Chapter 5: Secrets

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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.

“You’re alive.”

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 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 arm, laid bare by the short-sleeved shirt she had purchased at the bath. Dammit. Most days, she forgot she had them, two long, crossed scars on her forearm. The soldier’s delight when he had cut her still gave her nightmares; the raised sword, his grin, so wide his gums showed, his eyes wide, bloodshot. She had raised her arm to protect her head and he slashed twice, up, down. She screamed as blood ran and stained the white lace, 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 had not been as secret as she assumed. Who else had Lady Thyra told?

“She’s been collecting evidence since Nicodem fell,” Tearlach whispered. 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 rebel name, and immediately 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 and has backing. She knows who the 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 arm, into her scars. “She’s been collecting evidence.”

“I didn’t know exactly what it was, only that it had something to do with an important rebel. Patch was helping, so I didn’t really question. He’s been very determined about it.”

“Patch?” She could not keep the ugly and immediate anger from tinging her voice. He knew.

He KNEW, and he never told her. He never told her he worked with Lady Thyra. She reined in her thoughts, hard; he had heard her nightmares. He had listened to them for eight years, and even helped craft an explanation for them that appeased annoyed neighbors, who disliked being woken by her screams. 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 conversations 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 hurt over the deceit.

He should have said something, no matter how it hurt.

“I asked him about it once. 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 very small smile lit his lips. “I don’t think you realize, how much he cares about you, Lapis.”

“It’s Lanth, in the city,” she reminded him.

“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. He and Faelan are friends, 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?

She had long ago admitted, she had 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 she could hear his heart beating, a proud rhythm, but he never went further. She sometimes doubted, whether her desperate love would ever be returned. 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 had never told her 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 knew 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 had garnered many admiring complements, and as a child, Lapis had secretly wanted the same. She had stood before that portrait and studied it, scheming of ways to make her hair shine like blackbird feathers, her eyes gleam like water. She had wanted the rosy cheeks without having to run hard, she had wanted the smooth skin without having to scrub with a scratchy bath brush, and she had wanted a soft smile that made everyone swoon, not matter what childish trouble she made. She had wanted a shiny clover-green evening gown that cascaded about her ankles and draped over soft, matching slippers.

She thought of her own inelegant reflection in the mirror that hung from her wardrobe door and could not see it. No soap or fine bath brush could 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 had 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 had 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 had dribbled enough, the front of his sky-blue shirt had turned a purplish red. 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 had been, 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 terror 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 briefly 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 could not wash away her anguish. Or her damning guilt, for having survived.

“And Ciaran and Lady Ailis have 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 nearly ran him over. I didn’t know where that horse had come from, but 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 she’d been warned by a neighbor 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 already bought the casket for him. 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 had broken so many things. Wood cracked, ceramic shattered, metal squealed. Every crash startled her, and she had to shove her dress in her mouth to keep from making much noise. She lay inside the dark wood, on top of a blanketed corpse, dreading discovery, shedding enough tears her hair became sodden. “I told Lady Ailis they had killed Neola, they had killed Endre. I didn’t know where else to go, I just wanted to get away from the soldiers . . . 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 the soldiers 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 rebel house was. Asking around about rebels isn’t the smartest idea, even in Coriy. And the traitor had just killed 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 he was involved. 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 try to see if anyone survived. I may have been twelve, but I understood what that meant.” She could not keep the hate from her voice.

Tearlach frowned and stared at her. “What do you mean?”

“No one came,” she told him, the thick sense of betray clogging her throat, as it always did. She had been twelve. She 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 had expected to encounter survivors or concerned neighbors and had 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 had waited expectantly, knowing that if a kindly neighbor did not put her up, her brother would arrive and take her away with him.

She waited 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 had appeared at Nicodem while she remained there. 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. No stuffy nobles from nearby estates paid their respects. No townspeople arrived to collect the bodies of their loved ones. No one nosed about, curious, wondering . . .

She had 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 Stefan, the adoring mother 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 oddly 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 had burned it to the ground. The coffins were in front, 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 had desperately thought Faelan would attend the funeral. She had desperately waited, wondering why all the attendees had 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 had fallen, and the gravediggers continued to throw dirt on the coffins. She remembered the dull slice of shovel into dirt, 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 had shivered in the cold night breezes, her stomach growling, her throat dry enough she had to fight not to cough, and waited for her brother, her fingers digging into the tree bark hard enough to draw blood.

“Lanth—”

“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 if I was going to survive, it was going to be on my own. No one was going to help. I had the dress on my back. I had slippers. And that was it. When I realized that, I was so afraid, I couldn’t even remember how to get to Coriy. All I could remember was 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 immediately 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 desperate. But Ulrik thought he’d kill himself, once he realized no one had survived.”

They had placed guards on him? Should that surprise her, her uncle valued him far above any survivor.

“He has scars on his wrists and ankles, you know. From the rope they tied him up with. He didn’t manage to 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 could not believe Faelan, her beloved older brother, had abandoned her. She had clung to her denial as a shipwrecked woman clung to a floating piece of timber. The long years between had changed her mind, and she bitterly accepted the fact that he had not adored her in the same way she had adored him. Now, Tearlach said her first inclination proved true. How hard had he fought, that her uncle felt justified in 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 was. Silence kept me alive.” And she hated that as much as the murderous traitor 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 the brother who had sat with her in her room and read bedtime stories to her, even if he had to read the same story a thousand times and was far and away bored with it, would trust her words. She wanted to believe the brother who had not minded going on long forest walks with her so they could marvel at nature, would trust her words. She wanted to believe her brother, who had 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 a gut-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 knows 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 good people are sidelined due to lineage. She asks if we want to become Dentheria and put our trust in the native-born. There isn’t the push-back there should be, on that.”

Lapis snarled. Dentheria had used the hammer of pure-born native to break non-noble peoples in their land, then looked outside it for more victims. It drove Gall, like it drove all the puppet rulers, the notion that only a pure-born could possibly rule a country. She did not know why, the ancient empire of Taangis had decided to mix and match 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 one 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, only possessed native-born ancestors. They said their pure heritage made them heirs-apparent to the rulership of their countries. Such a stupid lie. Taangis had forced nobles into non-native marriages because they thought it would break apart powerful families and keep the rebellious too suspicious to trust one other. The only “pure-born” families in Theyndora that could have possibly exited the Taangis empire intact were rural farmers in small enough enclaves, the empire decided not to break apart 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’s 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 decided to come, and he ordered the Council to join him. He’s going to meet a Dentherion ally.”

WHAT?

“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, and have them 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 she had known eight years ago would never have endangered a member of her family if he had any doubts about the mission. Before their deaths, he and her parents had had a close friendship, and she had 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 whispered, sudden and intense fear for him rushing through her.

“No.”

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 had paid metgals for. Regular tech was very illegal. Body modifications meant instant execution. The Lord’s Council had learned the dangers of modified rebels from Ramiran Skulls who had traveled to Dentheria and secretly enhanced their soft and fleshy bits, and 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 covered their wares or had left the Lells, since the shoppers had cleared out. She did not see the street rats or her group. The rats 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 must have 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 due to the rain, 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. “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 have 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 guests and I want those skewers he brags about.”

Lykas laughed. “He won’t believe us, that you have guests,” 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. She knew, 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 tended to be over-generous when she patronized his food stand. He respected her want to give the few in her reading circle a chance to leave the streets, and had, on occasion, donated books to the cause.

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. I do try to help those in the circle, like buying Phialla glasses or helping Rin get 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 try to help others, like when they get sick. I get them to a doctor and buy medicine for them.”

“There aren’t any charities that help?”

“There are a few, but most of them are allied with orphanages, and the monies they make go to supporting those children. The orphanages in Jiy basically only accept kids who have extended family who will pay for their upkeep, or a patron who will do so. Extras, like medical help, are the purview of the charities. There isn’t enough money, in any case, so they help those in orphanages and the street kids 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 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. It works better than it should.”

It began to rain in earnest. It was beyond time to make it to the Eaves.

Lapis hated soggy. Yes, Tearlach dribbled as well, but he seemed ambivalent to the condition. It irritated her, but she still led him to her room so he could use a towel. She noted Ciaran speaking with Dachs, and they looked friendly. She noted Caitria, Mairin and Brander at the back table, an animated Ness saying something and waving his hands about while Phialla studied a tile in her hands. She noted Lyet and Jandra, leaning against the wall to the side of the table, relaxed and smiling and waiting for the other rats to return with food. Whatever had upset Rin had not affected Lyet.

“I don’t really have a change of clothing for you, but I have a towel,” she told Tearlach.

“I could use it,” he said, tugging at his dripping hair.

“The Eaves doesn’t get that warm,” she said. “I have a coat that might fit.”

“I’ll be fine,” he assured her.

It did not surprise her, to see Brander at her door when Tearlach opened it to leave. He slipped inside and gently closed it, before leaning against it.

He had told her his city identity, one that maybe Patch and Sherridan knew, but no other. Raban. While she would not put it past him to tell a small fib to make Scand’s eyes pop, he was an exceptional pickpocket, and she could readily believe he spoke the truth. Chinder had obtained legendary pickpocket status in the Grey and Stone Streets, and his apprentices proudly carried his teachings as a badge of honor. Telling the rats his identity fit in with that.

Of course, she doubted pickpocket pride had anything to do with his revelation. She guessed he had done so, to prove that he trusted her, and trust was a two-way street.

“What do you want to know?” she asked quietly. There seemed little point in hiding; he would discover her identity soon enough. He could tell Sherridan, and that would keep them both wary and careful when navigating any questions that might arise concerning her. They might even head off some of the nastiness other rebels planned to send her way, as a weak attempt to harm Patch through her. She readily believed Tearlach on that; rebels, like everyone else, proved petty and vindictive when denied their whims.

“Whatever you wish to tell me.”

Generous. A prick of guilt followed the thought; he had already proven he trusted her, far more than nearly every other Jiy rebel. She took a deep breath and tried to tell her insides to stop quivering. Throwing up before answering the question would cause more concern than she wished to navigate. “I was born Melanthe of Nicodem, fifth child of Alaric and Iolanthe. I survived Kale’s attack on Nicodem through sheer luck, and almost no one knows I survived.”

He stared at her, collecting his thoughts. “You went into hiding.”

“Yeah. I . . . originally thought I’d been abandoned. No rebel showed up after the slaughter, to see if anyone survived. No locals could help, because Kale’s men were trying to root out sympathizers and were raiding nearby estates. I thought Faelan would try to make it to Nicodem, but he didn’t.” She sucked in a quivery breath. “Tearlach said they tied him up, to prevent him from leaving. He said Faelan has scars from the ropes.”

Brander’s eyebrows knit briefly in sympathy. “How’d you meet Patch, then? I always assumed it was through the rebel house in Coriy.”

“No.” She paused to force the tears to remain behind her eyelids. “I did manage to make it to Coriy. I don’t really know how, but I did.”

She remembered thirst and haze from her walk to Coriy, accompanied by dread fear that she would die in the forest, slain by a monster, left to rot like her family, unmourned. That fear kept her moving, even when her body collapsed. She stood back up and forced her feet to move. She had vague recollections of reaching the city, of bright color bathed in a white haze, people speaking a jumbled mess of words. She barely recognized she had wandered into a dead-end alley before the ominous, gleeful laughter of boys about to commit a horrendous act woke her from her fatigue-induced fog.

“I got cornered by street rats, and Patch saved me from them. I don’t know if he knew who I was when he saw me or if he was just being kind, but one moment they were threatening me, the next they all lay on the ground, unmoving. He took me to his little apartment, fed me, and told me that he’d train me so I didn’t have to fear that kind of attack again.” She looked down at her plain black pants and scruffy, long-sleeved, comfy grey shirt. “If he already knew Faelan . . . well, we inherited my mother’s black hair and purple eyes. The family resemblance is obvious. I wore a dress made from nice material, and the remains of my slippers were high-quality, so it probably seemed obvious, who I was.”

“Sherridan said that those four recognized you right away.”

“Ciaran and Tearlach did, yeah. I’d never met Caitria or Mairin before today. Ciaran knew Kale’s men killed his little sister in my place and that I survived.” The look on Brander’s face . . . he loved his younger sister dearly, and he likely imagined himself in a similar circumstance and hated the thought. “Tearlach didn’t, but he says I look too much like my mother for anyone who knew her to mistake me.”

Brander dropped his eyes. “You know who the traitor is.”

“I know who he is outside the rebellion,” she agreed. “I don’t know who he is inside it. He wasn’t an official member when he led Kale’s men to Nicodem. Tearlach says Ciaran’s mother has been collecting evidence against him for eight years. She has so much of it the Council will have to believe he’s the traitor, despite his high birth and noble backing.”

Brander’s eyes narrowed and he studied her. “So he’s an important rebel.”

“Yes. It doesn’t surprise me. He was a golden child before he became a rebel, and societal rank tends to transition with the person. He was always personable and sociable, and everyone loved him, so I’m sure the Blue Council welcomed him with open arms. He would validate their cause and bring even more nobles into the ranks. I always thought there was something wrong with me, because I didn’t like him. I thought he was petty and cruel and vindictive. I even got teased about it. I was right.”

She could never forget his dark delight when he killed Endre, then looked at her. A pitch-dark happiness had filled him, reddened his cheeks, brightened his eyes. His mouth had smiled, but with his lips pressed firmly together, the wide expression hinted at insanity.

Brander lifted his lip at that. “When does Ciaran’s mother plan to present this evidence?”

“When all the Blue Council members get here. They’ll be in one place, at the same time. I don’t know if Patch has told you, but there’s a reason for that, and it’s important enough, that they’ll be pushed by circumstance to deal with him rather than letting the accusation languish until everyone conveniently ‘forgets’ about it.”

“Patch has said the horizon can’t decide between day and night, so we know something’s up, just not what. I don’t think Baldur knows, either. He was far too surprised—and defensive—about the Blue Council’s arrival.” He rubbed roughly at his face, as if attempting to wash away terrible thoughts. “When I was younger, I always thought the rebellion was a place of light. I thought the members wanted to save others, save Jilvayna, drive the inhumane and the violent souls back to Dentheria. But rebels have secrets as well, as dark and deadly as any in Gall’s keeping. These secrets usually involve the merchants and the nobles, the ones who see the rebellion as a source of power and prestige, rather than an organization that can help break the chains Dentheria has thrown about us. Chinder warned me.” He laughed without humor. “He told me that the helpless and hopeless were never going to be served by the rebels. I didn’t listen because I needed a ray of hope in my life. I don’t think he was necessarily right about that, but he did observe that traitors walk among us wearing silken robes and pouches bursting with silver.”

She nodded slightly. “Faelan always believed in that light. I think he still does.”

“He left you behind.”

“Not by choice.” The tears ran hot down her cold cheeks. She scrubbed them away with her shirt and fought the emotional hammer of remembered helplessness that tried to shatter her. “And no, Tearlach wouldn’t lie about that.”

“He may have changed, in eight years. He may not be the person you first trusted.”

“True. But Ciaran does trust him, and I trust Ciaran. He and his mother kept my secret for eight years. That means something.” She knew, intimately, the cost of trusting the wrong person. Ciaran was not the wrong person.

Brander ran his hands through his hair, agitated. “It’s going to be hard to keep the secret, with the Council here.”

“I know,” she whispered. “Baldur wants me to serve the meals because he doesn’t trust Relaine and he thinks Whitley and I are easy to bully into it.”

“I’ll talk to him about it.”

She doubted it would do much good.

“What do you want me to tell Sherridan?”

“Everything I said. He deserves to know. But no one else, Brander.”

“I won’t risk your life like that.”

“I wasn’t lying about me and Faelan looking a lot alike. You’re going to get questions about it. Faelan might even ask you about it.”

He pursed his lips. “What should I say?”

“I have no idea.”

“I’ll come up with something.”

She smiled, a pathetic one, but she managed it. “Thank you.” She motioned to the door; she had nothing else to say.

Brander looked as if he wished to add something more but decided against scraping her raw wounds. “Are you ready?”

She smiled softly. “I have a lot of practice hiding my emotional state until I can sequester myself and work through the shit.”

“That’s not healthy.”

“No, but it’s the best I can do.”

He pursed his lips before shaking his head and opening the door for her.


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