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.
“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.”
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.
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.
Hendyl 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.
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.”
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!”
“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?”
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. While she knew few words, she knew the alphabet well. “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?
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.”
. . .
“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?”
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.”
“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.