The first fat drop of rain landed on Lapis’s cheek. She glanced up at the heavy grey clouds and then at her companion. Tearlach also looked up, then held out his left hand as another fat drop followed the first.
He studied his hand intently, as if he had not said the words. She dropped her gaze, watching her feet rather than the quickly thinning crowds about her. “Yeah.”
“I . . . I don’t understand. Why didn’t you tell anyone?” Then he shook his head, an abrupt act, and smashed his lips together before he arched his hand down and tapped the inner wrist. “Ciaran’s mother told me to watch for a woman with two crossed scars on her arm,” he told her.
Lapis immediately looked at her left forearm, laid bare by the short-sleeved shirt she purchased at the bath. Dammit. Most days, she forgot about them, two long, crossed scars. The soldier’s delight when he cut her still gave her nightmares; the raised sword, his grin, so wide his gums showed, his eyes wide, bloodshot. She had lifted her arm to protect her head, and he slashed twice, up, down. She screamed as blood spattered and stained the white lace of her dress, so red, so bright. One of his buddies shouted, and nearly pounded him into the ground with his wildly frantic horse. He fell, dropping the sword, breaking the branches of the berry bushes. She ran, catching her clothing, tearing her shimmery mauve dress. The ripping of cloth scared her, and she ran harder, crying, the forest blurring into a mass of green globs as blackness fuzzed the edges.
“She tried to stitch them up,” she whispered, unable to keep the ache of tears from her voice. “Why did she tell you that?” The deep cut of betrayal began to bleed. Her secrets were not as secret as she assumed. Who else had Lady Thyra told?
“She’s been collecting evidence since Nicodem fell,” Tearlach said. She barely heard him over the general noise of people rushing to get out of the rain. “She joined the rebels in Coriy, chose Ailis as her pseudonym, and inserted herself into rebel politics. Everyone assumed she did so to find the traitor who killed her best friend, though she hasn’t been open about her motivations.” He clenched his hand hard enough it shook. “She said it must be irrefutable, meaning the traitor is noble with backing. She knows who it is, doesn’t she.”
“I told her.”
He half-laughed in agonized disbelief. “I . . . I’ve run some errands for her. Collected some documents. She told me, before I began, to watch for a woman with crossed scars, that she’d probably help, if I needed it.”
Lapis rubbed the rainwater into her scars, aggitated. “She’s been collecting evidence.”
“I didn’t know exactly what it was, only that it targeted an important rebel. Patch was helping, so I didn’t really question. He’s very determined about retrieving it.”
“Patch?” Ugly and immediate anger tinged her voice. He knew.
He KNEW, and he never told her. He never revealed he worked with Lady Thyra. Why not? She reined in her thoughts, hard, but her memories turned, unbidden, to the awkward conversations, the ones about her past, how he struggled with words, how he paced, head down, rubbing his thumb into his palm, then finally remained silent. Those talks had hurt and confused her and sometimes ended with her yelling. She squeezed the tears from her eyes and futilely tried to squash the thick distress over the deceit.
He should have said something, no matter how it hurt—and she should have guessed his motivation. He had listened to her nightmares for eight years and even helped craft an explanation for them that appeased annoyed neighbors who disliked being woken by her screams. How stupid of her, to think it secret.
“I asked him about it once,” Tearlach murmured. “He said he couldn’t change past pain, but he could end the man who caused it. I thought he was referring to Faelan and his plan to keep him safe. Now I think he meant you.”
She shook her head in denial.
A tiny smile lit his lips. “I don’t think you realize, how much he cares about you, Lapis.”
“It’s Lanth, in the city,” she said.
“Lanth.” He nodded. “Patch doesn’t show affection much. He’s mostly sternness and darkness, and I think he enjoys the rebel anxiety about him more than he should. It’s true, he and Faelan are good friends, and he’ll lighten up around him, but when he speaks about you, his partner, there’s warmth and empathy and love in his voice.”
Good friends. Love. “Love?” she whispered. Love?
Long ago she admitted she possessed a deep and unbreakable love for Patch. It started as a crush on the man who saved her in Coriy and grew into a devotion she could not bury. They shared laughter and happiness, sadness and anger, bounced ideas off one another during meals. They sat on the rooftops of various buildings and watched sunset after sunset together, but they had never consummated those feelings. He held her close enough his heart beat against her cheek, a proud rhythm, but he never went further. She sometimes doubted whether he returned her desperate love. That was why it struck her, whenever the rebel House declared her Patch’s woman. They thought her only good for that in which she had never participated.
“It’s apparent enough, some of the rebels who aren’t too fond of him have tried to use it against him,” Tearlach continued. “It doesn’t end well for them.”
He never related that, either.
“It’s why he’s kept your identity a secret. Or why I thought he had. Anyone who knew your family, when they see you . . . they’ll see Lady Iolanthe and know.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t think you appreciate how much like your mother you look.”
She tugged on her wettening hair; she and Faelan shared enough of a countenance that others would question, but did she truly look that much like her mother? She remembered the large portrait that had hung in the foyer of Nicodem, the one painted before Iolanthe became pregnant with Faelan. Her youthful vibrancy and beauty garnered many admiring compliments, and as a child, Lapis secretly wanted the same. She often studied the image, scheming of ways to make her hair shine like blackbird feathers, her eyes gleam like water. She wanted the rosy cheeks without having to run hard, she wanted the smooth skin without having to scrub with a scratchy bath brush, and she wanted a soft smile that made everyone swoon, no matter what childish trouble she made. She wanted a shiny clover-green evening gown that cascaded about her ankles and draped over delicate, matching slippers.
She thought of her own inelegant reflection in the mirror attached to her wardrobe door and could not see it. No soap or fine bath brush would make her into the refined woman her mother had been.
Tearlach sighed, shoved his hands into his pockets, and bent his head against the continuing rain. “And your mother loved her lapis wedding ring. A woman with the name of Lapis, with black hair and purple eyes . . . some of us will guess. Some of us will know.” He hunched his shoulders. “Neola died around the same time.”
She heard the question in the statement. “She was with me, when Kale attacked,” she whispered, choking.
They had disobeyed Lady Thyra that day. Her mother had told Neola to remain at Havenknoll, but she wanted to pick duckberries with Lapis and Endre. She snuck out and ran to the berry patches. She arrived, out of breath, laughing, beaming at her cleverness in escaping. Lapis laughed with her and handed her a basket, which she cheerfully accepted, and they set to work picking.
The air had smelled so fresh, so sweet, carrying the deep scent of warm pine and mature leaves mingled with the sugary odor of blooming sweethems, a droopy pink flower with purple-edged petals. The tent caterpillars had covered the bushes with their web-like cocoons, and the strands stuck to everything. Lapis rolled up her sleeves so the lace of her dress did not catch the tiny branches or brush through the caterpillars. Neola had teased her about appropriate attire for forest foraging, which, oddly, did not include tea dresses.
They ate so many berries, the sweet red fruits stained their mouths and cheeks. Endre dribbled enough that the front of his sky-blue shirt turned purple. They realized, as the last berry went into Neola’s mouth, that the baskets were practically empty. Ashamed at their greed, they wandered slowly back to Nicodem, plotting how to sneak Neola into the kitchens so she could wash her face without the staff being wise to her presence. If her mother realized her absence, and a berry-stained face would certainly prove where she spent the afternoon, she would be sent to her room and never allowed outside it again.
They met Perben on the way. He rode a finicky horse; it fidgeted and danced, shying from something. Endre hopped forward, waving, eager to say hello to his older brother’s best friend.
Perben’s sword easily sliced through his neck. Six-year-old bodies were not stout.
She and Neola screamed. Lapis’s mind shut down. Her terror infused her, became a living thing, that choked her chest, that ripped her voice from her throat. They ran away, back down the worn path, back to the berry bushes, back to the safety of forest cover. The horse caught them and Perben tried to run them over. The new fright propelled her mind back into action as she tumbled out of the way. His mount refused to turn and jerked about, defying the reins. Two soldiers ran in his wake, one with sword raised, the other swinging a mace. The mace man went after Neola. The sword man targeted her.
She sucked in a hard breath and squeezed her eyes shut. “A soldier smashed Neola’s face in with a mace. They just assumed she was me because they couldn’t tell otherwise and buried her with my family.” At least her tears blended with the rain. Too bad it did not wash away her anguish. Or her damning guilt, for having survived.
“And Ciaran and Lady Ailis kept that secret.” Tearlach laughed without amusement. “How did you escape?”
“Stupid luck.” She, unbidden, glanced at her arm. “The soldiers caught us. P—the traitor b . . . behead . . . killed Endre. Neola and I ran, but the soldier with a mace . . . She died. And the soldier with a sword slashed at me, but one of his mounted buddies almost ran him over. I knew I had to get away while it caused problems. I ran through the brush during the confusion and escaped. I don’t know why they didn’t chase me. I don’t know why I survived. I should have died in the woods, just like Neola and Endre. I don’t even remember how I got to Havenknoll.”
“Why did you leave? Lady Ailis would have—”
“The soldiers were already there, trying to kick in the front door. They were raiding every mansion in the vicinity, checking to see if survivors fled to them, and a neighbor had already warned her because of her friendship with my mother. They thought Havenknoll would be a target, and they were right. A servant had died the day before, and they had put him in a coffin in the back drawing room. Lady Ailis stuffed me inside, made up a story about disease, and the soldiers didn’t want to look.”
“She hid you in a coffin?”
Lapis closed her eyes. The soldiers broke so many things. Wood cracked, ceramic shattered, metal squealed. Every crash startled her, and she shoved her dress into her mouth to keep from making much noise. She lay inside the dark interior, on top of a blanketed corpse, dreading discovery, shedding enough tears her hair became sodden. “I told Lady Ailis they killed Neola and Endre. I didn’t know where else to go, I just wanted to get away from them . . . She was so distraught. I don’t think she was really thinking at that point, and when the soldiers tried to break down the front door . . . The servants carted me outside while they tore the place apart. They let me out and told me Lady Ailis said to run to Coriy.” She swallowed hard.
“There’s a rebel House in Coriy. You should have gone there.”
“I didn’t know where the House was. Asking around about rebels isn’t the smartest idea, even in Coriy. And the traitor had just slew my brother right in front of me. I didn’t want to be handed over to him by some well-meaning idiot who would never believe my story. He would have killed me, and I knew it. He never would have left loose ends alive that would finger him. Besides, no rebel even bothered to see if anyone survived. I may have been twelve, but I understood what that meant.” Hate infused her voice.
Tearlach frowned and stared at her. “What do you mean?”
“No one came,” she told him, the thick sense of betrayal clogging her throat, as it always did. As a confused and terrified twelve-year-old, she initially had not understood the depths of community fear and the enraged throne that prompted it. She had not understood her life was simply another sacrifice the rebels made to keep their secrets safe.
She stupidly assumed she would encounter survivors or concerned neighbors and searched the berry bushes, the stream, the meadow, toured the places her family marked as special, but she found no one there. She decided to stay in the small stand of trees near the horse paddock, climbing up into the branches and hiding behind the myriad of green leaves. She waited expectantly, knowing that if a kindly neighbor did not put her up, her brother would arrive and take her away with him.
She remained in the trees for three days, fighting the nausea the acrid scent of burnt wood and stone and rotting bodies produced, only scurrying to the ground at night so she could scrounge for food and water. Not a single person she recognized appeared at Nicodem while she waited. Her father had friends, her mother had friends, but not one visited the ashy remains of the mansion, not one bowed their head over the coffins laid out in neat rows, bearing the bodies of her family, the servants, her best friend. No stuffy nobles from nearby estates paid their respects. No townspeople arrived to collect their deceased loved ones. No one nosed about, curious, wondering . . .
She cried so many tears, until her cheeks and mouth felt gaunt and her eyes swelled shut. She cried for her family, for her parents’ love, for her siblings’ annoying but adoring teasing, she cried for Endre’s cheeky smile and her best friend’s soft hugs. She cried for Lady Thyra and her husband and Stefan, the adoring parents and brother, she cried for Anthea and her lover, who would never know a sweet kiss again. She cried for Teague and the dogs he loved, she cried for Calanthe and her books. She cried for her mother’s gentle understanding and her father’s ringing laugh. She cried for stupid duckberry pie because she had been so, so hungry, and the only wild things she knew to eat were berries and the sharp tubers that grew at the bases of large, bent-limbed trees.
She cried, because she did not understand why her brother had not returned to Nicodem to rescue her.
“No one came,” she reiterated. “Not from Coriy, not from any House. None of my parents’ friends showed up, either. I stuck around. I thought, maybe, someone else had lived. I went to all the special places around, the berry bushes, the picnic stream, the soggy meadow, that tall sentry rock, but no one was there. I went back to Nicodem. They burned it to the ground. The coffins were in front, sitting on ashes, open, for anyone to see. I heard talk about a funeral. I thought rebels would show up, pay their respects, so I went. I hid in the grove outside the fence because I couldn’t force myself to talk to the people there. I didn’t recognize anyone. It’s a good thing, that I hid; it didn’t quite click, that the ones burying them were Gall’s men.”
She desperately thought Faelan would attend the funeral. She desperately waited, wondering why all the attendees wore brown and maroon uniforms; she did not recall her parents ever wearing such things to a funeral. They normally donned dark red, the color of dried blood, and floppy hats.
And she desperately waited some more.
Night fell, and the gravediggers continued to throw dirt on the coffins. She remembered the dull slice of shovel into soil, and the rattle of clumps landing on top of wooden lids. Over and over, while the three small but bright yellow lamps lit the work. She shivered in the cold night breezes, her stomach growling, her throat dry enough she fought not to cough, and waited for her brother, her fingers digging into the tree bark hard enough to draw blood.
“I was stupid enough I thought Faelan would show up.” She choked. “I thought he’d be my shining knight and save me from everything that had happened. But he didn’t. No one did. And I realized I had to survive on my own. No one was going to help. I had the dress on my back. I had slippers. And that was it. I was so afraid, I couldn’t even remember how to get to Coriy. I kept repeating the stories that Faelan would tell about wolves and monsters in the forest, and I had no way to protect myself against them.” She laughed, a sharp, dark, bitter sound. “And I was supposed to survive all those dangers and make it to the city on foot, alone? I was supposed to somehow find the rebel House, even though I didn’t know where it was, and somehow convince the people there I was Alaric’s daughter—and hope they didn’t hand me over to the traitor and Kale?”
“If Faelan had known, he would have found you,” Tearlach said, with the firmness of a man desperately wanting his idol to not be evil. “Your uncle had guards on him day and night, to prevent him from leaving. He tried, Lapis. He was frantic. But Ulrik thought he’d kill himself once he realized no one survived.”
They placed guards on him? Should that surprise her, her uncle valued him far above any survivor.
“He has scars on his wrists and ankles. They’re from the rope they tied him up with. He didn’t wriggle out of them, but he tried. He asked Patch to help him train, so if it happened again, he could.”
“It wouldn’t have mattered,” she told him, her mind fuzzing. Initially, she refused to believe Faelan, her beloved older brother, had abandoned her. She clung to her denial as a shipwrecked woman clutched to a floating piece of timber. The long years between changed her mind, and she bitterly accepted the fact that he had not adored her in the same way she adored him. Now, Tearlach said her first inclination proved true. How hard had he fought, that her uncle justified tying him up? How hard had he fought, that he tore through his flesh and bled, to the point he had scars?
She sucked in a quivery breath. She had told herself on the day she turned twenty, that she could no longer dwell on a devastating past. She had let the small hope she still harbored about Faelan fall from her fingertips and drift away on the storm winds. She had fought hard for that acceptance, and now it crashed to the ground and shattered around her. Should she bother piecing the slivers back together?
“It did matter.” Tearlach broke through her reminiscences.
“He’d never believe who the traitor is. Silence kept me alive.” And she hated that as much as the murderer who forced it.
“He would have believed you.”
She shook her head.
“Do you realize, how much he cherished you? There was a bond between you two.”
“His bond was with Anthea.”
“They were close, but it wasn’t the same. He lit up when he came home and got to spend time with you. We even teased him, about being a doting older brother. He would laugh, but he never denied it. He loved you. He trusted you. No matter who you said it was, he would have believed you.”
She wanted to believe that. She wanted to believe that her brother, who sat with her in her room and read bedtime stories to her, even if she begged for the same story a thousand times and he was far and away bored with it, would trust her words. She wanted to believe that her brother, who did not mind going on long forest walks with her so they could marvel at nature, would trust her words. She wanted to believe that her brother, who scaled to the top of the mansion to retrieve dolls a snobby jerk of a noble’s son had thrown there, would trust her words. But she had also wanted him to save her from the death and destruction of Nicodem, and that had not happened.
Tearlach narrowed his eyes. “Even if it was his best friend, he would have believed you.”
Lapis felt an emotional punch to the gut. “You know,” she whispered.
“Not officially, but I guessed. And so has Faelan.”
She glared at him. “What?”
“I’m not certain what prompted it, but Faelan knows. He also understands that the traitor has enough powerful backing that, without evidence, with only suspicion, his accusations will die, and rebels will trust him less. Noble approval goes a long way in the Blue Council. It shouldn’t but it does. It drives Caitria nuts, because lineage sidelines good people. She asks if we want to become Dentheria and put our faith in the native-born. There isn’t the push-back there should be, on that.”
Lapis snarled. She did not know why, the ancient empire of Taangis mixed and matched peoples at will, forcibly moving them from one country to another, from one continent to another, but they had. It meant everyone living in a place once ruled by Taangis had ancestors that were not from that country or culture, because the local populations would have died out without the intermarriage. Everyone knew that.
But, of course, not everyone accepted it. Noble jackasses tried to claim that they, and they alone, possessed native-born ancestors. They said their pure heritage made them heirs-apparent to the rulership of their countries. Dentheria’s elite loved the idea, and used the hammer of pure-born to break non-noble peoples in their land. They carried that destruction to their vassal states, where rulers like Gall lapped it up because they thought it legitimized their rule.
Such a stupid lie. Taangis forced nobles into non-native marriages because they thought it would destroy powerful families and keep the rebellious too suspicious to trust one other. The only “pure-born” families in Theyndora that could have exited the Taangis empire intact were rural farmers in small enough enclaves, the empire decided not to split their communities and send most of their members elsewhere.
She would love to see the search for a pure-born farmer to rule a land.
She took a deep breath. A different native son concerned her. “What’s his rebel name, Tearlach.”
He looked at her out of the corner of his eye, then shook his head. “Ciaran said not to tell you. He wants his mother’s evidence to speak before anyone else knows you survived. She’s coming here, to Jiy. All the Blue Council’s going to be here, and she’s going to present then.”
Lapis gritted her teeth so hard they hurt. “You fucks.”
“There are other things going on, Lanth. Big things. It’s why the entire Council is going to be in one place for a little while, and why Lady Ailis’s evidence will get attention.”
“And what’s so big, that you’re risking Faelan by bringing him to Jiy?”
“We’re not bringing him anywhere. He wanted to come, and he ordered the Council to join him. He’s going to meet a Dentherion ally.”
“Istak set it up.”
“I don’t give a damn about Istak and the Shale Alliance,” she snarled. “Is this a Wolf Collaborate thing?” The prospect of meeting an empire ally sounded larger than any singular rebellion, making it the purview of the Wolf, the alliance her father created to bring all the disparate voices against Dentheria together. He wanted them to work as a whole to defeat their mutual enemy. Her brother supported their father’s legacy and vision, and if he thought a meeting with a possible Dentherion ally would promote it, he would do so. If the Pack Council voted for such talks . . .
“Sort of. Jarosa isn’t keen on the set-up—”
“’Cause she’s smart.” There was a reason Jarosa led the Ramiran Skulls. There was a reason her name instilled fear in the Dentherion puppets throughout Theyndora.
“—but Istak thinks the offer’s legit. Faelan’s looking into it.”
“My brother is endangering himself over—”
“It isn’t just him. Some of the Pack Council are curious and Midir supports it.”
“If a Dentherion ally could get tech to the Wolf Collaborate, I can see the Pack’s interest. But what in the seven gods is Midir thinking?”
The Midir of eight years ago would never have endangered a member of her family if he possessed any doubts about the mission. Before their deaths, he and her parents were dear friends, and she always viewed him as an uncle. He had a particular fondness for Faelan, and she could not understand why he would support such a dangerous meeting with a Dentherion and someone he cared for.
“It’s not like he’ll be alone,” Tearlach reminded her wryly. “Patch and Varr will be there.”
“Is that where Patch is?” she asked, sudden and intense fear for him rushing through her.
Her relief almost made her miss a step.
“If it’s a set-up, they’ll know.”
Tech modifications had benefits, did they not. She mentally slapped herself for the sour thought. The benefits meant nothing, if the throne caught Patch and Varr and discovered the alterations they paid metgals for. Regular tech was very illegal. Body modifications meant instant execution. The Lord’s Council learned the dangers of modified rebels the hard way, from Ramiran Skulls who traveled to Dentheria and covertly enhanced their soft and fleshy bits, allowing them to battle modded soldiers and win. Their puppets worked hard to eradicate those fears.
“It’s an opportunity, Lanth. Istak’s already met with them. If things go well with Faelan, the Pack might rethink their stance.”
“He’s crazy,” she muttered.
“Aren’t we all?”
“Speak for yourself.”
He laughed, a hint of his humor returning. “It doesn’t look like anyone’s still in the market.”
She glanced up; most merchants had either covered their wares or left the Lells, and the shoppers had cleared out. Neither the street rats nor the rebel group remained. The kids would have fled to their cubbies or gone to the Eaves; she had no idea where Brander might have taken Ciaran, Caitria and Mairin.
She heard familiar footstep behind her before Rin hopped to her side, one arm up to protect his eyes from the rain. His sogginess meant the rats finished cleaning out Orinder’s booth rather than retreating to shelter. That hardly surprised her; they would find the bits too attractive to skimp on the stake.
“Lady, we’s headin’ t’ the Eaves,” he said. Something in his tone alerted her, and she eyed him closely. He looked annoyed at being wet, but something else bothered him. After five years, she knew when he felt upset and anxious. Had something happened with the stake? “Lyet said they’s all goin’, an’ yer friends with ‘m.”
She looked behind at the other rats; they hurried to catch up and did not look concerned, so the stake did not scratch at him. “I’ll buy a meal,” she told them in a raised voice. “So don’t waste your bits on one.”
“For all of us?” Jesi asked, surprised.
“Yeah. I have guests, so why not provide a nice meal for everyone? But you need to get the food.” She glanced at Rin. “Go get some bits out of my room and visit Fished Out. Tell Naf I have visitors and I want those skewers he brags about.”
Lykas laughed. “He won’t believe us, that you have visitors,” he said. “We don’t even believe it!”
She glared sourly at him. Yes, she spent most of her time alone—but that hardly meant she spent all of it by herself.
Jesi smacked his arm, annoyed for her, and bounded up to Rin. “Let’s go,” she said. They took off, and the other rats belatedly followed. Not a one would turn up the chance at a free meal from Fished Out, and retrieving the food was a small price to pay for the bounty. Naf, like a few other merchants, had a soft spot for the plight of the rats, and he offered over-generous portions when she patronized his stand so she could share with them.
Tearlach smiled softly. “They care about you, don’t they?” he asked.
“I care about them. They aren’t representative of all rats, though. Most are ambivalent to me. They don’t see the reading circle as a viable education and think my rats are silly for even attempting it. Some hate me and cause mischief when they can. Some tried the reading circle and found they didn’t like it—and a few blame me for their failure. Those urchins can be particularly nasty. But I tell them, when they first decide to join, that I’m not going to hold their hands and force them to learn. They do so if they want to. It’s a huge decision to place on young ones, but I don’t have the resources or time for anything else. So I help those in the circle, like buying Phialla glasses or helping Rin rent a room. They’ve shown a want to succeed despite all that’s allied against them and rewarding children for a drive that many of their elders lack pushes them in the right direction.” She sighed. “Of course, I help others sometimes, like when they get sick. I take them to a doctor and buy medicine for them.”
“What about charities?”
“There are a few, but they ally with orphanages and the monies they make go to supporting those children. The orphanages in Jiy only accept kids who have extended family or a patron who will pay for their upkeep. Extras, like medical help, are the purview of the charities. There isn’t enough money, in any case, so they help orphanages and the rats get to fend for themselves. Some charities only help families, so if you’re an orphaned street kid, you don’t qualify for their aid.”
“I never thought I’d say this, but Coriy’s better in that regard.”
“Yeah. It is. It’s also a smaller city that is proud to host rebels. They have hearts there. Jiy is an artificially large urban center created by the Taangis empire and kept that way by the Dentherions and their puppets because they feel they can control people better if they’re crowded into one place without much in the way of services and money. They want people poor, helpless and hopeless, and have a multitude of rules in place to maintain that. It works better than it should.”
The rain pelted down; it was beyond time to make it to the Eaves.