Dance of Thieves (Dance of Thieves 1) - Page 33

I felt an ache pressing within. A need I couldn’t name.

I don’t know.

I didn’t want to know.

Let me taste your mouth, I whispered. Don’t make me think.

* * *

I screamed with joy when we came upon a deep pool to bathe in. We rushed toward it, stumbling, squealing, jumping into the cool crystal water. When I surfaced, he splashed me and an all-out war began, the pool erupting with a maelstrom of blinding water and laughter, until he finally grabbed my wrists so I couldn’t move. Calm returned, but not to his eyes. They churned with a different kind of storm. I looked at his face, water dripping from his hair and chin, his lashes clumped together with wetness.

“I like you, Jase Ballenger,” I said softly. “I think if you weren’t a thief, we might be friends.”

“And if you didn’t whisk out knives and threaten to cut pretty necks, I think we might be friends too.”

I wrinkled my nose. “Oh, how obsessed you are with your pretty neck.”

His hands tightened on my wrists. He pulled me close, his teeth nipping at my neck and between kisses, he whispered, “It is not my neck I am obsessed with, Kazi of Brightmist.”

* * *

A cooling breeze lifted my hair, the scent of pine wafting through it, high grass swaying around our knees. We had left early, the screech of a racaa startling us both awake. It flew low, its shadow nearly touching both sides of the valley. Jase confirmed that their primary diet was antelope, occasionally snatching foals or sheep, but he assured me he had never heard of them taking humans. “At least not more than once or twice. It’s never worried me, though. I hear they favor black-haired beauties—with their sour, tough meat and all.”

I jabbed him with my elbow. “Where I go, you go, so you better hope it finds a nice juicy antelope today.”

By midmorning, the breeze was gone, the sun relentless, and the still air seemed to hold a foreboding hum. Maybe it was just our footsteps swishing through the grass or the endless rattle of the chain dragging between us. Maybe it sounded like a timepiece ticking off our steps.

“Let’s take a break,” I said, and we headed for a stand of birch and lay beneath the shade on a thick bed of summer grass. But even without the rattle of the chain and the swish of our footsteps, I still heard a persistent hum and tick in the stillness of the air. It vibrated through my bones like a quiet warning. “Tell me a story, Jase,” I said. “Something else about your family history.” Anything to block the hum and the tick.

He told me the story of Miandre. She was the first mother of all Ballengers. She came to Tor’s Watch with Greyson as part of the surviving Remnant when she was thirteen. She was only a child herself but was forced to lead along with Greyson because the others were even younger. Like Greyson, she had watched her last living relative murdered by scavengers, so they had a common goal to create a haven where no scavenger could hurt them again. Stone by stone, the fortress they founded grew over the centuries, but they were the beginning of Tor’s Watch. “We were the first country, or as you Vendans would call it, the first kingdom.” I heard the pride in his voice. Even his eyes danced with light as he spoke.

The lines of Morrighese, Vendan, and Dalbretch history had blurred and overlapped each other long ago, but it was well recognized by all the kingdoms that Morrighan was the first to be established, not a rocky out-of-the-way fortress no one had heard of until recently. And from Morrighan the other kingdoms were born. Even Venda had been only a wild territory with no official name until the first bor

ders were drawn. Tor’s Watch was small and isolated. It was little surprise that Jase knew nothing of the history of the entire continent. I only learned most of it myself after I went to live at the Sanctum.

“And all of this is written in the books you told me about?”

“Yes,” he said confidently. “Every word. It was Commander Ballenger’s last order to his grandson, to write it all down, and Greyson did, along with the surviving Remnant, but it was mostly he and Miandre who recorded what had happened. It wasn’t until almost a decade later that the two of them married, and the Ballenger line began. They had eight children together.”

Babies. The Ballenger women seemed to be quite fertile.

I had been careful not to cross that unwanted line that might bind Jase and me together forever—out here there was no protection for that. I wasn’t going to risk creating a child, not when this world we were living in would disappear in only a day or two when we fell back into the other one, and soon I would return to Venda. Jase didn’t push me, as if he didn’t want to cross that line either. We might be deluding ourselves for now, but he was as driven as I was and his connection to home was strong. It showed in his face and his determined pace. Even our rests he kept short, only breaking when we came to a spring, stream, or shade.

“Did it hurt?” I asked, my hand skimming the feathers tattooed across his shoulder and chest.

“Like hell. I was fifteen and too stupid to know how much it would hurt. But I was eager to get it a year early. My brothers didn’t get theirs until they were sixteen.”

“Why did you want it early?”

He shrugged. “To prove myself, I guess. It seemed important at the time. My younger brother and sister had died unexpectedly from an illness, we’d just gotten word about the new treaties that were already over a year old that no one had bothered to tell us about, and then there had been an attack on one of our farmsteads. They destroyed everything and killed two of our hands and my cousin. Our world seemed to be falling apart. I guess getting the tattoo was my way of trying to prove it wasn’t. It was something permanent that said our family and legacy would survive. My father tried to warn me, but I was stubborn and insisted. I wailed like a baby when I got it—and that was just with the first feather.”

“You? Stubborn? I never would have guessed.”

He grinned, and I watched a dreamy memory float through his eyes. “Yeah, my father smiled the whole time I was getting it done. He reminded me, Be careful what you ask for, and he made sure the tattoo was nice and big. I had to go back for three more sessions after that to finish it up. Those were even harder, but I survived. When it was done, my father made me come to dinner without a shirt for a week to show it off. He was proud. I think that was when I knew I would be the next Patrei. I just didn’t think it would happen so soon.”

His expression turned sober, and I wasn’t sure if it was because he was remembering the duties that awaited him or remembering that his father was dead.

I gently dragged my fingernail over his skin, outlining the jagged edge of feathers, trying to bring him back from that other world, at least for a few minutes. His eyes gleamed once again, and a flurry of birds flew through my stomach like they did every time he stared at me so intently. I wondered how I had not seen how beautiful his eyes were the first time we met. But then I knew—it was his kindness that had broken me, that first night when he asked for a riddle. He had perceived a weakness in me that he tried to help me overcome by bringing out my strength. Before that kindness, the color of his eyes hadn’t mattered.

Tags: Mary E. Pearson Dance of Thieves Fantasy
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