Chapter 10: Black Hats with a Dash of Tech

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When had her life become a series of adventures?

Lapis flew through the streets, focused on why, in the matter of a few weeks, she had gone from nondescript chaser and provider of reading material for rats, to fighter of rebel, soldier and guttershank. She was becoming Patch, and she did not particularly want that.

Too many Lells merchants had vacated their stalls around Mimstone Square. Only a scattering remained to watch over merchandise, and they hid beneath the shadowed tarps and awnings, looking with sick dread towards the central space. The few shoppers were quiet, anticipatory, and she quelled the nervous tick in her tummy.

Those Black Hats better not have injured a rat.

She reached the square, huffing. Merchants gathered to one side, some standing protectively before cowering rats, others hunched against the walls of the buildings, a few shouting at the center. In the open space stood four people wearing black berets; one man held Ness by the arm, hand raised, another gripped Phialla around the waist as she shrieked, struggling. Eri, one of the Wings rats, picked herself up off the ground, shaking in rage.

She did not consciously cross the square; her attention remained on a terrified Ness and his captor. She unsheathed her weapon, flowing with the motion. The man glanced at her, an ugly smile marring his face. She swung; her tip dug across his face as the edge cut the flesh and bone of the raised appendage. She barely registered Rin grabbing the young rat, while Lyet and Jesi joined Eri in attacked the one holding Phialla. Her target howled and she turned, ramming her knee into his stomach. He fell, spraying blood from his stump across the dust.

The one who restrained Phialla reached into a breast pocket while bending over to protect his face from being struck but did not pull the weapon before Jarosa smashed her fist into his face. He crumbled, releasing the rat. Lyet grabbed her, and all four ran to the safety of the nearest open door, the keep motioning to them to hurry. The man again tried to grab his weapon, too late to avoid the Ramiran rebel’s boot. He sagged, unconscious.

“Lapis, duck upper right!”

Patch’s shout echoed through the square. She pitched forward in that direction as bright red shot overhead, nearly hitting the man howling on the ground. Jarosa swore and snagged her arm, heaving her towards a saggy canopy, the only nearby bit of protection. She heard the pits as the shots impacted the dust behind them, and a pause before the canvas burst into flames before them.

The last attack blazed over their heads in a wild miss; a man toppled from the top of a clothing venue, limp. He landed hard on the packed earth and did not move. She and Jarosa streaked into the same open door the rats had reached, then whirled, leaning against the jamb, scouting quickly about; the crowd had vanished, hopefully under the direction of Lord Armarandos. Lapis did not see the knight, nor Patch, but she knew they were out there.

More men wearing the black berets stormed into the square, most looking about, a couple racing to their fallen comrades. They came to a halt near the center, and a thinner one with his hands on his hips stepped forward and began to shout.

Lapis blinked. Ramish. Why did he yell Ramish at them? How many Jilvaynians did he think understood Ramira’s language? Why not shriek in Lyddisian, like good little empire peons? She glanced at Jarosa, who glared in sullen annoyance.

“What’s he saying?”

“Something about sparing lives if we tell him where someone named Jerin is.”

What?

“Jerin?” Lapis stared at the Ramiran rebel leader, her mind whirling. Had Willington’s thrown him into the street because they received a visit from a man wearing a black hat? Was that how the boarding school found out about Danaea’s death, prompting their decision to toss their student away?

“You know him?”

Lapis leaned closer, to keep her words as quiet as possible. “It seems too much of a coincidence,” she whispered. “I met a lad this morning named Jerin who got kicked out of his boarding school because they discovered his mother recently died. He was wandering the Lells and the rats asked after him because he looked lost. I recognized his name from Danaea’s papers. She’s the woman who took out the previous Jiy rebel leader, and Jetta completed the stake on her. I thought Jerin was her shank associate. He’s not. He’s her son.”

The woman’s startlement made her feel low. “I see.”

“He’s around twelve, and I doubt he knew what his mother did for a living.”

“If she hid him in a boarding school, probably not.”

Movement caught her attention. Before the Trees Street Guardhouse attack, she would have been shocked that Sir Armarandos walked confidently into the square to confront the men, but after fighting with him, she knew he was that bold. Jarosa muttered under her breath, glanced into the darkened recesses of the store, and back outside. “Can’t let Mandi have all the fun,” she said.

Sir Armarandos was not the only one overflowing with boldness. How well did she know the knight, that she used his nickname?

“I’m going with you,” Lapis said. “But wait just a moment.” She scurried behind the counter, where several merchants, rats and customers huddled together on the floor. Ness had buried his face in Lyet’s chest, and he shook, hard. Phialla cried, and the shopkeep had her arm about her shoulders, rocking her in comfort. “Are you all alright?” They nodded. “Eri, they knocked you down.”

“I’m fine, Lady.”

“Lyet, where’s Jandra and Nerik and the new kid?”

“They went to Gabby’s old cubby,” she said. “Gabby took Rin’s, so we know it’s empty and in a safe place.”

“Someone needs to find them and tell them to stay put.”

“I’ll do it,” Jesi piped up.

The Wings were brave rats, were they not. “Stay there with them. Don’t leave until I send someone to get you.”

She nodded and rose; Lapis gently took her arm and drew her away from the crowd. “Jesi, they’re looking for that new kid. I mean it, when I say don’t leave until I send someone to get you.”

Her eyes bulged, then she nodded. “He steal something from them?”

“No. This is about his deceased mother, not him.”

Jesi took off and Lapis looked about. “Where’s Rin?”

Lyet granted her an exasperated look, and her emotions echoed it. That stupid rat, where did he go?

She trotted after Jarosa, who strode with purpose towards Sir Armarandos. He held his special zappy tech stick, cool, confident, and the men wearing the black hats observed him with suspicion. They obviously did not hail from the Jiy underground, or they would know who he was and show a bit more deference.

Behind the knight stood Patch, easy and unconcerned. He held his mini crossbow pointed down, but with the string drawn. Too many stakes assumed the size of the weapon meant it had no range, and combined with his lacking one eye, they thought he could not strike them. They found out the hard way that tech, a sight, and one eye was all he needed to down them.

His nonchalance bothered the men he faced; more than a couple glanced at him, concerned with his eyepatch. It did have an attention-snatching blue light pattern racing around the edges, though, if things became rough, the attackers would find the tech it hid far more deadly than they assumed.

She did not see Rin; she half-expected him to be standing next to Patch, mimicking his stance, cocky and too self-assured. Well, one less person to worry about. She planted herself next to her partner and waited, certain she would not hear a thing over the beating of her heart in her ears.

Sir Armarandos broke the awkward but anticipatory silence. “Juove pleura Armarandos, Neurne tieuble juexte Jiy Guard. Juove pluetie que pluetruge, juove pleuflin rivarle juexte fojiusto.”

Lapis did not understand the words, but she heard the intent clear enough. The knight was not in a good or forgiving mood. The man who had yelled for Jerin firmed his lips, none too happy to confront the leader of the Jiy city guard. He put a hand to his chest and bowed slightly, though his men did not show any deference. His gaze flicked to Jarosa, who had taken a position one step behind the knight and appeared as relaxed as Patch. She decided she needed lessons on aplomb in tense and demanding situations.

“Surle speutiui, Sir Armarandos. Surle avrerchop vion mouii, ruien Jerin. Trecleute Requet inrne umuavue unuo crin.”

Jarosa snorted and murmured something under her breath. Sir Armarandos hmphed and nodded. The lead Black Hat narrowed his eyes at the woman briefly, but Lapis knew she had seen the disrespect. She missed little and forgave less.

“Snipers up top, near twenty,” Patch said. The knight and rebel nodded. The Black Hats looked at him, but only a couple seemed to understand the words.

They did not speak Lyddisian or Jilvayn, but thought they could somehow squeeze information out of rats who only understood those languages? That made no sense. “Patch,” she whispered as the conversation between the factions continued. “Jarosa said they were looking for someone named Jerin. He just showed up at the Lells. He’s like twelve, and Danaea’s son.”

“Wonderful. So her shit’s coming back to haunt her kid?”

“Yeah.”

“He’s hidden?”

“Yep.”

“Kids alright?”

“Yeah. Scared, but OK.”

“Spondre???” Jarosa shouted.

Oh-oh.

Patch laughed. Of course he did. The woman thumped her chest, continued to yell in Ramish, and after her words, every Black Hat paled.

Her partner continued to laugh. Lapis shifted her weight, readied herself, wishing she understood what set the rebel leader off. Her father had complained about the heat Jarosa brought to conflict, and this was no different. Alaric, depending on his mood, had talked her down, but she did not think many others tried.

A red light impacted Jarosa’s chest.

She folded her arms and looked up at the building the errant shot came from; good thing she wore a marching shirt. Patch raised the crossbow and pointed at the man, who ducked back behind a stack of crates. The Black Hat leader shouted, his tone demanding obedience.

Too late. He did not stand long enough to regret the insubordination’s consequences; Jarosa took him out with a tech weapon strike to the face.

Sir Armarandos swore as he and the rebel ran for shelter under a barrage of bright red shots. Lapis raced after Patch, who slipped around the nearest stall with wooden shelving in the back, providing a minute amount of protection from the deadly lights. They headed for the narrow alleyway behind the stall and rushed into it as red flares tore apart the wall corners.

“Dammit, Jarosa,” Patch growled as he slid from the alley and grabbed the attachment to the awning shading the nearest door. He heaved himself up, reached for the shutters, and climbed the outside of the building. Lapis took a huge breath, glared at his butt, and raced inside. Melly’s indoor stairway led to the business on the second floor, as well as a fire door at the top landing. Patch had to know that; if the rats did, surely he had used it on many occasions.

She ran up them, hissing her annoyance at cracked blue walls. She was not about to fall because a rusty hinge gave way under her weight. Another item she needed to drill into Rin and Lykas’s heads; do not follow Patch’s lead in all things. Think for yourself. TAKE THE STAIRS.

The door was open, a black-dressed body haphazardly lying to the side, hands roughly bound by a stray rag; he still breathed, which surprised her. Patch must have decided to keep him alive for questioning. She slammed it shut before skidding to his side and dropping to her knees behind the stacked boxes he chose for cover. She impressed on him how displeased she was with one heated, firm-lipped stare, which washed off him as it normally did, accompanied by a mischievous grin. “One day that isn’t going to work.”

“Maybe.”

Ever the optimist.

Lapis peeked around the wooden containers; lights zinged about, creating small holes in the dirt and causing the Black Hats to dodge the friendly fire. No one else remained in the square, so who were they shooting at? She noted no bodies, so Sir Armarandos and Jarosa must have made it safely to shelter. If they hid in the same space, she imagined the back-and-forth between them would not abate for some time, stone-headed against stone-headed.

“The shooters aren’t wearing black hats,” Patch said. “And they’re using typical Dentherion hand signals. I doubt they care about their comrades or the fact they just attacked the head of the Jiy city guard. Adrastos is going to have a field day with this.”

“Did you get your patch re-modded, to be more sensitive to heat?” she asked suspiciously.

He grinned a half-smirk, that expression he used when he knew he had done something she would disapprove of but not severely enough to protest, then looked back, to the door. “Several someones are on the stairs,” he warned. “By their weapons, I’d think rebels.”

She pushed away from the box shields and scurried to the door, hunched over; she plastered herself to the side, raising a hand and unsheathing her blade.

“Huh. It’s Ciaran,” Patch called.

“Ciaran? How do you know that?”

He did not answer, so she flipped the door open, blinding the people that had just made it to the landing. Ciaran indeed led them, and he squinted, hand in front of his face. She needed to remember that; bright light after dim interior would work to her advantage in chasing guttershanks.

“Why are you here?”

Red streaked by, and the group of five bustled out and to Patch, who continued to study the situation around them. Lapis returned to his side as shouts and yells, calls, and missed shots flew about. Blue joined red, sharp flashes of color that zipped past.

“Rin ran back to the House,” Ciaran said as he plunked himself against one of the boxes. “He was winded and upset, but did a credible report. Faelan, when he realized you were here, mobilized us.” He studied Lapis. “Brander was reporting in when Rin showed up. He said that Seft inherited a few contacts that Hoyt exploited, and one of them was with the Black Hats syndicate. Faelan’s wondering if they’re here to find our wayward underboss.”

“They might be hooked up with the Dentherions,” Patch said. “The snipers are using Dentherion hand signals, so I’m betting they’re from the skyshroud. They don’t seem to care whether those wearing black hats are hit or not, so it’s a one-sided agreement, if there is one.”

“They’re looking for someone named Jerin,” Lapis said. “The Dentherions cleared the city guard from the Lells before the Black Hats started shaking down the rats for info. Why they think the rats know, and why they think they can ask them in Ramish and get an answer, is beyond me.”

“The point may be to scare them, and through them, Jerin,” Patch said.

“He’s around twelve,” she told the new arrivals. “It’s ludicrous to use these tactics to terrify a twelve-year-old.”

The rebels looked at her. “You know him?” Ciaran asked.

“He just showed up at the Lells this morning,” she said. “He got kicked out of his boarding school after they found out his mother had died, and they didn’t let him grab his things. He doesn’t have money, extra clothes, or anywhere to go. So he’s out on the streets, with no ability to care for himself, and now he’s being hunted.”

“I wonder if those Black Hats showed up at the boarding school,” Patch said. “That would explain why they wanted him gone so quick.”

“What do they want with a kid?” one of the rebels asked. She hovered over the unconscious sniper and proceeded to secure him better.

“I don’t know, but I think it has something to do with his mother,” Lapis said. “Danaea.”

Ciaran’s disbelief made her feel low. “Jetta’s going to feel the guilt on that,” he said. “Where’s he now?”

“Hidden. Some rats were setting him up with a cubby, and Jesi went to tell them that they need to stay put until I send someone for them.”

“You might want to go get him now,” the rebel said. “Take him to the House while these asses are busy here.”

Patch nodded. “Yeah. The rebels can protect him. If the guard vacated when Dentheria told them to, they aren’t up to keeping him safe. We can figure out how to help him when this business is done.”

The boxes before them tore apart, bits of wood flying everywhere. Lapis ducked, her arms protecting her head, as the assault continued. Just as abruptly as it began, it stopped. How long would the cover hold? She supposed they could hide in the doorway that led to the roof, but only one, maybe two, could use it at once.

“Lapis, Patch, go get him.”

She regarded Ciaran, annoyed and scared. “But—”

He shook his head. “If these guys catch him, and he doesn’t know whatever they think he does, he’s going to be another body thrown into the Pit.”

Patch lowered the crossbow, grabbed the thin, finger-long bolt and shoved it into the side-mounted quiver, released the string, and pressed a small button on the top, just below the sight. The black metal limbs folded in, and the rail and stock compressed thinner, the scope flattened and sank with the quiver into the middle. The rail then folded in half, making a compact rectangular object he shoved into the long, narrow pocket in his left pantleg. She still pondered how the thing retained a workable sight after being squished like that, but he never missed when using it.

The wonders of tech, she supposed.

He smacked her leg and jerked his chin to the door. Then he warbled like a townbird and looked to the building across the way; a tousled, red-haired head popped up and he pointed to the ground before following her.

Good thing she spoke enough about rat signals the chaser knew them.

Relief that they removed Rin from the fight, coupled with the worry that they might put him in more danger, mingled in her chest. Lapis forced herself to breathe and relax. Nothing would happen to him, not with Patch accompanying them.

The rat was already waiting behind the railing of the ground floor walkway, hunched down and alert. He leaped up and ran with them as they made for the building across the way and skirted the front before ducking into a wide alley.

“What’s up?” he asked as they pelted down the backway.

“We’re going to go get the kid they’re hunting,” Lapis said. “Gabby brought him to me after you took Whitley to the House. He didn’t seem scared about anyone after him, so I doubt he realizes he’s being chased.”

“Where’s he at?”

“Gabby’s old cubby.”

Rin nodded sharply. “I c’n gets us there quick,” he said.

The rats had several escape routes to help them flee from guard and irate keep and annoyed pickpocket target, but Lapis had not appreciated how convoluted, until Rin took them through a hidden gate, up a gutter pipe that squealed but held, over a roof and down to twisty alleys that must have, at some point, been part of a garden sidewalk. She had chased in the Grey Streets for five years, and she clearly had much to learn about the sneakier ways.

A hole in the wall of a shoe factory led to Gabby’s old cubby, one hidden behind a hedge and tall wooden panel that the owner installed to keep the gap secret from inspectors so he would not have to fix it. An industrious rat had pried the sheet away at the bottom and propped it open with a stout board, providing a sheltered entry to a series of stairs molded from dirt. They proceeded down to a small shelter closet that once belonged to a larger space, but a collapsed wall denied access to the interior door. Rin crawled through the entrance and clomped down, cooing like a townbird, the ‘friends’ signal.

Patch leaned against the brick wall near the hole and slowly turned his head, scanning the area with his eye tech. “I don’t think anyone followed us,” he said. “Probably because they didn’t expect push-back, and they certainly weren’t prepared for Jarosa.”

“Why’d you urge her on?” Lapis asked as she flumped back next to him.

“I wanted her to hit him, not fry his face.”

“We’re talking about Jarosa, Patch.”

He laughed softly. “I don’t have that much experience with her,” he admitted. “I think you know her far better than I do.”

“I knew her eight years ago,” Lapis reminded him. “Enough time has passed for her to have changed.”

“Has she?”

“. . . No.”

“It’s strange, to send in Black Hats then shoot them as well,” he said. “If the skyshroud is run by a mercenary group, that might explain it—and give us a way to get them to leave.”

“What do you mean?”

“Bribes. Adrastos has enough pouring out his ears, he can afford to pay off a mercenary-led skyshroud. After all, their loyalty is to money, not any particular side or leader.” He touched the top of the patch, and the lights circling the edge changed patterns, skipping every other one and flashing twice. “I still can’t believe they didn’t have enough of a presence to have lookouts follow suspicious escapees.”

“You said yourself that they didn’t expect resistance.”

“Yeah, but the Dentherions went to the effort to clear the local guards, and the Black Hats expected to squeeze info from rats, who are known to run fast and have multiple escape routes.” He glanced skyward. “I don’t trust this. We need to get to the sewers.”

Lapis wrinkled her nose; he paraded about underground, in the wet and grime and stink, but she preferred to remain above and clean. He leaned against her shoulder and settled his cheek on the top of her head for a moment; she savored his closeness, his heat, the silent but appreciated comfort.

Jesi bounded up the stairs and crawled out of the opening, excited, followed by an ecstatic Nerik, a nervous Jerin, and Jandra and Rin, who looked grim.

“See?” Jesi said, pointing at her partner as Jerin’s eyes trailed over him. He froze, and Lapis wondered at the tales his classmates told about the famous chaser, for him to react with fear.

“Patch’s good to us,” Jandra said. “He took one of Lykas’s stakes and didn’t ask for payment in return. He isn’t the vicious man some like to tell stories about.”

Patch softened his shoulders, stood easily, expression relaxed. “You’re Jerin?”

The boy swallowed, hard.

“It’s tough, what you’ve been through these last couple of days,” he continued. “I’m sorry about that. I’m sorry about your mother.” He regarded the lad with sad understanding. “Losing those you cherish most is harsh. Unfortunately, you’re not going to have a lot of time to mourn right now.”

He nodded. “Rin said something about that. I don’t understand what’s going on.”

“Do you know anything about your mother’s job?”

He shook his head. “No. She never liked to talk about it, so I never asked.”

“Well, this has something to do with her work, and the people she worked with are looking for you. We’re going to take you to a safe place, then we’ll talk about it. It’s probably not going to be a very nice conversation.”

“Jesi said men in black hats are looking for me. Are they guttershanks?”

“No, they’re part of a syndicate, and they just started a tech battle with Sir Armarandos.”

Other than Rin, the rats gaped, shocked.

“I know that I promised to help you contact your friends’ families,” Lapis said. “But right now, you’re going to be safer if you play least-in-sight for a while. At least, until we figure out why these men are searching for you.”

“It isn’t because of some inheritance, is it?” he asked, lower lip trembling.

“No,” Lapis said, putting as much compassionate warmth in her tone as she could muster. “I wish it were. We’d celebrate your good fortune.”

“Where are you taking me?”

“You’ll see when we get there,” Patch said. He eyed Jandra, Nerik and Jesi. “If they catch up to us, it isn’t going to be pretty. I need you three to meander the streets between here and the Eaves, and if you see any men with black berets with a ‘v’ stitched on them, flee and then run and tell Dachs. We’re going underground. That should throw anyone off us, but I want to be cautious.”

The three beamed with the importance of their task. Not one realized that Patch had just ditched them. Of course, he gave them a job to do, one that could prove helpful if the Black Hats decided to sniff around outside the Lells.

“Don’t confront them, don’t engage,” he warned, as he would any headstrong youth before a chase. “Rat feet aren’t quite up to dodging tech weapons.”

Nerik nodded, an abrupt act that shook his hat brim over his eyes. “We’re good at sneaking around.”

“I’ll send Rin to get you when we’re safe. The Lells battle should be long over by then.”

“It’s really a battle?” Jandra asked.

“Yes,” Lapis said firmly. “So don’t go to Mimstone right now. I’m serious about that. Rebels and those Dentherion snipers aren’t playing nice. I don’t want any more caught in the crossfire.”

“What about the other rats?”

“The rebels and Sir Armarandos are there. It’s just a matter of time before Fyor gets the Lells Guardhouse activated. It’s going to be scary for them, but they’ll be fine.” She hoped she sounded more confident about that than she felt. She did not need the three putting themselves at more risk than necessary to help their friends.

“What about the stuff we just bought him?” Jandra asked.

“I’ll send you back for it when we deem it safe.”

The three scurried on their way after checking the surrounding area for suspicious activity. The factory grounds did not have that many exterior covert spaces at the back, so Lapis did not worry that they missed an enemy. Rin watched them go, then smiled.

“Was I that easy?” he asked.

“No,” Lapis said, memories of Rin’s stubbornness flashing through her.

“That’s because I wasn’t the one asking,” Patch smirked. She smacked his arm, annoyed, while he and Rin laughed quietly. Jerin watched, eyes round, uncertain, afraid. However brief his cubby stay, it had been a home, and they planned to rip him from it, the second in a matter of days.

“Where are we going?” she asked.

“Meridian sewer caps. Rin, you’re in the lead. We need back alleys and the cross grates.”

Lapis traveled beneath the cross grates every so often. They were a series of pergolas to the west of the Lells that once shaded a large mansion’s labyrinth. Now, instead of thick vines and bright flowers threaded through a lattice, the rafters held ratty tarps that sheltered the guttershanks who huddled beneath, usually in the throes of some drug, trying to bring something other than despair to their miserable existence. It was a dingy, dark place, and smelled of human waste, vomit, and misery. A couple of rats had ended up there, and regret crushed her every time she passed through them. What could she have done, to steer them down a different path? She still did not know.

Jerin got to see a part of the Grey Streets he never thought existed, and when they reached the cross grates, she did not think the tears he shed belonged to fear, but to sorrow.

“Lady!” A call rose above the groans and weeping as they neared the exit.

She paused and waited as one of the shanks pulled herself from the small pit she had carved for her crusty bedding. Lerel, a pretty name for a woman whose personality was as ugly as the drugs she took. “Hello, Lerel.”

Rin and Jerin glanced back, but the rat refused to stop. He hated the cross grates, the hopelessness that tainted the air, and the less time he spent traveling through them, the better his mood.

“Lady.” She gasped for breath as she propped herself up on her arms, leaning back as if the effort to move cost too much. Her stringy brown hair limply flowed down her back, and her clothing sagged about her, too large for her starving frame. “They’s men a’lookin’ fer ya. Came here t’ nose ‘round, thinkin’ we’d rat ya out.”

“What men?” she asked politely as Patch came to stand at her side. Lerel’s mouth fell open as she regarded him, and those curled into balls around her stared. Lapis sighed internally. “This is my partner, Patch,” she told her.

“You’s partnerin’ with Patch?” Lerel was flabbergasted.

“It’s not a recent thing. We’ve known each other since we were rats in Coriy.”

Another piped up when Lerel only managed to gape at the emotionless chaser. “They’re mean, Lady,” he said. She did not recognize him, but he did not have the Grey or Stone Streets accent to his words. “Destroyed somma the tarps and such. Kicked in fires. Stole stuff. They said you’re a problem they’re gonna solve.”

“When did this happen?” Lapis asked, fear prickling her arm hair.

“Yesterday,” Lerel told her, after clearing her throat with a nasty cough. “No one here said nothin’. They knows yous at the Eaves, though. Said ‘s much. Don’t know what else they wanted.”

“Who were they?” Patch asked.

“Bullies for Hoyt,” the man said. “Had to be. Siward was with them, askin’ all the questions.”

Siward? He ran errands for Hoyt, the kind that took a firm hand. While not the enforcer beast Cimis had been, he had a reputation for harming those his employer asked him to talk to. But why scare the guttershanks at the cross grates when he knew she resided in the Eaves; what more did he want to learn? What dirt did he think down-and-drugged-out shanks had on her?

Patch squatted in front of the group, his eye wandering about their shelter. They had managed to procure enough box sides to make a flimsy wall between them and their neighbors, held together with bent nails and ripped cloth. Each occupied one of four hollows scooped out of the ground, with their personal effects ringing the space. “Why are you telling us this?”

“They pissed on us,” the man said, fury breaking through his glazed eyes. “We piss back.”

Ah. That explained it. Revenge, however small.

“Alright. You should wash that off, then.” Patch held up an index finger. “I’ll pay for it. Go to Wishwater Bath later this evening, after I’ve had a chance to send a runner there to tell them. Get cleaned up. I’ll even put in a little extra for the info.” He rose, very serious. “Do yourselves a favor and use it to get out of here. If I find out you’ve bought more drug instead, I’ll take it back.”

Wishwater, unlike the name, was not a nice place, but it was one druggie shanks felt comfortable using. No one there turned them over to the guard, though Lapis would never trust the owners with an extra bit. Of course, Patch had a chat with them the previous year, and they astonished the streets with the fast and furious clean-up of the worst elements residing there. Whatever he said made an impression—to the point they evicted the drug dealers. She doubted they would attempt to stiff him because Grey and Stone Streets gossip emphasized that a second chat with the chaser ended in the Pit.

Hopefully these shanks knew, he did not make idle threats.

She and Patch hurried to catch Rin and Jerin, who waited to the side of the western entrance to the cross grates. Jerin’s antsy nervousness, coupled with Rin’s growing annoyance, made her sigh. The rat needed to give the younger kid a break. He just lost everything, from his nice clothes to knick-knacks to regular meals. How should he deal with that? Who should he trust, when those he relied on had booted him out the door with the shirt on his back and nothing else?

“Where are we going?” the lad asked, firm yet worried.

“To the sewers,” Patch said.

He whitened and Lapis sighed to herself. He was not a street rat, excited about going on an adventure with a famous chaser.

“The Black Hats will, hopefully, not be there,” she told him. “We can get you to a place of safety without much fuss.”

Jerin shook his head and backed up a step, distrust playing across his face, bold and intense. While Lapis did not blame him, they also did not have time to coddle him.

“You c’n run,” Rin said, emulating Patch’s lack of sympathy. “Goes ahead. Since you don’t knows the streets, yer gonna get caught by them Black Hats. And when they grab you, they’s got no reason to treat you fair. Who’s gonna complain? Them people at yer school? They tossed you out, ‘n didn’t care. Yer mom’s dead, no relatives. They c’n shank you ‘n toss you in the Pit, ‘n you’ll end up ‘nother body eaten by them lizards. Won’t matter none to them, iffen you have what they wants. Yer dead, either way.”

“Rin,” Lapis said through gritted teeth.

“’S the truth,” he muttered. “You knows it.”

Jerin took a huge breath, tears leaking down his cheeks, and streaked away.

She did not expect either Patch or Rin to race after him, which annoyed her, but she accepted it. She followed, grumbling mentally at the two and their lack of sympathy.

Trust, on the streets, was precious. It was not bought or sold, but earned, and nothing either had said could be construed as supportive. Perhaps she understood Jerin better, because she experienced much the same, when she lost her family, her support. The deep-seated sense of betrayal, the confusion, the agonizing heartache unable to be soothed . . .

She thought about her first experiences with Rin, his sharp suspicion hidden by a carefree smile. Months after her arrival in Jiy, whenever she stepped into the Lells, he would follow her. She originally thought the twelve-year-old was enchanted with an older rat, but upon reflection, she decided he kept an eye on her to make certain she did not cause trouble for the other kids. It was not until he warmed to her, that the others had as well.

She learned a lot about Jiy that first year, with a little help from Chinder. He influenced her, from a distance and through the rats she associated with, primarily Rin and Scand. She spoke with him a few times before his death, and what struck her about the nondescript, bent elder was his kindness. He truly loved the rats he assisted and wanted the best the streets could offer for them. He thought she had a chance to do a bit more for them than a sickly old man, and prodded her in the direction of the reading circle. He did more than he admitted, providing a strong foundation of care mingled with the reality of hard life.

She wondered, if Rin remembered running from her after Chinder passed. Stricken, desperate, he made it to the Docks, stood on a roof and screamed his pain into the wet wind. His life had died with the man, and the haphazard plans he made when it became obvious Chinder would not recover from his last bout with sickness fell into a darkness as deep as the bodies in the Pit.

He raged at her. She listened to the abuse and said nothing. She understood that pain, experienced it with every nightmare about her family. She still had no idea how she broke through to him that night, but the dawn came with her holding him while he sobbed. She told him, not to lose that ability to cry. He did not understand, but burying the pain, covering it in indifference and staunchly refusing to feel anything else, was a guttershank’s life. He deserved better.

Jerin did not outpace her; he did not have the strength in his legs the rats did. He tired far quicker than she anticipated and reached Barren Hills Road by stumbling into it. That caught the attention of residents out and about, and they scurried away as several coarse, stubbly guttershanks descended on a lone lad wearing a white, tucked-in shirt, unripped brown pants and shiny shoes.

Could her day get worse? Or her week? Month, even?

One of them roughly grabbed Jerin, who shrieked and yanked back. Without strength backing him, he could not pull from the tight grip on his arm. He flailed, screaming, falling to his knees. The man’s humor died under his cries, but Lapis reached them before he struck the kid.

A couple backed up as she confronted the shank; he frowned deeply, his large nostrils flaring as if he smelled something as sour as a tanner’s vat.

“Let him go.”

“He’s onna yours?” he asked. She did not recognize him and had no idea how hard to push to get him to comply.

“Yeah.”

He looked the kid up and down, a slow, evil smile lighting his lips. “He ain’t no rat,” he said. “Not with them clothes.”

“He is now,” she replied. “You know what happens when kids lose their parents.” She raised her right hand and unsheathed her blade. Dried blood still marred it from her earlier attack; the guttershanks became serious, and a couple more stepped back. “Now let him go.”

The shank shoved Jerin away; he fell back with a breathy squeak. The man drew a long knife, rusty and stained. He stretched his long arms, gloating, but she still had a breath’s reach on him with her blade.

His smile died and he backpedaled. Patch must have arrived, because no guttershank reacted that way to her. Annoyed at the lack of respect for her blades, especially ones smeared with blood, she walked over to Jerin and held out her hand. He could take it or no, but she would offer.

He did, much to her surprise. Too many rats would have risen on their own and brushed aside her help with a wave. The shanks must have scared him more than she and Patch and Rin, to accept the promise of protection that came with his acceptance.

“Come on,” she told him, pushing him in front of her and keeping her hand on his shoulder before sheathing her weapon with a shing.

Her partner, arms crossed, legs apart, regarded the shanks with hate. Not one wished to face him, and they dispersed, kicking up dust in their haste. The one who grabbed Jerin eyed them all, but his dislike did not equal what Patch produced. Rin watched with dispassion, then cast the kid a furious, heated glare.

“That there’s why new rats die young,” he said.

“Rin,” she said sharply.

“They gets stupid. Stupid on the street gets one dead.”

Jerin sniffled and ran a shaky hand across his nose but did not reply. Why had Rin taken such a disliking to him? She could ponder it later; they had more important things to do, like reaching the House undetected.

“Lady’s bein’ nice, gettin’ you set up ‘n all. She’s bein’ nicer, t’ run after you ‘n face them shanks. You should know, there’s worse down there in them sewers.”

Lapis cast him a warning look before patting the lad’s back in comfort. “It’s a good thing you won’t have to worry about all that just yet,” she said. “We’ll get you to the safehouse, and then we’ll talk.”

“Dammit,” Patch said, under his breath. “Rin, get him to the House.” He stared at Jerin, so he knew to take the chaser seriously. “Don’t run from Rin. Your life is going to depend on it.”

A grey tech bird with a metal barrel belly, dinged wings and a flashing green dot on its round head, flew unsteadily into the intersection, followed by four of the Black Hats dressed in nicer Dentherion shiny clothing. Jerin gasped.

“They’re real?”

The rat grabbed him around the neck, used his knuckles to muss his hair, and dragged him back into the previous street.

“Stay safe,” she said as she stopped by Patch’s side. Rin raised a hand in acknowledgment, as Jerin grabbed the rat’s arm and protested the rough handling. She would speak to Rin later about treating new rats nicely; she and Patch had a problem to deal with first.

Residents scurried away from the interlopers, wary of the tech with them. The intersection cleared fast, though a few faces pressed into the windows of the surrounding businesses, morbidly interested in the bird. The four proceeded smugly, enjoying the fear, focused on them, and came to an abrupt halt. The bird flew unsteadily on, down the street, towards another busy intersection with Greenstone.

The guttershanks had congregated in a narrow alley across the way, watching the men, smirking. Their humor died as they caught Patch’s reaction; she did not have to look at his expression. She knew it well enough, and those shanks would need to tread lightly for many, many months, if not years, to avoid him. If they had stakes, they would be his next target.

Tick-tock, their time had run out.

“Prora i Lady Lanth?” one of the Black Hats shouted.

They were looking for her. Wonderful. Hopefully one of them spoke Jilvayn, or the confrontation would turn nasty, quick.

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