The smell of spicy tea appealed to Lapis, though the thought of drinking it did not. Ciaran sipped from one of Phialla’s cups as he settled several pages on the bed next to her, satisfied with the taste. She did not recall him enjoying steeped leaves in their childhood, but they both had changed since those delightful days.
She reluctantly raised the first one as she sank back into the pillows, wishing she did not feel so lethargic. She had things to do, like take a stake, and keeping to a bed, however necessary, cut into her meager savings. How lucky, she turned in the alchemist, because she would be hurting for money without that payment.
“Patch read these and took off,” Ciaran said as he leaned against the wall and folded his free hand around his waist. “Mother said he went blank, bounced up, and was gone.”
Annoyingly typical. Lapis skimmed the first page, frowning. What prompted his flight? Nothing she perused hinted at anything that might spark action. It was a dull document highlighting one of Danaea’s conquests—not a murder, just a rich sap who did not want his richer wife to find out he consorted with lesser women. She glanced at the back; some kind of code. A couple of others listed dates, some yet to arrive, coupled with individuals she blackmailed for more cash, all containing more code on the back. She shuffled through the rest, fighting to keep herself from puking. What a horrid woman, who bathed in blood and blackmail. Living in Jiy was difficult, but to feed off the desecration of morality . . .
She returned to the codes. Something scratched at her about them, but she could not say what. The random stretch of letters and numbers looked like a jumbled mess, but the format reminded her of the Minq’s guttershank code. Patch had more familiarity with it than she. What might have spooked him into leaving without a word? Or did he deem his errand so minute, no one needed to know? Then why race away?
She slowly read through the other pages, but nothing struck her as strange or out-of-place with the rest of the items. Had Lady Thyra misinterpreted his leaving? No; the woman had worked with him to find evidence of Perben’s traitorous hand, so she likely understood when something bothered him.
She rubbed her eyes and studied the code again. Simple lines, differing lengths, jibberish. Danaea placed them there for a reason, and since nothing else appeared relevant to the situation, the scramble of letters hid something that sent him racing out of the House.
“This looks like a Minq code line they use with undershanks,” she told them, waving the sheet she held about. “Patch knows some of their ciphers. I don’t know any.”
Ciaran glanced at Faelan. “Neassa knows them.”
“She does, but she’s with Midir, and they aren’t nearby. Caitria has a list of the ones Lord Adrastos gave us, but I have no idea how accurate they might be.”
“She went out with Mairin. I can dig around in her notebooks.”
“Do so. They should be with her Jiy notes.”
Lapis helped Ciaran gather up the pages, despondent. “I wish I could help more,” she whispered. Apprehension wormed through her; Patch was not one to rush off into danger without planning an escape if things went from bad to worse, so for him to depart without a word . . .
“Well, you told us that the codes look like Minq ones,” he reminded her. “That’s a place to start. Don’t worry, I’ll be back. I have a feeling whatever they say, you’ll understand more of it than we will.”
Faelan lounged back, clasping his hands over his stomach, as Ciaran slipped from the room. “I wonder what he read in those pages,” he murmured. “Patch isn’t someone who rushes off into a bad situation without at least thinking about the consequences.”
“She might have used his name in vain in her codes,” she said, worming down into the pillows. She hated that Danaea had plied Patch’s name to make the guards pay her correctly. She herself fumed when the law laughed at her and skimped on her stake, but she never thought to bring her partner into it and ride his name. It had been enough, that they knew she had one.
Now that the guards, and everyone else in the Grey Streets, knew Patch was her partner, she expected their attitude to change.
Her brother lolled his head over and absently studied her. “It may be, he decided to warn a target of an assassination attempt. That would explain his haste.”
Patch did not find much use in the typical human. If a stake triggered his act, it must have targeted someone like a Minq leader, whose death could cause problems for both chasers and rebels. Even then, he normally kept clear of such things, because interfering with hunters tended to have negative consequences and it annoyed him to knock out a seething idiot who thought revenge solved their failed attempt.
Lapis tried to stay awake, curious as to what Ciaran discovered, but ended up dozing. She drifted on half-dreams until a gentle shaking startled her, and she popped up. Faelan smiled and patted her leg; she blinked rapidly to clear her vision of the misty white that clouded it.
The room was decidedly darker, the candles merrier, so night had fallen. She rubbed at her eyes as Ciaran sat in the chair, leaning over his knees and clasping his hands before him. She accepted the few pages from her brother and looked at them; a listing of names, dates, and the success of the stake. Danaea failed most of them, and Lapis could not fathom why she kept a record detailing that. Did she think a second attempt might work?
“My mother found a few more blocks of code in the papers we hadn’t read yet, so we decoded them as well.”
She nodded absently; the more information, the better. It disconcerted her, that the woman had her fingers in even more sludgy undertakings.
A couple stakes made her gasp. “She targeted some high-ranking Minq and Beryl Syndicate leaders.”
“I find it unfathomable she has Vu Ne Jano listed,” Ciaran said.
She handed Faelan that page, and he scanned it, shaking his head in disbelief. “Attempting to complete a stake on Vu Ne means she had a death wish. He’s a favored son of the Jilvayna terrboss. Jo Ban would revenge him by taking out both the hunter and the staker, and he possesses enough wealth to make that stake so attractive, the most skilled assassins would jump at the opportunity.”
Lapis returned to the page she held and took a moment before the contents registered. “What day is it?”
“Midyear 4, Delthis 12,” Ciaran said.
The same date, listed a couple of times between codes. Oh no. “She listed Wrethe with today’s date,” she said, appalled. “He’s a chaser informant who used to be a coder for the palace. He makes a good living helping with stakes where the target thinks they’re clever and employs code. He’s brought down quite a few Dentherion spies for the Minq.” She shook her head. “He’s hidden, and most chasers only know about his dropboxes at the Docks and in the Undermarket.” She grabbed another sheet and pointed to the relevant words. “She says she and her partner will meet the Shroudies in Blossom during the evening before leading the hunt. The Grey and Stone Streets use that term for the Dentherions aboard a skyshroud. Patch went to see him, to warn him. There’s nothing else here that would interest him.”
“That second bit was among the new code. He couldn’t have read it,” Ciaran said, sitting straight.
“Patch knows where he lives?” Faelan asked.
“Yeah. So do I. I’ll go—”
“Faelan, he won’t talk to just anyone,” she told him bluntly. “His paranoia is impressive. He has a granddaughter to protect, and that’s his paramount concern.” She lowered the page. “Hopefully Patch is already there. Otherwise, he might not even talk to me.”
“He and Patch are friendly?” Ciaran asked.
“They know each other from way back. That’s all they ever say, but to anyone watching them, it’s obvious they like and respect one another.”
“You’re not going, Lapis. You don’t appreciate how ill you still are.” Faelan’s stiff stubbornness chaffed her anger.
“Faelan, I’d do far more than this, to smack Patch upside the head for causing us to worry. And I’m not telling you where he’s at unless I’m with you.” She had out-stubborned him in the past, and she refused to let him win this one.
He narrowed his eyes. “Then I’m going with you.”
She gaped, appalled. “You’re the Leader of the rebellion! You can’t—”
“Which means I get to order you around, doesn’t it? And since I’m your big brother—”
Ciaran drew a breath; both she and Faelan looked at him. He wanted to voice a smart-ass remark, he had that annoyed, disgusted half-frown pulling his lips to the side, but instead, he rose and took himself away.
Faelan muttered under his breath as she looked at the pages, concern twisting her stomach. Her partner needed to learn to trust as well, something he found exceedingly difficult. Knowing his past through Faelan, she understood his hesitancy, but sometimes that proved more of a barrier between him and others than the betrayal.
Lapis grumpily rocked in the saddle of her mount, bundled against the nighttime breezes. Lyet had insisted she wear a thick winter coat and heavy clothing, which made her too warm and irritable. Yes, she was sick, but suggesting the uncomfortable items in the presence of her also-overprotective brother had not made her feel any better about the situation.
And an over-protective Rin, who wanted to pile on even more. She glared at the pommel, her ire rising. When Faelan realized she needed assistance staying in a saddle, he asked the lad to ride behind her. His excitement at being included in a secret rebel mission ricocheted around them, which intensified when he donned a face-concealing hood. Stupid rat, had her brother not said he distrusted the rebellion after the Jiy House left their children behind during the raid? Why had he accepted the suggestion to help? They might face a group of Dentherions, and his knife was not the weapon of choice against a tech-armed foe.
At least she firmly kept the group to a bare minimum, with few enough members to not attract undue attention. Just her, Rin, Faelan, Ciaran and Mairin, who carried a plethora of medical supplies packed by a concerned Caitria. Tearlach, who had retrieved the two women and the horses from who-knew-where, did not like the grouping, either, but Lapis knew, if she arrived with too many, Wrethe would never answer her call. The codebreaker bragged about leaving the Jiy Minq underboss standing on his doorstep for an afternoon because the man thought he deserved a retinue. Half left before he opened the door to the furiously embarrassed man and his delighted underlings.
Having a small group had also made it easier to slip past guard and Dentherion patrol, down into a drainage ditch in northeastern Vale and through a Minq passage that led under the city walls and into the Blossom district. Once there, they blended with the final trickle of farm wagons leaving the city.
Rin eagerly craned his body about to take in the sights beyond the glare of city lights. While the moon shown bright, all that he could see of the countryside was waist-high, wavy grasses and sporadic flickering lights denoting distant communities. Truthfully, that was about all he would see in the daytime, too; the farmland had field upon field of grains and vegetables, dull yellows and greens with grass as a natural dividing line between them, the monotony broken only by workers and random clusters of huts and cottages.
Crandleberry Way simply did not have a lot of sight-seeing material. Small farm communities resided in the area, with a few resplendent noble estates creating extravagant eyesores in the middle of grain fields and grassy meadows. It continued through unkempt brush and grass and into the western mountains, where the wealthier city dwellers had conscripted a boulder-strewn locale for stargazing. The brilliant colors of the night sky, sprinkled with millions of twinkles, attracted numerous couples interested in a romantic getaway to the flat tops of the humongous grey rocks.
She and Patch had visited a few times, though the view made her ache for a time before her family’s demise. She wanted better memories to flavor those experiences, though she never accomplished it.
Her body wanted to doze, but the cacophony of nightly animals and insects kept her awake. She rarely spent the sleeping hours outside the city, and she had long ago lost the ability to blot out the thrum of frog and buzz of nighthoppers. Owls hooted, the chitters and chatters and townbirds sang, and the high-pitched screeches of bats underpinned the birds. While Jiy had its night noises, she could muffle her single window and the door to drown out most of it, for a quieter time of slumber.
“Y’know, Brone says we’s too cooped up, in the city,” Rin said quietly. “Mayhap he’s right. This’s nice.”
“As long as you don’t have to deal with the superstitious and suspicious, it’s fine,” Lapis muttered crabbily.
“Superstitious and suspicious?” Ciaran asked.
“I think the rural residents near Jiy are more antsy than those in southern Jilvayna,” she replied. “I’ve had to deal with a number of them during stakes. Patch thinks some of my difficulty dealing with them stems from me being a woman plying the chaser trade, but I think some of it also has to do with a deeply ingrained suspicion of non-locals and city folk in general.”
“The feel of the countryside around Jiy is different,” the rebel admitted. “More guarded. I always assumed it was because this land lies in the shadow of Gall’s government, and he’s proven, time and again, how much he hates the citizens of this country.”
“There’s that. There’s also Hoyt trying to expand into the countryside. He sends fake guards into smaller settlements, and they aren’t enamored of a rural setting. I had to stop one from beating a farmer to a pulp for no reason other than being a farmer.”
“There’s been lotsa gossip ‘bout Hoyt, since the city’s been under surveillance,” Rin said in a softer voice. “Them’s at the Lells ‘n the nightmarket ‘r sayin’ Hoyt’s been tryin’ t’ make inroads into the country, stealin’ baron money t’ pay fer them guards he’s been hirin’. You know, the nasty ones that’re kicked outta the guilds. They’s sayin’ maybe he’s workin’ fer Dentheria, givin’ ‘m an excuse to invade the city ‘n knock some heads fer the king.”
“They may be saying it, but I doubt that’s true,” Faelan said. “He escaped the city after the failed attempt on Lord Adrastos. If he worked for the Dentherions, he would have fled to them, instead. They do whisk their informants and sympathizers away to more tolerant lands when they are exposed, even if they leave them there to rot afterward.”
“Speaking of Dentheria,” Mairin said, pointing before them.
Lapis noted an odd glare of unnaturally yellow light further down the road. The thrum of mechanical tech reached her as they came abreast of several people standing at the intersection with Wraygrey Road, an aptly named trail that led to the small farm village of Wraygrey. Nothing happened in the dull settlement. Ever. Patch ungraciously declared that a cow farting made news in the place, and while she admonished his sarcasm, she quietly agreed.
They did sell a plethora of berries, and she loved getting a handful to munch. Wraygrey was one of the few places outside Jiy where most of the residents knew her, knew her fondness for sweets, and happily fed her addiction.
“What’s up?” she asked as she pulled back on the reins. Her mount stopped just shy of the nearest farmer.
“Bad tidings,” one gritted. He turned, then nodded. “Lady, it’s odd you’s up ‘n about.”
“Yeah, but sometimes stakes don’t sleep,” she replied. A mumble of assent from the gathered people made her raise an eyebrow. “Seems you’re up and about when you should be tucked in, too, Decer.”
“Hard t’ sleep with them Dentherions lookin’ fer somethin’,” he said, too serious. “They’ve got all us worried. Hastlin’ us, ‘n they haven’t killed no one yet, but we’s not countin’ on our luck holdin’.”
She sighed. “I was meeting Patch up the way. Has he been by?”
“Yep, little while ago,” someone else called. “Asked iffen the Elder’s been ‘round. Said yeah, saw ‘m buyin’ foodstuffs a few days ago. Y’ might have a hard time getting’ t’ his place, Lady. Them Dentherions showed up just after he left, nosin’ ‘bout for some spy.” He snorted. “Here? A spy?”
“They’s just lookin’ fer an excuse,” Decer agreed.
“I’m sorry you’re dealing with them, too,” she told them. “The city hasn’t been comfortable since they arrived.”
“We’s heard strange things ‘bout them in the city,” a woman said. Her berry stand sold tekker berries, and Lapis loved them so much she tended to buy her out when she could, even when it meant she missed a meal to cover the expense.
“What have you heard, Muwrie? I’m curious, since they’ve been keeping us all cooped up.”
“Somethin’ bout a syndicate movin’ in,” she replied. “Some real nasty one, that has tech.”
If they assumed the Minq and other underground entities did not employ tech, she refused to enlighten them. The revelation might bring them nightmares.
“Dentherions been callin’ ‘m Anquerette,” Decer said. “Strange name. They’s out-country, has t’ be.”
“They’s sayin’ them new guards that’re been out here, that they’s Anquerette.” Muwrie snorted sourly and waved her hand dismissively. “They’s Hoyt’s men, we knows that. They’s braggin’ all ‘bout it. Thought it’d scare us, but we just told the baron. He’s none too happy with it. I think them Dentherions don’t know what they’s doin’, mistaken guttershanks fer someone else.”
“That wouldn’t surprise me,” Lapis sighed and wobbled her head about. Anquerette? Well, Faelan would know about a new syndicate. “So do they think this spy is working for Anquerette?”
“Don’t know,” Decer said. “Probably, though. No other reason t’ be here, other than harassin’ us.” He studied her, then glanced at his fellows. “Lady, we’s concerned ‘bout the Elder. Dentherions ‘r just wantin’ to harm someone, ‘n he ‘n Fawn ‘r just an old one ‘n a kid. They’d be easy t’ hurt.”
“I’ll check on them,” she promised. “Do they only have a roadblock on Crandleberry?”
“On Four Leaves and Shyrock, too,” Muwrie said. “They’s been sendin’ out somma them machines on the smaller roads, but they’s not doin’ too good in the softer soil. Gets mired down, then comes t’ us t’ pull ‘m out with the oxen.”
“Ah, so they sent their best, I see.”
“Yeah. Started tonight with them birds, though. Lit the whole town up in orange, tryin’ t’ see in windows. Maybe take that goat path down t’ the stream ‘n follow it, t’ avoid ‘m.”
Wonderful. Prickles galore littered that route. “We’ll be off, then, to look in on the Elder and Fawn. Hopefully Patch already warned them.”
“Think them Dentherions messed with Patch?” Decer asked.
“I doubt there’d be anyone left to man that light, if so.”
The farmers nodded solemnly. They had a very unwarranted opinion of her partner, but she had no reason to pop that bubble. They gave both of them a plethora of information under the guise of fearful concern, but all involved played a game. They knew very well Patch would not harm them, and they got to brag to other farmers about interacting with the scary and popular chaser from Jiy. It gave them an odd sort of credibility and envy among other settlements.
“You take care, Lady, ‘specially iffen you gotta kid with you,” Muwrie said.
Lapis laughed. “This is Rin,” she said.
“Rin?” came the shocked chorus.
His hold on her stomach tightened and she patted his leg, amused. “So if he comes looking for berries in the future, make sure he gets the best ones.”
“Aye, Lady,” Muwrie smirked.
“Patch and I are training him in the fine art of chasing, so he’ll be around, sooner or later.”
“I’ll give ‘m tekker berries,” she said. “Finest out here.”
“They are,” she agreed. The farmers broke apart as she turned her mount and clucked at him to take Wraygrey Road.
Her companions remained silent long after she took them off-road just beyond the small circle of thatched huts, cottages and stalls, and through the long grasses and that acted as a fence for the berry patches. Ciaran and Mairin scanned for trouble, and Faelan had sunk into his own thoughts.
When they reached the goat trail, Rin finally asked the question she knew burned in him. “They knows ‘bout me, Lady?” he asked, consternated.
“You make a good hero for city stories,” she told him. “Wraygrey’s a bit odd, though. I’m not certain why. They love to be lightly frightened by city goings-on, and find great amusement in the wealthier losing a purse or two to intrepid rats. Patch says it’s because they have nothing else to liven their very boring days and even more boring nights. Maybe, but they also get to brag to their fellow farmers about dealing with chasers and the dangerous stakes they’ve helped with, and that makes them a popular community out here.”
“Patch stops there?” Faelan asked. His disbelief, considering her partner’s deep dislike of the countryside, made her smile.
“Yeah.” Her pantleg snagged on a tall weed and she shook it, hard, to dislodge it. She dusted at her calf; prickles remained, but the thick fabric kept them from scratching her skin. “It’s the last place to get water before heading into heavy farmland and the foothills. They’re really good at passing along information they’ve heard from travelers, too, as long as you buy enough berries.”
“That why they’s talkin’ ‘bout Anquerette?” Rin asked.
“Yeah. They give me something, I check on Wrethe and Fawn.”
“Have you heard of them?” Mairin asked.
“I’ve not encountered any syndicate called Anquerette, either,” Faelan said. “Jarosa might know them, and if not, I can ask the Minq. If a foreign criminal enterprise is interested in moving into Jilvayna, they’ll want to know.”
“There’s a bird!” Mairin warned.
Lapis looked up and around; sure enough, on the edge of the field to the west, an orange cone of light poured down onto the grassy land from a black blob that floated unsteadily about. Dentherion tech, and they searched for something. It did not seem as if it would fly their way, but she picked up the pace, just in case. They left it behind, as quickly as the rocky, pitted trail allowed.
They noted two other birds, but not one of them flew in their direction. The metal machines hovered over the routes between the fields and did not stray off them, which struck her as odd. Sticking to those lines, coupled with the obvious light, would help any target avoid them. In some places, the grass rose shoulder-height and would provide good cover for someone attempting to hide. If they did look for something, she doubted it was a spy.
They reached the grass-concealed culvert without mishap. Lapis urged her mount down onto the loose soil, then into a metal pipe that rang with the strike of horseshoes against it. The local adults knew of the gaping hole but avoided it. Who other than children explored recesses in the earth hidden by hanging grasses and dead brush when they had more important things to do? The place was dark, even during daylight, and she doubted many young ones managed to make it far without turning around and scampering back to sunlight. Even if they reached the jumble of fake rock blocking the way, they had no way around it, forcing a retreat.
“Dismount and lead your horses. We’re going to go down this pipe until we come to a blockage. Then we’re going to knock. No light—we don’t want the birds to investigate.”
“What kind of blockage?” Faelan asked as everyone slid from their saddles.
“A pile of rubble that isn’t a pile of rubble.” Her voice echoed around them, and she winced. She continued, much softer. “This is a back way. A very back way.”
“Do you think those birds are looking for Wrethe?” Ciaran asked, as if he had been pondering it a while.
“Maybe. Danaea and her partner were supposed to lead Dentherions this way, and the soldiers did tell Wraygrey about a spy, which made them worry about him.”
“He is a chaser informant,” Faelan murmured. “And the Dentherions may know he works for the Minq. That might be the connection, since the skyshroud is here to quell syndicate unrest. It may be, that Danaea’s told her partner about the hideout, but not the specific location because she expected to lead the hunt.”
“Wrethe doesn’t hide what he does, even if he hides himself. It pisses the palace off to no end because he used to work for them. Maybe Gall wanted the soldiers to go after him in retaliation.”
“Revenge is his calling,” Faelan agreed.
Lapis held her hand in front of her and struck the blockage before anyone else encountered it. “Hold!” she called. She felt for Rin, gave him the reins, and limped to the left, her fingers searching for the tiny knob hidden among the boulders. She found it, very cold and smooth, and pressed in.
“Tell Patch I’m here and I’m pissed,” she yelled.
The clang of the outer door closing over the pipe entrance startled everyone else and the horses but made her relax. He obviously was there, or she would have heard a grumpy voice muttering about her impudence. She waited patiently for the blockage to melt into itself and slide up into the ceiling, whispering calm and warm reassurances to her mount. A soft light sifted underneath the door, and she caught Rin’s wide-eyed incredulity.
Fawn met them. She was eleven, with a shock of soft red hair and a multitude of freckles sprinkled about a red-cheeked face. She wore a jacket and boots, out of keeping with the hour.
“Lady,” she breathed, worried. “Da said you’d be around.”
“Do you know what’s happening?” Lapis asked as she pushed Rin inside, their mount following him. The entry had stables, and a couple of horses stood in the stalls, munching away at oats in a trough. She recognized Limber, one of Ferry’s courier mounts. He rented his horses to chasers, though the amount he charged kept most from taking advantage of it. Patch must have visited him and asked for a speedy beast. Limber loved to run and run fast.
“I don’t know, but Da and Patch and Jaki are upset.”
“Jaki’s here?” Faelan asked.
Who was Jaki?
Lapis put aside her curiosity and smiled at Fawn, who regarded him with suspicion. “This is my brother Faelan, Fawn. He and Patch are good friends.”
Her eyes popped wide, surprised. “Patch was just talking about you,” she said. “Da said we might have to leave, and that you’d put us up.”
“You’d be welcome at the House,” he assured her.
Lapis opened a stall door. “Put the horses inside, and we can go yell at Patch.”
Fawn’s skeptical humor at the announcement annoyed her. She did not bother to wait for the others, but shuffled down the hallway, concentrating on breathing. Her lungs ached, as they typically did when she found the air too cold, but that usually occurred in winter, after the snows froze the earth and the winds flew with frost. Rin trotted up to her and kept to her side, though he paid far more attention to the décor than her walking difficulty.
The hallway was sleek black metal that had grey stripes at regular intervals and thin lines of bright gold that ran the length of it, providing light. Panels and switches and buttons in various states of disrepair filled the black walls, and some still had red, blue or purple illumination.
“Lady?” he asked, looking up at a defunct pipe running along the ceiling.
“It’s a repurposed skyshroud,” she told him. He jerked, surprised. “It crashed two-hundred-and-twenty years ago, during the first battles for Jiy. I’m not certain why they left it to rot rather than blow it up to prevent unintended usages, but Wrethe’s grandmother discovered an entrance sticking out of a hill a hundred years ago. She buried the crew’s remains in the decimated parts, collapsed them, and spent her elder years getting generators for the rest of the place. It’s pretty nice.”
“So this is Dentherion tech?” he asked, awed. The stables did not have the nicest route to the large reception room, and she looked forward to his reaction once he beheld it.
“Yes.” She winced as her back protested a step. Hopefully he did not realize her pain.
The others caught them, and they proceeded together. Fawn answered Faelan’s polite questions, already at ease with him. She had not inherited her grandfather’s intense paranoia concerning strangers, but perhaps that would come in time. Or, her brother was simply that charismatic.
The increase in temperature further along the hall, normally a nice change from a chillier outdoors, made Lapis nauseous. She set her arm across her stomach and willed herself not to throw up. Her body desperately wished to sit down, and she forced each step. No one mentioned her difficulty, so she succeeded in hiding her reaction. Good. She did not need Faelan nor Rin’s well-intentioned and unwanted sympathy, or their chastisement about how she should have remained at the Eaves.
Patch was already there, snarly, arms folded across his chest. His annoyance disappeared once he saw her. She pressed her hand into her tummy but could not stop the sickness; she barely made it to the guest restroom before she threw up whatever had sat uneasily in her stomach. Medicine, water, all tinged an ugly brownish-green.
What was in that stuff Lady Thais gave her?
Rin handed her a glass of water, and she rinsed her mouth. What came up, it tasted far nastier than it had going down. The rat rubbed anxiously at her back, and she patted his leg, trying to regain her composure. Drowning in embarrassment that so many witnessed her weakness sat as uncomfortably as the medicine.
He moved slightly, then presented her with a small purple vial that smelled of fruit. “This’s what Lady Thais said you’d need, iffen you gots sick,” he told her apologetically. She eyed it with distrust but swallowed it anyway. It felt nice going down, eradicating much of the burn in her throat, and set well in her stomach.
“What, you couldn’t just stay in Jiy?”
Patch, and his irritated voice rang off the metal walls.
“Maybe, just maybe, you could tell someone what’s going on before you take off.”
Faelan did not sound any better.
“Those two fucks,” she choked before smacking the vial into Rin’s chest and rising.
“Lady,” Rin said, worried, grabbing at the glass.
She stumbled into the room, and both men looked over at her. She glared, her specific, annoyed, hurt, furious and on-the-verge-of-tears distress. Neither ever argued with her when she had the urge to throttle them while breaking down. Patch had told her she looked fragile during those times, and he never wished to say something to inflict further emotional pain.
“Do you know, how it would feel, to have the Dentherions take you away from me?” she asked in a hoarse voice. She set her hand against her throat while Patch turned red with embarrassed anxiety and ran a hand through his bangs.
“Do you?” She pointed her finger in the vague direction of the stables. “We read more code. Danaea was supposed to bring soldiers from the skyshroud here tonight. They have birds out, looking, Patch. Are they looking for Wrethe?”
“No, they’re looking for Hoyt.”
The woman looked vaguely familiar, though Lapis could not place her. She had shoulder-length black hair and dark eyes, stood as tall as Faelan’s chest but her confidence filled the air about her, making her seem lofty and stately.
“I’m surprised you’re here, Jaki,” Faelan said, heat still tinging his voice.
“Wrethe’s a Minq asset, but I happen to like him and Fawn, too. So here I am.” She glanced above her. “They’ve employed birds, huh?”
“Is Hoyt here?” Ciaran asked.
“No. He came through days ago.” Wrethe shuffled through a doorway, wearing a long coat and warm clothing. His wispy white hair twirled about in the puffs of heated air blowing from grates in the ceiling, his grey eyes red and swollen from lack of sleep. With him strode a squat, muscular man with pristine, all-white eyes. He had a larger tummy and a beard that fell to his waist. He sported a small, red-and-gold striped dagger patch on his shoulder, an indication of Minq high rank. “He rang at the official entrance and demanded I hide him. Didn’t even bother to reply. He was desperate, said someone was chasing him.” He shrugged. “I hardly care about some guttershank.” He eyed her. “Patch said they poisoned you.”
“They did,” she whispered. “And I’m still not feeling all that well.”
“Hmm.” His gaze whisked over the people he did not recognize, then lingered on Faelan. “Believe it or not, I remember you from one of the Minq meetings,” he told him. “Never could forget those eyes. You know Lanth here?”
“She’s my sister.”
His surprise startled her. “So a Nicodem survived? That’s good. The palace doesn’t deserve that victory.” He half-smiled. “My Gran told me about their shiftiness, but I didn’t listen. That broke me. No reason, to kill kids like that. Ruthless bastards.”
“They’ve employed birds,” the woman said.
“Figured as much. I hope the villagers keep tight. Random slaughter right now won’t sit well with anyone.”
He continued, but Lapis had to concentrate on her legs. They trembled, and she tried to lock her knees to keep herself from falling over. Rin slid his arm through hers, and she held tight, not that it did much good. She ended up collapsing, confidence shredded because she could not stand in the presence of the Minq. Dammit, Patch should have taken help, should have told someone, leaving her to snuggle down in a warm bed when her body needed the sleep.
Patch knelt and slipped his arms under her legs and around her back. Wrethe motioned for them to follow him, then headed back the way he had come. She buried her face in his shoulder and refused to move until they entered another room with a more comfortable temperature. He turned about and plopped down on a soft sofa, keeping his arms curled about her.
“What kind of birds?” Jaki asked as she settled her upper leg on top of a table and glanced at a device in her hand.
“They looked like the kind that drops explosives rather than the ones with guns,” Mairin said. “Fully laden, too.”
“That’s a bit much, to hunt down Hoyt,” Wrethe said as he sank deep into a comfortable chair. “I think Danaea told them about me and they assumed I’d put him up. Thought to get us both. Idiots. Even with her help, they’d be searching blind.”
“She mentioned a partner,” Lapis told him. “Thyden.”
“Never heard of him, which means he doesn’t know where I’m at.”
“That may not matter. They have specialized equipment to detect heat from bodies,” Mairin said. “That might be why they wanted the villagers to stay indoors, to keep them from being targeted.”
“They do,” he agreed. “And this ol’ girl is made from their special alloy.” He twirled his finger about. “It hides heat signatures, tech signatures, you name it, it hides it. My Gran spent a lot of time and money repairing the holes in this part of the ship and cutting it off from the other remains. They won’t find us.”
“We were out and about,” Faelan said. “They might have noticed us.”
“Not likely,” Wrethe mumbled. “There’s a lot of interference in this area, probably from decaying materials left over from this ship here. Most of their delicate equipment won’t work, including sensors. Been through it before, with the same results. The Dentherions nose about, snarl at the locals, then turn and slink away, no wiser.”
“Have you heard of her partner?” Lapis asked, looking up at Patch.
“No,” he told her.
Jaki hmphed, annoyed. “I don’t know who this Thyden is, either, but I suspect he might be a Dentherion plant. Danaea was getting desperate enough to latch onto anyone who showed an interest, no matter who they worked for.”
“Desperate?” Ciaran asked.
“As desperate as Hoyt, in her own way. She owed a large debt to Mibi and he was getting annoyed at her inability to pay. She began taking riskier stakes to get money and failed at most of them. Patch said her records showed that, too.”
Danaea borrowed money from the Shank’s owner? That seemed unwise. The underground had far better, more reputable moneygrubbers than Mibi.
“How much?” Ciaran asked.
“Several metgal. Enough of a sum to indebt her for life. Mibi’s going to regret loaning it, too, because Jo Ban is going to be looking into who staked his son, and he’ll be an obvious person to ask.”
No one would mourn, if the Minq took out Mibi.
The shroud shuddered, a subtle rocking. Everyone, including Wrethe, frowned. Jaki picked up a square tech object with a wire leading into the nearby wall, and quickly scanned the screen. “Gera says the birds found what they were looking for, and have released their loads further west, near the treeline. Her spyglass is having issues due to the interference, but she thinks a cyan-colored beam shot at them before the release.”
“Cyan?” Faelan asked, startled. Eyes riveted to him, and he firmed his lips. “Can she get an image?”
Jaki held the device between her palms and typed with her thumbs. Rin had a sharp interest in it all, and Lapis sighed to herself. Most street rats avoided tech because those who employed it often meant them harm, but she had just exposed him to another side of it, one that helped rather than hurt.
“What’s wrong with a cyan beam?” she asked, since no one else had and she, at least, wished to know.
He shook his head as Jaki glanced up. “Dirk already has one. He’s coming down.” She raised an eyebrow at Wrethe. “I told you, lookouts are worth their weight in metgal.”
He hmphed loudly but did not contradict her. Her bearded partner grinned widely, exposing teeth as pristine white as his eyes. She idly wondered what other body parts he had modded, and how much trouble he attracted for the overt but illegal display.
Another shake rocked the furniture just as Dirk appeared. He had the look of a street rat turned undershank, gangly and deeply tanned, with wrinkles that made his face look far older than he likely was. Jaki and Faelan intercepted him while Fawn edged over to her grandfather and pressed herself against his chair. He wrapped his arm around her and squeezed.
Faelan swore in seething disbelief. “That color of beam, that’s a Meergevenis weapon.”
Meergevenis? “Wait,” Lapis said, raising her hand. Her chest, her face, turned cold. “Brander told me that Hoyt broke a shank out of jail, someone named Seft, because he had contacts outside the Dentherion Empire. One of those contacts was supposed to be with Meergevenis.”
“When did he tell you this?”
“The night Nevid attacked Sir Armarandos at the Tree Streets Guardhouse. Seft was at Orinder’s place while we were there, then joined in with his buddies at the guardhouse. Rin recognized him.”
“He’d pissed Chinder off,” he said softly. “We’d been warned ‘bout him, ‘cause he’s vengeful-like.”
“Brander said he helped Chinder clean him out and turned the bad stuff over to the guard. They discovered evidence of a Meergevenis contact in the process. What if Hoyt fled out here to meet with Meergevenis? If they just showed up tonight, it could be he needed a place to stay until they arrived at a designated time.”
“Oh, this is getting fucked,” Patch said, with venom.
Jaki stared at her, emotionally dead but for the lightning snapping through her eyes. “So you’re saying there is reason to think Hoyt may be acting in accordance with Meergevenis, a foreign power from across the ocean who has no business being anywhere near Theyndora.”
“It’s a lead to check.”
The shroud shook again.
“The birds obviously didn’t take the enemy out on the first round,” Mairin said. “Are we close enough the battle could spill over us?”
Another Minq trotted into the room, rubbing at her chest and carrying a device similar to that which Jaki held. “Maybe,” she said. “It’s getting fierce out there, and neither side seems to care about accuracy.”
“This is a warship. It’s old, but it can take a bit of damage,” Wrethe said. “We have a hill’s worth of soil over us. That’ll take the brunt of it.”
Fawn whimpered. The old man looked at her, then sighed and hugged her tighter. “But it might be best, if we visit friends until this is all over.”
Everyone felt her relief.
Patch insisted on carrying Lapis back to the stables, and while she protested, no one took her side. She tried to drown her grumpy annoyance at that; the situation was far more dire than her embarrassment, but his protectiveness grated.
Wrethe and Fawn joined them after retrieving packs. He set his granddaughter on one of the horses and led the mare to the door, then waited while everyone filed out. He closed it and triggered the outer door; the wait for the round portal to roll back took longer than a snail crossing a road, but it finally revealed the dark-shrouded grasses waving in the cool breeze.
Flashes of colored light, orange, green and cyan, lit the air. How near had the battle progressed? Mairin and Gera dismounted, peeked over the culvert, and immediately hopped back down to their mounts.
“They’re close,” Mairin said. “It looks like both sides are on foot. There isn’t much to hide behind besides grass, either. We need to go.”
She barely gained her seat before a bird whisked to their position, bathing the embankment in orange.
Patch did not bother to wait; he pressed his eyepatch and a beam shot into the black metal. Smoke erupted from it, something exploded, and the orange light flickered and died as it keeled to the side and went down.
“Split up!” Jaki shouted. “Give them more targets. Wrethe, come with me.”
Patch jerked his chin; Lapis snapped the reins and her mount surged forward. Rin yelped and clasped her tightly as they galloped down the culvert.
Orange light came from the left and right. The depression ended and Lapis urged the horse into an open field, just in time for a burst of cyan followed by a deafening explosion to jar them. He fought for his head, and she firmly held the reins; she was in charge, and the horse would listen to her. She pulled his head to the left, smacked his shoulder, and he raced towards the distant lights of Jiy.
Green flared behind them; she felt Rin turn, and he hissed, stressed. Unfortunately, the farmland had few places to hide. The irrigation ditches were shallow, providing little protection. No trees, no tall brush, and the nearest habitation was Wraygrey. Would the fight carry to them? They reached a trail, soft dirt but few stones, and she turned the horse to the small settlement.
“Lady!” Rin called. “I sees some wagons ‘n horses, all runnin’.”
Sure enough; bulky shadows fled along the field pathways. Farmers with wagons and carts pulled by oxen whipped at them, frantic. Horses raced around them, far faster than their bovine brethren. Individuals on foot ran, their arms pumping back and forth with hectic speed. It surprised her, that so many chose to seek safety elsewhere rather than hunker down in their huts and cottages and pray to the non-existent gods for rescue. She did not know whether it was wise to do so, but the numbers meant their flight would blend with them.
The birds flew over them but did not hesitate and whisked north, towards the flares of color indicating a fierce battle.
In the distance, black blots rose into the sky from the skyshroud dock; Dentherions called them Swifts, light and speedy airships that raced about the clouds and completed performative drills to awe tech-ignorant empire residents. That the leaders of the shroud sent them into battle iced her terror. The cyan-beams must frighten them, to make such a showing.
Small, thin, manned vehicles, with green lights running along the length and a superficial resemblance to the bicycles nobles rode when out for a day in the eastern city parks, roared past horse and wagon on the main road. A bright light on the front illuminated their way, which frightened the farm animals, who veered into the grass beyond. Some horses threw their riders, but the oxen slowed immediately as the wheels of the wagons they pulled dug into the softer earth and provided a natural break that allowed their owners to regain control.
“The Pit,” Rin breathed, his voice trembling slightly.
The Swifts roared overhead, air striking down and flattening the grass, shrubs and crops alike. Screams, shrieks, too many people afraid. Cyan beams flared past, and one struck; the ship wobbled before heading down, right in her path.
Damn it to the Pit, it was going to crash.