouds flashed in his eyes. Our truce was off to a shaky start. “The arrest wasn’t imminent,” I replied. “There were still more questions to ask, accusations to review, and then I would have called you in for further discussion.” “You call me in? Hell’s Mouth is my city. Just who do you think you are?” Your worst nightmare, Jase Ballenger, I fumed, but I molded my words into a calm reply. “Do you want to make the best of this or not?” He sucked in a slow, heated breath and swallowed his next words. He released my arm and turned, taking in our surroundings as though he was appraising our situation. “All right, then, Kazi of Brightmist, let’s see if we can make the best of it and get out of here.” His gaze jumped to the ridge on the opposite bank, then back to the forest behind us. He pointed to his left. “I think…” He shook his head and his finger shifted slightly to the right. “I think there’s a settlement in that direction. Closest civilization we’re going to find that doesn’t put us right back in the hunters’ path. Maybe a hundred miles.” A hundred miles? Chained, barefoot, with no weapons or food? And with someone who was about as trustworthy as a merchant’s wink. But I was sure survival was on his mind too. “What kind of settlement?” I asked. “The only kind that’s out here. One of yours.” There was no attempt to hide his disapproval. I looked in the direction he had pointed, still uncertain. “Where’s Hell’s Mouth from here?” I asked. “Other side of the river, where the hunters are. And more than a day’s ride east.” A day? Had I been knocked unconscious for that long? My stomach rumbled in confirmation, and his conclusion rang with some truth. There was another Vendan settlement far west of Eislandia. Casswell was one of the first and largest settlements—several hundred strong. They would have the supplies and resources to help me, in one way or another. The chain rattled between us, and he shifted on his feet. “Well?” he asked. “You have a better idea?” Not at the moment. “We’ll head toward the settlement,” I answered. “But…” he said, taking a step closer, his eyes narrowing, “here’s the real question: If I get you back to civilization, you still think you’re going to call me in for further discussion?” Was that a veiled threat? If I get you back? The chain firmly connecting us now seemed like a blessed assurance I wouldn’t be bludgeoned the minute I turned my back. Everything about his stance was smug confidence. This was a game for him. A challenge. I’d bite. “I’d be a fool to answer that, now, wouldn’t I, considering my predicament?” An amused huff jumped from his chest. “I’d say you’d be a fool not to.” I stared at him, trying to judge how much was bluster and how much genuine threat. “Then shall we simply agree to go our separate ways, once we reach the settlement? No foul, no gain.” “Separate ways,” he said. “Agreed.” We got our last drinks at the river since we didn’t know when we would come across fresh water again, and then I stopped to toe some small rocks I spotted on the bank. I picked one up, turning it over in my hand. “That for me?” he asked. I glanced up. This time, humor. A grin lit his eyes. He was impossible to predict, which only added to my misgivings. Quarterlords and their greedy egos were as easy to forecast as a snowy day in winter. Every exchange of words between Jase and me seemed like a dance, a step forward, a step back, circling, both of us leading, anticipating, wondering what the next move would be. He didn’t trust me any more than I trusted him. “Flint,” I answered. “And my buckle is firesteel. The hunters may have relieved me of my valuables, but at least my belt was worthless to them. A fire will be welcome tonight.” He looked at my buckle, a brown oval of metal shaped like a serpent, and nodded his approval of this development. A step forward. “Then I better keep my eyes open for some dinner.” He stepped toward the forest to leave. “Hold up,” I said. “Before we go, I need you to turn around.” “What?” “I need to pee. Turn around.” “We just got out of a river. Why didn’t you pee there?” “Maybe because I was doing this little thing called fighting for my life.” “You mean I was fighting for your life. You just went along for the ride.” “Turn around,” I ordered. “Turn my back on you?” I smiled. “Don’t worry,” I answered, spitting his own words back into his face, “I wouldn’t want to be chained to a dead weight. You’re safe, pretty boy.” “I don’t even get a riddle first?” I narrowed my eyes. He slowly turned. “Hurry.” I had done more humiliating things I supposed, but at the moment I couldn’t remember what they were. I took care of my business quickly. Making the best of it was not going to be easy. When he turned around again, he reached toward me and I flinched. My hand shot up ready to strike. “Whoa! Hold on,” he said, pulling back. “I was just going to take a look at your face. You’ve got quite a shiner blooming there.” I reached up and touched my jaw, feeling the heat of a fresh bruise. He shrugged. “I’m not saying it wasn’t worth it—you got your hands on the keys—but it makes me wonder, is there anything you won’t do to get what you want?” I eyed him cautiously. “So