Dance of Thieves (Dance of Thieves 1) - Page 59

“Truko and Rybart, leaders of other leagues.” He said they controlled trade in smaller towns in distant regions and would love nothing more than to control Hell’s Mouth. They all wanted a larger share of the Ballenger power—if not all of it. That made them suspect in the fires and appearance of labor hunters, but they brought business to the arena. It created a rocky sense of partnership—as long as everyone remembered their place.

“Like Paxton? What happened between his branch of the family and yours?”

He hissed out a disgusted breath. “Too many run-ins to count.” He explained that it began three generations ago. Control of Hell’s Mouth had fallen out of Ballenger hands several times in their history, but never for long. Most recently was when Paxton’s great-grandfather had sold it off for a handful of coins in a drunken card game with a farmer from Parsuss staying at the inn. It turned out the farmer was the King of Eislandia. Hell’s Mouth was isolated and small, and the king had no interest in it, other than collecting a tax. The kingdom’s borders were redrawn, reaching high to include Hell’s Mouth, which explained the odd tear-shaped kingdom. All offers to buy it back were rejected, but it was still left to the Ballengers to maintain order. After that, Jase’s great-grandfather took control at Tor’s Watch and banished his older brother who had gambled away the town. The brother went south, sobered up, and he and now his spawn had schemed to get back control of Tor’s Watch ever since.

“So Gunner or Titus could oust you?”

“If I did something stupid enough. Or Priya or Jalaine. Even Nash or Lydia for that matter. And that’s the way it should be. It’s not about a single Patrei, but the family and those we owe loyalty to. When you swear protection, you don’t go gambling it away for another round of drinks.”

“You Ballengers hold grudges for a long time. You never forgive?”

“Just as the gods gave us mercy, we do too. Once. Turn us into a fool a second time, and you pay.”

By pay, I didn’t think he meant a fine.

“What about the arena that you’ve mentioned? Is that part of Eislandia too?”

“No,” he answered emphatically. He said the arena was nestled below Tor’s Watch on its western side. It began centuries ago in the ruins of a huge complex where the Ancients had once held sporting matches. The family had repaired and expanded it over the years, and even more so since the new treaties were established and trade had increased. What used to be a place just for farmers was now a principal trading site for merchandise of every kind, and also for negotiations and future deals to be made. Luxurious rooms were provided to ambassadors, well-to-do farmers—anyone who could pay the price. Four of the Lesser Kingdoms had permanent apartments there, and more were showing interest.

“What about those two?” I asked, nodding toward Truko and Rybart, who were almost upon us.

“No apartments, but they have space on the arena floor like other merchants.”

The two league leaders eyed us briefly as they passed. While others we had encountered had offered condolences to the Patrei, these league leaders only returned a stiff but respectful nod to Jase and continued on their way.

We turned another corner, which brought us to the wide plaza in the center of town. For all of Jase’s nods, smiles, and slow, easy strides, the tension gripping the town was most noticeable here. Wagons were stopped without warning and inspected, tarps thrown aside. Perhaps citizens thought something had been stolen because news of the labor hunters seemed to have been effectively quashed. As far as I knew, none of the wagons had revealed anything suspicious, but I saw Jase’s eyes turn sharp every time one lumbered past, as if he was memorizing every unfamiliar face.

Besides the straza walking both before and behind us, guards stood watch on the elevated skywalks that connected the tembris. More guards stood on corners. There was nothing to distinguish them from anyone else in town, but I saw the knowing glances between them and Jase as we passed. They were waiting for a war to erupt—or maybe this was their way of making sure that it didn’t.

We were just nearing the temple when Jase grumbled under his breath. Paxton was approaching us. Several large men who were well-armed walked behind him. Today, Jase was armed too. A dagger on one side, his sword on the other. I hadn’t seen him use either weapon yet—just his fist in the hunter’s throat, which had proved deadly. I wondered about his skill with these other weapons.

I only had the small knife in my boot, but as Natiya taught me, a small, well-thrust knife was as lethal to a heart as a large one, and much easier to conceal. The air changed to something more deadly as the two cousins locked gazes. I surveyed the men behind Paxton, already choosing which to take down first if circumstances took a turn for the worse.

“Good to see you out and about, cousin,” Paxton called.

“You still in town?” Jase replied, as if he had spotted something smelly on the bottom of his boot he couldn’t quite scrape free.

Paxton stopped in front us, and though today his dress was more casual, he was still impeccably groomed, his white shirt and tan trousers wrinkle free, his face gleaming with a close shave. “I have a caravan on its way to the arena,” he said. “I thought I might as well stay and settle a few things myself.”

“So your hawker can’t be trusted?”

“I’ve hired a new one. I’m breaking him in. And the times have changed.”

“Not as much as you might think, cousin.”

Paxton turned his attention to me. “A pleasure to see you again—forgive me?

?I’m afraid I didn’t catch your name yesterday.”

With rumors flying through town, I was sure he knew, but I played his game anyway, hoping he would move along quickly. I had just spotted something that interested me far more than Jase’s boorish cousin—something I had been looking for all morning—Wren and Synové. They waited in the shadows of the tembris on the other side of the plaza, their Rahtan garments exchanged for clothes with local flavor. Large hats shadowed their faces.

“Kazi of Brightmist,” I answered.

Paxton reached out to take my hand in greeting, and Jase and the straza all moved imperceptibly, their hands just a bit closer to their weapons, making me wonder again about the bad blood between the Ballengers and Paxton’s branch of the family. This wasn’t just an old grudge. What were those run-ins Jase had mentioned? It was perplexing that they were still compelled to do business together, but I supposed much could be tolerated in the name of profit. Paxton squeezed my fingers and kissed the back of my hand, which I found to be an overly familiar custom. I pulled my hand away.

“Welcome to the family,” he said and looked back at Jase. “She’s quite lovely. I’m sorry I missed the wedding. I—”

“There’s been no wedding,” I corrected.

Tags: Mary E. Pearson Dance of Thieves Fantasy
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