Chapter 15: Cooperation?

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Patch squelched a grin at Lapis’s anger and readjusted his seat before looking out the smudged window of the transportation vehicle the Black Hats had not-so-gently forced them into.

He still had his most effective weapon, his patch. They took her gauntlets. He thought this little adventure to Ambercaast, without planning, without backup, without anyone they could rely upon in case of trouble, would end with Hoyt captured—by the wrong people—and then they could go back to Jiy and wash their hands of the mercenaries and their idiot leadcommander.

Lapis continued to glare at him, bouncing her foot up and down to the tune of her fury. The men they rode with smugly regarded them, thinking they silently fought and that her partner won the first few rounds. She had only taken out a single Black Hat before they shoved a tech weapon into her temple and Patch capitulated and agreed to go with them on this little excursion.

Her safety did not motivate the act. He thought them too cowardly and buffoonish to carry through a murderous threat.

Thank the non-existent gods that Rin and Yedin made it out without incident. Granny Ill-temper had disappeared by the time the Black Hats marched them to her fire, their tech stuck in their backs. Hopefully she took the Minq suggestion seriously and carted her grandson away to ask for asylum, keeping him out of enemy hands.

“I didn’t think capturing a famous chaser would be so easy,” one man snickered. At least he spoke Lyddisian rather than expecting them to know Ramish. Patch raised an eyebrow and regarded him with haughty nonchalance.

“If you really want to have the Pit as your last resting place, I’ll oblige.”

He hmphed. “How?”

Stupid question. The guards assigned to train their weapons on them had sat down, disinterested. None of them could react fast enough if Patch decided to take him out.

The road jostled everyone inside the back compartment, and Lapis nearly slid off her seat. The vehicle had two long benches lining the walls, providing seating for twenty men, all dressed in Black Hats combat gear consisting of black mercenary uniform covered by anti-tech breastplate and beret. Windows littered the walls above the seating, and she wondered why. While the glass was thick, it could still break and cause harm. They must have repurposed the vehicle. If they had access to Swifts and neat little tech bikes, why not armored transportation?

A bang came from the sliding door that separated the equipment in front, from the men in back. Lapis had glimpsed blinking tech when she first came on board, people hunched over it pressing buttons and typing, along with the man in charge of this mess, Kayleb. She wanted to ram his smugness down his throat and watch him choke on his hubris. He had a tad more care around Patch, but he treated her with a casual dismissal. That, more than the kidnapping, irritated her.

Her partner knew it, too, because he kept his arm about her shoulders despite commands to step back from her. She supposed there were better times to prove that Grey Streets chasers earned their keep by taking out stupid shanks like them.

She hoped the Blossom Minq noted the hoopla surrounding the Black Hats loading into self-moving vehicles outside the city gates and told their boss. Shara would inform those who needed to know that she and her partner were reluctant tag-alongs—people like her brother.

An ashen-faced man burst through the sliding door between compartments and motioned frantically at her. “You need to—”

“I don’t need to do anything,” she told him. Ah, such spirit, despite the small, cautionary voice in her head warning her she tread on loose gravel and needed to watch her step.

Dear Kayleb brushed past him, his face blank, but his eyes sparked with angry blue anxiety. He wore baggy black pants with several pockets, a long-sleeved black shirt covered by a bulky vest that probably had some tech enhancements, and the namesake beret. His slick hair curled under his ears like hooks, rather than remaining neatly bound in a tail. He held one of their communication devices, a rectangular object with a screen in front and thin buttons to the side. He flicked a gaze at the suddenly rejuvenated guards and thrust it at her, giving her no opportunity to do else but take it. She looked down; no blank green surface met her gaze, but Midir’s face staring back.

And Midir was piiiissed.

“Did they harm you, Melanthe?”

Patch raised his eyebrow at the crisp, malicious tone. She had heard it numerous times before, and mimicked her mother when he rode such a mood.

“I have a few bruises, that’s all.” Never lie to him when his rage ran him. “I’m not happy about being kidnapped, but putting a tech weapon to my head tends to make me cooperative.” Be forthright and sincere. “They shoved us in one of their self-moving vehicles and we’re off to Ambercaast.” And terse in explanations.

“Ambercaast?”

Varr came to pat him on the shoulder; if he could leap through the screen and strangle Kayleb, he would. “Jumping in without a plan isn’t my style, and I hate it, but I’ll survive. Patch thinks it’s a grand opportunity.”

“I’m certain he does.”

Her partner winced at the sarcasm. “While it might seem like a good idea to have a tech battle in the middle of Underville, it’s not,” he said, raising his voice.

Midir’s green eyes hardened, looking like chipped bits of jewels. “And does Kayleb know where Ambercaast is at?”

She looked inquiringly at the Black Hat; he stared stonily back. “Nope.”

What Midir said, and in the vicious tone he used, wiped every smirk off the faces of the nearby men. All looked at their leader, who stood, hands slightly out for balance, glaring death at the device. “Where, exactly, are you?”

She glanced out the window. “On a bumpy road in the mountains. We’ve passed the turn to the stargazing area, so we’re in the forest proper rather than the outskirts.” She looked back at him.

“We’re four silver and two-hundred-and five bits short of a respectable Crandleberry vacation outing,” Patch said, voice raised to make certain Midir heard. Kayleb cast him a searing glare that did not puncture his amusement; the Black Hat did not realize her partner just gave exact coordinates to their location. She initially wondered why he insisted the mod technician add that functionality to his eye tech, but it proved useful in odd ways.

“Maybe you could ask Requet.” Lapis almost regretted the suggestion as Midir folded his fingers and set his chin on the backs of them.

“I prefer dealing with his father.” Midir’s snarled words made Kayleb grimace, and he lost the angry edge. Had the man more intimate contact with Requet’s family than she assumed? A Second Council luminary would not have the motivation to treat mercenary Black Hats with anything resembling respect, especially if said mercenaries pissed him off. “He understands the world in a way his spoiled ass of a son could never contemplate. He also understands that I have some valuable information on his offspring that, should it come to light, will be more than just an embarrassment for his family. If either you or Patch return, unwhole, the Second Council will hear of it—and that will prove unfavorable to anyone wearing a black beret.”

Ah. Revenge was a commodity in Dentheria, something the elite played with because it could raise their social standing by decimating a rival. Her father had told her Midir preferred to function outside the games but dipped in every so often, leaving devastation in his wake. It kept him alive, she supposed; if he died by Dentherion or Jilvaynan blade, too many secrets would pop up and make life intolerable for those he held in low esteem, disseminated by friendly others. Destroying reputations after death carried a certain morbid appeal.

That likely explained why Gall refused to overtly get rid of him.

“Do you think you can convince Kayleb to return my gauntlets?”

While she returned Midir’s scathing smile, Kayleb did not share the moment. He snagged the device from her and swiped down the screen, trembling in the effort to withhold his emotions.

“Lord Krios holds grudges,” she told him as she rubbed her hands across her thighs. “Being rude like that isn’t going to impress him.”

“And how might you know that?” he snapped as he shoved the object into his breast pocket.

“He and my father were good friends before my family died in a fire.” Kayleb frowned at her, petulant. “I saw his temper when I was a little girl. He’s not charitable to those who piss him off. And, as far as I can tell, he hates Requet, and that will wash off onto you.”

“That’s Leadcommander—‍”

“He’s not a leadcommander. That ‘shroud’s decommissioned. And if he’s done something so outrageously stupid that it could destroy his family’s reputation in Dentheria, he’s not smart enough to be captain, let alone a high-ranking officer.”

“There are soldiers aboard. Do no mistake decommissioned for—”

A different, yet no less ashen, man skidded up to him and whispered harshly in his ear before he finished. His frown deepened, and he charged into the front cabin—and slid the door behind him hard enough it clattered loudly. Not quite a slam, but she understood the intent.

“Well, that was fun,” Patch said, leaning back against the window. Lapis eyed him.

“Lord Krios has calmed in his middling years, but don’t think he can’t be a vicious enemy to those who upset him.”

“Varr told me some things,” he admitted. “I’d never dream of getting on his bad side.”

One of the other men snorted. She glanced at him. “Your leader’s scared of him,” she reminded him.

“And who is he?” the man asked. “Some Jilvayna noble Requet owes money to?”

Lapis smiled, but before she could form an answer, Kayleb returned. She could not interpret his expression; a mix of rage and haughtiness, yes, but something else. He slammed his hand against the wall near her head and leaned in, close enough she smelled the mint candy flavoring his breath. He vibrated with emotion, using that in a poor attempt to intimidate her.

“Who is Krios? We know he’s a noble. What else?”

He did not sound as if he would take silence as an answer.

“Requet didn’t tell you? He’s the legitimate heir to the Jilvayna throne.”

The Black Hats stared at her.

“That means he has contacts and clout.”

“And your father was friendly with him?”

“My father was his best friend.”

“And he let you become a chaser?”

“Uncle Kri doesn’t run my life,” she told him in a deepened, dark voice. “I am my own woman and make my own choices and he respects that.” She slammed her hand against his chest and sent him rocking back. One thick-soled boot shot up and almost decked her chin as he fought to keep his balance. “I’ve not depended on anyone but Patch for eight years.” She mentally apologized to Rin. “And that’s not going to change. So go menace someone else, before you do something that will put you in the Pit.”

Her partner watched with a small, amused smile, his blue eye gleaming expectantly. At least he thought she could take the man without weapons, or he would not behave so nonchalantly. She doubted her abilities in that regard because hauling unconscious guttershanks into guardhouses was not the same as punching an arrogant asshole and leaving him on the ground to rot, but it was nice he thought her strong.

Nice. She always cautioned the rats to be nice. When had she started behaving so poorly?

Kayleb steadied himself, caught her partner’s expression, and rage raced from his eyes to his mouth. “Neither of you is worth the trouble.”

“Good, then let us out,” Patch said, flipping his bangs from his forehead with an abrupt shake of his head.

Brilliant idea, from her perspective.

The vehicle rocked violently. Kayleb fell into Patch, who slammed his hand into his side and propelled him at her, while the other Black Hats slid about, a few tumbling to the floor while the guards crashed into each other and fell. Their leader arched over her, his palms impacting the windowpane just above her head, his legs spread wide for balance. He pulled away and staggered to the sliding door, screaming something in Ramish.

A techie yelled something back, and he cast her a scathing glare before falling through the doorway.

She did not cause the rocking. Why place the blame at her feet? Or had he wanted to confront Patch and lost the nerve?

Her partner peered through the window, the blue lights in his patch racing around the edge. “That looked like a Swift, only bigger. I don’t think it’s one of theirs. It was silver, not black, with a purple something on the side, but I didn’t catch it.”

Lapis blinked. Silver Swift with purple on the side. Her uncle still owned it? Faelan had not mentioned retrieving it and bringing it to the capital, but they must have, for it to have flown over them so quickly after Patch gave the relevant information.

She had seen it once, before he carted it away for modification. That never stopped her from begging Rodas to fly with her, wrapping her skinny arms about his leg and looking up with the best puppy-dog eyes she could muster. Tiege mimicked her, but their uncle firmly told them no. And no. And no. She had so wanted to rise into the air, see Nicodem from far above, look at the tips of the pointy pines, view the swathes of yellow fields spreading in all directions.

Her mother’s exasperation at her uncle’s purchase of the machine only deepened when he took her father for a ride. Iolanthe had not trusted the old tech, did not trust whoever he purchased it from and her reminding both that every flight had the potential to bring unwanted court attention met with shrugs.

Her chest twinged, the memories of the flying machine slamming into her knowledge that he had ordered Faelan bound, to keep him from rushing to Nicodem after the attack. Her brother told her of his regret, but she had not overcome her anger enough to speak to him. She had not seen him around the new House, though he must have moved in. Perhaps he shared her difficulties.

Did he fly the craft? If so, had he wanted to?

The vehicle came to a lurching stop. Patch hopped up and stood over her, hand outstretched. She accepted his offer, and he pulled her to her feet before engulfing her in a brief hug. “Be right back,” he whispered in her ear before slipping past confused men gaining their feet and into the front compartment. The back door, which doubled as a ramp, slowly lowered as he returned and handed her the gauntlets.

“The Swift’s not one of theirs,” he told her as she buckled them into place. “They think it’s a Minq craft.”

“If it’s silver with purple on the side, it’s not.” She wormed her bracelet about, then tugged on the straps to make certain they fit snugly.

He leaned closer, his breath tickling her ear. “Oh?”

“It’s the Pretty Bit, an old Swift owned and operated by Ulfrik.”

She rarely surprised him, but that did it.

“I wanted to ride in it so badly as a child. He always said no, but my father got to go with him, so I thought I should, too.” She settled her head on his shoulder. “They must have brought it to Jiy. But if they stored it in the warehouse, someone had to have seen it take off from the Docks.”

“There’re a few places in the countryside the rebellion stashes larger tech,” he said. “I think the nearest one is Krios’s estate, but I didn’t see anything like that when I was there.”

The heady scent of cool pines combined with the hint of rain whisked into the vehicle. Patch wrinkled his nose but Lapis took a deep breath, hoping to rinse mint from her nostrils. She did not wait for the ramp to completely deploy before hopping out and into the soft soil sprinkled with yellowing grass. Fallen, colorful leaves, small rocks, and a good deal of dust padded the bases of bare bushes, blow there by a too-low Swift racing past.

No guard attempted to stop her. Good.

The large craft sat in the center of the pitted road, effectively blocking progress. Lapis glanced back at the caravan of Black Hat vehicles, five of the same size as the one she just left, and wondered at the hubris of rebels wanting to face mercenaries with the couple of people who could fit inside. She thought it carried six at most, if the bodies squeezed together tight.

And six it was. Rodas, who led the group, dressed in the black flight jacket he preferred when he flew, striding in front of Ciaran and Tearlach and Mairin and Brander, all armed with tech, and Caitria, who held something in her hands and looked too cheerful for the situation.

“We’re not all fitting in that,” Patch murmured.

“A couple of trips,” she replied before she skipped to them, intent on her startled uncle. “You are going to take me up, right?” she asked, determined.

Caitria laughed as his shimmery blue eyes teared. “Of course,” he whispered. He looked haggard, as if his last restful sleep happened years ago. He had tightly bound his shoulder-length black hair back, exposing a tense, tanned face littered with more wrinkles than his years would normally have. Rodas was ten years younger than her mother, so hailed from the younger side of the rebellion, but he looked to be Meinrad and Rambart’s age.

He settled his hand against her cheek, and she smiled, wobbly, but there. If she had not met Faelan first, and Midir and Varr, she might have reacted far more viciously, wallowing in her sense of betrayal. But the years rode him too hard, the pain of survival and the guilt of failure aging him before his time—Faelan reflected the same at odd moments. She hugged him, and his breath hitched.

“What the fuck are you doing?”

Well, leave it to Kayleb to destroy a tender moment. Lapis glanced over her shoulder at him as Rodas’s anger descended. He possessed a hot temper, something her mother claimed he inherited from their grandfather, but she did not know. She never met the man—Iolanthe’s family, when they realized who she wished to marry, washed their hands of their daughter, and turned their attention to more profitable court intrigue.

She had overheard her parents and Rodas discussing the family’s rage at his joining the rebellion. He had not cared about their protests and demands, and slipped into the shadows with his books, away from the callousness and cunning he hated. She did not know what instigated his loathing, but it rode him as hard as it rode Patch, concerning Gall.

“You kidnapped my niece and her partner,” he said, his tone biting. “You may see Lanth and Patch as pawns in the game Requet plays, but you’ve underestimated their support.”

No one missed the weapons that rose up from the Swift and swiveled to point at Kayleb. The Black Hats raised theirs in turn, but even if he gave the order to fire, he would evaporate before he finished the sentence. She doubted he thought the craft armed, or he never would have exposed himself in that manner. He swallowed, and briefly looked lost; a glimpse, but she caught it. If what Shara said were true, he was probably as out of his depth as the rest of them, and no one bothered to help while he drowned.

That might explain his anger. It derived from losing control, instead of elite snobbery.

“We do have a joint menace,” Rodas continued. “Interested others believe we should work in conjunction rather than apart—though, when we find Hoyt, the Minq are going to take him into custody.” His hardened gaze swept over the Black Hats, whose antsiness fouled the air about them. “You’ve overstepped yourself. Reassess. Veritiate Deathknell Jarosa isn’t going to forgive you for your attack, and if you care about your men surviving this jaunt, stand down.”

Kayleb frowned, confused. “Jarosa?”

“You think she’d take kindly to you shooting her in the chest?” Lapis shrugged and slipped away from her uncle.

“She’s the one who took out Gretch?” he asked, hands clenching.

“She isn’t as pleasant as her Meint religious guise may indicate.” She nearly laughed, at the thought of Jarosa being religious. “Or haven’t you heard of her? I thought she had quite the reputation in Ramira.”

“You’re all rebels,” Kayleb whispered. Lapis fought the urge to clap at the realization and wondered why Requet kept him in the dark concerning the people they targeted.

“Not all of us,” she denied. Rodas could continue the conversation; she had better things to do. Patch joined her as the Black Hats leader shouted something after her, his words drowning in the gust of sharp wind coursing over the Swift and down to them. She shuddered; she had forgotten about mountain chill. As a child, the bitter touch would not have phased her, but she had lived in Coriy and Jiy for too long, and they sported milder local climes.

“We have a stowaway,” Caitria told her as she walked past.

A stowaway? “No.”

“Yep,” Ciaran said, a grin playing on the edges of his mouth. “Reminds me of my younger days.”

“You’re not exactly a grand-da, you know,” Lapis muttered as she strode with purpose to the Swift, Patch’s laughter following her.

She noted a scattering of others on the other side, far too many for the craft to have carried them to the encounter, and one tossled red-head that focused her rage.

He grinned, the stupid rat. “Lady,” he began, holding up his hands.

“Don’t even,” she snapped. “Gods and chains, Rin, what were you thinking? Want a quick trip to the Pit?”

“Nah,” he told her. “Rebels ‘r no guttershanks.”

One woman jerked her thumb up the road. “We have a camp set up,” she told her. “Lord Adrastos owns some land up here, and when it looked as if Hoyt fled to Ambercaast, he prepared for an infiltration based at his cabins.”

“Who’s all there?”

“Rebels, Adrastos’s people, a few Minq. One rat.”

Lapis smacked his arm with the back of her hand. Not only had he endangered himself, he rode in the Swift before she had the opportunity. How fair was that? He did not even have to beg!

“I’s your apprentice,” he stated firmly, folding his arms and staring down his nose at her.

“I guess eighteen is plenty old enough to make stupid decisions,” she gritted.

“He was worried about you,” the woman said. “I’m Adaleiz, Tearlach’s cousin. I don’t think we’ve met.”

Lapis smiled and shook her hand. She looked older than Tearlach, so she might be the reason he joined the cause. “I’m Lanth. How far is this getaway?”

“Walk until you reach a side road with a red sign. Take that way. It’s close.”

“Thank you.” She snagged Rin’s arm and carted him after her.

“I’s worried, like Adaleiz said,” he told her grumpily, though he did not shake off her hand. She looked up at him; his seriousness overshadowed his attempt at a light tone.

“What happened with Dagby?”

“His gran hauled ‘m t’ the Minq. We went with ‘m, and near immediate at our arrival, there’s someone sayin’ the Black Hats got you’n Patch. Minq, they’s thinkin’ that’s dumb, ‘cause Patch’s not the captured type. Shara figured they’d be goin’ after Hoyt, cartin’ you along ‘cause they’s thinkin’ you knows more’n you says.” He leaned closer. “Yedin’s here, too, with his cousin.”

She squinted at him.

“Is all hurryin’ t’ catch up t’ ever’thin’ else,” he said. “Thyden knows where Ambercaast is.”

“What?”

“Seems Danaea knew. Took ‘m there a couple times, for drops. Minq’s bringin’ Dagby, ‘cause he knows more ‘bout the place itself.”

Lapis rubbed at her forehead. “My uncle mentioned Jarosa.”

“Yeah. She’s aimin’ fer Kayleb, but wants Hoyt, too, fer targetin’ you.”

Wonderful.

“There’s more rebel stuff ‘bout that, Lady. Lanth.” She raised an eyebrow at him. “I’s thinkin’, if I’m yer apprentice, should call you Lanth, now.”

She smiled, sadly, and patted his arm before withdrawing. “Yes.”

He squinted at her. “Don’t be gettin’ no ideas. I’s still the Lady’s man.” He paused. “That’s not gonna change, you know.”

She frowned at him. “What?”

“Faelan said somethin’, right afore we left.” He regarded her soberly. “Never thought it serious, but ‘spose it’s true. You thinkin’ of me more as a brother.”

Her heart twinged. “He said that?”

“He said ‘twas obvious.” He shrugged. “You came after me when . . . when I needed it. You’s always willin’ t’ talk. I knows where yer room keys ‘r at, and the hidey-holes in yer room. You helped with the suite.” He ran a hand through his hair. “Lykas ‘n Scand says it, we gots a special connection. Somethin’ deeper than just street respect. Lykas says we’s family. Told me I’s stupid, not t’ recognize it.” He rubbed at his chest; how nervous was he about this talk? Why have it in the first place? “Lady, my lot’s with you. Jes’ so you knows. I’s not goin’ anywhere. I’s goin’ t’ learn chasin’ with you. I’s goin’ t’ help with the readin’ circle. The suite’s a good home. Close t’ the rebel House.”

“Are you planning to join?”

“Nah. But won’t mind helpin’, either. Faelan’s fine with it that way.”

“What about Jerin?”

He glared, put out. “I’s pourin’ out my heart, ‘n you bring him up?”

“Rin—”

He mentally tussled with himself before he grabbed her about the shoulders and hugged her. “Lady—Lanth.”

“Call me Lapis,” she whispered. His shock, and the reddening of his cheeks, indicated he had not thought to enter that inner circle.

“Only them’s that really care for you call you that.”

“You don’t care for me?”

His brows knit in anxious uncertainty. “I don’t now how t’ be a brother.”

“Sure you do. You’re one to every rat who knows you.”

“Is not the same, Lady,” he muttered.

“No?”

“You’s more special than street rats.”

“And you don’t really think that.” She rubbed at her nose to dispel the musty smell that rose from the road. Dust covered most of it, but the broken bits of pavement peeked through. It was large enough for a couple of lanes of traffic, hinting at the size of the city before it died. “I know you care about the reading circle rats, and what about Lykas and Jandra?”

He said nothing.

“Chinder laid the foundation for your street family, Rin. He helped so many of the Lells rats your age. His kindness coats all of you.”

“Not all of us. Heran’s lernt nothin’.”

“We all stray at some point.”

“Not likes that.”

“Maybe.”

He thought about that. “I wanna help Gabby be that knight she’s wantin’ t’ be. ‘N make sure Phialla ‘n Ness make it. Help Brone get that drummin’ job at an inn, like he wants, ‘n . . . well, know Lyet better.” He rubbed at his mouth. “Scand’s talkin’ t’ that smith you sent ‘m to with the kiddies. Them’s gettin’ ‘long well. Thinks he can get some scribin’ on plaques. Scand’s kinda squirrely ‘bout it. Not wantin’ much t’ change. That smith, though. He’s a rebel, ain’t he?”

“Yes.” She smiled. “Shawe was Patch’s first contact in the rebellion.”

Rin choked.

“Scand would make a good apprentice.”

“He be wantin’ t’ be a chaser, more.”

“Inscribing metal can be a good-paying job.”

“Can do both.”

They reached the red sign of Dentherion make whose color blared through the dust coating it. The track leading from it contained well-joined paving stones and a neat shoulder, with the underbrush pruned back enough to make traversing it simpler. A scattering of leaves coated the ground, a burst of bright red and orange against the duller brown earth. Not far down the road, a wrought-iron gate that reminded her of rural noble estates blocked the way. Two guards stood there, tech weapons strapped to their sides, bored. They remained relaxed as they neared, unconcerned.

“I take it the confrontation wasn’t much of one?” one asked Rin.

“Nah. Them Blacks ‘r not likin’ the Swift,” he said. “This here’s Lady Lanth.”

They nodded at her and glanced behind. Patch waltzed up, hands shoved deep into his pants pockets, eying the surrounding foliage with distaste.

“The trees aren’t that bad,” she told him. He raised his eyebrow as the guards opened the gate and let them through. If Ambercaast were as overgrown as other ruins, the next few days were going to be the Pit for him.

“Nice camp.”

Four humongous, two-story cabins sat nestled within a wide, well-kempt meadow, two outdoor fire pits between them, and tables with matching benches, all made from stout dark brown wood carved with various foliage motifs, scattered around. Tents spanned away from the buildings and into the short grass, sturdy structures with heavy tarp and large enough to stand up in. People milled about, readying equipment taken from a multitude of crates and bags. Far beyond, at the edge of the trees, were enough tech crafts to stun a Dentherion.

Adaleiz had not joked when she said Adrastos planned to base the Ambercaast excursion from that location.

She squinted at the man seated at one table, holding a steaming cup in his hands. “What are you doing here?” How had he arrived so fast?

The look Faelan gave her made her tummy flutter in anticipation of his meeting Kayleb.

“I’m safe,” she reminded him, flinging out her arms.

“No thanks to that jackass,” he growled. Patch laughed. Faelan glared at him, too. “And you.”

“He wanted us to take him to Ambercaast,” her partner said. “Nothing was going to happen between those points.”

“If you want to yell at someone, yell at Rin for being a stowaway.” She pointed at the rat.

“Hey!”

Faelan sighed and rubbed at his face. Prodded by guilt, Lapis sat down next to him and slipped her arm around his back. “Midir contacted them and wanted to speak with me. Kayleb knew he was a noble, but not who.”

“Requet neglected to tell him? That’s odd.”

“Requet’s hiding a lot of shit.”

“Yeah. His daddy doesn’t even know what it is—though, since Midir alerted him, he’s digging. He doesn’t want his son’s problems to blow up into his.”

“Too late for that.”

He slid the mug to her, and she gratefully took a drink. She did not place the tea, but it held flavors of spicy leaves and mellow sugar. She leaned her head on his shoulder, and his tenseness slowly leaked away. However much Patch disregarded the threat, her brother did not view it in the same way. They had just reunited, and she assumed the despair of having her taken from him again rode him, as it rode Midir.

Patch and Rin took seats and slumped down. Practically twins, and Lapis fought her giggle.

“So do we have an idea where we’re going?” her partner asked.

“Yeah. Thyden took some of Adrastos’s people yesterday. It’s a hike from here, and they haven’t gotten back. They saw the ruins from a ridge, but Captain Ryalla said there’s activity, and she didn’t want to get closer without backup.”

Lapis frowned. Ryalla? She recognized the name, but could not place it.

“Adrastos’s captain,” Faelan told her. “She came because Jarosa insisted on joining us, and he felt she needed more guards.”

Lapis raised an eyebrow. “She does tend to go off on her own.”

“Precisely.” He hmphed. “The Minq have cameras to film what they saw. Tamor has some nice equipment.” He firmed his lips then sucked in a huge breath. “He filmed your Swift encounter.”

Her mind stuttered to a stop. WHAT?

“The people he’s shown it to are very impressed, how you survived.”

“I’m impressed, how we survived,” she grumbled, irritated.

“I can’t go through watching that again,” Patch said.

“Me neither,” Faelan agreed vehemently.

Rin eyed her, and she concurred with his disgruntlement. Watching and participating were two distinct things, one vastly more terrifying than the other.

No one else refused the opportunity to view the film. Despite the urgency of their mission, after Ryalla’s group returned shortly after evening fell, rebel, Minq, guard and Black Hat gathered about the camera’s gleeful owner and watched as she guided the horse onto the crashing Swift, across the roof, down the wings, gasped at the illumination of the exploding second craft—and she had to leave.

She knew Rin survived, but the thought of how much could have gone wrong . . .

Kayleb eyed the screen with a grimace, troubled. Had the pilots died in the wrecks? Did he care? His people had no problems poisoning her while aiming for a three-year-old, so she doubted such trivial emotions motivated him.

Rin joined her in her walk. She did not think anyone else noticed their departure, too enraptured with the feat.

The forest contained a crisp breeze, cold evergreen scent, and dark trees casting long shadows across the barren soil. Small bushes flapped their branches, and the heavy foliage creaked, protesting the advancing end-of-year rains and snows. Rin looked about, not as uneasy as she anticipated. While she had grown up in the forests of southern Jilvayna, the rats knew Jiy and rarely ventured from the familiar Grey Streets. The thought of trees and bushes and soft soil without a human presence made them apprehensive, and the thought of the terrifying creatures they hid, more so.

“This’s peaceful,” he murmured. “I’s not one who likes them woods near Jiy. But this ain’t bad.”

“There’s a certain lusciousness in being in the depths of nature,” she said. “It’s not for everyone. Patch hates it. If it’s not bustling and loud and cranky, he’s not interested.”

Rin laughed. “Yeah. He’s not a calm type.”

Neither was Rin. “I want to know about Jerin.”

The rat blew his breath loudly through his teeth, then muttered an indistinct phrase. “Why’s you care?”

“Because it weighs on you.”

They walked, their footsteps crunching softly, heads bowed in the gloom. “It’s just . . . we’s puttin’ ourselves at risk for ‘m. He’s not carin’. He’s ‘spectin’ t’ have us give ‘m what he wants. He’s got a cozy room ‘n gets food. Not liken us.”

“I’d do the same for any rat who had a hit on them.”

“But he ain’t no rat, Lady. Lanth. He’s some rich kid who’d never cared ‘bout the streets and hardship ‘til he had to live it. ‘N he still gets ‘t hide from it.”

“You want him to live on the streets?”

“I jest don’t see why we should care more.”

“I don’t care more,” she told him. “And there are limits to what I’m willing to do for him.”

The soft song of nightbirds interrupted by an owl flowed over them. Rin paused, and she stopped, waiting. He wrapped his hands around his upper arms, though he did not raise his head.

“What’re your limits fer me?”

“There aren’t any.”

“None?”

“I’ve risked life and limb to rescue you. Those guttershanks who kidnapped you weren’t small-time stakes. I’d do it again.”

“Is why I’s here,” he admitted. “Not that I think Patch’s not protectin’ you. I think he’d do anythin’ t’ keep you safe.”

“It’s mutual.”

“Mutual for us, too. I’s really the Lady’s man. I’s never lied about it.”

“No.”

“’N you’s not turnin’ just t’ yer brother, or Patch. You’s still there, for me.”

“I’d never turn away from you, Rinan.”

The sound of something large breaking through the trees caught their attention. A carrion lizard swayed around a pine, smaller than the ones in the Pit, but big enough for Lapis’s caution to kick in. She could not see much of it, just a blotchy blackness against the dark grey trunks, but it looked to stand as tall as her waist, meaning it possessed enough bulk to harm her and Rin. She slipped her hand into the rat’s and tugged, turning around. They would leave the animal to its business and warn the camp to be cautious. Did any realize the lizards walked the woods? She thought them centered in Jiy.

She stopped. Behind her, mouse-quiet, was another, as large as a wagon, and interested in them.

Shit.

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