Heated chatter drifted up from the alley directly below. Lapis started and flattened herself against the sun-warmed roofing tiles. Had soldiers entered the alley? Dammit, she needed more time. Fighting the twist of sick fear in her tummy, she crept to the dilapidated side, held her breath and peered over the edge.
Five men dressed in Dentherion black uniforms stood at the western entrance, motioning rapidly at each other. The Grey Streets residents had parted for them and stepped away, leaving a huge gap in the human wall of observers. Several local guards strolled in the middle of the street, an oddly leisurely gait for a group who anticipated arresting rebels.
She heard Vivina hiss behind her and she rolled over to wave her hand at the woman, a silent command to stay put. The caregiver leaned out the window, uncaring who might see, her pinched face and trembling hands a terrible example for the children. She started to step over the sill, pausing when the hem of her dress caught a protrusion and tore. Lapis crawled to her and grabbed her by the upper arm, forcing her back into the small room.
“What are you doing?” she hissed.
“We need to go!”
“We will, when the alley is clear. Until then, you need to stay put.”
“They’re coming,” she whimpered.
“Not yet they aren’t.” She peeked in at the kids and managed a wide smile. “How you guys doing? OK?” Some made affirmative sounds, while others nodded. “Good. I’m going to close this window a little bit, but still keep it open to let some air in. Then I’m going to go see if there’s any rebels about looking for us. Go ahead and get some rest while I do that.”
How she managed to politely meet Vivina’s tearing brown glare, she did not know, but she congratulated herself on her emotional control. She never would have suspected the caregiver to break under the pressure of escape; outside the rebel cause she danced in elite circles, and Lapis knew how unfeeling and aggressive those were. She even bragged about her steely aplomb when faced with hostile nobles. Where had her resolution gone?
She subsided, shrank down, planted herself against the wall near the window. Good.
Lapis crept to the roof facing the busy street, digging her fingers into the tiles to keep them from trembling. She sucked her breath through her teeth as she touched over-heated edges, and winced hard, forcing herself not to wring her hands. That might attract unwanted attention. Her breathing hitched and she concentrated on shallow but steady breaths.
No panic. No panic. Patch trusted her to save the children. And she would.
A crowd congregated across the road as well, staring and gossiping as soldiers idly stood about in loose formations, bored. She did not see a single rebel among them and cursed. Had no one missed the kids yet? When had they fled? Had the evacuation been a near miss?
She folded her hands, placed her chin on them, and desperately searched the throng for anyone she trusted to help. Fifteen children being stalked by Dentherion soldiers needed more aid than she and Vivina to reach the rebel safehouse. It resided several blocks away in the Black Iron Warehouses, a sullied, decrepit area on the southern border between the Grey Streets and the Docks. The poorest outside the Stone Streets lived there, squatting in the buildings until their owners decided to clean house. She only visited the place during stakes—the squalor appalled her, reminded her that the king on the throne cared so little for the average human being that he allowed such to propagate.
Despite rat infestations, disease and toxic smells, the residents bragged that at least they lived outside the Stone Streets. She did not consider that an endorsement.
A glimpse of reddish hair among the duller browns and soft blacks. Leaning against the wall just inside the alley below her, arms folded and pretending nonchalance, was Rinan. His attention remained on the change purses of the curious who crowded in front of him, straining for a view of the events. Scand stood with him, and she inwardly laughed his attempted soberness while he greedily eyed the marks before him.
She should leave them be. Endangering the street rats to help rebel kids was not an equal exchange. The rebel fight was not theirs. The palace would not spare them, if they caught them attempting to assist her charges.
She had no choice.
The black-uniformed men threw up their arms in disgust and snarled at each other before stomping away. Rin and Scand must have heard what they said. They could tell her, while they helped her put the board in place. Then she could shoo them away and lead the children to safety.
She knew Rin would never accept the dismissal.
She sank as low as possible on the roof and warbled like a townbird, ending the sound with a squawk. Chastising herself for involving the rats, wallowing in suffocating guilt that made her chest ache, she inched backward until she reached the window, then plastered herself against the outer wall, waiting.
She should have left them to their picking. A tear rolled down her cheek, and she quickly brushed it away.
“Did you see anyone?” Vivina hissed, opening the glass wide, then jerked. “I can hear them!” she intimated, her voice quivering as she glanced behind her, her arm tightening around the bags in her arms. Frowning, Lapis leaned inside and listened; she heard nothing, but that did not mean echoes had not reached them.
She scanned the sweating but quiet kids, who did not appear frightened by unexpected noise. “I’m waiting for help,” she said shortly.
“Help?” She perked up, her eyes sparking bright. “Which rebel? Sherridan—”
Lapis grabbed her arm and yanked her close. “When do you think they’ll miss us?” she asked in her ear. Her blonde tresses tickled her nose, but she refused to jerk back. “Sherridan will race back here—and find soldiers and guards posted at the House and along every street in the vicinity. It will take time for them to find out whether we were captured or not—and if I make it hard for the enemy to find us, it will be hard for the rebels to find us.”
Vivina covered her mouth with one hand, struggling with fear. Dammit, she should have consoled her, spoken in warm tones, reassured her. She knew how difficult and terrifying escape was. She intimately knew the thrill of thoughtless terror as armed men chased her down, shrieking for her death. At twelve, the fear had ruled her—now, at twenty, she desperately sought to ignore it, to chase it back into the depths of her consciousness and let it wallow behind her courage. If she lost herself to panic, they were all dead.
She heard the familiar footsteps before a body slid down the roof to her left. Vivina started to scream, and Lapis slapped her hand over her mouth to muffle the remainder of the sound. Rin tumbled to the window, raised an eyebrow and sank low, watching the woman with a humor out of place considering the situation.
“Hey, now, quiet-like,” he said softly. “I’s no soldier . . .”
The children stared back, mouths open. Scand slipped up to them and gazed inside as well.
“Lady?” he asked, scowling.
“I’m rescuing the rebel kids.” Her words, soft as bunny fur, reached them.
Rin leaned into her, battling rage. Despite multiple attempts, he never managed to keep his fury out of his eyes when he spoke with her. “Them’s too many. Never make it down t’ street—”
“We’re going across the roofs to the south. There’s a board up here that someone twisted off the hinges. I need help to put it back in place, then I want you both to go.”
“Not a chance.”
“Rin, no arguments.”
“They’s just kids, Lady.”
She hoped to pierce his stubbornness, but he refused to meet her gaze.
“Where’s you goin’ from here?”
“The chutes three roofs over.”
“They’re bringing in more soldiers, Lady,” Scand told her. He pressed up against Rin’s back and leaned close so the children could not hear. “Dentherion ones from the Skyshroud that docked while we were burying Miki.”
“Them city ‘n palace guards weren’t ‘spectin’ no one t’ be ‘round.” Rin glanced into the room. “Dentherions ‘r pissed, too. Think a palace guard tipped the rebels off. They’s sayin’ the rebels ‘r part of the underwar, want t’ arrest the leaders, but no one’s believin’ it. The Grey Streets all knows that Hoyt’s behind it, provokin’ the Minq.”
“The palace and Grey Streets guards are pretty angry,” Scand continued. “They see the soldiers as stepping on their territory, and they don’t like it.”
“Someone prob’ly did tell the rebels, jes’ t’ be spiteful.”
“Who are they?” Vivina asked suspiciously, rocking back and forth on the balls of her feet, peering at the street rats as if they were loathsome insects that had crawled out from under a particularly ugly rock.
At least she forgot to be afraid.
“Rinan, Scand, meet Vivina,” Lapis said tightly, agitated. The rats did not deserve the derision. Rinan smiled and tipped his head, a feat of great restraint—he rarely held his tongue, no matter the company. Scand sat back, refusing to show deference.
“They’s posted soldiers ‘round the corners,” the older rat said, turning his attention back to Lapis and jerking his thumb to the far end of the alley. “Thinks you c’n get them kids ‘cross without ‘m knowin?”
“How did you get here?” Vivina demanded. Lapis wondered at the disdainful darkness in her tone. Why focus on rat hate when they had more pressing problems to navigate?
“Down round t’ other side,” he mumbled, sending the woman a short look of contempt. “Y’ need a diversion,” he murmured as a few shouts penetrated the walls of the house. The children jumped and glanced around uneasily. Lapis could hear the trembling breaths as the caretaker sucked in air. Rin shook his head and cast a meaningful look at the woman.
“She ain’t gonna make it,” he said bluntly. Vivina barred her teeth at him, and he lifted his lip; Lapis slapped his upper thigh in warning. He pulled away, grumbling at the unfair treatment. He could snarl at the woman once they left the rooftop and were well hidden somewhere else.
Her neck prickled just as two familiar black-haired heads peeked over the top of the roof. Brone and Lyet slid down to them, concerned.
“Lady, what—” Lyet began, stopped, and looked at Lapis, shocked.
“I know you!” Franziska said, pointing at Brone. “You play the drums at the Lells!”
He grinned at the recognition. “Yeah, I do,” he agreed. He winked broadly at the kids and pressed hard into Scand’s back, leaning over to her ear. “Lady, what’s going on?”
She grabbed both heads and brought them close. “They’re rebel kids, and I’m leading them to safety. I need to get that board that’s up the roof. They’re going to go across it to the other side and we’re going to take the chutes down. You four are going to—”
“Yes,” Brone firmly hissed. He smacked Rin on the leg and they both scurried to the board. Lyet studied the group as a bang from the interior echoed to them. Lapis could not tell whether it came from the escape route or the house itself but suspected the soldiers and guards had begun a careful search in nearby habitations.
They were running out of time.
She squeezed Lyet’s arm and crawled after the other two with Scand. The teen chose to remain at the window, speaking low but calmly to the increasingly fearful kids.
Rin tapped at the warped hinges. “What happened?”
“Sabotaged by the rebel traitor,” she whispered. “Brander and Sherridan were fixing what he broke, but I don’t think they completed the work.”
“He was tryin’ to keep rebels from escapin’?”
He curled his lip. “You still needs a distraction. Them soldier’s ‘r lookin’ all over. Seen Oth ‘round abouts. He’s up t’ fightin’.”
“What?” Lapis asked, finding her dark, disapproving Lady Lanth tone. The rats knew they did something rash when she used it.
Rin held up his hands, his face schooled into a mask of innocence she did not believe. “Not m’ fault he’s over-sensitive.”
Over-sensitive? “The last time an over-sensitive mark targeted you, you ended up with a broken arm. Oth’s a smithy apprentice. He hits hard.”
“Knows it,” he replied glumly. “But you’s not havin’ much choice, now. I’ll catch up.” He perked up, a false front, and smacked her shoulder. “I’s the Lady’s man. Is why you called me, right?” Refusing to wait for an answer, he scurried up and over the top of the roof.
“Rin, be safe,” she said, too late for him to hear.
“He’ll be fine, Lady,” Scand assured her as he grabbed the edge of the board. “You know as well as we do that Rin always gets out of trouble.”
“Yeah, but this isn’t typical rat troubles, Scand.”
Between the three of them, they hefted it up and carried it to the place it once rested. The two rats checked the alley, then they helped her raise the heavy plank. Wondering why the rope had not been cut, she slowly lowered it to the other side, her helpers holding the bottom corners so they did not move around. It settled into place as if it preferred to be that way, and while the hinges did not keep it secure, the ends sat back far enough from the roof edges for stability.
“I’ve used this a couple of times,” Scand told her. “I never realized it was a rebel thing.”
“Patch spent months building routes out of the House.” She laid down, inched to the gutter and peeked around, unwilling to expose more of her body than necessary. The boys followed her example, expectant and edgy. They stilled, listening to the noise rising from the crowd, dripping sweat onto the tiles. She wished the wind would rise, granting a bit of cool to the waning afternoon.
“So how did the traitor find out about them?” Brone asked.
“He, along with some of the important rebel leaders visiting the House, were shown escape routes. He used that information to make them inaccessible. The Jiy rebels were trying to fix the damage, but they obviously didn’t get it all done.”
“Just in time for a raid.”
“I’m betting someone he knew alerted the palace that he was under suspicion and confined. They would have saved him from rebel justice, considering who his family is.”
“He’s a noble?” Scand sounded as if he tasted bitters.
“Yeah. A well-placed one with rich and influential parents who can make Gall wish he lived in the Pit rather than deal with them.” That connection had kept his mother safe from palace touch as she dabbled in rebellion affairs. Lapis wondered at her reaction, if told her son betrayed the cause.
What had the rebels done with him? Carted him away in chains? Patch said only the children had been left behind, so the Blue Council had deemed it necessary to take him with them. She hoped he had an unsympathetic escort, one that saw handing him over to Meinrad and Rambart as untenable.
“This is too easy,” Brone said suddenly. “If they were really looking to capture rebels, they’d be swarming the alleys, looking for them. There’s a few soldiers about, but not what you’d expect if they really thought they’d be arresting people.”
“We have an alert system manned by palace people who are sympathetic to our cause. In the past, they’ve sent word about raids and set-ups. If what Scand heard is true and the palace guard was already upset at the Dentherions sticking their noses into Jiy business, they had even more reason to give the rebels had plenty of time to clear out. It’s an embarrassment, for the empire’s people to showing up at an empty House.”
“Then why are you and the kids here?”
“Patch and I showed up to an abandoned House but for the kids, and the raid at the front door.” Both rats’ eyes bulged. “There’s a rotation of people whose job it is to help the kids escape. Whosever turn it was, they either forgot or chickened out. So Patch went to distract the soldiers and guard and I’m getting the kids out.”
“Well, Rin’ll make a lot of noise,” Scand told her. “He’ll make sure everyone’s watching him so we can get them across.”
“Patch won’t get caught,” Brone assured her. Why did he assume she needed to hear that?
Gabby and Ness popped into the alley entrance to the west, Phialla and Jandra to the east. How many rats had Rin told? He endangered every one of them that he enlisted to help! “This is too much of a risk for you. I want you all to get clear as soon as—”
She did not know that Rin could scream so loud. He sounded as if he stood next to her, lending fury to the winds. She did not know Oth could bellow louder. The crowd erupted into hoots and hollers to the west, and they rushed in the direction of their entertainment.
“What in the Pit did Rin do to Oth?” she snarled as the rats in the alley gave the ‘go’ signal.
“Really, you don’t want to know,” Scand told her.
“I’ll hold the board on the other side so they can get over faster.” Brone scampered across while Lapis crawled to the window.
The banging increased, soldiers shouted, and the children cried, though Lyet’s soothing tone helped some of the older ones. She had lined them up and urged them over the windowsill. Vivina, already out, sat to the side, clutching the bag to her chest, rocking back and forth and whimpering. Lapis would have snapped at her, furious at the reaction, but she understood the gut-wrench of panic and pain abandonment caused. She knew its debilitation, and the caregiver had lost the battle.
“Alright, kids, let’s do this. Patch put a board up here that goes across the alley and to the other roof. I need you all to follow Lyet and Bren across the board. One at a time, please. Then we’re going to go to the chutes. They’re like big slides. It’s fun, to go down.”
“I can get them there,” Lyet said confidently.
“No. You need—”
She raised an imperious eyebrow, grabbed Bren by the elbow, and escorted him, the baby he held, and his younger charge to the board. Lapis gritted her teeth. She wanted the rats independent, and that included emergency situations, but sometimes she wished they listened to her.
Lyet took the baby and raced across. Bren gently prodded his charge into motion, then shuffled across after him, arms thrown wide. Lapis sent Franziska, the baby she held and her charge next, and they, too, hustled across. Lyet lined them up far enough from the edge that no one at ground level would notice them, then returned to help the youngest across the board.
Thump. A crack raced up the back wall after the last little one paraded down the roof, her tiny hand in Lyet’s. Lapis grabbed Vivina’s arm and hauled her to the board—no reason for her to know how close the soldiers were to breaking through. She regretted the decision. Unlike the children before her, the woman slowly inched across, body tense, her arms shaking. She fought not to scream at her—soldiers were nearly there! She caught Lyet’s attention and waved her on; the rat immediately got the kids running in the direction of the chutes.
“Scand, they’re breaking through,” she said, squatting down next to him.
He snagged the rope, not the reaction she anticipated.
“Lady, I’ve escaped from this roof lots of times. I’ll make certain they don’t come after you.”
“Scand—” Stupid tears, this was not the time.
He patted her arm. “Lady, we’re resourceful. It’s why you called us.” He produced a grin as cheeky as Rin managed when the older rat knew his bravery was on display.
Wood cracked behind them, accompanied by shouts.
She ran across the board and Scand immediately pulled it up, then yanked the rope to the left. It moved sideways, enough to let him lower the edge towards the ground. It slipped and careened to the bottom. Lapis and Brone did not wait to hear it hit. She snagged Vivina’s arm and forced her to run with her. Odd black cubes littered the place, taller than human height, and provided some cover against enemy eyes.
An enclosed walkway ran between three buildings, giving the impression of a huge roof rather than several separate ones. At the end sat four red chutes that curved down and into the ground, ending in a hidey-hole of grand proportions. The place had once sequestered Jilvayna nobles, and the rich cabinets, decorated shelves, wrought-iron beds and active toilets attracted syndicate attention. The rebels paid the Minq a fair bit of silver to use it as a pass-through, though neither had expected them to need it.
No children remained on the roof. Vivina opened her mouth but Lapis shoved her into a chute, face first, and took another with Brone right behind. Slick, fast, and she winced at the bumps that sent her head into the top of the pipe. The caretaker screamed the entire way down; Brone laughed, too happily in her opinion, and she drowned in guilt for doing that to the woman. She needed a kinder approach, one that considered the other’s fear, disbelief, and sense of abandonment.
She constantly told the rats to be nice. Why not take her own advice?
The chutes ended in a small room with wooden poles as braces against the press of earth above. The smell of dry soil hung thick in the air and the only light came from a lantern dangling from the center of the ceiling. Vivina struggled to her feet, gasping and crying, and whipped about, searching for an exit. The kids clustered about Lyet, patiently waiting for everyone to arrive. She clasped the candy bag, and important item Lapis had forgotten, and been more than generous in giving out treats. The younger ones sniffled and cried, the older ones held them, and the babies began to fuss. No one had broken down into a fear-induced tantrum, though. Good.
Lapis made a point of hugging Vivina about the shoulders before centering herself before the second chute. She walked straight to the wall and reached high, feeling along the earthen shell until she encountered a metal-cold spot. She pressed it, and a door sluggishly pulled apart and slid into a crevice. Everyone gasped as she turned to them, amazed at the unfamiliar technology.
“This is a pass-through. Don’t stop. Go straight down the hallway until you hit a red door.”
Lyet and Bren took the lead. The children filed through, trying to look at the door in the wall as they passed. Brone laughed and touched at it; Vivina hissed at him, which he disregarded, and planted her chin to her chest before rushing through. The rat waited for her and watched as she shut the door in the same manner, then triggered the iron gate that slid across it.
They ignored the shouts they heard echoing down from the chutes.
All the doors leading from the hallway were closed, so the kids had no temptation to stray. A couple complained they had to go to the bathroom, and while Lapis hated to deny them, they needed to flee. Maybe she could get Brone and Lyet to take one at a time to the restrooms in the gardens. The large area, normally filled with Grey Streets residents and their families enjoying peaceful blooms, would hide them in plain sight while they hustled back and forth.
“Alright, everyone,” Lapis said, clapping her hands together for attention. “This red door leads to another tunnel. It has lots of lights, and some pictures. We’re going to use it to get to another door. That door’s in a garden. How many of you have been to the Stone Garden?”
She expected the silence and hoped that something as normal as trees and flowers kept them from crying. “It’s pretty nice. I think we can find a bathroom there.”
And taking the kids back and forth should give her time to think of a place she could hide them.