Lapis studied the piles of paper on every conceivable surface, from the shined tables and blue-padded chair arms to the hardwood flooring and the small counters of cabinets. The windowsills even had sheets whose bottoms hung over the edge. Good thing the room sat on the third floor, because she did not think any of the stacks would survive intact on the ground level, considering the traffic.
She cautiously stepped inside, avoiding treading on any piece by luck. Some of the yellowed pages shed bits onto the boards, and she did not want to destroy the brittle objects.
“In here,” came the muffled reply. She picked her way to an open doorway that led to a brown-painted room. It had a wall-length desk filled with blank pages and ink, a table drowning in books, plain chairs lined up against the wall and containing sheets, and a tech contraption that looked like the one her father once used to listen to recordings. Faelan hung a pair of over-large earphones on a jutting hook and ran a hand through his hair, fluffing it before uncurling and rising from the cluttered floor.
“How do you find anything?” she asked.
“I usually don’t.”
“Then why spread everything out in the first place?”
“I’m even worse at finding things when they’re filed. I never remember what I put them under.”
Lapis itched to straighten something, tidy a pile here, stack books neatly there—and she was not as obsessed as Lyet. “Caitria said you wanted to see me.”
“Yeah.” He stretched, winced, and rubbed at the arm that had taken the blade meant for her. He never should have interfered, but the injury reminded her that her older brother’s guilt weighed more heavily on him than his potential death. “You missed the meeting.”
“And?” There was no way she was rising that early, not after the long night previous. She, Patch and Rin had remained at the night market, sitting with the rats and monitoring Midir and Requet. After the Dentherion raced out of the place, petulantly pissed and shaking and refusing to wait for the Black Hats, she admitted her concern was unwarranted. Her partner just smiled and guzzled more wake juice with the rat.
Miraculously, both crashed as soon as they returned to the Eaves, leaving her to escort a still-ecstatic Linz and a sleepy Whitley to the House, then return with Ciaran, who refused to let her walk the streets by herself, considering the danger.
He chuckled and hopped over a cluster of pages to her. “Fair enough. It was a lot of boring reports.”
“Jarosa doesn’t give boring reports.” Lapis turned tightly and made her way back to the entrance. She did not want to stand among musty sheets and sneeze while she spoke with her brother. She had an odd feeling about the summons, and she preferred to be in a padded chair or comfy sofa while hearing the bad news.
Faelan just grinned.
He ushered her to the suite he shared with Jetta. It sat on the second floor, down the hall from Patch’s. The receiving room was a dark brown and rich red, colors that evoked the calm heat of a late Mid Year Four day, when the tree leaves began their slow change from bright green to deeper, sunset hues. Large paintings of mythic heroes hung on the walls, decorative, shoulder-tall vases sat in corners, and thick drapes dangled at the sides of the two windows, all tied back with gold rope the size of her index finger. Thin fabric covered the glass and kept the sunlight muted. A fireplace with pine wreaths nailed to the mantle stood to the back, and she imagined her brother and his love bundled in a blanket in front of it, soaking up the heat despite cold Early Year nights.
Faelan flumped into one of the cushioned wooden chairs while she settled in a seat that resembled half a couch, with a short back, thickly padded armrests, and a wide bottom. The upholstery was dark red, but a black blanket covered most of it. She sank back, folded her hands across her belly, and waited.
“There are a couple of things,” he began before taking a refreshing breath. “I’d like you to read the minutes. Patch does, so he’ll have a copy.”
“I’m not part of the rebellion anymore.”
“No, you’re a chaser I’m going to hire to find Thyden.”
Unease threaded through her chest. “If he was Danaea’s partner, he’s probably a hunter.”
“Perhaps, though she treated him far differently than others she worked with. She didn’t attempt to rip him off or blackmail him.”
“Which means he’s dangerous.”
Faelan raised an eyebrow but did not pursue that line. “Linz found a picture of him in Danaea’s things. Apparently someone else hooked them up, and she used that photo as a reference. That someone else is our true target. It’s the person Requet is probably interested in as well.”
He held up a hand. “I want you to find him, not engage. I have a special unit for that.”
He must expect her to ask Patch for help, because he had underground informants about such things. “What else?”
“Speak with Superior Fyor. He has some information Adrastos wants him to share. He knows you, so I don’t think he’ll be as edgy about it.”
Faelan must not have enjoyed his suspicion when they first met. “OK.” She had expected something more, and her stomach knotted as her brother became more serious.
“And there’s a more personal matter. Beltin gave us some information.”
Anger filled her, coupled with dread. “On the raid?”
Faelan laughed, sickly enraged. “Oh, he attempted to say we mistook him, but it rang false, and he knew it. His reaction to you proved it. It broke him, to see you alive. In some twisted way, he assumed everyone who died no longer had pain, so to realize you survived and suffered . . .” He shook his head in disbelief. “He’s staring at the wall and crying. If he cared at all, he never would have sided with the enemy.”
She buried her memories; time to agonize over them later.
“But no. It’s not about the raid. It’s about a code. He gave us a cipher, and Wrethe decoded some of Danaea’s papers with it. The same person who hired her to go after Ahebban wanted her to go after me.”
Lapis was glad she was dead.
“She had yet to discover my location. Unlike Ahebban, I wasn’t conveniently in Jiy for her to hunt. Whoever paid her told her to go to Coriy, and she refused. There was a nasty back-and-forth before the documents end. Linz is searching for other notes but hasn’t found any.”
“Did it have anything to do with Perben?”
Faelan settled his head in his palm and worried about what he needed to say, before sighing and closing his eyes. “No. He didn’t leave much of a trail, but from what Ailis gathered, he interfered in every Dentherion attempt to harm me. He killed our family but put himself in danger to protect me.”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
“It doesn’t. But it’s something Meinrad and Rambart are well aware of and are using to cast doubt on my choice to break from them. I know this, because they’ve sent correspondence to other Houses throughout Jilvayna.” He laughed sarcastically. “They, apparently, are quite shocked that I spoke with those headpeople long before they had a glimmering to send letters.”
“Who’s sending you info?”
“Ciaran said you met him. Gerrit.”
“Yeah. He was stalking me with Perben’s people. He wondered why you and Patch trusted me.”
Her brother laughed hollowly. “Hmm. That’s disappointing, reflecting his own misgivings like that. He trusts few, including himself. Anyway, the throne executed his parents and an older sibling, and he’s never forgotten, and will never forgive, the cousins who used Gall’s paranoia to steal their land and wealth. Now that you’ve revealed Perben’s involvement with the puppet king, he’s willing to work to bring him rebel justice. He agreed to act as a spy against Meinrad and Rambart, and as far as we can tell, they’re oblivious to his continued relationship with us.”
“Too frantic about getting someone to pay them for their insolence?”
A bit of genuine humor peeked out from under the darker sternness. “I suppose.” He sighed and rubbed at his temple. “I also want you and Patch to visit Dagby. He’s associated with Ahebban’s murder, and he might know who paid them to complete the stake.”
“That’s asking a lot.”
“I know. You mentioned his brainbreak addiction. He might not remember anything from five years ago. He’s sane enough to hide, though. Jetta went looking for him while you were sick and discovered his drug den. It’s been cleaned out. Some of the other hunters said he went into hiding after Danaea died because he thought he’d be next. So he must remember something because he thinks he’s in danger.”
“I told Requet about his drug den. Guess he’s going on a dead-end chase.”
Faelan rolled his eyes. “You could not ask for a snobbier idiot than Requet. The only reason he hasn’t been sitting in a jail cell for the last ten years is because his father bails him out of trouble. That he’s here, looking for Hoyt and those connected with him . . . Midir thinks some underground deal he made backfired, and he’s trying to clean up the mess before his father becomes aware of exactly how badly he screwed up.”
“I can’t believe he showed up last night, even if he was with Varr.”
“He hates Requet, Lapis, which is funny, because he and his father get along well. Word came about the leadcommander invading the night market, and he went out of curiosity. When he realized you were in danger?”
“I’m hardly worth that consideration, Faelan.”
“He’s the heir.”
Did her brother not care he put himself in such peril? He should; he fought to place the man on the throne, after all. “Anything else?”
He shook his head. “Not at the moment.”
She hefted herself from the deep seat and regarded her sibling. “I’ll find who wants you dead.”
He laughed. “There’s too many to count, you know.”
She held up her hand, ready to prove him wrong, and he shooed her away with an exasperated grin. “Don’t forget to get that picture from Linz.” She hustled out; time to wake a dead-to-the-world Patch.
The Lells Guardhouse was bustling. Sour-faced guards took reports about the Black Hats incident from over-enthused merchants and customers; too many exaggerated fake fear as they spoke, though they had hidden and quivered in true terror during the fight. She caught a word here and there, and decided the braver gossips spoke with the law before the guard came knocking, thrilled about being a part of the excitement.
Her arm hair prickled, and she edged into Patch. If the long line for the receptionist could proceed with a tad more speed, so she did not need to stand under the scrutiny of so many, that would be nice. Her partner said nothing, just drew her close. He grumpily weathered the interest from visitors and guards alike whenever he showed up; tall, handsome, famous chasers always gathered stares. She found herself ignored, and she preferred it that way.
“Lady, Patch.” Copper walked up, producing a small but worried smile. “Superior Fyor would like a word.”
He ushered them away from the gaping and the sudden burst of whispers. She sighed. She did not wish to navigate the future questions about Patch’s participation in the events, because too many curious merchants would nose about, searching for gossip as to why he worked with Sir Armarandos. Chasers of his caliber never made an effort to help the guard.
Copper paused briefly as his hand settled on the doorknob. “She isn’t why he needs to speak with you,” he said in a bare whisper before pushing it open.
Superior Fyor occupied the same sparse, dimly lit room where Lapis had met with him and Lord Adrastos, hands folded on his desk, speaking softly with another guard who sat primly, legs crossed, back ramrod straight. Her black bangs fell in wispy strands around her face while the rest of her hair formed a tight bun. A heavy application of foundation and powder smoothed every wrinkle and pristine pastel makeup coated her eyes and lips. Her light brown gaze flicked to them and scorn filed her expression before she donned a noble-polite half-smile.
The superior glanced at them and nodded at two chairs positioned in front of him. The absence of his friendliness alerted her, and she hoped she hid her distrust. She needed to know how much trouble she would be in, if she annoyed her.
Copper closed the door and planted himself against the wall while the unknown woman studied the two of them curiously. “I admit,” she said. “I never would have pictured you being partners. Your individual work is quite far apart.”
Patch shrugged, unimpressed with the assessment. “We’ve been together for eight years. So what if we don’t make a production of it.”
Fyor cleared his throat. “Superior Seeza, may I introduce Lady Lanth and Chaser Patch? Lady, Chaser, may I introduce Superior Seeza?” Fyor’s careful formality meant the woman had connections. She must; Jiy did not have many women who served in the guard, a prejudice that stemmed from the throne’s misogyny. It infected how they treated female chasers, and she imagined the nastiness did not stop there.
“She’s Lord Mizos and Lady Zara’s daughter.”
Patch rarely issued warnings, and that he did so made her neck prickle. The couple was popular in Gall’s court, and she found it odd that a child of theirs would lower herself to work in the city rather than play political games. She needed to proceed cautiously with offspring of any noble well-known enough she had heard of them.
The woman gave her partner a disapproving look. He lounged back, full of arrogance and distrust. She disliked the response even more, but Fyor sucked in a loud breath, interrupting a potentially nasty exchange.
“Lady, Patch, I’ve asked you here to discuss a growing concern.” He was all business, the sternness covering unease. Lapis knew him well enough to see through the façade, and hopefully Seeza did not. She could make life difficult for him if she realized his lack of trust. “Men who work for Hoyt are searching for a man named Aethon, whom they claim is your partner. They’ve interfered with guard affairs in their search.”
Had they? It must have been a serious breach, that a noble would deign to speak wither about it. “A lot of people seem to be under that assumption—most recently the Black Hats and Leadcommander Requet. Siward and his pals even shook down the cross gates druggies to find out more.” Seeza’s shocked distaste nearly made her laugh. She expected a disdainful response concerning the poor people living there, though it saddened her. “As I keep telling everyone, I’ve never heard of a chaser named Aethon, and he’s most certainly not my partner. They’re welcome to search for made-up people, but I have paying stakes to complete.”
Seeza frowned, the divot between her eyebrows deep, her eyes narrowed enough to provide a menacing aura. “Leadcommander Requet? And why is he searching for Aethon?”
Lapis shrugged. “I don’t know. He never said, but it’s why he showed up at the night market last night and kicked everyone out of Larkey’s corner. Had his shanks stick a tech weapon in my ribs and everything, to make certain I understood they were serious.”
The guard’s unpleasant, flat-lipped grimace concerned her. “He is Dentherion. He and his soldiers use tech weapons.”
“And that gives them full rein to shoot up places like Ruddy’s, I take it? As long as they just kill a couple Grey and Stone Streets poor folk, it doesn’t matter much, does it?”
She did not appreciate the assessment.
Fyor moved slightly, his fingers sliding into the ‘danger’ rat signal before he sat back and made himself more comfortable. Lapis reined in her bitterness, accepting her initial evaluation and vowing to keep her words in check.
Seeza’s foot jiggled up and down, belying either annoyance or unease. Her stomach twisted; she really did not need to navigate noble resentment on top of everything else. “And why, do you think, the underground believes this Aethon is your partner?”
“Well, everyone knew I had a partner, just not their identity.” Lapis glanced at him, thinking about making a soft acknowledgment; intense hate, held in the glint of his eye, the firmness of his lip, the flare of nostrils, must be the reason for the guard’s jittery reaction. She hurried on; Patch in this mood was not a pleasant man. “But now that someone’s trying to hunt me down to find this imaginary person, we made our relationship public.” She sat back, pondering his response. What about her triggered his loathing? “I don’t know where this mistake came from, I don’t know why Hoyt’s people are obsessed and I don’t know why the leadcommander’s interested. I’d feel sorry for the poor man, if I thought he existed.”
“Perhaps he does,” the superior said, deciding to glare in return at the chaser. “Patch is hardly a birth name.”
Patch grinned; Lapis’s stomach fell. He typically directed his malice at guttershanks too impressed with their mediocrity they thought themselves his equal in a fight, and he would not view her any differently. “I see elite conceit is strong and healthy,” he responded. “But sure, call me Aethon. I’d love to confront whoever’s yanking your chain about it.” He leaned forward, and she jerked back. “They put Lanth in danger. That makes them my enemy. And I’m certain you’ve heard about what happens to my enemies.”
“Patch,” Lapis sighed. He returned to his slouch, his eye glittering with eager spite.
“You think you’re untouchable,” she said, her hands shaking hard enough she clenched them in her lap. “You’re nothing more than a murderous guttershank. You deserve the jail mines.”
“Do I?” he asked, setting his elbow on the back of his chair and planting his cheek on his palm. “Name one person I’ve killed.”
She blinked. “Everyone knows you’re a hunter.”
“So I hunt. Who?”
No answer, because Patch kept those stakes secret. Residents of the Grey and Stone Streets gossiped about how deadly he was—and other than rebels, not one could identify any hunt he completed.
“Come now. Surely you can name one.”
A tinge of satisfaction crept into Fyor’s face as she blushed; he appreciated the hit-back. Interesting. Lapis eyed the superior, hoping to drag her partner away before he ran further afoul of noble feelings. “Do you know why they’re looking for this Aethon? Or who else I need to watch out for?”
“No, Lady, but Hoyt’s people are getting . . . desperate.”
“So I’ve gathered.” She rubbed at her nose; she hoped whatever the superior had to relate outside of Seeza’s presence was worth this bit. “I’m in danger and I don’t have the faintest idea why. It’s not a comfortable place to be.”
Seeza stood abruptly and vacated, yanking the door open and slamming it behind her. Lapis blinked at the display, while both Fyor and Copper pretended to glare daggers into her back through the door.
“She’s not very careful, is she?” Patch asked as he retrieved a small something from the floor under her chair. He squinted at it, then laughed. “When did she become a guard?”
“The knight commanders promoted her early this year.” Fyor rose and held out his hand; Patch dropped the whatever into his palm. He inspected it between his forefinger and thumb, then tossed it into a container Lapis thought was a garbage receptacle. A muffled zapping and a puff of smoke curled from the interior; a rancid stench filled the room. What had she dropped? “Over our objections, because she is not qualified for a superior position. Her father bought her rank and influenced the knight superiors to give her a guardhouse to run. Sir Armarandos refused to confer knight upon her, and no threats swayed him.”
And none would. Now that Lapis understood more about his family ties, she doubted any individual, except maybe Gall, could convince him to do something he did not want to.
“She’s not the only one,” Copper said. “A rash of nobles wanted their children placed in eastern guardhouses.”
Patch raised his lip, as if he smelled something extremely rank, and sat down hard enough his chair rocked. “I always thought they were trying to get in on the tech smuggling, without success.”
“It seems that way, especially after the incident with Nevid, but I’m afraid more is at play.” Fyor smoothed his greying brown locks back, a nervous action because the sleek oil kept them in order. “I need to speak with you, and I’m sorry Seeza arrived simultaneously. She is very interested in finding out who Aethon may be, and her explanation of her interest is murky.”
“Yes.” Fyor’s brown eyes darkened before sliding a drawer open and retrieved a sealed envelope. He slipped it across the desk. “Things are not as safe as they once were.”
An odd response. Her partner snagged it and nodded.
“I’m in the mood to patrol the Lells. I would not mind the company.”
“I should check on the rats, anyway,” Lapis said.
The day was warm, and heat wafted from the cobbles, but cooler breezes flowed through the dull wooden shops, flapping the bright tarps and signs about and ruffling the many-colored blankets and awnings. A nice day for a stroll through the Lells, even if she had to constantly slip her hair behind her ears. The tourists thought so as well, considering how they flocked to the stalls. She wondered if the guard lifted the prohibitions about crossing to the western side of the river, or if they ignored them and do as they pleased. Richer Dentherions tended in that direction.
“Lord Adrastos has been busy these few days,” Fyor said, quietly enough his words did not make it past the four of them. “Most of it is in that letter. Some of it isn’t.” He paused under an awning that shaded a corner vacant of merchant and custom, and leaned against the rough wooden wall, folding his arms. “He dug into the skyshroud. Last night confirmed some of his suspicions, namely that Requet is the leadcommander and that Black Hats mercenaries man the ship. He believes syndicate infighting explains their presence in Jiy.” He sighed, as if the weight of knowledge had become too heavy. “What he didn’t include concerns Aethon.” He looked pointedly at Patch. “It seems Requet is involved with a Green Castle noble named Diros. For some unknown favor, he agreed to look into a few holdings that Diros’s late brother owned. Apparently the man gifted a friend rather than family with those lands, and Diros wants them back. Initially, Diros’s son was the inheritor, but he died at 16, so those lands reverted to his friend. That son’s name was Aethon.”
Adrastos was good. Lapis patiently waited, desperate to keep her polite interest instead of falling into immediate worry about Patch and revelations about his identity. His family helped to kill him once. What would his father do, to rectify the mistaken belief he had died? If they lived in the Green Castle district, Gall favored them, and might help them concerning their black sheep son.
“Now, a doctor, Thais, is Diros’s sister, and she cut ties with her kin shortly after the son’s death. Adrastos says you know her.”
“I do,” Patch admitted.
“You might want to ask her about her brother and her nephew. He attempted to make life difficult for her at court and failed because nobles refuse to forsake her life-saving care for a family spat. He’s still trying, and if revenge over a son’s death drives him, he won’t stop.” Fyor shook his head. “Adrastos is concerned, because Aethon is the name on the stake about your partner, and it’s still active. It’s likely coincidence, since this Aethon is dead, but he thought you should know.”
“I do,” Lapis said. “I need to thank him for his concern.”
“Be careful. Adrastos views Diros as a greedy, despicable man willing to cause great harm in the name of a few bits more in his bank account. He may well be using his deceased son in some way, though why you are the target, Lady, is elusive.”
“Nobles feel no shame,” Patch said darkly. Copper looked nervous, but Fyor did not respond to the tone.
Scand skipped up, in no way ashamed of interrupting their conversation. His bright red cheeks glowed, and Lapis wondered what went so right, that he beamed.
“Do you remember Yedin?”
“Yedin?” Patch asked.
“My last big stake? Yedin’s the farmer who helped me cart Hoyt’s men to the Kells Guardhouse. He got two silvers for the effort.”
“Well, he’s asking after you,” Scand said. “He’s shopping for a present, and he recognized me. He asked how you were doing because rumors reached the countryside about you helping Sir Armarandos at the Trees Street Guardhouse!”
Wonderful. She wished to speak with Patch about Diros, but that would not happen until they reached their room, so she might as well be friendly. “I should go say hello.”
“I’m getting wake juice,” Patch declared. Did his perceived allergy to anything country include those who lived there? Lapis made a face; he kissed her and hastened away. Fyor chuckled and pushed from the wall, a clear indication their discussion was over. She waved at Copper and followed Scand across the square.
Yedin was perusing Miyomon’s knots and Jandra’s necklaces as she wandered up. He stood with an anxious man, who had shoved his hands into his pockets and gazed about the square in suspicion. She disliked dealing with farmers who assumed every city dweller meant them harm, but Yedin was nice enough. He glanced up, grinned, and purchased something from both the rats, which was very good of him.
“Nice to see you again,” she said, smiling.
“I thought I’d see if you were around,” he said, sounding happy. “Things have been strange since the Shroudies showed up, but I finally got some time to myself.”
“Would you like to sit down for a meal?”
“Sounds good.” He glanced at his companion. “This is my cousin, Thyden.”
Lapis almost froze. Almost. Were the non-existent gods playing tricks?
“He’s from out Blossom way. They haven’t had the best of times recently, so I decided to try and cheer ‘m up.”
Lapis laughed. “Well, the Lells has food and drink aplenty to delight the palate. Come on. I think Fished Out is a good place to highlight the delectable wonders at a reasonable price.”
From the disagreeable grimace, Thyden did not think so, but he accompanied them, shoulders hunched, kicking up dust with the tips of his muddy black boots.
Thyden. That explained his nervousness. And Yedin happily had no idea about his cousin’s dealings, or he would not be carting him about the Lells. Lapis itched to throw the man against a wall and snap question after question at him, but she needed to proceed far more subtly than that. No need to scare off her stake with an imprudent word or two.
If he were that Thyden.
She had studied the picture Linz discovered before leaving to meet with Fyor. It contained a smiling man in a brown leather jacket, his dark bark-brown hair blowing in the wind, his matching eyes bright with exhilaration. She showed it to Patch, who made a comment about excited poor Jilvaynan in big city. He had been closer to the truth than he realized; farmers wanting more than fields and flocks had the same look about them when they visited Jiy for the first time.
While she had not initially recognized him, now that she examined him, she saw the resemblance. He had longer hair, a larger paunch and sported a darker tan, but she did not mistake his face. He had to be a good ten years older than the photo, and his exuberance did not age with him.
Yedin said he came from out Blossom way. Too much of a coincidence.
“Sorry to hear about the rough times,” Lapis said after they had ordered skewers, drink, and settled at an outdoor table. She had a pang about spending the bits, but she decided Faelan could make a very generous payment for services and replenish her stash. She could explain how difficult the search was, in having his cousin introduce them. “Things haven’t been smooth here, either.”
“Yeah, there’re rumors about last night floatin’ around the farmers’ market,” Yedin said, his eyebrows knitting. “About the Shroudies invadin’ the night market. A lot of farmers think they’re goin’ to start harrassin’ us, just ‘cause they can.”
“They had another reason for being there,” Lapis said. “So you can assure the others they’re safe. Well, for now, anyway.”
“Yeah. Something that attracted Minq attention.”
“Ew.” Yedin made a face.
“If the farmers do business with the Minq, the Shroudies might be interested in a little chat. If not, they have nothing to worry about.”
Thyden’s eyes widened.
“I don’t know anythin’ about the Minq,” Yedin said, then laughed. “After our adventure, I thought about chasin’. My grand-da reminded me I’d have to do business with syndicates and the like, if I did.”
“He’s just scaring you.” Lapis took a sip of tea. “It’s true, if you take a stake on a syndicate shank, you’ll need to deal with a syndicate shank, but that’s not necessary to make a living as a chaser. I take low-key stakes that don’t pay much but help others in the end. I do well enough.”
“I’m not lookin’ to make lots of money,” he admitted, fiddling with a skewer. “But fields aren’t my passion.” He looked at his cousin, who had spent the time eyeing the square rather than paying attention to the conversation. “Me and Thyden, we don’t fit the family, in a way. We’ve ambitions beyond plowin’. There’s nothin’ wrong with growin’ plants, raisin’ animals, but I like the city more ‘n the countryside.”
“My partner will agree with you,” she said drily. “I think he glares at every stray grass blade until it withers when he’s out past the city walls.”
“You have a partner?”
“Yeah. And a couple of apprentices. If you’re interested, come along on a chase with us. Start out as a ‘keeper. Get in good with the guards, then move on to your own chases. Or do document delivery. Or bodyguard duty. There are many opportunities for chasers that have nothing to do with guttershank stakes.”
“Yeah, but it felt good, to get them louts to a guardhouse.”
“Because you were helping others when you did so. That’s a nice trait to have, as a chaser.”
“What is?” Patch hit the chair hard enough with his rump, it nearly tipped over. Would serve him right, but he snagged the table to keep upright.
“I help plenty,” he said, amused at her very arid tone. He leaned over for a kiss. Yedin and Thyden stared, the farmer with shock, his cousin with fear.
“This is Yedin,” she said, indicating the man. “And his cousin Thyden.”
Patch raised his wake juice in salute. The container was larger than his head and landed with a flump on the tabletop. Did he plan to drink all that? If he had the funds on him for a gigantic brew like that . . . She leaned over and fake-smiled up at him; his immediate, humor-filled suspicion brought true laughter to her lips. “They have curve-tail skewers. I didn’t have the money. PLEASE?”
He regarded her, then kissed her nose and made a production of gaining his feet and ambling into the eatery. Good. Playing nice, acting unintimidating. How wonderful, to have a partner who did not mind following her lead.
“He’s . . . he’s Patch?” Yedin asked, strained.
“Yeah,” she said. She did not even have to put warm love in her tone, it was just there. “We met as street rats in Coriy and moved here five years ago. He made a reputation for himself, I stayed in the shadows.” She shrugged. “We work together more often than people think, but he’s welcome to the dangerous stakes. I’m fine with bringing in the petty thieves.”
Thyden looked to have fouled his pants.
“You’d really take me on a stake with him?” Yedin asked.
“Yeah. I mean, chasing is risky, but there are levels. If you came with us, it would be more in line of us stealing back a wedding ring, and having you return it to the nearest guardhouse to claim the stake and fill out the paperwork. If you truly wish to be a chaser, starting small and learning the best ways first is safer, and in my opinion, makes you better. You learn to think, plan, then act.”
“He thinks and plans?”
“You have to, if you’re hunting a dangerous shank. Confronting one without sufficient planning leads to a quick death.”
Yedin sank back, mulling her words, munching on a skewer. Thyden sat, eyes wide, staring at his food. Lapis imagined he worried about getting out of his predicament. He could run and leave his cousin behind, but his sagging shoulders indicated he could not prompt himself into doing it. He shakily snagged a stick and shoved the meat in his mouth.
The farmer glanced at his relative, annoyed at the reaction. “What’s wrong with you?”
Thyden’s eyes watered. So he thought Patch caught him and that it would end badly. They had caught him, but not in the way he thought. Lapis sighed and leaned back.
“Are you that terrified of Patch?”
He stared at her.
“You shouldn’t be. Truthfully, I’d rather help you than turn in the stake to the Shroudies. You don’t look like the rough shank the leadcommander is expecting.”
Yedin’s confusion wrinkled his face. “What are you talking about?”
Thyden swallowed, deflating. Patch returned and settled a plate with far more than curve-tail skewers on it. She looked at him.
“He needs help.”
He sat and selected one. “Lanth’s got a soft heart,” he said and bit down. He chewed thoroughly while Thyden squirmed. “I have a hard time believing you hooked up with Danaea.”
“Danaea?” Yedin peered closely at his cousin. “Who’s that?”
“A deceased hunter,” Lapis said. “I have a feeling your claim that he wanted more adventure than farming prompted him into some bad choices.”
Thyden shook his head and took a deep breath. “All I know about her work was that she set up different meeting places. She gave me things, and I’d take them to someone else. That’s it.”
Yedin’s gaze drilled a huge hole in his relation’s head. “Skyshrouds don’t stake people for courier services,” he stated.
“Not normally,” Patch said. “But their leadcommander’s a fucking idiot.” He eyed the man, his patch lighting with a round of flashy blue. “If I find out you’re lying, your family can pay their respects to the Pit.”
“You’re that stupid?” Yedin asked, outraged.
“Yedin, she’s pretty. I mean was. She liked me. She did. We had fun together. We went up and watched the stars, went fishin’. But something went wrong, the last time we needed to meet. That trouble we had, I thought she got caught in it. She said she had somethin’ more important than normal to give me. She didn’t show up, though, and then the fightin’ started. And then Shroudies began askin’ about me. People didn’t trust ‘m, so lied, but . . .”
Yedin looked to smack him upside the head. “And you didn’t tell me?”
“Fear makes people do stupid things,” Lapis said quietly. “Thyden. The reason the skyshroud is looking for you is because they think you’re Danaea’s partner.”
“I am. Was.”
Patch laughed and took a huge swig of wake juice. “She played people,” he said. “She was good at it, and it finally caught her. I doubt you were any different. Let me guess, she paid you in sex rather than bits.”
He blushed so hard, so fast, that answered the question. Lapis’s idea of a hunter dwindled, replaced by a starry-eyed farm lad who eagerly followed her lead because she promised the hint of danger and intrigue missing from his existence.
This was not exactly how she expected her trip to discuss matters with Fyor going.
“What do you want to do?” she asked Patch.
“Your brother’s going to want to talk to him.”
“Brother?” Thyden asked, distrustful.
“Either that, or you can wallow in a guard cell while they send for the Black Hats. I’m betting that chat won’t be as civil.” Patch took another bite, unconcerned. He did a very good nonchalant act, and Lapis wished she had the same aplomb. She quivered inside when she confronted others. “And you’re going to be spilling your guts.” He cocked his head. “You could be as sly and underhanded as she was. You could be playing us. You won’t survive it, if so.” He finished the skewer and threw the stick at the plate and missed.
“I vouch for him.” Yedin’s quiet words, spoken with soft sincerity, contrasted his cousin’s. “He’s stupid, but not evil.”
“A ringing endorsement.”
Lapis smacked her partner’s arm. He grinned; she handed him another skewer, so he did not have to prod around for one and ruin his intimidation. He had his patch doing something else rather than help with his depth perception, and she wondered if the enemy tread nearer than was safe.
Ah. Not the enemy. Rebels. Patch must have sent a rat to the House when he stepped inside for the skewers.
Faelan wandered to them, holding a large seafoam box reserved for rich, luscious pastries made at Candycakes rather than the Lells. Jetta and Tearlach accompanied him, and both looked to have already indulged in the treat. Good for them. She wondered if Patch might not nicely lend her a bit or two for some sweet.
Her brother grinned widely and set the box on the table. “Happy birthday.”
It was her birthday. Mid Year 4:21. Patch practically keeled over laughing, as she slid it closer, numb. Yes, she had forgotten her birthday. The day brought memories of her family celebrating with her, and she hated crying herself to sleep, so she fought to ignore it. Thirteen-year-old Rin helped with that; he had no idea when he was born, but decided he should share her birthday with her when he realized it made her sad. He happily did goofy things for her on that day, so she accepted, and she made certain to buy him a little gift in return.
But Faelan had no such reservations—and he gave her sweets.
She popped the lid open. Berry cakes, with thick cream topping and a sprinkle of honey sugar. She wiped at her eyes before taking one. “Thank you,” she choked out.
“Linz nearly jumped me for them when I brought them home,” Jetta told her. “They smell divine.”
She hugged them both, too touched to form meaningful words, and Tearlach for good measure. She bit into the softness, delighting in the flavor of honey mixed with sour berries, and beamed while shoving the rest in without chewing.
“Don’t choke,” her brother cautioned, laughing. She just smiled in return, a hard thing to do with her mouth so full, and could not quite wet the sweet enough for easy swallowing. She had to take a swig of Patch’s proffered wake juice to make it go down. She did not care.
She wiped her lips on the back of her sleeve and motioned to Yedin. “Faelan, this is Yedin. He helped me at a time I needed it, and he’s a good sort. This is his cousin Thyden, who needs a bit of help himself.” She closed the box and radiated happiness at them. “And now I’m going to go share these with Rin.”