Chapter 4: Successful Failure

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Citrus-scented cleaning smell drifted up from the heated roof, a sickeningly sweet odor. Lapis grimaced and glanced about; did she want to know what happened, to make Mibi clean the place?

The area was flat, with several square black crates taller than Patch positioned at convenient intervals to hide clandestine happenings from prying eyes. The wooden boards creaked but none popped up when she stepped on them. She wandered to the wall furthest from the ladder, where random boxes acted as tables and seats. She looked up the side of the Shank proper; no window appeared open.

Good.

“I can take Cady,” Bren offered as he came to a quiet halt next to her. She gave him the little one and he settled on a box, squeezing her close. She stirred but sank back into sleep within moments.

“Bren, you’ve been a great help in all this,” Lapis told him. He perked up. “It was very brave, for you to stay with Rin.”

He shrugged and blushed while he adjusted his bundle. “Well, I knew if you wanted to use the Shank, Uncle Natt could help.” He wobbled his head about, his sandy bangs falling into his eyes. “He doesn’t like working here, but he always has money, and he hears a lot. That’s what my mom says.”

“I’m sure he does.” She peeked around one of the larger cubes. “Will you be alright with Cady? I need to check the ladder.”

“Yeah, I’ll be fine. I don’t think there’s another way up here, is there?”

“No. The only people who will come back here are ones I lead here.”

A townbird warbled. Sweet and precise; Lyet.

Lapis hurried to the ladder and impatiently waited while a five-and six-year-old climbed up, the teen behind them. She hefted them over the top as soon as they reached it, and Lyet scampered after them.

“Lady.” Her seriousness prickled her neck hair as they ushered the two children to the back. “There’s a . . . problem.”

“Problem?”

Her voice dropped, so low Lapis leaned in to hear. Her black hair flowed about her face, as if the fine strands would keep the words secret. “We found something strange in the diaper bag. A little metal circle. We were digging for diapers and it fell out. The street was wet, and it sizzled when it hit. It felt hot enough I didn’t want to put it back in. Vivina had no idea what it was.”

Little metal circle. “What did you do with it?”

“Scand took it and the bag. He’s ditching them in that broken cemetery near his cubby. Something felt off, about it all. Vivina threw a fit, but we didn’t pay attention.” feeling

A sizzle. Tech, then. Who placed it in the bag, if not Vivina? “What else?”

“We split the kiddies up. Lykas, Jandra, Nerik and Brone are bringing the rest. Phialla and Ness are running reconnaissance and Gabby’s on the prowl for any rebel she might recognize.” She hesitated, upset, and waved her hand. “Ness told Nilas.”

Her heart stopped. No.

“I . . . I don’t trust him or Heran.” Lyet smashed her lips together and a tear raced down her reddened cheek. “Lady, Ness is too trusting.” She sucked in a shuddering breath. “Phialla sent them to scout the square, and if anything looks odd, to alert her. What if they tell the Dentherions about us? What if they tell them that kids escaped?”

Lapis slipped her arm about her shoulders and hugged her close. “We’ll deal with that if it happens,” she promised.

“Rin’s plenty pissed.”

If Brone or Scand made such a mistake, he would have torn into them, but Ness, being nine, was safe from the tongue lashing. That did not salve the anger.

The children raced over to Bren when they noticed him, talking over each other to tell him they walked across the square with Lyet and it was not scary at all. They even got a treat! Raising her eyebrow, Lapis squinted at the teen; she grinned.

“Scand had a good day. He picked every pocket running away. He got enough to feed the kids, so we all decided to buy them something before Rin gets the meal here. It’ll keep them quiet.”

She had not done something similar for Bren, and guilt stormed her. "Are you hungry, Bren?"

He shrugged. "A little, but I can wait."

His stoutness in the face of direness astounded her. He and Franziska had proven far braver than Vivina. Thinking of the woman . . . "Who has Vivina?"

“Rin took her.”

Lyet struggled to contain her choking laughter. Lapis struggled to calm the outrage and flabbergasted nervousness; Vivina’s merchant-class reaction to the rat boded ill for any lengthy company they kept with each other.

Another townbird, strong. Lykas.

He held the sobbing four-year-old, waiting as the older child ascended; Natt wandered up and attempted to entertain the kid, and while he did quiet, she imagined he missed his parents and wanted to go home. He would probably begin crying again once they reached the roof.

The little one refused to unhook his arms from around Lykas’s neck, so the rat climbed the ladder holding him. The guard stayed at the bottom, though she doubted he could catch them if they fell. She had no idea four-year-olds possessed such a strong grip, but upon landing, Abin rebuffed attempts to be parted from his savior. Lykas winked at her and accepted the situation without comment; she squeezed his shoulder before showing all three back to the wall.

Lyet’s cute ‘aww’ made him blush.

When Jandra arrived, her teasing did not help. He burned bright enough, his tan glowed cherry.

After nervously anticipating another group and no arrival, worry set in. Lapis paced the roof, debating whether to scour the square for Nerik, Brone and their charges, or wait for them to show up. Waiting meant fretting, and not solely concerning the children. Her chest twinged when she thought of Patch in Dentherion hands, and the tears she shed over the possibility did not dry quickly.

He should have come with her. With his help, she would have placed the board and helped the kids across to the next roof without involving the street rats. The garden incident would not have happened. She dug her knuckles into her cheeks, winced as her shoulder ached at the movement, and rubbed at it.

It ached worse.

Had the soldier punched her that hard? Initially, she thought it more of a heavy tap. What would his fist have done to Cady, had he connected? Broken that little body, no doubt. What did it say, that they refused to spare the youngest from pain and death?

Feet vibrating up the ladder caught her attention. In the dimming light, she noted Nerik and his group; they climbed far faster than the other ones, and both the six- and eight-year-old looked spooked. She hurried them across the roof and the rat kept her step, his eyes hidden under the brim of his hat.

“You OK?”

He nodded. “Wasn’t easy, t’ get them here,” he mumbled. “There’s a guttershank lookin’ about. I know him. Hendyl.”

She curled her lip. That jackass’s deceitfulness had made it possible for those despicable shanks to kidnap Rin for their sordid ring, and she promised herself, as she led the rat from the slaughter, that she would punish the guttershank for his nasty greed. She refused to rescind that vow.

When granted the opportunity, she interfered in his shankly duties with grim glee. He hated her for it. Now he had a chance for payback.

“Thank you, Nerik.” She squeezed his shoulder. “Without your help, this would be a lot harder.”

“It’s nothing, Lady.” He smoothed his brown hair on his neck.

“It is something,” she disagreed. “You’re putting yourself in danger to rescue young children. It’s difficult and hazardous, and you’ve bravely carried on. I couldn’t ask for better help.”

Satisfaction tinged with embarrassment infused him—until he saw Lykas with his charge, who appeared intent on strangling him. The other rat did not appreciate the laughter.

A townbird call ending in a squawk. Brone was in trouble.

Lapis raced for the ladder. The guttershank stumbled about below, swinging at the rat, hissing something from his filthy mouth. Brone bounced about and evaded every strike. She heard crying further in the alley, but evening’s shadows kept the area dark and impenetrable. Did they hide with Natt? She did not know whether he might give them up if his life stood between them and capture. She flipped a throwing knife from her gauntlet, weighing it in her palm. No wind, a straight shot. Broken promises, but saving Brone was more important than her pledge to Patch not to kill.

She readied her weapon and winced. The pain zipped from her shoulder and down into her back, to her waist.

She could not throw.

She stuffed the blade back into its sheath, grabbed the ladder, and hopped three and four treads at a time. Brone became louder, to cover her arrival; she did not think Rin could produce such a fake shriek. Did her rats fear nothing? A shank with a weapon easily killed, and few regretted their act. She gritted her teeth on the unexpected spikes of pain, landed heavily, and unsheathed her larger blades.

Henyl turned unsteadily to confront her as Brone skipped away to the darker end of the alley; no wonder the rat had evaded his strikes. He appeared drunk, maybe emboldened by a drug. He staggered to gain his balance, and nearly dropped his weapon. Even hurt, she would defeat him.

He slashed at her; his blade boasted a sickly green cast, unnatural and disturbing. She lunged; he belatedly bumbled away from her rush. Too late; she slammed her weapon into his hand, blade flat. He screeched as his appendage whipped about and crashed into the wall. The knife tumbled from his grasp and landed in the soft soil with a dull thud. She kicked it away, further into the alley.

How dare he use poison to go after kids?

He stared stupidly after the rotating glint, taking too long to process what had happened. Before he managed a coherent thought, a silver flash impacted his skull and he fell, face-first, to the ground, no attempt to catch himself. She pivoted, raising her arms.

Brander.

She sagged as he ran into the alley. No regret, no remorse, as he toed the fallen shank over, a harsh snarl on his lips. “Get the kids up there,” he told her. “I’ll see if he has anything on him.”

“I’ll help,” Natt offered. Brander nodded, unconcerned, and Lapis assumed they knew each other. She trotted over to Brone, who had both younger ones plastered into his sides.

“Have you been taking lessons from Rin?” she teased.

“Actually, I have.” His brown eyes sparked merrily. “Rin thought I was too slow when I ran away, so he made sure I had another way to avoid getting knifed.”

Oh.

She took the five-year-old and he clung to her as tightly as a too-small coat. She refused to wince as he jarred her shoulder, and her temper sharpened with the pain. Brone settled his hand in the center of the ten-year-old's back and urged her to the ladder. How he managed to coax her up mystified her; the girl’s legs trembled badly enough every step was an endeavor. He climbed right after, close enough to help her when she missed a rung.

“Lapis.” She turned to Brander. “We’re going to get rid of the body. You need to keep watch ‘til we return.”

“Not a problem.”

His disbelief tinged his voice. “Once we realized . . . I ran back. Such a sick feeling, thinking they’d been caught. I know what they do to kids, to families . . . When Gabby saw me, she grabbed me and told me you were secreting the kids away, and to talk to Phialla about where. That rat network is strong, Lapis.”

“They’re good kids.”

“Yeah. Natt said he hasn’t sent a courier yet.”

“Rin went to the Eaves with the babies and Franziska. And Vivina.”

“Will either survive?” His golden orbs sparked as bright as Brone’s.

“Not funny Brander. Anyway, he’ll tell Dachs. Dachs will send word to the safehouse.”

“We need to get the kids there tonight. The parents are in a panic, and I don't want them doing something rash that'll put everyone in more danger."

“We might not have a choice.” Lapis stared at the man, her mind whirling. When Hendyl acted solo, he took non-dangerous stakes because he valued his skin more than bits. Hounding a target like Brone, who did not immediately fall, struck her as out-of-character. “Nerik said he was trailing them and it was hard to shake him. The soldiers were following us pretty close. They were breaking through the wall of the building with the window room escape. The room’s sealed, with no obvious door. There’s no reason for them to have thought anyone was there. They were at the chutes, they were in the garden. They’re tracking us, somehow.”

Brander studied the top of the ladder. “Do you have a plan?”

No, but she needed one.

Scand trotted into the alley, stopped and did a double-take, then slid around the two men and nearly knocked her from her feet. “Lady!”

“What’s up?”

“Something,” he told her officiously. “Those Dentherions showed up at the cemetery.”

“What?” Brander asked, rising.

“Something fell out of the diaper bag, sizzled when it hit the ground. We thought it was strange, and since Vivina didn’t know what it was, we decided to ditch the bag, just to be safe. There’s an old, decrepit cemetery near my cubby, so I dumped it there. I spread everything about like I’d stolen the bag and was looking for the good stuff. The Dentherions showed up before I’d even left! They were sifting through it, but I didn’t stay to watch.”

No. Not . . . Vivina.

"Like this?" Nett asked, holding up a small metallic disk.

Scand shuffled over for a better look, then nodded. "Yeah."

The man set the item on the dirt and slipped a knife from his jacket. He drove the point through the soft surface, and it buzzed and flashed in response.

“She’s with Rin?” Brander asked quietly, his thoughts echoing hers.

“At the Eaves.” Dread shot through her head and into her heart. No. NO.

“I’ll go—” Scand began.

“No,” Lapis stated firmly. “I need you here. We need to get the kids off the roof. NOW.”

“Gabby’s around. I’ll tell her to get word to Rin, and then come back.”

“This doesn’t feel right,” Brander muttered. “I’d never peg Vivina as a traitor. Baldur’s making too much money off the rebellion to be a double agent, and Vivina wouldn’t do anything without his permission.”

“Did you show the Blue Council the daycare?”

“I didn’t, but Relaine might have. She took Teivel all over the place, even when Sherridan and I told her to stop.”

Relaine. “Was she on duty, to help with the kids’ escape?”

“Maybe.”

Shit. Too many unknowns. “Scand, find Gabby. Tell her we need Vivina sequestered, just in case—Dachs can do that better than you rats. She needs to tell Rin to hold off on the food for now. Then get back here.”

“OK.” He darted out of the alley. No complaints. What had happened to the mischievous, quarrelsome rat she once knew? Fourteen did not exactly grant a wealth of life experience for a more mature outlook.

Climbing back up, carrying the five-year-old while using the arm on her injured side to grip the rungs, sent excruciating spikes through her body. Despite the glancing nature of the blow, that ass must have broken something, and she did not have time to see a doctor. She wished she had some of the painkiller pills the rebel House’s cook swallowed when her back viciously reminded her of her age.

She reached the top and handed the kid to Brone, who anxiously waited for her to reach the roof. He eyed her, and a moment’s twinge of unease flared before he leaned close.

“Are you hurt, Lady?”

She attempted her best exasperated expression. “We’ll talk about it later.”

The ten-year-old sniffled, tears just beginning to freely flow. “It’s alright, Olisa.” She put calm and comfort into her voice, and the sniffles died, though the tears did not cease. “I know it’s hard, sweetie. But we’ll get you back to your parents soon.”

She perked up, too hopeful. “Really?”

“Yeah. If not tonight, definitely tomorrow.”

“We’ll get you home,” Brone told her, brimming with a confidence she could not catch.

All rats cast worried eyes at her when she rounded the cube corner. She dearly wanted to glare them into guilt but instead leaned against the black side of one of the large containers. She almost winced away as her shoulder blade connected with the solid wood, and chose not to fold her arms; the street kids would become nosier and more annoying, if they realized the extent of her pain.

The younger children had attached themselves to one of the urchins, finding some comfort in their presence. The rats exuded calm confidence that likely helped keep the small ones from falling into panicked tears. Of course, they understood fear in a way the rebel kids did not, and while learning to carry it took years took years, that did not preclude them from sharing a small bit with her charges.

“Alright, listen up.” She sounded short, and she needed calm. “We need to divide up again. Lyet said Scand gave you some bits. Is it enough to feed the kids?”

“Yes,” they chimed together.

“OK. Do that first. Then I want you to take them to certain places. Brone.” She raised her hands, and despite the trembling of her arm, used the rats’ finger language to tell him where to visit. “Lyet.”

By the end, she had scattered them about the Grey Streets, far enough from each other to not raise suspicion. No one would eye them suspiciously for wandering the Lells or sniffing about for food at the Night Market.

A faint townbird call settled something within her; Scand had returned, to take charge of Bren and Cady. A breath of nervousness coursed through her when she told Scand to visit Shawe, but she suspected they would get along far too well. Hopefully the man did not attempt to convince him to join the rebel cause.

Of course, leaving the children behind might have shattered the illusion of valiant rebel for her reading circle. The streets did not treat betrayers kindly, since so many had experienced deceit, in one way or another.

She spread her legs further apart for balance, granting herself a chance to collect herself while the rats gathered their respective charges. The fear and worry wore her down, and she wanted to sleep, but that would be long in coming. She needed to return to the Eaves and question Vivina about the small gadget left in the diaper bag—and what she might know about Dentherion tracking devices.

She had the feeling Brander might try to beat her to the woman first.

The sudden racket popped her out of her reverie—what in the Pit was wrong with the kids?

Patch.

The little ones crowded around him, all demanding attention; he managed to settle his hand on each one, a comforting gesture, as he made his way to her. She sucked in tears the children would not understand and forced a smile that did not shake too much. Her heavy sorrow lifted, the mourning she preemptively participated in dissolving.

“The Shank?” he asked drolly.

“Name a better place.”

He laughed darkly.

“I’m glad you got here before we left.” She wanted to throw herself into his arms and sob, but she had a job to finish and kids to save. “There was some kind of tracking device in the diaper bag. Scand ditched it in an old cemetery, and he said soldiers showed up to nose around in it.”

“I was a round metal disc,” the rat said, holding up his fingers to show how the tiny size of the object.

“We accidentally dropped it and it sizzled when it hit the street,” Lyet told him. “It made us uneasy, so we got rid of it.”

Lapis cleared her throat. "A shank followed Brone and Nerik here. He had one, too. Brander and Natt are taking care of him." Patch nodded sharply at her, then smiled at the rats.

“Good work.” He looked at her. “What are you going to do now?”

“Each rat takes two, gets them something to eat, then disappears into the Grey Streets. I’m sending them to places like the Lells, and Shawe’s.”

His knowing smirk did not sit well.

She almost lost her balance and fought to stay standing. He frowned at her, his eyes whisking over her, probing. “A Dentherion soldier punched me when we were in the garden,” she whispered. “Cady had a fit and while I was trying to calm her, he tried to hit her. I took his strike in the shoulder. I didn’t think it was that hard, but he broke something.”

The immediate blanking of emotion frightened her. “Which one?”

She reached back to her right, and could not finish the action.

She pushed from the wall, and he snagged her upper arm, keeping her in place while he pulled down the back of her shirt. He swore—overblown panic, and disbelieving fear.

“He poisoned you.”

. . .

What?

“Lady!” Brone and Scand said, together, hopping up from their respective seats and rushing to her.

“Get the kids to safety,” Patch snapped. They quieted, digesting the anxiety pounding through his voice. He, the famous chaser, never expressed unease, fear, terror, in company, and for him to break his composure . . . “Where’s Rin?”

“Here.”

The rat carted a bag that smelled delicious with him. He plopped it down on the roof and Lyet rescued it from tipping over. The younger lot eyed it greedily.

“Lyet, divide the food, and then you all go. Rin, take Lanth to the Eaves. That soldier poisoned her, and I need to get my aunt. She has the antidote.”

“What’s about them doctors—”

“The streets are blocked off, and Lanth doesn’t have the time to sneak into the clinic.”

“Patch.” Her voice quavered. Poison.

She was going to die. What the soldiers failed to complete when twelve, a smarmy jackass would finish at twenty.

He grabbed her face and kissed her, hard. “When you get there, send someone for Caitria at Meergeld Estate. It's one of those in the cluster of mansions near the Eaves. She can get you the first shot you need.”

“But—”

“You don’t have time.”

“Caitria’s at the Eaves,” Rin said. “Saw ‘er and Tearlach. We’s lucky, then.”

“But the kids,” she protested.

“I’ll tell Phialla what’s going on before we go to the smithy,” Scand said, too serious, nodding at his charges.

“Brander was here earlier. He’ll need to know,” Brone agreed.

Patch smacked him softly on the shoulder and ran to the ladder. Rin grabbed her hand and jerked her into motion. Apparently, when her partner said she did not have the time, it made an impression.

An odd numbness filtered down her side as Rin led her across the square. The pain spiked, receded, leaving behind a sense of detachment from her body. Placing one foot before the other became a trial; she concentrated, hard, on the act.

She had kids to save. She had rats to teach. She had Patch to help. She had no time to fall to poison.

What kind? Patch did not say. She vaguely recollected that the palace guards coated their blades in a special mixture that killed quickly, but only when wet. They had a terrible time keeping it from drying out, and when it turned to powder and fell from the blade, it became inert. Rewetting did not return the potency. Had the soldiers borrowed that concoction? Or had they a different means of harming their victims?

“Lady?” She tasted his sour worry.

“I’ll be fine.”

“Yer not steady on yer feet, Lady. Some’ll think you’ve been drinkin’.”

She was that bad?

“We needs t’ get you t’ the Eaves faster.”

“I can’t walk faster, Rin.”

“I’ll even carry you. I’s the Lady’s man, you know.”

Oh? She did not doubt Rin’s strength, but she was not lithe Lyet, either. She stumbled and he grabbed her; she hunched over, pawing at her side, unable to feel his hand on her arm. The air turned muggy, warm, and she fought to suck in a breath. A slow, steady creep of white fuzz invaded her sight, turning everything into an over-bright haze. She heard Rin speak, and then quiet descended, but for the oppressive beating of her heart. She heard that exceptionally well.

Thump thuuump. “Lady.” Thump thuuump. Thump thuuump. “We gots a cart. Come on.”

Cart?

A wooden cart large enough to hold two passengers halted before them, manned by someone she thought she should know, but could not remember. A couple of crates sat at the front, but the bed held enough room for her and Rin.

She grabbed the rail and hefted herself up; the rat helped too much. Did she require that much aid? She flopped down heavily and leaned against the sideboards, blinking rapidly to clear tearing vision. The cart lurched to the snort of a horse; Rin snagged her from toppling over into the street from the open back.

“Damn Dentherions,” the cartman muttered.

“They’s got the streets blocked,” Rin told him.

“How’re you gettin’ a doctor?”

“Patch is gettin’ someone. ‘N Caitria, she gots some medical stuff. She’s at the Eaves—saw ‘er earlier. Gotta catch ‘er afore she leaves.”

Lapis tipped her head back, watching the yellowish haze above her. It faded to black against buildings and brightened again at intersections as the cart rocked back and forth. Gritty noise growled up from the wheels and bits of voice wobbled near and far. As usual, the glare of city light clouded the night sky, hiding it and the stars from resident view. A drastic change from her childhood at Nicodem, where the tiny specks sparkled across the sky, too many to count, held within wisps of shimmery space clouds. Contemplating the future with head tipped back, indulging in the silence and enormity of it all while the forest-bound wind chilled her skin, was a pleasure she missed. Her innocence had predicted a noble marriage and children and a happy, healthy home.

How did she end up in this situation, again?

She had faced death before. She had raced away, terrified, from weapon and enemy, and evaded harm. But in the garden, she had not realized her danger when the soldier struck. No chance to run, escape. She should have dodged rather than suffered his fist. She knew Dentherion duplicitousness. She knew the threat they posed. Stupidity could have gotten Cady killed.

She lurched into the crates. Rin snagged her back into a sitting position, holding her up as three black-uniformed men blocked the back.

Would they go away, if she asked nice?

“What’s wrong with her?”

“She’s sick.”

Rin did not sound like Rin. No street accent or charm, just dead words.

“Sick?” So mocking, so nonchalant.

“Happens sometimes.”

One of them growled. If she thought be nice at the rat hard enough, would he listen?

“Where are you taking her?”

“Home.”

“Home where?”

“Bitterstone.”

How lovely, for Rin to drag an unsuspecting apartment complex into the ordeal.

One of them dug his fingers into her right arm and yanked her from the sideboards, letting her dangle by it. She had not eaten much that day, too nervous about the potential Blue Council confrontation to swallow food at lunch, but she had enough acid to puke on his boots. Shiny, shiny boots. High-pitched, disgusted shrieks pierced her ears and he dropped her, backing away and shaking his feet.

Rin picked her up and fell back into the box; the cart took off, leaving the soldiers and their venom behind. One teased his fellow, for the agitated soldier swatted at him as he attempted to rub his boot into the broken street cobbles.

Careful. They might kill one another with a simple tap.

Rin pulled himself into a sitting position, but kept her prone, one hand lying on her left arm and tightening every so often when the cart bumped about. It lurched to a stop and he hopped out, then slid his arms under her back and her legs, hefting her up and into the Eaves.

Perhaps Rin was stronger than she credited him for.

Bodies swirled about as they entered the too-bright establishment. She always thought of the tavern as dim brown and homey, but she squeezed her eyes shut on the blaze. The rat set her on one of the stools and cool air raced across her hot shoulder. She blinked as the ripped fabric of her shirt sleeve slithered down her chest. Caitria leaned over, then pulled back, a doctor’s needle in hand.

“Tearlach, I need the medibag. NOW.”

She saw fast movement before her but could not focus.

“He tried to hit a three-year-old?”

The outraged, low growl sifted through her, and her own rage rose, but fractured on numbness and disintegrated.

“Lady, yer shoulder’s a mess.” She squinted at the rat’s leg as he plopped down on the stool next to her, nearly scraping her nose. “Good thing I’s here to take care of you. You’d prob’ly be face-down in the street, otherwise. But I’s the Lady’s man.”

Yes, he was quite the charmer, with chest puffed out in arrogant pride. Why had she thought different? “You didn’t sound like Rin.” Of all the things to ask, that weighed most prominent.

“With them soldiers? ‘Course not. They’s wantin’ a typical merchant, ‘cause of the cart. Not like they’s smart ‘nough to figure it out.”

“Rin’s a better actor than you might think,” the cartman said. He stood to their side, as worried at the rat. Someone prodded her shoulder, and she tried to crane her neck to see, but her head refused to move.

“Lady, we’s movin’ you. Gonna throw you over my shoulder, ‘K? You’d better not puke on my shoes, though. I only gots them and they’s comfy.”

The cartman laughed, and she imagined her lack of amusement instigated it. Heat seared the skin around her eyes, adding to the fuming.

She did not quite understand what Rin meant to do until he bent over and she fell onto his shoulder. Why not carry her normally? She was not a sack of produce. The thought of food roiled her tummy, and she fought not to embarrass herself and prove Rin prophetic. The rat did not need further reasons to gloat.

Darkness coated her before cooler air shifted over her. Jostling about did not serve her stomach well, but she managed to retain control until settled on a mattress. Someone shoved a boxy thing at her, and she threw up into a container.

“You ‘sposed t’ puke green?”

What?

Rin grinned, too wide and teasing. She needed to have words with him about scaring her when she was in no position to smack him for the effort. With help, she stretched out on the mattress, one far softer than her own. Where was she? Rin’s suite? That made sense, she supposed—more room.

“D’you knows who Patch’s aunt is? He’s sayin’ she has the antidote.” Rin began to light a myriad of candles and plunk them on short stands of silvery metal and dubious origin.

“Lady Thais Mayventhel,” a woman said.

Mayventhel? “That’s an old court family,” Lapis whispered. Very old. Their ancestors had managed some deal with the Taangis Empire that allowed them to remain in Jiy when all other noble houses were ripped asunder and sent to disparate places under empire control. As a child, she understood that gave them an extraordinary amount of political power, which they constantly abused.

"Yes. They are old, powerful, and deceitful. She broke ties with the rest of the sorry lot when they handed Patch over to the throne as a traitor, then lied about it. If he asks, she'll help." “A noble?” Uncertain suspicion clouded Rin’s voice.

“Patch says that she doesn’t have much use for healing those who can’t pay for her services, but she loves her nephew. And he has enough cash to cover expenses. The antidote isn’t cheap.”

“But she gots it?”

“Yes. For Patch, in case he gets into trouble. I don’t think even Lanth knows how often she patches him up. Lady Thais says he calls himself Patch because if he were a shirt, that’s all he’d be.”

Lapis laughed; the hint of pain coursing down her side did not prick as badly. A terrible sign.

“You know her?” Rin asked.

“We’ve met a couple of times. She provided some good advice about the medibag. Faelan knows her much better. Through him, she gets rare supplies to the underground clinics in Jiy. She may be snobby, but she provides a crucial service.”

Racing footsteps outside the door; the rat slipped away and within a moment, fingers prodded at her shoulder.

“Harkenberry isn’t exactly the closest district to the Grey Streets.” She recognized that voice, but much like the cartman, could not quite place it.

“I know. And if Patch hires a cart, it’s going to be obvious. He’ll have to take an underground route, and who knows what that’s going to be like. Lord Adrastos sent word that the soldiers started searching some of the tunnels near the House, which interfered with business as usual. The rings and bosses are spooked, and the syndicates are pissed. On top of that, they obstructed Sir Armarandos’s investigation into Hoyt—which is so, so suspicious. Adrastos doubts they are following an official order, because he says it doesn’t sound like a Lord’s Council or Second Council act. If they need to mess with the underground, they do it quietly so it doesn’t become a scandal in Dentheria. Think about it. Protecting an underboss who attempted to blow up part of a capital city at a time when more and more Dentherion noble families are vacationing there? That’s a huge outrage waiting to blow up.”

“The Blue Council just learned that the skyshroud isn’t being led by a commander, but a Second Councillor’s son. No one knows why he’s here, and some of the palace stuff the Dentherions poked their noses into aren’t related to empire and vassal state relations.”

“Scand and Rin heard something about that,” Lapis said, struggling to remain awake.

“Yeah, them palace regs ‘r upset,” the rat agreed. “Seems they’s from the skyshroud made pests of themselves, ‘n some ‘r sayin’ them palace guards told the rebels ‘bout the raid, ‘cause of it. Them ‘n the city guards ‘r real unhappy, so I c’n see it.”

“Something to play with,” the woman murmured. “Tearlach, please see if the boiling water is ready.”

Scurrying, and Gabby fell to her knees right before her nose. “Lady,” she sobbed, reaching for her. Tears shined her cheeks. She managed to lift her arm and cup the rat’s face.

“What’s up, Gabby?”

She grabbed her fingers and squeezed tight. “I found Brander. I’m supposed to go report to Faelan, but—but I had to see you.”

“I’ll be fine.”

“You don’t look fine.”

“I didn’t say I felt fine. I said I will be fine. Are you OK with doing something for Brander?” She disliked further involving the rats, but, she supposed, that regret came far too late.

“Of course.” She clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth. “It’s pretty close, really. Lady, we’re still looking out for Dentherion soldiers, but there’re patrols now. They’re harassing everyone.”

If a soldier had no care whether he poisoned a three-year-old, Dentherions would have even less compunction in going after street rats. “Tell Phialla that the others need to get to their cubbies or come here,” she whispered. “Do you know, if the rats with the rebel kids made it to where I sent them?”

“I think so. The Dentherions haven’t caught anyone, anyway. They aren’t paying attention to us street rats in that way. Sure, they’re grumbling and they’ll swipe at us if we get close, but they think we’re too dirty to chase.” The annoyed disgust in Gabby’s tone made her smile.

“An advantage.”

Rin squatted behind her, slipped his arms about Gabby’s shoulders and hugged her. “She’ll be fine,” he told her. “I’s makin’ sure of it.”

“But my mama said that, before she died.” She snuffled, gulped for air, and refused to let go of her fingers. “I held her hand, and she went cold. You can’t go cold, Lady. You can’t.”

Lapis had no strength to bury the tears. “Gabby, I have help. I’m not . . . I’m not going to go cold.”

Rin settled his head on top of hers and rocked her. “She’s gonna have a real doctor look at ‘er.”

“She will,” the woman said. “True, she isn’t going to feel very good for a while. But she isn’t going to die.”

The rat’s distrust stabbed Lapis. “Go report to my brother,” she whispered. “Patch is bringing extra help. I’ll be here when you get back. I promise.”

She tore herself away from Rin and ran out the door, huffing hard.

Lapis knew empty promises. She knew her father’s soft voice, vowing to protect her from the rigors of the world as he cuddled with her on the porch swing. She knew her mother’s warm laughter at her childish fears of the dark, and once savored the commitment she made to light the nightmares with love. She knew her brother’s quieter amusement at her insecurities and his pledge that, when she most needed him, he would be there for her.

They all lied. Her parents died under Kale’s blade and her brother abandoned her, however involuntary. She spent the last eight years living under the weight of those unkept promises, scrambling to honor memories of her fallen family but knowing her own vows might prove as dead and dishonorable.

Dead words. She did not want to speak dead words to Gabby, to Rin. They deserved better than desperate but futile promises. Those tore the soul apart, leaving the dried remains to crumble into dust.

“I meant it, Lady.” Rin sat, crossed his legs, and settled his arms on the edge of the mattress, planting his chin on top of them. “I’s stayin’ and I’ll annoy you so’s you’d really want to go to the Pit, ‘cause that’s where you’d get some peace.”

“That’s . . . not reassuring.”

“Nope. ‘Supposed t’ be annoying. That’s why I’m the Lady’s man.”

“Don’t . . . don’t speak dead promises.”

“Lady.” He leaned back and took her hand—Gabby had dropped it and she could not lift it back onto the bed—and held it to his chest. “That night, Lady. I thought I’s gonna die, with them guttershanks. I’s not the only one they took, but I’s the pretty boy. I thought, I’d take ‘m out, afore they did somethin’ nasty t’ me, ‘n if they killed me, I’d be free of ‘m. I didn’t think no one cared what happened, so me dyin’ didn’t matter. Them shanks didn’t think no one cared, neither. I’s a bitty rat, no one t’ miss me, ‘n the monsters had me. But you did. You thought I’s important. Them’s bein’ scary shanks, ‘n you still came to rescue me. You didn’t care they might hurt you, too. You came ‘n got me, and you took care of me. You didn’t . . .” He swallowed, hard. “You coulda run, when you saw—”

“No.” The blood ran in streams down the grout, draining from guttershanks too greedy to care about the humanity of one street rat. They paid a final price to berserker rage, for their failure. “You’d never attack me.”

“Was a close thing. I’s thinkin’ them all’s foes.”

“You’d never . . . hurt me, Rin. Never.”

“Then you’s got t’ never hurt me, in return.”

“Hurt . . . you?” Attempting a full breath sent streaming pain through her back and chest.

“Means you can’t die, Lady. Not ‘til yer more like seventy ‘r eighty. Gotsta be in a rocker ‘n drinkin’ tea.”

On whose porch? “Rocker?”

“Yeah, you know. Like them elders who sits ‘long the river, all sippin’ tea ‘n starin’ down they’s noses at all the boats.”

That was his idea of retirement? They needed to have a little talk. Later. ‘Bout boats. ‘N rockers. Tea was OK. It was warm. Nice and warm.

“Lady? LADY!”

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