Chapter 7: A Swiftly Turning Tale

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“LADY!” Rin shrieked.

As if she could not tell an airborne vehicle shaped like a flattened bat was about to smoosh them and the horse into nothing.

“Keep your head down and hang tight!” she screamed at him. His arms tightened about her waist, and he dug his face into her back.

Faelan never should have asked him to accompany them. If he died . . .

The Swift’s motor sputtered and made a long, whirring sound; the green lights on the bottom of the ship flashed furiously. Another Swift dodged a cyan-colored aerial attack and tapped it, sending both into a spin. The wing to her right lurched up and the left tore into the dirt in front of them. The craft pivoted, the left wing breaking from the body, debris hurling into the air.

The horse collected himself and bounded onto the flat top of the right wing as it cut under them and ran up the shiny metal. Lapis found herself rising in an instinctual pose to help her mount, and Rin’s grip slid. He ground his fingers into her hips, fighting to stay put.

A short, stubby something broke from the top of the vehicle and fell in their way. “Jump jump!” she shrieked, a useless, terrified call. He gathered himself again and soared high, clearing the object with room to spare. He landed hard on the slick surface, slid, but kept going along the slightly different route. She patted his shoulder.

“Good boy! Good boy!” She squeezed her knees into the saddle as they reached the gap between the body and the left wing.

He did not pause but soared over it and streaked down the side.

They hit the dirt with a shower of soil and raced away from the buried tip. The body of the Swift swept around, rotating from the broken wing. It smacked into the earth, but the right wing continued towards them. The horse hurdled the wide obstacle, his hind hooves tinging down on the edge but not making him fall. He lengthened his stride, as eager to leave the craft as she was.

The second Swift skidded across the ground before flipping, flinging hunks of metal their way. The horse shied away, into the path of several thin, manned vehicles which had left the road to avoid the slow traffic going the wrong way. A flare of orange light against the grass indicated the one behind them had caught fire.

“Go!” she called, smacking the reins against his shoulder. She did not want to be anywhere near an explosion of Dentherion tech that large. Her mount surged on, weaving between the roaring vehicles. She used the reins to guide him to the left or right, and only a light touch to his neck caused him to dodge. A well-trained horse; she needed to thank her brother for placing her on one.

He could not quite avoid one bike and jumped. His back hooves did not even graze the hunched rider’s helmet. He was amazing!

“Shit!” Rin squeaked, worried, as the Swift exploded, hot air rushing around them and setting the grass on fire.

Flaming wreckage flew everywhere, large bits bouncing around them and taking out a few riders. The horse jumped over crashed bike and soldier alike, and she leaned hard inside so he could curve around fiery chinks. Cyan flashes continued to flare overhead from missed strikes against the Swifts, but none lowered to take out the ground vehicles. Good. That was all they needed, to dodge tech weapons, too.

She urged her mount to Crandleberry, where frightened animals fought their owners. The oxen did as poorly as the horses, only they had more strength backing them, and if their cart flipped and cracked but they remained connected, they dragged it behind. A couple went down with their wagon, causing the Dentherion vehicles still on the road to careen into the soft soil beyond to avoid collisions.

Perhaps Crandleberry was not the best choice of escape.

The land held hidden dangers, like holes and large rocks. Lapis could not keep the horse there much longer, without slowing down. She patted his shoulder. “Whoa, whoa,” she cooed. He shook his head and slowed to a trot. “Good boy,” she told him in a calm tone. She continued to speak slowly, serenely, until he felt safe enough to return to a walk. “Faelan trained you well, didn’t he?” she asked, stroking his neck.

“Lady, this’s what it’s like, chasin’ with you?” Rin asked.

She hoped her irritated glare burned his pants off. Stupid rat, no it was not. He grinned and laughed, squeezing her near in half.

“I think I likes it.”

“Did I really agree to train you and Lykas?” she grumbled. She took a huge breath; now that the terrifying experience had ended, her stomach rolled, she ached, and she prayed to the non-existent gods that she did not puke before reaching the Eaves.

Lapis had dodged Meergevenis tech, a downed Swift, the two-wheeled vehicles driven by soldiers, snuck past the gate guards and city patrols to reach the Eaves, but did not manage to avoid an impatient Lyet and a grumpy older woman standing at the back door.

The woman wore a rich golden dress of fine silk and a warm, gold-embroidered dark blue coat. She had light blonde hair and snappy eyes reminiscent of Patch’s when she did something to annoy him. Lapis slid from the horse, fighting the bile back down her throat, and wondered why someone who dressed like that stood with Lyet.

She suspected her doctor visited to check on her and found her absent.

The steady rocking of her mount had soothed her, but now, on her own two feet, without fear and adrenaline pushing her, her sickness refused to be kept at bay. She streaked inside, up the stairs, and barely made it to the restroom before whatever healing brew remained in her stomach rushed up and out.

“I was planning to yell,” an unfamiliar voice told her drily. “But you are reaping the reward for your idiocy, so I’ll remain quiet.”

Which she did quite well.

Lyet retrieved a wet towel and Lapis wiped at her face, trembling. With Rin’s help, she made it to his room, where she collapsed on the bed, nauseous and aching. She managed to worm out of the coat and hood and accepted a glass of warm, strong-smelling medicine from the woman.

Patch slammed his hand onto the jamb and whipped about the corner, saw her, and sagged, his anxious energy evaporating. “Gods and chains, Lanth,” he said hoarsely as he sank onto the bed next to her legs. She surged up and into his embrace; she needed his arms about her. He squeezed back, and she had to worm her face about to finish the medicine.

The woman cast him a scathing look. “You let her out of this room?”

“No,” he snapped. “She decided that all on her own.”

“You saw?” Rin asked eagerly.

“How could I not?” he seethed.

Lapis rubbed her forehead against his chest as Lyet and the woman stared suspiciously at the rat. He blinked at them, managed a lop-sided grin, and straightened, diving into his swaggery, story-performance mode.

“Y’see, there’s these flat, bat-lookin’ flyin’ crafts with a bulge up top in front—”

The woman gasped. “Swifts?” she asked, startled.

“Yep. Came up off the Shroud, ‘cause some others were shootin’ them birds,” he told her, his eyebrows rising and his eyes lidding. “Using tech. Took onna them Swifts out, ‘n it crashed right in front of us.”

Lyet’s mouth dropped open as he exuberantly related the rest of the flight; Lapis wanted to puke again, thinking about how easily all three of them could have died. It did not help when the reading circle rats piled into the room, questions ringing off the walls concerning the exciting race away from the tech battle. Who told them about it? She looked up at Patch, who stubbornly glared back, and plastered her palms over her eyes.

She never should have gone. She should have told Faelan that Patch could take care of Wrethe all by himself, no need for them to become involved. They should have stayed in Rin’s room and worried themselves to death in the warmth and safety found there.

Who guessed, someone using Meergevenis tech hid so close to Jiy?

Faelan, Ciaran and Mairin piled in behind Caitria, who regarded her with wide-eyed wonder. Her brother’s stressed despair coupled with Ciaran’s nervous concern made her feel lower than Patch had, and the minute trembling of their muscles as she hugged them proved their deep anxiety. Rin began another recitation, with Mairin adding in bits that made her mind whirl.

Had their flight looked that momentous?

She withdrew from the crowd, curled up on the bed, slammed a pillow over her ear, and shuddered. She did not need rat or rebel reminding her she should have remained in bed, snuggled into the sheets with quiet detachment and let someone else face the consequences of damaged Dentherion tech.

She did not expect gentle hands to touch her arm, remove the pillow, and let the resounding silence fill her head. She glanced at her partner, at the nearly empty room, and frowned. Where had they all gone?

“I sent them downstairs, the rambunctious lot,” the older woman grumbled as she scuffed her hands together. “I need you to sit up so I can see your back.”

Patch helped her struggle into position while Faelan sat in the chair and leaned over his knees, intent and worried. She bent over while the doctor raised her loose shirt and prodded at her back, making soft hmphing sounds she disliked. A hand finally patted her side, indicating she could lay back down.

“Despite your exuberant night, you’re doing well,” she said as she took a few vials from a large white bag and mixed the contents into a frosted glass. She obviously hailed from someplace other than the Grey Streets, for no one there would keep something that white so pristine. “You will ache for a while yet, and you might experience some hot flashes or chills, but the worst is past.”

“Thank you,” she said hoarsely. The woman raised an eyebrow.

“I admit, it’s odd to see Aethon care enough for someone else to ask me to help. But I’m happy to do so.” She chuckled. “Your reading circle is entertaining. It’s a new experience, to converse with them.”

Lapis did not respond. She had no idea what to even say; a sleek and noblewoman did not have much in common with a street rat, other than they both lived in a city called Jiy.

“I didn’t think you’d be around tonight, Aunt Thais,” Patch said.

“I hadn’t planned on it, but your father decided to stop by and sniff about and demand my services. I told him I had another patient and left him on my doorstep.” She pursed her lips at him. “Be watchful, Aethon. He’s becoming more suspicious about my activities, and he may find out you survived.”

“Let him,” her partner snapped. He possessed a less-than-pleasant opinion of the average human, and his family’s need to rid themselves of a disappointing son laid the foundation. Lapis doubted he would spare the man if he confronted his father again.

“What, exactly, will you do if he sends people after you?” A faint tinge of worry filled his aunt’s voice.

“Kill everyone involved.” He did not hesitate. Lapis and his aunt sighed together.

“Don’t let your hate harm that which you want to protect,” the woman told him. “Lanth is precious to you and fighting your father will put her in danger.”

He studied her, annoyed, but did not contradict her words.

“I doubt he would believe Gall lied to him about the hanging,” Faelan said, his voice a deeper, calm rumble. “But we’ll see what kind of interference I can get Lord Adrastos to generate.”

“Adrastos,” she muttered with distaste as she handed Lapis the concoction. She drank; the liquid, cool and soothing, drove the remaining acidic burn in her throat away. Her limbs became lethargic within a moment, and Patch rescued the glass as it tumbled from her fingers.

The pages taken from Danaea got better and better, did they not. Lapis frown at the sheet she held while Lyet prepared another draught for her to drink.

After a predictable relapse, her body surged ahead, eager to reclaim health and haleness. Lady Thais changed her medicines daily, and she appreciated the concern that drove the intensity, even though she did not understand it. Thais saw Lapis as a way to rein in his darkest impulses. She doubted her power in that regard; Patch was Patch, and her influence on his acts and reputation minute.

At least she had healed to the point she returned to her room, though she missed the nearness of a bathing room and toilet.

She accepted the glass absently and sipped at it as she settled the page down and retrieved another one. She never would have anticipated the hunter being involved in so many failed attempts. It almost seemed as if she spent more time creating her brand than she did completing stakes.

The failed ones, though . . . reading the words twisted Lapis’s stomach. The woman tried to weasel her way into the Jiy House, and when the rebels declined her application, she began to target sympathizers. Some odd House deaths Patch attributed to Baldur’s incompetence were victims of Danaea and her lust for revenge. Baldur had interfered in Patch’s investigations, which intensified suspicions, but after reading the happy little notes about the killings, she realized the headman should have set aside his offended pride and let the chaser work. Her hand in the deaths would have come to light sooner and the rebels would have sent her to the Pit long before she thought to drive a knife through Lapis’s ribs.

Some of the other notes worried her. Some unnamed patron had an unwarranted interest in many of Danaea’s rebel and underground stakes, though whether this patron initiated them remained unclear. Hints, bits here and there; some darker scheme was at play, and it bothered her.

Lyet sat down on the floor and folded her legs, waiting for her to finish her drink. She glanced at the teen.

“How’s Phialla and Ness doing?” She usually sat with them to sell pottery at the Lells, and they must miss her.

She laughed. “Better now that Orinder isn’t around to cause problems.”

“His grandson’s still there.”

“Yes, and playing mouse. The market’s whispering about how Orinder had his hands in more than tech smuggling, and it all relates to Hoyt. Rin’s wondering if he might not have had something to do with the Meergevenis presence, like being an intermediary between them and Hoyt.”

That would explain the shroud’s raid on his extended holdings, which Rin related to her with undisguised glee.

Or maybe the rat’s smugness was the result of him and Scand robbing the poor fellows blind. Not that active-duty military men carried much cash on them, but they had enough to make the danger worthwhile—or so they said. Lapis did not think the potential execution for stealing from a Dentherion soldier worth the risk, and she planned to nail that into their thick skulls once she felt better.

Maybe she needed to include Scand in the chaser training. Patch was pulling stakes for her and forcing all three into a boring retrieval of stolen goods would keep them busy.

Gabby flew into the room before stuttering to a stop, retreating, closing the door, and knocking loud before bursting back in. Lapis hoped Lyet’s lack of amusement reflected her own; they had told her, multiple times, to announce herself. She did not want to startle Patch and end up hurt, did she?

She beamed, her cheeks reddening. “Lady!” She flumped onto the bed and leaned over the scattered page. “There’s something weird going on at the Lells!”

She raised an eyebrow. “Such as?”

“So there’s a group of guttershanks being targeted by the Minq for working for Hoyt. They know Dandi, and Dandi’s trying to find someone to help them get out of the city. They’re saying they know a whole bunch of things about Hoyt and why the skyshroud’s in Jiy, but they want sanctuary before they tell anyone about it.”

Lapis rubbed her hands over her face, hard. “Really.” They obviously thought rebels would snap at the dangled treat.

Under normal circumstances, she would refuse to become involved. The city guards, the palace, the Dentherions and the Minq hunted Hoyt’s men, and she had little reason to step in the center of it. But if they knew where Beltin might be, she needed to meet them and at least dangle the prospect of help in front of their noses. And, well, if they provided info on the skyshroud, she would happily hear it.

“Lady,” Lyet warned. She gave the teen her glass and patted Gabby on the leg.

“This is an opportunity, and I’m not going to miss it because it isn’t safe. Where are they, Gabby?”

“Down the northern sewer at the Lells.”

Ew. “Is Patch around?”

“Not at the Eaves, but I saw him and Brander at the night market earlier.”

“Go find him and tell him to meet me at the north manhole cover.”

Gabby bounced off the bed and saluted her, fist to chest. “Aye, Knight Gabrielda at your service, Lady!” She whisked out the door, slamming it behind her.

“Lady.”

Lapis cocked an eyebrow at Lyet’s impatient disapproval. The teen firmed her lips, then raised her chin.

“I’m going with you.”

Why did the rats insist on being so motherly?

The midday warmth rose from the cracked paving stones, causing beads of sweat to form and roll from her face. Lapis wiped at them, remembering why she chose to complete nightly stakes rather than race about in the full brunt of the day, roasting and making her clothing soggy. Wearing a hood did not help, and she wondered why she bothered; the Lells merchants knew Lyet, and would assume a hooded woman walking with her must be Lady Lanth.

The number of merchants who hailed them, cheerfulness covering worry, made her inwardly sigh. The rats needed to learn the skill of discretion. They kept quiet about so many other things, especially ones they knew would elicit her disapproval. Why not stay silent about her adverse condition?

Dandi sat on a stool behind the tall counter of the pottery stall, elbows on knees, chin in palms, regarding the browsing customers with poorly hidden contempt. While he remained under the stall’s shade cover, his sister bustled about the ceramic-littered rug, answering questions and smiling cheerfully. Lapis did not have many interactions with Norana, but she seemed nice enough. She did not have her brother’s sullenness, her father’s anxiety, nor her grandfather’s snobbiness. Why did her family force Dandi to man the stall rather than her?

His eyes flicked to them, and he immediately straightened, his mouth pulling into a deep frown as he eyed Lyet with a mixture of lust and disdain. It was a good thing his grandfather’s secret business had brought unwanted attention to him and his family, because it might keep him from causing mischief against her. The teen viewed him dispassionately in return, as unimpressed as ever.

“What do you want?” Dandi asked in a sulky tone, his fingers curling into fists on his thighs.

“To chit-chat,” Lapis said pleasantly. “About some friends of yours.”

Norana’s sharp, disapproving look flowed off him like water. “M-my friends?”

“Hmm. Or so I’ve heard.” She folded her arms, bringing attention to her gauntlets. Lyet had laughed, when she attempted to slide her bracelet over them, but she refused to leave her brother’s gift behind. She managed to push the bangle over her palm, and it sat against the front of her wrist, looking pretty but odd against the sterner, functional gold and brown.

“My friends aren’t interested in chasers,” he muttered.

‘No? Maybe they should be. A chaser has contacts they might appreciate.”

Dandi’s antsy skepticism annoyed her. She supposed it did not matter; she already knew where the guttershanks hid, thanks to Gabby. She turned on her heel and headed towards Brone’s square, deciding a cursory inspection of the place was in order. If the rats overheard the shanks’ whereabouts, the Dentherions might have as well.

“Wait!” Dandi hopped off his stool and bustled to them, agitated. Lapis paused while Lyet put her hands on her hips and took a confrontational stance.

He inched close, wavering between stressed and sad. “How’d you find out?” he whispered.

“They weren’t quiet, and neither were you,” she reminded him.

“They’re scared,” he told her. “They’re just . . . they ran a few errands. Did this and that. They don’t know anything about Hoyt’s business, or whatever attack there was north of the city.”

“Attack?” Lapis asked.

“You had to have heard.” He sucked on the inside of his lip before continuing. “Some syndicate out past Blossom, and they went after Dentherion troops. They think my grandfather’s involved. He’s not.” He swallowed, hard. “He’s not.”

“Orinder likes his skin,” Lapis agreed amiably. “So yeah, he probably isn’t.”

“My . . . friends just want a chance to get out of the city.”

Lapis nodded. “And?”

“And the Minq have the undertunnels guarded, and lookouts at the gates.”

“Surely Hoyt had secret escape routes.”

“Destroyed,” he said with petulant glumness.

“I do need to meet with them, if they want help.”

“You must want something in return, to help guttershanks,” he said.

“Me? I suppose I do.”

“I’ll ask, if they want to trust you. Meet us at Ruddy’s.” He turned and hustled away without waiting for her sarcastic reply; his sister called for him, then threw her hands up in disgust. Lyet half-laughed, a low and disbelieving sound.

“That was easy.”

“We’ll see, what comes of it.”

Patch and Brander patiently waited at the sewer grate, speaking quietly and laughing. Her partner raised his eyebrow at her and skimmed her body, pointing out she should be in bed, resting, without saying a word.

“I’m glad Gabby found you.”

“You could have just sent her. There’s no reason for you to be up and about,” he responded.

“You don’t know who Beltin is,” she reminded him bluntly.

“You think they might have info on him?”

“It can’t hurt to ask.”

“Beltin?” Brander asked.

“A survivor. A traitor.”

Her ugly hate broke through, and both he and Lyet guessed her insinuation. Patch snagged her to him and hugged her close, settling his lips against her hair.

“Do you really want to do this?” he asked quietly.

“I have to.”

“Dandi said to meet them at Ruddy’s,” Lyet murmured. “The Lady already offered them an exchange.”

“Exchange?” Patch asked.

“They want out of the city, and I want Beltin. If they have info on the shroud, that’ll be a bonus.”

Brander chuckled. “You do realize, the palace and Dentheria guard the upper gates, and the Minq guard the underground routes.”

“I do. And I’ll cry a river at the Minq about traitors and Nicodem and my revenge against those who slaughtered my family. Of all the syndicates I’ve brushed against, they understand family honor and revenge the best. Besides, if the shanks do divulge something about the skyshroud, we will have something to offer up besides their lives.”

“And I always thought you were the cautious one,” Patch told her, pursing his lips into a reluctant frown.

“I am.”

Lapis repeated that to herself as they walked Lyet to Phialla and Ness’s space, and headed to Ruddy’s. The crowds were afternoon light, which she hoped proved favorable. Their luck, some Dentherion spy tailed the unlucky shanks and caused mischief before she managed to ask about Beltin. Patch remained quiet, grim, Brander contemplative.

Ruddy’s was the dive of dive bars, and nothing had changed since her last visit. Dozens of loud, unwashed workers pressed together in the smoky atmosphere, to drink the barely salvageable swill the owner declared was beer. While the place received some tourist attention just because it had an open door to the road, only the poorest, and cheapest, locals bothered to entertain there. Dandi stuck out like a broken leg, wearing an unsoiled, bright blue button shirt and navy-dyed pants while rubbing his hands together and squeezing his arms tight to his body in unease. If he had any coin on him, some shank had likely already lifted it.

She glanced at Patch; he jerked his chin at the sulky man. She wormed through the crowd and planted herself before him, fighting for the nonchalance Lady Lanth oozed because her body rebelled against the smell. She refused to ruin her reputation by puking on him.

His relief startled her. She half-anticipated a trap of some sort, but his reaction seemed genuine. He managed a strained smile before turning and leading her to the edge of the bar and into a thin, dark, damp hallway. She had never walked that way before, catching her stakes long before they snuck to the back. Depending on the barkeep, chasers had to pay a fair-day’s ransom to enter, and she never wished to part with that many bits.

Gambling and heavy drug use kept the shanks sitting on rickety chairs at unstable tables busy; the few desperate laborers losing their weekly wages to the cards glanced their way, and when they recognized her, then Dandi, they returned to their game. Interesting. She never pictured him as someone local shanks would ignore. They walked to a grubby, unlit stair that went to the basement, and she felt the hair on her neck prickle before setting foot on it. She had no room to maneuver, so if something went wrong, she could unsheathe her blades and stab, but little more.

They reached a large room with slightly better illumination, padded furniture, long pipes meant for dargil, and several niches hidden by thin drapes. No one but a handful of shanks sat there, worrying their hands and looking lost.

Ah. She knew why Dandi caved so readily to her demands. Lars really should have come to her without the round-about, because she would have attempted to help him, despite their past antagonism. Patch and Brander slipped from the stairs to stand behind her, and she wondered how much her partner had guessed about who the sulky man wanted to meet.

Lars leaped to his feet and backed in horror as he eyed Patch. His buddies rose; she held up a hand.

“We’re here to bargain,” she said, loudly enough they all heard. “I want some information, and if you have it, we’ll you out.” She glared at Lars. “At the night market, before Miki died, you wanted to hand me over to Hoyt. Dandi here says you’re just an errand boy. I find that a bit much to swallow.”

He steadied himself, breathing hard. “It weren’t no lie,” he gritted. “That’s all we’s doin’, fer Hoyt. Errand runnin’. We ain’t no bit shanks workin’ as guards. Don’t know nothin’, ‘bout no tech, no new syndicate, no nothin’ ‘bout thems the shroud fought.”

She wanted to slug him, for being a stupid rat trying to turn shank, for blaming his reading failure on her and choosing the darkened rooms of crime rings to the brighter ones of merchants. “I thought you had info on the skyshroud.”

“Not us,” he muttered, turning to another member of the eight-man group. He was older than the rats, possessed shaggy hair and beard, and wore the thick leathers sported by most guild guards.

“I suppose one of Orinder’s guards would know something of his schemes,” Brander said casually.

Bodyguard? Something looked faintly familiar about him, but she could not place him. She must have seen him with the man, and as a guard, she paid him no attention. Either that, or her memory had yet to recover those specific recollections, and she had doubts she ever would.

“I want out of Jiy,” he said gruffly, eyeing the two rebels suspiciously.

“Fine,” Patch said, bored. “We can sneak you out. But we want to ask a few questions.”

Both he and Brander stood with confident aplomb, intimidating in their composure. Lapis drummed on her upper arms with her fingers, and when neither spoke, dove in. No reason to make them more nervous. “First, the skyshroud. Why is it in Jiy?”

The guard smashed his lips together, glared daggers at Dandi, who hid behind Lars, and rubbed at the back of his neck. She looked at Patch; he shrugged, so she turned away.

“Hoyt had a man with contacts from abroad,” he said, loud enough to catch her attention. “He had Orinder run as an intermediary for one of them. You’ll be surprised to hear, but it was for special pottery paint, and it was legit.”

Pottery paint? “OK. Where was the intermediary from?”

“Don’t know.”

“Uh-huh.”

“I’ve never heard another accent like it. It was heavy, harsh. So yeah, I don’t know. Anyway, Orinder got a huge shipment in at the docks. Had some paint. Under the paint was tech. Not sure what it was, or what it was for. Some of Hoyt’s shanks retrieved it, got caught.”

“So Orinder was completely innocent of all wrongdoing.”

The guard’s eyes flashed, but he held his words. Good for him. She would leave him there to rot and get Lars and his buddies out. Neither she, Patch nor Brander had any reason to put their necks out for him. Dandi did not look especially pleased, either, but his cowardice kicked in and kept him silent.

“Whatever it was terrified the palace guard. The city ones who arrested Orinder said Gall contacted Dentheria.” He paused, then rushed on, as if he should say nothing, but chose to anyway. “It wasn’t official, either. Some bit merchant prince’s son from the Second Council showed up with a decommissioned skyshroud. It was on its way here before the syndicate war started.”

“And you know this how?”

“Have a friend in the palace guard. He warned me, and I warned Hoyt.”

She glanced at Patch. A decommissioned skyshroud? That seemed extremely unlikely. Who had the funds to pay for mercenaries and outfit them in empire uniforms to pretend they worked for Dentheria? She also suspected the empire’s air command would not ignore a missing skyshroud filled with fake soldiers.

“Did you find out before or after it arrived?” she asked.

“After. They had the palace guard on lock-down for the shroud’s docking. And that’s all I know.”

Well, she could pass the info on to Faelan. Whether anything came of it was questionable.

She looked at Lars. “Streets code, Lars, do you know anything about that?”

The guard gaped in anger as the rat shrugged. “ ’Bout the shroud, nah. Knows nothin’ else other ‘n what he said.”

“I’m also looking for a man named Beltin. You know him?”

Lars blinked, confused. “Beltin, yeah. Gots caught playin’ double turntail fer the palace, jest afore Hoyt took off. None too popular, ‘round the Grey Streets now. Thems who trusted ‘m ‘r wonderin’ iffen he told the palace ‘bout ‘m. They wants him dead, Lady.”

“What a coincidence, so do I,” she murmured. “Do you know where he’s at?”

Lars glanced at his buddies. “Last I heard, he’d been here, hidin’ ‘bout. Ruddy’s don’t care iffen you’s a shank ‘n outta favor, long’s you got bits.”

“Which room?”

“Probably the bar. He’s a drinker.”

How convenient. “When does he show up?”

“Most nights. Like I said, he’s a drinker. Surprised he ain’t in the Pit yet, but Hoyt’s shanks ‘r in hidin’ ‘n don’t wanna bring attention t’ themselves, maybe end up on the shroud.”

“Have some been arrested?”

“Yeah, bit shanks, Lady. None important, don’t know why the shroud’s wantin’ ‘m. They knows nothin’. Like us.”

Good enough. “Dandi. I’m sure you can find your way out.”

He cleared his throat and peeked out from behind Lars. “N-no. I’m going with them.”

“Are you now?” How frightening had the palace interrogation been, that he decided to skip town?

“We . . . there’s a plan, to save Grandfather. I need to get out, prepare the . . . well, prepare. Lars is going to help.”

Patch laughed, the ass. She smacked his stomach, hard. She never desired to be part of Orinder’s escape plan, and she desperately wished she had questioned the idiot further on why he thought helping Lars was a good idea. Dammit, her want to find Beltin had made her sloppy. What kind of example did she make for Rin and Lykas, when she stumbled over her own chases?

“I can get them out,” he told her, still chuckling.

“How?” she asked.

“I know a few routes.” He shrugged. “As long as the info was worth it.”

“This means I’m going to have to drink that shit while we wait, doesn’t it?” Brander asked, annoyed. Patch clapped him on the shoulder, his single eye bright with amusement, and she wondered what the rebel had to say about his experiences at Ruddy’s. She could not say hers ever improved.

“Rather you than me.”

“I can do this alone,” Lapis reminded them.

“No,” they said together, with enough force Lars and his buddies stepped back. Dandi just looked confused.

She cupped her bracelet in her hand, hoping the thought of her brother might steady her emotions. To see Beltin again, to know his treachery . . .

She had vowed to take Perben to death’s gate, and she had a new target for that promise.

Patch grabbed her arm, carted her to the wall and yanked the innocuous, muddy landscape on the wall behind Lars up. A series of gears met her eye, and he pulled out a knob and let it snap back in. The wooden panels next to it swung open, the hinges silent, and he thrust her inside. Shouts filled with thought-obliterating fear echoed down the stairs, and the people from the backroom rushed down. Breaking wood and screams followed, pleas abruptly silenced.

A raid? Who raided Ruddy’s? They had an escape entrance, so it must occur often, but everyone in the Grey Streets knew what took place in the seedy establishment. Ruddy’s was no secret.

The escape intersected a tunnel like those Patch had led them through while saving Midir from Hoyt’s shanks. The tiles, while dingy, glowed a pale white, and wires combined with thick, goopy things hung from the ceiling.

“To the left!” Patch shouted.

She ran, Dandi, Lars, and his buddies with her. They entered a small room whose tiling flickered and flared, illuminating gaping holes in the walls and a huge pit in the floor that smelled of mold. Debris sagged down to eye height from cracks high above, an annoying distraction. She continued left, into a dripping, hacked tunnel with moss hanging low enough to slap her in the face. She slid and slipped about, slamming her hand into the wet wall to keep her balance; ooze met her fingertips and she gagged on the sensation.

She was going to need a long, hot bath before she returned to the Eaves. Dachs would yell if she slogged the gross stuff into his establishment.

The tunnel exited into a huge room with old steel lines running in the floor and illumination coming from a shoulder-high metal barricade. She stumbled to a halt as people rose to point tech weapons at her. They wore dark red uniforms and helmets with a matte face covering. She raised her hands, not knowing what else to do.

“Lapis?”

“Varr?”

What was the bodyguard doing there? Should he not be with Midir? The Dentherions would love to get their hands on the heir to the Jilvaynian throne without his giant protector present!

“Get your ass back here!”

“There was a raid at Ruddy’s. I’m with others!”

“So I see.” One of the uniformed people pointed her weapon directly at the guard and studied Lars and his buddies. “How nice, you brought them to us. We’ve been looking for Hoyt’s shanks.”

“They get free passage out of the city,” Lapis snapped. So Varr was with the Minq. Why were they there?

Varr huffed to the front, wearing his tech-imbued leathers and carrying his large, black tech weapon with a glowing panel at the back. The sight was nearly the size of the weapon itself, and running lights blinked along its sides. As a child, she marveled it stood as tall as she.

“We’ve staked them,” the woman said, though her attention drifted to Varr.

“Yeah, and I have a deal with them to get them out without you harming them.” She stubbornly planted her feet before the rats and held her arms out, palms back, a protective gesture.

“And you know her, Varr?”

“She’s Lady Lanth.”

That startled several. “So they’re street rats.”

“Yes.” She took a huge breath and turned to the bodyguard. If the Minq respected him, his rage would convince them to leave her, and her charges, alone. “Did you know Beltin lived?”

Varr stopped, frowning. “Beltin? Who’s . . .” He narrowed his eyes and stroked his beard. “Who is he?”

“One of the stable hands from Nicodem.”

The fury that immediately burst from him intimidated everyone in the room. Perhaps she should have waited, to mention it. “A survivor?” he seethed. Only water dripped into the silence after he spoke.

“He was working for the palace and continued to do so after he came to Jiy. The rats told me where he was at, and that’s my fee for getting them out.”

Dandi whimpered, the only other sound to interfere with Varr’s growing rage.

“Get back behind the barrier,” the woman snapped. “We’ll sort it out later. You too, Varr.”

“Damn well bet we’ll sort it out later,” Patch snarled as he trotted into the room, planted a hand in her back and forced her forward. A scattering of people accompanied him and Brander, and they all hastened behind the barrier. “Get ready for a fight. The shroud raided Ruddy’s and from what the backroom people said, they were killing everyone they saw.”

Lapis snagged Varr’s arm as she passed. She had the stubbornness to drag him where she wanted him, and a way to guilt him if he stayed put. He grumpily gave way, but she recognized the flashes in his eyes, knew what they meant.

She needed to reach Beltin before he did.

“I’ll find him,” she promised. “He won’t escape again.”

“Your brother know?” he asked gruffly as he glanced at the tunnel entrance. The loud reverberations of boots echoed to them.

“Yeah. He played a tape for me with his voice on it, to confirm.”

“Lapis . . .” He trailed off, then settled his large hand on her upper arm. “If it’s him, he’s dangerous.”

“Which is why Patch will be with me.”

“Here they come!”

“Go, sweetie,” he hissed, raising his weapon.

“Be careful,” she cried as Patch dragged her past numerous red-uniformed Minq and into a staging area. Behind them, weapons discharged, shouts reverberated off the walls, the air stank of smoke. She did not see much through blurring eyes as he clasped her hand and moved through the anticipatory syndicate people. She had just reunited with Varr and Midir. How dare he put himself in such danger before she could renew their relationship?

Why was he even with the Minq? Or had Lord Adrastos sent some of his people to help, and Varr accompanied them?

Patch brought her up abruptly and set himself against the nearest wall when they entered a room with panels hanging loose from the walls, dangling wires and debris, and the stench of dead vermin. Light came from a grate high in the ceiling that dripped black something to the floor. Brander planted himself next to him, and Lars, his buddies, the guard and Dandi scurried over. The trickle of Ruddy’s customers continued on their way, disappearing into the dank dimness of intersecting tunnels. If shanks, they likely knew of several ways out of the underground and sewers, ones unknown to Dentherion soldiers.

“Lanth, you need to get back to the Eaves and tell Faelan shit went south fast,” Patch told her.

“What’s Varr doing here?”

“I don’t know, but it probably has something to do with Lord Adrastos and Midir. I’ll get these guys out and we’ll meet back up in your room.”

“I’ll go with her, if you like,” Brander murmured quietly.

“Patch—”

He shook his head and kissed her cheek. “If a random Minq lieutenant is that interested in them, I need to sneak them out while they’re distracted. Keep to the tunnels, for as long as possible.”

“Be careful.”

“I should tell you that. You’re getting a bit more adventurous now that you’ve renewed ties with Faelan.”

She did not find that as amusing as he did. She turned and smacked Lars in the shoulder, taking a tad of annoyance out on the primary reason for it. “This is your second chance, Lars. Don’t screw it up.” He stumbled, blank with surprise, as she stormed away.

Brander grabbed her arm and point her in the right direction before she stalked too far. His amusement, a reflection of Patch’s, annoyed her no end. She fumed, a simpler emotion than worry,  and mentally yelled things at her partner, at Varr, at Lars and even at Dandi.

“Despite what Patch thinks, I’m not certain the underground is any safer than the overground,” Brander told her as they slogged through a wet, smelly, drippy tunnel. “And I want a bath.”

She sighed. “So do I.”

“Then you can tell me about this Beltin.”

She half-laughed. “There’s not much to tell,” she informed him. “He survived Nicodem, and it’s only recently been brought to my brother’s attention. He was a guard informant on Hoyt, so it’s a two-fer when we find him.”

“Patch will want him, too, then.”

“What do you mean?”

“He’s of the growing opinion that finding Hoyt and handing him over to the Dentherions will go a long way to getting rid of the skyshroud. If what that guard said is true, he might be right.”

Maybe. Lapis did not particularly trust Orinder’s bodyguard or his words. Of course, Patch remaining silent while he whisked them away was nil. He would find out, whether the man spoke true or indulged in fantasy to increase his chances of luring help.

The bath Brander chose was one rebels felt comfortable using, though Lapis rarely enjoyed her time there. She normally slipped in, rinsed the chase away, and slipped back out, far more eager to eat than soak. Now, however, she could not wait to wash the gunk off her hands, and hoped the place had a wider selection of black clothing than it typically carried. They discretely checked to make certain any Dentherion eyes and ears were absent and nearly walked out from under the awning across the street before Lapis snagged Brander’s arm and held him back.

At the entrance, with a couple of other shanks, stood Beltin, covered in the gunk from the tunnels, paying the fee to get in.

“Brander, the one with the greying black hair and hunched shoulders.”

“You’re kidding. That’s Beltin?”

She nodded.

“I know him,” he told her. “He’s a regular in the undermarket. He goes by Windel there.”

They had a chance to apprehend him, without the difficulty she imagined. She felt a slow, angry smile pull her cheeks across her face.

Vengeance.

“Will he recognize you if he sees you?”

She nodded. Even Jarosa commented on her resemblance to her mother.

“Find another bathing house, and I’ll convince him it’ll be safe at the Eaves.”

She touched Brander’s arm, appreciation welling. “Brander, are you sure?”

He patted her hand. “I know it’s personal for you. It must be for your brother, too. You should tell him, so he can post a few guards there to grab Beltin if he bolts.”

“He’s a turntail, Brander. Be careful.”

He laughed. “That, coming from the woman who rode a horse across a downed Swift. I’ll be fine.”

She sighed, disgruntled. That story would haunt her days. “I’ll make sure food’s waiting.”

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