I had no juggling left in me. Not in this moment. Not for him.
His expression barely flinched. Just the slightest lift of his chin. Cold. Detached.
“I think I see the problem here. I didn’t address you properly. I apologize. I should have called you Ten.”
He took a step closer, his shoulders pulled back. He knew. My stomach squeezed. “I—”
“Don’t,” he warned, his gaze as sharp as a razor, his cool veneer vanished. “Don’t even try to deny it. It’s all obvious now, palming the keys, my ring, disappearing right beneath our noses, the girl at the settlement calling you Ten and you shutting her up.” His nostrils flared. “It’s ironic, don’t you think, all that self-righteous indignation you flung at me when we were in the wilderness because I was a thieving Ballenger. I should be laughing, shouldn’t I?”
He strained to keep his fury in check, but even in the dim light I saw his temples burning with fire. “And then today?” He stroked the bruise on his jaw where I had struck him. “In front of everyone at the arena, you screamed and lectured me on the Previzi, when you were nothing but a common thief yourself! Is that why you hate them so much, because they remind you of you?”
My hands trembled. I swallowed, trying to maintain control
. “Get out of my room, Jase, before I hurt you.”
He stepped toward me. “I expect an answer, dammit!”
“You mean you demand it, Patrei, don’t you?” I spit back at him. “Because you get whatever you want! You take whatever you want! You do whatever you want!”
His eyes sparked, dissecting me, judging, blazing. The bruise on the side of his face was an angry purple. “I’m not leaving,” he growled. “Not until I get an answer.”
My nails dug into my palms.
He didn’t blink. He would wait here until morning if he had to, fueling his own self-righteousness. My own rage suddenly tipped beyond a point I recognized, seams coming loose, ripping, popping, everything tearing free. “All right, Jase,” I yelled, “here’s your answer! Yes, I was a thief! But don’t you dare call me a common one!”
I flung my hands up in front of me. “Look at my fingers, Jase! Take a good long look at every single one, because I’m not missing any. That’s how I got my name! And I’m proud of it! In Venda, before the queen came, the Komizar’s punishment for stealing was cutting off a fingertip—even if you were a child! Even if you only stole a handful of bread!
“I was alone on the streets from the time I was six. Completely on my own. No one cared if I lived or died. Can you imagine that, Jase? I didn’t grow up like you.” I heard my voice getting louder, more heated, more poisonous, more out of control. I didn’t pace, didn’t move. I was a stone rooted to the floor. “I stole to survive! I had no family. No dining room table to sit at and pass pretty dishes. No carpets under my feet or chandeliers over my head. No servant to bring me food. No parties in the garden. I had to scavenge for every rotten mouthful I ever ate. I had no coats made by tailors. I wore rags upon rags to stay warm in winter. I lived in a hovel carved out of fallen ruins. No heat! No hot baths! No soap! If I did bathe at all, it was in icy water in the public washbasins. Sometimes I cut my hair off with a knife, because it was so infested with vermin I couldn’t feel my own scalp!”
I stepped over to his bookshelf and swiped an armful of books to the floor. “And I had no tutors, no books, no pens or paper! If it couldn’t be eaten, it had no use for me. My whole life revolved around my next meal and how to get it. I lived on the edge of death every day of my life until I became good at thieving, and I won’t apologize for it!”
His face had changed, the hardness gone, probably trying to imagine the filthy urchin I had once been. “What about your parents?” he asked.
The poison racing through me pooled to ice in my veins. I shook my head. “I never knew my father. I don’t know if he’s alive, dead, or the emperor of the moon! I don’t care!”
I looked down. I knew what was coming next. The thing that always hung between us. Every other question was hinged to this one, a thousand doors opening a single doorway.
“And your mother? What happened to her?”
I had never told anyone. Shame and fear perched in my gut, ready to spring. My jaws ached, the words wedged behind them. I turned away and walked toward the door.
“Fine!” he yelled. “Run away! Shut yourself off like you always do! Go live in whatever prison you’ve created for yourself!”
I stopped at the door, shaking with rage. The prison that I created? A furious cloud swirled in my vision. I whipped back to face him, and his eyes latched onto mine.
“Tell me, Kazi.”
Clamminess crept over my skin, and I leaned against the door to steady myself. I felt some part of me splitting in two, one part still cowering, the other watching from a thousand miles away like an uncertain observer. “I was six when my mother was taken,” I said. “It was the middle of the night, and we were lying together on a raised pallet in our hovel. I was asleep when I felt her finger on my lips and heard her whisper. Shhh, Kazi, don’t say a word. Those were the last words she ever said to me. She shoved me to the floor to hide me beneath the bed. And then—”
I looked up at the ceiling, my eyes stinging.
“And then what, Kazi?”
My shoulders twitched, everything inside me shrinking, resisting. “I watched. From beneath the bed, I watched a man come into our home. We had no weapons, only a stick propped in the corner. My mother tried to get to it. She didn’t make it in time. I wanted to run to her, but we had signals, and she signaled me to be quiet and not move. So I didn’t. I just lay there cowering beneath the bed while the man drugged my mother and carried her away. He said he’d get a good price for her. She was merchandise. He wanted me too, but couldn’t find me. Come out, girl, he yelled, but I didn’t move. My mother lied and told him I wasn’t there.”
My vision blurred and Jase grew fuzzy. “I lay in my own waste for two days under that bed, shaking, crying, too afraid to move. I was terrified he’d come back. He didn’t. Neither did she. It took me years to learn how to sleep on top of a bed again. You asked me why an open world frightens me, Jase? Because it gives me nowhere to hide. That’s been my prison for eleven years, but trust me, I didn’t create it.”