Chapter 14: Forward

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Diz squinted at the silver, eyed Lapis, then pondered his prize before relaxing and shrugging.

“Where’s you gettin’ this?” he asked.

“The person who placed the stake.”

His wrinkled face smoothed in surprise, and he shrugged again. “Yous takin’ better stakes,” he said.

“If you call chasing down Dagby a better stake.”

He chuckled at the reminder and slipped the money into his inner breast pocket, the one sewn nearly shut to prevent thievery. “S’pose. I guess yous not thinkin’ it’s hard, ‘cause yous got Rin with you.”

“I’s her apprentice,” the rat said proudly. Diz had opinions on that, but he slyly kept them to himself. He shuffled to the busted crate he used as a chair and hefted himself onto it, his legs dangling like a fisherman’s over the dock. He stroked his stubbly chin with his stubby fingers as his grey eyes dimmed in serious intent.

“Dagby’s in trouble,” he stated simply.

“So I gathered. He’d never leave his den otherwise.”

Diz grunted. “S’pose. He’s gettin’ tired of brainbreak, though. Too broken. Thought he’d finally tried t’ stop, but then them Black Hats come snoopin’ ‘round, sayin’ they need t’ find him. ‘Cause of Hoyt. So maybe he ain’t so retired.”

“Hoyt seems to be a popular man,” Lapis said.

“Think he’s wishin’ he ain’t,” he chortled in glee. “Serves ‘m right, messin’ all over with them syndicates. Makin’ us miserable.” He waved a hand at her. She supposed that fixers disliked attention brought to their work, and Diz was no different. “Don’t matter, I s’pose. He skipped town, headed into the mountains.”

“To hide?”

“Yeah, in some ruin, called Ambercaast. They used to mine blue amber and aquatheerdaal there. Was abandoned when Dentheria invaded.”

“Aquatheerdaal, huh.”

“Yep.”

Rin’s antsiness amused her; he could ask after the mineral later.

“All I knows, it’s in the northwest mountains. That’s it. But Dagby, he’s been there. Bragged ‘bout it. Got paid in aquatheerdaal for somethin’, never said what. That’s why he thinks them Black Hats ‘r chasin’ ‘m. There’s profit, sellin’ it t’ Taangis.”

“I’d think a syndicate would already have the area staked, if there was any left.”

“Lady, them ruins ‘r odd, and not syndicate odd. Dagby said it, made a big deal tellin’ horror stories t’ the younguns in Underville. Somma it’s kiddie stuff, ghosts ‘n shamblin’ monsters, but somma it? He’d talk ‘bout these laser traps ‘n humans made of metal. Just the way he described ‘m . . . Lady, he don’t got no brain left, for creatin’. He had to have seen ‘m.”

“A place to avoid, if I can help it. He likes to tell stories in Underville, eh?”

“Keeps the kiddies from doin’ stupid shit,” he said. “They all like Granna Cup’s fire.”

Lapis smiled and withdrew another silver. Diz’s eyes popped as she flipped it to him. “Like I said, the person who hired me is quite the generous sort.”

His cheeks became rosy in good humor as he stuffed the extra into his pocket. “Lady, you’s always generous,” he said. “We makes you work for it, but you’s not lookin’ t’ scam us ‘cause you don’t like what we tell you. Not like them Black Hats, threatenin’ t’ sic the palace on me.”

“The Black Hats and their leadcommander are idiots.”

He hopped off the crate and smacked at his rear before nodding and looking up at her. “Ha! After the night market, we’s all thinkin’ they’re tryin’ t’ trick us. Minq think so. They’s sayin’ he’s some two-bit guttershank who’s rich daddy’s keepin’ ‘m outta trouble. Got less brains than a Pit lizard, ‘n that’s sayin’ somethin’.”

“Thank you, Diz. Enjoy your day.”

His grin nearly cracked his cheery face, revealing a set of perfect, brilliant teeth he must have paid a pretty bit for in the under market. “Plan on it. Might even be a little generous, m’self.”

“Generosity is a good thing,” she agreed as she smacked Rin on the arm. He hopped out of the single-room shack, but before she reached the door, Diz tugged on her sleeve. She looked down at him; his serious nature struck her.

“Lady, I gots somethin’ else. For Patch.” She bent over and he dropped his gravelly voice to a whisper. “Tell ‘m, some stupid court shank called Diros’s lookin’ for ‘m, in connection with his dead son.” He pursed his lips, as if he had eaten something extremely sour. “This’s all tangled up with why Hoyt’s lookin’ for you—but it’s not only ‘cause of Diros. Thought it was, after Predi paid a visit.” He lifted his lip. “Glad he’s gone. Good on you, helpin’ Sir Armarandos take ‘m out. Anyway, some undershank callin’ hisself Ranulf came a’knockin’. Dark hair, dark eyes, dark tan from bein’ out in the sun lots, nervous ‘n jumpy. Said he’s from Danaea, but she’d already been dead a while.”

Ranulf. That sounded like a rebel name.

“Said he’s lookin’ for anythin’ on Aethon, the dead son. Told ‘m to bark somewhere else. Now Diros, he’s mean, Lady. Gots a nasty reputation in the underground. I’d believe it, iffen he killed his own son ‘n looked t’ blame it on another, that’s how cruel ‘n greedy he is. I’d tell Patch, stay clear. Ain’t worth messin’ with.”

“Thanks, Diz.”

Rin stood outside with Yedin, an excited gleam in his eye while the other man leaned against the shack’s greying wooden wall, arms crossed, absently observing his brown boots. She smiled warmly at him as he glanced up and patted his shoulder. While he idly pondered the profession of chaser, he now had a reason to pursue it; his cousin needed his help.

Thyden should thank the non-existent gods Faelan was a good man willing to aid those who wanted to resolve their mistakes.

“Pickin’ up more strays?” Diz asked as he locked his door.

“Oddly, some think I’m a good instructor in the art of the chase.”

The fixer grinned and nodded at Yedin. “The Lady here, she’s shy. Likes t’ stay in the background, but few ‘re finer chasers. She’ll teach you right. Mayhap you’ll ignore it, but she gots a good head, good heart. ‘S why she’s gettin’ them rats t’ read.”

Yedin smiled back. “I think she’s an excellent instructor for those of us dippin’ our toes in.”

“Aye. Low-key, nothin’ fancy. Good start.”

Lapis did not realize Diz thought so highly of her. Considering the pain in the ass he normally was concerning information, she had thought he resented her intrusion into his predictable life. Perhaps the revelation about Patch being her partner proved a niceness motivator.

She led the two down the street and to a small alley nestled away from the scurry of afternoon traffic. The Stumps typically had a lot of hustle and bustle, being a thoroughfare to the docks warehouses and the Southern Kells Bridge from the Grey Streets. It also had cheaper, and therefore attractive, housing. Single people like Diz could afford a small shack there and have plenty of bits left over for meals and entertainment. The one-room abodes impressed no one, but since they rested in a safer part of the Grey Streets, no one who lived there complained. The downside was the smell; it reeked of fish oil and smoke blown there by the river’s winds.

“You know quite a few people, Lanth,” Yedin said. She shrugged and inched closer.

“I do, but I’ve spent five years plying the trade here. Having contacts is important, even for the little stakes. Diz is a fixer. He mostly works with forging documents to weasel people out of trouble, and he’s good at it. That means he sees and hears a great deal about the underdeeds of the underground. While he won’t divulge anything that would put him on the wrong side of a stake, he can be a wellspring of information, given the right prompt.” She laughed. “Meaning silver. He’s usually a jerk, and it takes forever to weasel something out of him.”

“Diz’s alright,” Rin piped up. “He’s workin’ with some community committee ‘bout the treatment of little people in docks work. His group’s gettin’ it so thing’s ‘r fairer, for everyone.”

“And what have you done for Diz, that he’s nice to you?” Lapis asked.

The rat smashed his lips together and merrily looked away.

“Have you been to Underville?” She itched to pry but set aside her curiosity. She would simply send him the next time she needed info from the fixer.

He shook his head. “Nope. A bit far, from the Grey Streets. ‘Sides, too many undershanks there.” He poked at her. “What’s aquatheerdaal?”

Yedin’s surprise interested her. “It’s a mineral,” he said. “Taangis uses it in their tech. It’s kinda rare, so if you have some, you can sell it for silver in the undermarket. There’s always rumors about farmers out Blossom way diggin’ some up in their fields and gettin’ rich. Some think that’s why the market’s in Blossom in the first place.”

Interesting theory.

“Diz mentioned it,” she said. “He said Hoyt fled to a ruin that used to mine aquatheerdaal. Maybe he owes money and thinks he can squirm out of his debts by finding some of it. That might explain his stupider decisions of late.” She edged even closer. “Listen. Diz said Dagby knows Granna Cup. She’s a snarly old woman who has spent her life fighting for everything she has. Her granddaughter runs a stall at Candycakes, and she’ll help, every so often. We get along well enough, but only in passing. So Rin—”

“I’s knowin’ when t’ keep my fingers still,” he told her primly.

She sighed. “That, too. You don’t want to fall on the wrong side of a syndicate because you stole from a favorite undershank. But I want you to go get Patch. He should come with us.”

“Oh.”

“Tell him we’ll be at the courtyard.”

He looked disappointed before scampering away.

Yedin raised an eyebrow. “Underville?”

“Underville is a Kells neighborhood inside a pre-Dentherion underground space, where the shanks associated with syndicates live. They get paid more, so can afford a boxcar house and safer environment. They’re still shanks, so I’ll feel better going there with Patch. His reputation precedes him. Right now, though, we’re going to continue to the courtyard. Don’t look behind us. Act casual, like you’re happy we just got some good info.”

“Why?”

“Someone Diz warned me about is trailing us.” She snagged his hand before he could digest the words and hustled them out of the alley.

Her neck prickled as she attempted nonchalant; Yedin acted far more poorly, though he tried to follow her lead. She desperately wanted to turn and stare at the crowd behind them, pick out the man with dark hair and dark eyes, but she needed him to think her ignorant of his presence. Apprehending him would be simpler if he thought himself the chaser.

Something about the description and Diz’s interaction with him bothered her, but she could not quite place why.

“Don’t think this is a usual chase,” Lapis said as she attempted to calm the antsy farmer. “Mine are typically boring. The day I met you? I was fulfilling a stake on a bit guttershank. I staked out his place for a week, noted his schedule, wrote down who visited and when, scouted the area. It’s not glamourous, but I nabbed both him and the Alchemist without effort. And I didn’t have to worry about them escaping into the sewers.”

“The sewers?” He winced.

“Yeah. I let them go if they flee down there because I’ll just wait for them to return. I’m pretty persistent that way. I once waited three weeks at a shank’s hovel in the Stone Streets. She rightly decided it wasn’t worth the effort and gave me back what she stole.”

He chuckled, though strained. “I’m fine with stakes like that. It’s better than walkin’ behind a plow. My family owns thirty farms, and I go where they’re short-handed. It’s decent work, but I’m tired of it. I have broader dreams than fruits and vegetables and nuts.”

Thirty farms? That counted as exceedingly rich, for country folk. “The extent of my farming experience is picking wild berries in my youth.”

“Winnen Berry Farm’s one of ours.”

Nobles enjoyed picking seasonal berries there, an outing used as a fun experience for children and as a romantic rendezvous for teens—and they paid well for a good time. “How big is your family?”

“The extended, huge. Grand-da and Granna had ten kids. Each one had near the same. Truthfully, they’ve got plenty of hands. Not all the farms require the same upkeep, so they can spread us all around.” He sighed. “They’ve got a horde of great-grandkids, too, but they’re all young yet.”

“That’s a humongous family.”

“That isn’t countin’ Grand-da and Granna’s siblings and their kids and grandkids. We could fill an entire town, just with relations.”

“I see why you want to be a chaser.”

He laughed. “Yeah. Will be quieter. Maybe meet someone I’m not related to.”

Yedin cast her a quizzical look when she led him to a bustling fish stall not far from the river, but she smiled and slipped between the counter and the wall before entering a small, outdoor dining space that had vines with white flowers hiding the walls. Docks workers lounged on wooden benches and lazily chewed grilled fish and crisp tubers from round ceramic plates, muttering to each other about the day’s gossip. Congratulating herself on remembering the key, she opened the flower-bedecked iron bar gate on the far side and headed down the short walkway, inundated with the scent of plants wilting due to the arrival of cooler days.

They entered a courtyard with a plain cracked fountain, yellowed benches, empty flowerbeds, all surrounded by a chipped, grungy stone colonnade whose capitals had lost their scrolls. The single-story wall that held the entrance to the fish stall had so many flowers draped across it, they hid the dull wood, a contrast to the other three buildings edging the yard, which were poorly plastered and a mud-splattered orange. Windows opened into the space, attempting to let the river breezes into the four-level structures.

She sank onto a bench and set the heel of her boot on the edge. Yedin craned his neck up, taking in the sight of orange against the cloudless sky.

“The fish stall owner lets a select few use this courtyard,” she told him. “Patch and I can. It’s a good place to collect thoughts and re-plan strategy.” She looked at the gate; the dark-haired and dark-eyed man peeked through, frowning as he tried to figure out the lock. Subtle, was he not. Well, if he stayed there, he could have a nice chat with her partner as to why he thought to spy on her. She casually ignored him and focused on Yedin, as if she did not realize he chased her. Hopefully he was lackluster enough to buy it.

Patch arrived faster than she expected, which meant he had worried and nervously awaited word. He threw the idiot into the empty fountain before he had even muttered a word about anything and dug his heel into the man’s shoulder hard enough, he choked on pain. Her partner leaned over, his eye as brilliant a blue as the racing lights on his patch.

“Well, now.”

“Patch!” he whimpered.

“Why are you following Lanth?” he asked in a deceptively calm voice. When he jumped right to the point, it meant he buried his fury deep enough he could function.

“It’s . . . for Tievel—”

“Tievel?” Lapis had her blade against his throat before she consciously moved. Patch snagged her shoulders and whipped her around, implacable. She sheathed her weapon before she cut him and glared fire. Rin’s worry hit her like a brick while Yedin backed up a step.

The man struggled to prop up on his elbows and glowered at her. “He knows about you, too,” he spit.

“Does he?” She jerked away from her partner. “Yeah, I bet he does. And I know he’s a traitorous snake who helped murder my family. Should have taken me out when you had the chance because I’m going to send you to him in pieces.”

“He’s not a murderer,” the man said, voice ugly with certainty.

Murderer. Memory crashed.

“You . . . you’re the one who was with him when he killed Miki! Dark hair, dark eyes, tanned skin.” Fury avalanched through her and only the pain of Patch’s too-hard hug brought her back.

“Lanth, go. I’ll catch up.”

“No,” she snarled. She was not about to lose this chance. He stubbornly scowled, but his normal intimidation tactics never worked on her.

His hardness intensified. “I’ll take care of it,” he snapped.

Rin grabbed her arm and wheeled her around before planting his hand in the center of her back and forcing her down the walkway.

What did he think he was doing?

She could barely breathe.

She booked it from the fish, the customers, fast-walked hastily enough through the lazy traffic she might as well have called it running. She clenched her fists and stared at the gravel and broken paving stones passing under her feet, oblivious to all but memories of blood and terror. Tears, like the ones she helplessly shed as she escaped Kale’s men, stained her cheeks. They dribbled onto the ground in front of her and she stomped on them as she whisked over them.

He wanted to take care of things? Fine. He wanted her gone, fine. She would do her thing. Faelan’s silver clanged in her pouch. She could dump it into the lap of Granna Cup or Dagby or whoever and get what she wanted and leave, throw the information at her brother, and . . . and what.

Tievel was still out there. Still stalking her. He knew the rats. He knew which ones to harm, to hurt her. He targeted Rin once, and he would target him again. She could not save him, just as she could not save her little brother.

Following the route she had taken with Midir when they escaped Hoyt’s battle with Sir Adrastos, she desperately tried to plan out something to say to Dagby and failed. Perben, Rin, death, refused to leave her thoughts. She stepped in line with the people who hurried to the dented metal awning nestled between tall, dull Dentherion-built, steel structures. It provided shade for chipped stairs with a warped center railing that led down three floors. No one bothered to cast her a look, but she kept her head down anyway, in case someone questioned her. Devastated chaser always attracted attention.

The cracked cement hallway with missing wall tiles had the same fruit-scented lamps flickering in the breeze of hustling bodies. While a different man guarded the doorway, the crates sat in the same positions. She dug into her pouch and set two silver on the empty one; he choked, his eyes bulging.

“I’m looking for Granna Cup’s fire,” she said in a raw, raspy voice.

He pointed towards a red-painted boxcar that leaned to the left. “Head to that path,” he told her. “Jes’ keep goin’, til yah hit a large intersection. Take the one marked with a two. She’s at the next one. Always gots a fire there.”

“Thank you.” She strode purposefully in that direction; hopefully the dim lighting kept the ravages of crying from casual notice.

The illumination in Underville came from dozens of outdoor fires that poured brown smoke into the high ceiling, where it gathered in thick clouds, waiting for release. People huddled about them, some for warmth, some for cooking—and some for burning—food. Boxcars of various sizes and dilapidated states lined dirt pathways, with sliding doors and uneven windows gouged out of the metal sheets. Nicer cars had curtains, flowerbeds with twisted wooden blooms and folk art decor, brighter paint, welcome signs and mats. Others had boarded openings and closed doorways, and while Patch might dare enter them, Lapis’s unease struck as she passed them.

Granna Cup’s fire filled the center of the square, large and welcoming. Dozens sat about it, some cooking, some lazing, and several young children crouched in the dirt surrounding a bench with a couple of shanks, listening with rapt attention. Most eyed a commotion to the left; Lapis took a moment before she registered the two men. Nasty Siward, and Gid, Hoyt’s brother and enforcer. He stood two heads taller than other men, had muscles from tough manual labor, and carried a sword that would look ridiculously large attached to anyone else. The Grey and Stone Streets feared him because he did what he was told with ruthless, unthinking efficiency.

They had Granna Cup cornered against a sunny yellow door with four steps leading to it. She stood on the top stair, arms folded over a pristine apron, her wrinkles pulled down into deep grooves with her frown. Gid blocked the way, swaying back and forth, wringing his hands.

She did not bother to hide her dislike, and Siward’s snarly attitude expressed his disrespect.

Her day just improved.

Lapis swaggered up, intent on the shorter, thinner man. Siward glanced at her, his grimace turning into a malicious smile when he realized her identity. He ran a hand over his short-cropped, sunburned scalp and took a step towards her.

“Well, now, the Lady of the hour.”

She decked him.

He fell with a startled squawk. Lapis kicked him hard enough in the temple with her boot he sagged, unconscious. Gid turned, working through what had just happened, before reaching for his sword, his pouty lips pulled into a tiny smile.

She triggered her gauntlets. He froze, the blade halfway out of the battered, brown leather sheath.

“What’s the matter?” she asked. “Go ahead, improve my day.”

His eyes flicked to Siward, and he rocked back and forth, unable to decide whether to attack or care for his unconscious companion.

“Get off my stair,” Granna Cup snapped. He moved away, jittery, and tapped the fallen man with his boot. No response. He tapped harder. “He’s out cold,” the older woman said, annoyed. She skipped down the stairs, glanced at Lapis, then behind her; Rin and Yedin must have caught up. “You ever been to Underville before?” she asked.

“No,” Lapis said. “But I doubt Siward and Gid are welcome.”

“True enough. What do you need?”

She withdrew a silver and settled it in the woman’s palm. “I need to talk to Dagby.”

“Lots of folks want the same thing,” she said, her glinting brown eyes narrowed suspiciously.

“I just want to give him a couple silvers, ask about Hoyt and Ambercaast, and then I’m gone.”

Granna Cup did not like her tone; she did not care. “This isn’t some Stone Streets shank neighborhood, Lanth,” she told her crisply. “You’ve no reputation here. No one cares about a few silver.” She threw the coin back at her. It bounced off her chest and landed in the dirt; one of the kids snagged it and took off.

No one cared about silver, did they? Lapis poured a few more into her hand and walked to the fire, holding it up. Every eye stayed plastered to her hand while the older woman fumed.

“I need to speak to Dagby.”

The undershank who looked to have swum across the river several times, nearly drowned and dried rumpled and muddy, eyed her. “What you want ‘m for?”

“I’ve been told he can help me with a little underground info. Might be better for him than talking to Siward.” She did not think Hoyt’s man shook Granna Cup down for kicks. Why did she express loyalty to a man who had spent at least five years in a drug den, breaking his brain and his body?

The man glanced at Granna Cup, who frowned in disapproval, then jerked his chin, rising. “Come on.”

Lapis stonily followed, alert. All eyes at the fire silently watched, then glanced behind her. She looked; no Patch, just her apprentices. Yedin’s discomfort screamed while Rin stared in troubled worry. Dammit. So much for a teaching opportunity. She smashed her lips together; how else might she screw up the day? Granna Cup was a chaser asset, and she just pissed her off—and the lady held grudges.

“Are you Dagby?” Lapis asked as the fire became a faint flicker between boxcars.

“Yeah. And you’re Lady Lanth.” He glanced behind him, but the typical distrustful fear she felt in the presence of hunters was absent. “Nice blades.”

“Thanks.”

“I’m bettin’ you want the same thing Siward wants.”

“Depends what Siward wants.”

He eyed her, then turned back around.

He led them to a larger boxcar, one surrounded by colorful metal folk art twisted into random shapes with hammered textures. A single fruit oil lamp hung at the blue door he opened. The interior surprised her; a cheery place with several lanterns, soft yellow paint in the kitchen, a pastel blue in the sitting area, and a green doorway leading to the bedroom space. The walls had scraps of paper and bark painted with bright blotches. A few bulbous cobalt flowers that bloomed at night sat in maintained ceramic pots and lined the wooden windowsills, filling the air with a soft, sensuous scent.

“Have a seat,” he said, motioning to all three of them. Lapis remained standing while Rin and Yedin sank onto makeshift crates. She could maneuver better with her feet on the ground. Dagby half-smiled at the lack of trust and settled in the single wooden chair next to the lop-sided table.

“So what does Siward want?” she asked.

“A man named Aethon,” he immediately replied.

“My supposed partner?” He raised an eyebrow at her; she poured the silver into his palm, enough to keep him civil, then stepped back out of stabbing reach. He rolled the money about as he regarded her with a startling sharp, fox-brown gaze.

“I don’t know where they dug up that name. If I did once, well, it’s . . . gone.”

“Fair enough. Do you know why?”

“Somethin’ to do with debts Hoyt owes.” He shrugged.

“I’m here about info on Ambercaast, not debts.”

“You’re after Hoyt.”

“He’s making my life a little Pitish right now.”

“Yeah. Along with half the underground.” He rubbed at his neck. “I’ve been sober about five months. Stopped huntin’. Hoyt had some stuff he wanted me to do. I said no. So he’s been sendin’ people to force me.”

“Siward didn’t recognize you, then.”

“Never met him. And my description’s changed.” He laughed at that, an odd, depreciating sound. “No more hand wringin’ and jerkin’ back and forth. No more paranoia. Funny. I never thought clean would feel good, but it’s steps higher than bein’ muddled. Fuzzy never drowned what I wanted drowned.”

This Dagby was not who she anticipated. She worried the man scammed her and wondered what she could use to prove his identity. “I’ve heard you think those who killed Danaea are after you.”

“Danaea.” He snarled. “Worthless shank. She stole my share of a rich stake. Didn’t realize it at the time, but once the drug wore off, I figured it out. She said I did nothing to earn a bit. I gave her the contacts she needed and didn’t even ask why, but that wasn’t enough. She threatened me with all sorts of things, so I let her be. Never wanted to see her again, so I made sure to remember she stiffed me. Put notes everywhere, as a reminder. I thought she’d leave me alone in return. She showed up on my doorstep at the beginnin’ of the year, tellin’ me she had a job she needed me to do. I told her to go sit in the Pit. She insisted. It was somethin’ dangerous, and other hunters already refused, but I had drug bravery. That convinced me I needed to stop the shit, permanently.” He leaned back with a world-weary sigh. “Did you know Dentheria has a pill that helps with brainbreak addiction?”

An idle question. “No, I didn’t.”

“Brainbreak replaces some brain transmitter thing. This pill does the same without the side effects. Lets your body recover and start producing whatever it is it needs to produce again. The Meint hand it out for free. I’m not gettin’ back what I lost, but these past few months, I remember better.”

So she should not expect him to recall much of past infidelities. What had happened in the past months, that he decided to relate that to her? “It’s good, you’re sober.”

“For all the good it’s goin’ to do me.”

“The past takes prisoners,” she agreed, Tievel’s partner bursting into memory. She ruthlessly suppressed it.

“You feel it to the depths of your guilt, don’t you.” He glanced out of the nearest window, muted sadness caressing his face. “I doubt I can resolve my soul, but life in a Dentherion state doesn’t make it possible.” He quietly stared for a moment. “Danaea had debts, too,” he said abruptly.

“Yeah. To Mibi.”

“Hoyt saw a way to get out of his debts and offered to pay hers off if she helped. They were goin’ to complete the stake she offered me. It had somethin’ to do with a court noble. He has debts too, you see. And he thought aquatheerdaal was goin’ to solve that problem.”

“You don’t know which noble?”

He shook his head. “I threw her out before she said much more. I didn’t want to get caught up in it.” He lounged down and rested the back of his head on the chair, his chin planted on his chest, still refusing to look at her. His long brown hair slid down and covered his face, protecting him from his memories. “She wanted my help because I’d been to Ambercaast and returned with aquatheerdaal. I don’t remember much about it. Some farmer showed me where it is, in the northern mountains. The mines . . . they’re not near the city ruins. There’s something about that, but I don’t recall what. And . . . someone’s already there.”

“What do you mean?”

“Granna Cup used to tell ghost stories to us grandkids, about the ruin. I kinda thought no one lived there, so it shocked me, when I went. Someone does, and they have advanced tech.”

“A syndicate?”

He shook his head. “No. Someone whose tech glows this blue color.”

“Like cyan?”

His head rolled over. “Yeah. You sound like you’ve seen it.”

“That attack outside Blossom a few weeks ago? The other side used it.”

“You know that’s a sign of Meergevenis tech.”

“Yeah.” Her stomach dipped at the confirmation of Faelan’s belief.

He nodded, then looked back out the window. “There’s a door,” he said drily.

“Your guests are getting more interesting,” Patch said, his voice muffled.

“Nothin’ new, there.”

Her partner quickly whisked in and closed the door. “Beyond Siward and Gid.” He eyed Lapis and she glared back. “Nice punch.”

She snarled.

“Who’s lookin’ for me now?” Dagby sounded even wearier.

“Not sure, but they aren’t Black Hats. They’re sleek. I’d almost think syndicate, but they aren’t acting like any underground organization I’ve been in contact with in Jiy.”

“All this at once?” Dagby frowned, as if trying to work something out while his brain protested.

“Diz has a big mouth.”

The man studied her partner, then rubbed his face roughly. “Yeah, he does,” he agreed. “And he’s pretty certain, since I gave up huntin’, that nothin’s going to happen to him if he rats me out.”

Lapis frowned. “Really.”

“Give him enough bits, he’s a snitch,” Dagby said. “Except for known hunts. He hates gettin’ involved in those because he thinks he’ll end up a target.” He struggled to sit up. “Are they givin’ Granna Cup a hard time?”

“No. She told them Siward’s the man they’re looking for. They drug him off for a chat but left Gid. He just stood there and let them do it. I don’t know when he’s going to decide he needs to vacate.”

“You’re just here with Lanth?”

“Yeah, to ask questions.” The patch whirled before the edge lights drew a slower pattern. “Granna Cup says you’re sober.”

“As sober as I can get. I’m done huntin’. Not that it isn’t hauntin’ me, but . . .” He shook his head, his eyes deadening. “You want to know about Danaea? She had debts. You want to know about Hoyt? So does he. They hooked up with some court noble who thinks there’s enough aquatheerdaal still in Ambercaast he can pay off his debts. There’s somethin’ strange about Ambercaast. Meergevenis tech’s there. Maybe that’s why the ‘shroud’s here. I don’t know.”

“When did you visit?” Lapis asked.

He squinted at her. “Maybe four years ago? It was for some stake. Most of my recollection’s blank other than metal humans and traps with the cyan-colored tech. I don’t remember completin’ it. I brought back some aquatheerdaal, so maybe I did. I think I visited the mines. I don’t know where else I might have gotten it.”

“And the mines aren’t near the ruins,” Lapis said.

“I got wet.” He rubbed his forehead, staring absently at the ratty red rug with large holes. “Rememberin’ bein’ annoyed isn’t helpful.”

Her partner looked at the amount of silver in Dagby’s hand, then made a face at her. She glared harder. Greasing palms made her life much easier, and Faelan did not skimp on her bribe money.

“So I have time, if they think Siward is me.”

Patch folded his arms and regarded the man. “Yeah. You’ve done a good job looking like someone else. Your tics are absent, you have Underville grunge rather than slick Dentherion gear. Hair’s long, shaggier.”

“It’s a reflection of where I am.”

“Maybe. You’re being very generous with the info.”

“This is hauntin’ me, too, because of Danaea. Her lies are catchin’ me. It’s retribution, for a life ill-lived.”

“Her lies?”

Dagby frowned with deep annoyance. “I gave her contacts. Once. That’s it. She lied about that, lied about me. You know what she was like. Granna said she learned it from Klow, and never righted her wrongs.”

“Klow?” Lapis asked while Patch snarled.

“Famous hunter in syndicate circles,” Dagby told her. “Went into asylum with the Beryl, so effectively disappeared maybe three years ago. His paws are all over huntin’ in Jiy. He trained most of the current ones. He’s nasty, they’re nasty. Taught them lyin’ works better than truth, taught them to kill before askin’ questions. Taught them they were at the top of the chain, let no one interfere. Extra bodies are just business.”

“He butchered the profession,” Patch agreed.

“The syndicates didn’t care,” Dagby grumbled. “He did too much for them. Of course, that was before Shara. When Adrastos took out the previous Minq underboss and she seized control, he fled. He knew she didn’t like his ways, and she’s done a lot to clean out the worst violators.”

“And those who remain leave the Minq alone,” Patch said wryly. “So there was a reason for that.”

“Suppose.” He weighed the silver in his hand. “I was too drug-fuzzed to care about what other hunters did. I do now. Too late.” He sounded distant, as if he spoke to another on a far-away hill but knew they would never hear him.

“It’s not. If it were, Granna Cup wouldn’t have let you back at her fire.”

“I’m her grandson. It’s a family obligation.”

“When has that ever changed her mind about anything?”

He blinked at that.

“You can’t hold out your arms and expect salvation to rain down. The priests like to lie to their followers about that because they imagine themselves as the savior granting divine light. You have to earn salvation, and it’s hard.”

“Too many want to shove me in the Pit, Patch.”

“Maybe not as many as you think.”

“I’m being hunted by Danaea’s killer.”

“Not hunted, chased, because she wanted to have this chat with you. You’re having it with me, instead.”

He squinted, digesting the news. “Not for retaliation.”

“If you had a larger hand in Ahebban’s death, maybe.”

“Ahebban?” He rubbed at his temple, desperately trying to hide his confusion. “What do you mean?”

“That stake Danaea stiffed you on. That was for Ahebban.”

He looked like a small child whose puppy had just died and rocked back and forth, agitated. “She hunted Ahebban? But . . . I never would have helped. Not if she’d told me. He . . . he and Granna were friends. I knew him. I’d . . . he was so kind. Never cared whether shank or shill. Never . . .” The silver tumbled through his fingers, and he slapped his palms over his eyes. The money tinged to the floor and rolled every which way, clattering loudly when one bounced across the metal instead of the carpet.

Gut-wrenching sobs, from an ashen, burdened heart.

“Who staked him?” he asked, words garbled.

“Don’t know, but the same person sent her after the rebel Leader,” Patch said.

Should they leave? Lapis doubted much more would come of the interview. His pain triggered her own, the same emotional punch that drove her as she stalked to Underville earlier, the same dread knowledge that stopping horrible things was beyond reach.

“I don’t remember much,” Dagby said. “I always visited Granna. Maybe I said something. I’ll ask. I’ll send word.”

“Petition for asylum from the Minq,” Patch told him.

He laughed, hard and sarcastic. “And how am I supposed to afford that?”

“Give Shara something. She’s interested in finding Hoyt, and you know where Ambercaast is.”

Dagby looked up through tears. “She’d grant asylum for that.”

“Yeah. It’s a pressing issue. Take your granna with you. She’ll make an impression.”

Dagby wobbled his head around. “You know how she got her name?”

“No.”

“Shank killed her second daughter when she was a little girl. Found him and shoved a cup into his mouth and as far down his throat as she could. Choked him to death. Underground still hasn’t forgotten.”

Lapis shuddered. She did not want to keep picturing that.

“She told me that’s what hate breeds. She thinks that’s why I went huntin’. Hate. She told me it took decades for her to release the demon, and it rears back up, every so often. Never hate, she says. Your enemy isn’t worth your soul.”

“She still believes in souls?” Patch asked. He met Lapis’s eye; hate burned them both down but opening their fingers and letting the flames fall away before they became cinders proved harder than suffering the burns. “Grab your granna, get to a Minq House. Do it now. Lanth and I can take care of the rest.”

Dagby glanced out the window, rubbing at his cheeks. “Who’s here?”

“Don’t know, yet. Take Rin and Yedin with you—and nothing better happen to them.” Dagby did not react to the threat. Her partner drilled a hole in the rat’s head. “Report to Faelan. This can’t wait.”

Rin scooped up the silver, shoved it at the shank as he unsteadily rose. Lapis tossed the pouch to the man; she had no care for the remaining funds. He dumped everything inside, then motioned at the back panel. It slid open, and the three slipped out, jumping down to the ground, and disappearing behind the next boxcar. Patch closed it and flopped into the ex-hunter’s chair, his stern expectancy pricking her unease.

“How many?”

“Five,” he said. “They have tech weapons glowing with charge. That triggered my parameters.”

“Wonderful.”

“They’re probably Black Hats,” he said.

“Why’d you tell Dagby to seek asylum?”

“Because I want him to lead us to Ambercaast so we can catch Hoyt.”

“What?”

Patch eyed her. “Most of this mess seems centered on him—even that Diros shit.” He rolled his eyes and rage encompassed him. “My father,” he said, his tone dark, poisonous.

“I guessed that.”

“I bet debt’s driving Requet, too. He’s dumb enough to get in trouble that way. Wonder who holds the purse strings, that a Dentherion noble from a rich family’s jumpy about it.” His malicious smile drove her to worry. “Ambercaast is the fastest way to get answers. Corner Hoyt there, and we’re set.”

“Dagby mentioned metal humans and tech traps.”

“So? Do you really think those are real and not a drug-addled vision? It’ll be an easy in, find Hoyt, drag his sorry ass back to Jiy.”

“You just told Dagby to seek asylum with the Minq. They’re going to send people after him, too.”

“Fun and adventure in numbers. Maybe safer, too. We can get what we need from him before they take custody.”

“Because you have such a stellar reputation.”

“Who do you think Dagby’ll say suggested his asylum plea?”

His breezy attitude annoyed her. “What did you do with Perben’s friend?”

Bang. Bang.

“Shit,” Lapis muttered as Patch rose and swung the door open, grinning evilly.

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