Lapisswam up from the depths of sleep, annoyed awake by an insistent knocking. She rubbed at her face, snarled at the snarls in her hair, and followed the dim yellow light emanating from the bottom of the door.
Brander and Sherridan. She blinked at them, then sighed and moved from the entry. She fumbled about for a candle and stepped into the hallway to light it from a sconce. It glowed too softly, but she had no other source of illumination. The room, unlike others, did not have a fixture or one of those tall, sturdy stands that held several stubby candles.
She set it on the short nightstand, then smacked against the far wall and slid down, feeling too drained for the inevitable conversation. How much had Brander told the other rebel about the events of yesterday?
He probably related the trip to Orinder’s, the fight at the Tree Streets Guardhouse, and mentioned the papers Ciaran took from Predi. They held addresses and names, nothing more, but that information, considering the source, might prove valuable to the rebels—and to the guard. Ciaran agreed they should share the info with Sir Armarandos, and she would do so in the next few days.
Had he mentioned she was Lady Lanth?
Sherridan raised an eyebrow. “Brander said you fought a hunter last night?”
“And several guttershanks in Hoyt’s employ,” she murmured. “Stupid shanks, I hope Mama ate them all.”
Brander laughed lightly as he closed the door. “I doubt the world will miss much without them around.” He looked far too cheerful, for the late night he had.
“What happened to him?” Sherridan asked.
“Ciaran happened to him.” She shrugged. She could not find it in herself to care, whether a man who targeted her in revenge met a cold and rainy end. “He hunted humans, and he and Patch tangled during their last encounter. When he came after me, he told me he owed my partner.”
Sherridan narrowed his eyes. “Did he.”
“I’ve not said a word about Patch. He’s kept mum, so I don’t know how Hoyt’s people linked us.”
“It means you’re not out of danger.”
“Well, that, and I fought against his people with Sir Armarandos. That was pretty obvious.” She glanced at the thief and took a deep breath. “That’s not why Brander wants me to talk to you.”
Sherridan cocked his head and patiently waited.
She did not know what to say. She rubbed at her eyes, her mind reeling, but finally focused on the unexpected encounter with the Blue Council people.
“You’re probably wondering about Tearlach and Ciaran’s reaction to me.”
“Yes.” His firmness nearly made her sigh. “It was obvious, seeing you was a surprise.”
“A surprise for Ciaran, maybe. It was more of a shock for Tearlach.”
“He thought I was dead.”
Sherridan glanced at Brander, but he leaned against the door with his shoulder, arms crossed, waiting. So helpful.
“He thought you died in the fire.”
“Something like.” She sucked in a shuddering breath. “There was a fire . . . after Kale tore through Nicodem.”
Sherridan stared. Of course he would. Every rebel knew about Nicodem and the horrors Gall committed through Kale, because they needed to understand the dangers in which they placed their most beloved when they joined the cause.
“They thought they’d killed everyone. So had the rebels. And so had the traitor. I know who he is, but not his rebel identity, though he’s probably going to be here with the Blue Council.”
Sherridan did a laudable imitation of a landed fish. “Nicodem.”
“Tearlach recognized me.” She swallowed, trying to wet her throat. “He, like almost everyone else, thought I was dead. Well, I’m not, and he was dumbstruck. He says I look just like my mother, and when the rebels who knew my parents see me . . . they’ll know a Nicodem survived. It’s that obvious. They’ll guess I’m Melanthe.” She fought for blasé because she did not want to break down before the two men. Fatigue caused such strange reactions.
“But . . . why didn’t you go to a rebel House? There’s one in Coriy.”
Sarcastic laughter bubbled from her lips. “I was a twelve-year-old who just saw one of the up-and-coming rebels behead her little brother. I knew, if there was even a hint I survived, he’d come looking. He was in the area, and it seemed plausible they’d contact him or someone he knew. He was a golden child, a noble favorite, before he led Kale into Nicodem, and no one would have seen his evil, no matter how I screamed about it. Too many others considered him charming, humorous and kind. And they would have handed me over to him and I would have died.” She clenched her teeth. “It didn’t matter. No rebel even bothered to check, to see if anyone lived. No one from Coriy. No one from any nearby rebel House. I stuck around, waited. No one came.” She tamped down on the reactionary tears and managed a trembling whisper. “Tearlach said they tied Faelan up to keep him from racing home. That he still has scars from trying to get free. I didn’t know that. All I knew was that my big brother had forsaken me. I knew I was on my own, that no rebel was going to save me. I was lucky, though—Patch took me in. And he wasn’t about to turn me over to a traitor.”
Sherridan slowly shook his head. “Does Patch know?” he asked, as if he did not believe it.
“I’ve had nightmares since he saved me in Coriy,” she told him. “And he’s helped Lady Ailis collect evidence against the turntail. He knows. He’s kept it secret because we both know this person will hunt me down if he ever found out.”
“Patch knows who he is, in the rebellion?”
“I don’t know. If he’s been collecting evidence, maybe. I didn’t know about that until Tearlach told me.” She rubbed at her face, hard. “Once I see him, though, I’ll know.”
“He’ll see you, too.”
“I’ll wear my hood. And I’m going to avoid the new arrivals as much as possible.”
“Baldur wants you serving at the banquets he’s planning.”
“I know. It’s not like he knows who I am and that I need to stay hidden. Even if he did, he wouldn't care. He might even try to use me to get in good with Faelan.”
Sherridan ran a hand through his bangs, slowly, staring at the floor at his feet. Lapis glanced at Brander, but he kept his judiciously blank expression.
“Wait. Wait until you meet Faelan. You’ll see him before many others. Then we’ll talk.”
“Lapis . . .” Frustration rang through his tone.
She held up her hand. “Just wait.” For she knew, when they beheld her brother, they would no longer doubt.
Another knock, softer, but just as insistent. Lapis squinted through one eye at the door as Brander opened it. Ciaran stood on the other side with Caitria, hands in pockets, as nonchalant as the day before. Caitria, however, practically bounced about.
Was she the only non-morning person? She needed to go back to bed and sleep the rest of the morning away.
He held up a pristine white envelope.
“The addresses,” he said.
Lapis groaned to her feet as Brander accepted it and withdrew the paper inside. He glanced at the list, as if memorizing the names, refolded it and handed it to her. “I’ll get these to Sir Armarandos as soon as I can,” she said.
“Faelan’s worried, too,” Caitria told her. “Dentherion tech is deadly enough. If the underground is trying to get its hands on Taangis tech or something grander, it will mean death to a lot of people.” She bit her lip, then smiled, too bright, too knowing. “He wants to talk to you about what happened last night.”
She felt icy fingers wrap around her chest. No. No.
Ciaran lazily looked at Brander, then at Sherridan. “It’ll be just him and us,” he told her.
“Ciaran, I can’t,” she whispered.
“It’s either that, or you can squirm as your headman yells at you,” Caitria told her. “He’s in quite the congenial mood since Faelan’s arrived and no one told him.” She made a sour face. “Meaning us. He’s promising to have a talk with you, too, about bringing us back too late.”
The joys of life under Baldur. Surely he knew Mama was out last night? “Who came with Faelan?”
Ciaran laughed. “No one.”
“No guards?” Brander asked.
The other rebel shook his head, a small smile twitching his mouth. “No. He believes it would attract too much attention.”
His and Caitria’s amusement grated against her. Faelan never blended into any crowd; his black hair, purple eyes, and handsomeness kept him secluded, even in the most populated square. He used it to his advantage and hid in plain sight despite his appearance. She never managed the knack of it.
Ciaran eyed the two other men. “I’ll introduce you. His initial impression of your House’s leadership is lacking, and you two are the ones who can alter his view.”
“I need to change,” Lapis said abruptly. If she had to sit through an interrogation by her brother, she was damn well going to be comfortable. She remembered his forthright stare and guarded amusement as she tried to tell him that no, she had not gone to pick berries with a bear prowling about, and no, she had not gone to pick berries after her mother demanded she remain in her room after some affront, and no, she had not gone to pick berries and drug a sniffling and sneezing Endre behind her . . .
And the honey. She had dropped the jar of the specially made stuff, and despite the splatter on her stockings and dress hem, told him someone else must have thrown it on the floor. How old had she been? Five? They both knew she lied the moment the words left her mouth. His sharp questions sliced through the fib. He refused to read to her as punishment, and after five days, she, filled with tears and heavy sorrow, and so certain her older brother now hated her, ran away. She fled through the tall, hardy pines and to the meeting rock, sobbing, carting the only thing that had mattered to her at the time; their special book. It was awkward and burdensome, but she refused to leave it behind, no matter how it slowed her down.
She had left quite late, and darkness filled the forest, shadows coating all. She huddled against the tall, black, cold rock, the book clutched to her chest, and cried her heart away, afraid of the monsters Faelan had teased her with, afraid of being alone, absolutely certain redemption was far beyond her fingertips.
He and her father found her sometime after the chill wind began to steadily blow and rustle the tree leaves, causing the old wood of the nearby forest to groan deep, jarring sounds. She jumped at the noises, jumped at the footfalls coming her way, screamed loud enough that a monster certainly heard her. Faelan’s guilt struck her, while her father’s exasperation slipped across her skin and did not catch. Her brother’s eyes watered, as he carefully took their book from her and her father picked her up. Both her parents stormed away at her and she found herself sequestered in her room for several days—and Faelan snuck in to read her their book, every night.
Memories tumbled through her as the others left. She donned her darkest rebel clothes, bound her hair, and slipped her black hood far over her eyes. She still needed to hide, though she had no idea who, exactly, she hid from. Faelan? The traitor, definitely. And, perhaps, herself.
Baldur huffled and waved his arms about, not bothering to hide his stress as he stood with Ciaran in one of the foyers. The rebel observed the man with a cool, nonchalant expression bordering on insult. As a child, it meant he did not buy, for a moment, whatever excuse she and Neola uttered to explain their misbehavior. The headman did not realize this, and, thinking himself ignored, his whining became even more insistent.
“I’m the Headman!” he snapped. “I demand to attend this so-called meeting. It affects the House, it—”
Ciaran glanced at her, and Baldur whirled. His anger descended into a near-blind rage as he noted her hood.
“How dare you dress that way?” he roared, stabbing a chubby finger at her. His wide coat sleeves whipped about in a dizzying motion, gold thread glinting randomly against the fine red silk. “You ungrateful—”
“I didn’t ask to be invited to this meeting,” she told him coolly. “If they don’t like how I’m dressed, then they can send me away.”
“What happened last night? Something happened last night! You returned the Blue Council members too late—”
“Mama was up and about last night. You wanted us to chance an encounter with her? Brander and I felt it safer to wait until we knew she no longer walked the area. It would prove awkward to have them attacked by a carrion lizard, wouldn’t it?”
Baldur spluttered, having no immediate response. He hid in the House on rainy days with Mama about, refusing to chance the streets until the bells indicated the animal had safely returned to the Pit. He possessed a consuming fear of being eaten, one Lapis did not understand; he did not throw himself into danger’s path at any time, let alone predictably perilous ones.
Ciaran grinned and nodded at the hallway that led to the rooms Relaine readied for the new arrivals. At least he appreciated the comment.
Baldur’s purple-faced glare as she walked past him and to the other rebel concerned her. He had a nasty revenge streak, and while she normally ignored it because, if anything happened to her, Patch would not treat the merchant well or fairly, she did not want him interfering with her chance to discover the traitor and indulge her own vengeance.
“Don’t concern yourself too much,” Ciaran told her, as they entered the hall. “He knows his authority is nearing its end.”
“Faelan heard him tear into Caitria for not notifying him about his arrival. There’s no reason for it, and it shocked her he even took exception to it. Faelan didn’t let him weasel out of his actions and words, either. It may not happen until the majority of the Council arrives, but he’s gone.”
They neared an open doorway, and her stomach twisted. She should have left. Should have, but the reminder that those who accompanied her yesterday now knew her city identity, where she lived, and could easily track her down, kept her at the House. And explaining to Faelan why she avoided him . . . or explaining to the rats why a strange man who just showed up at the Eaves wanting to speak to her had black hair and purple eyes, just like her . . .
Her secrets had died, an unexpected and fast death. She kept them frightfully near for eight years, cradled them, thought them sacrosanct. Now, when she most wished for secrecy, her identity, her past, burst out, intent on revealing themselves to everyone, no matter the devastation that caused. Why now? Why the revelations when her wait neared its end?
Her heart pound behind her eyes as she took one sluggish step after another to the door.
Ciaran slowed his pace to match hers.
Should she feel relief he understood her hesitation or feel annoyed he recognized it? Too bad, he could not helpfully hint at what she should say. Should she introduce herself? Or sit down, fast and quiet, and wait until Faelan directed a question towards her?
Wait and answer the questions. Only answer the questions. Flee as quickly as possible. That sounded reasonable.
The room was not especially gaudy, which Lapis expected since Baldur placed her brother there. Maybe that explained his outrage; he had prepared another space with much finer items and Faelan took it upon himself to select a pleasant but average room instead. Within stood a make-shift, dark-stained bar with alcohol along the far corner, a couple of mismatched, sturdy, unpadded chairs, a low, scuffed coffee table and a round, poorly stained dining one, and a window with blue curtains that allowed lots of natural light into the space. To the right, two closed, newly painted darker blue doors led to the bedroom and bathing area—which probably had running water, even if access to it was scarce.
The room smelled of spicy incense, which did not quite cover the smell of fresh paint and wallpaper glue. Whoever installed the wall décor had not quite managed nice, smooth sheets, and bulges and bumps littered the flowery cobalt and gold design.
Brander and Sherridan sat in two of the chairs, not comfortable, but not stiff with anxiety, either. Caitria leaned against the taller table, Mairin next to her, her eyes twinkling as she tried not to smile. Tearlach slumped down on the single couch next to her brother.
Her brother. Faelan. He propped up his cheek on his knuckles as he regarded the two Jiy rebels, softly amused.
He looked the same. A bit older, but he had the same purple eyes, dark lashes and brows, the same black hair that reached past his shoulders, the same lean figure. He wore an average, long-sleeved cerulean tunic and comfortable black pants with boots. She swallowed as she noticed the dinged silver bracelet about his left arm, the one she gave him on his twentieth birthday, right before the slaughter.
She noted the pink scars that circled his wrist above the bracelet. He did not hide them with creams or heavy makeup or make certain his long sleeves covered them. It proved he had fought, to come to her. She should have trusted her initial reaction, trusted that he would never purposefully abandon her. How different the last eight years would have played, had she gathered the courage and asked Patch to take her to her brother.
All eyes turned to them. She sat in the nearest chair and clenched her hands in her lap while Ciaran closed the door and threw himself in the last empty seat near Faelan. He regarded him with annoyance.
“Why wait to throw that ass into the street?”
Faelan sighed. “Because all things happen in time.”
That was exactly like her brother. Caitria laughed while Ciaran glared, unappeased.
“I’m also not convinced of his silence. We’ll have to bribe him on that part, and I don’t feel like negotiating with him right now.” His gaze flicked to her, and Lapis hoped her hood hid her eyes. “Lapis. Did you recognize any on the hunter’s list?” he asked.
Intense relief that she did not have to suffer through an introduction slightly buoyed her. “A few. Rukiel is a chaser. He takes noble requests that they don’t want anyone to know about. He’s not someone I’ve ever heard about being associated with the underground. He’s more an investigator and does things like track down ex-lovers to see if they’re placed well enough not to embarrass a potential marriage partner, or find and pay off illegitimate children.”
“Ugh,” Mairin muttered. It matched Lapis’s reaction when Patch told her what the amiable man did for a living.
“Tirem is a guttershank with multiple stakes. No one’s ever caught him, but he lives under Hoyt’s protection, so that’s probably why. Patch said they’ve kept him secluded when he’s around the undermarket, because he doesn’t care whether someone has official underboss protection or not. And Krute, as far as I know, is an underground merchant.”
“He is,” Brander murmured. “We use him regularly. He doesn’t favor one ring over another, and is clean, considering.”
“What do they all have in common?” Faelan asked. “It doesn’t appear they are hunter targets.”
“Maybe Predi just lumped a whole bunch of names together, but for different purposes,” Lapis suggested, then sternly reminded herself to only speak when asked a question.
“Maybe.” He studied her intently, and she fought not to squirm as a shiver raced up her arms. “Do you know Sir Armarandos well?”
“Not well. We’ve had a few dealings. He doesn’t cheat chasers on stakes, and he’s not averse to women plying the trade.”
“He’s a knight, in the ancient sense of the word,” Brander said. “He’s chivalrous and kind and takes his protection duties very seriously. He’s been cleaning up the guard. They had an enormous scandal a few years ago, where several accepted bribes to transfer confiscated tech to the underground. The knight superiors’ neglect led to it, and they were happy he wanted to take on the challenge of rooting out the bad bits. Some guards who survived the purge hate that they’re no longer getting the payoffs they depended upon to live a far more outrageous lifestyle than their salary allowed. A few of them faced him and Lapis last night.”
“And what do you know of his father?”
Lapis felt herself freeze. What did Caitria relate about the odd little conversation? “I only know what Sir Armarandos and Guard Superior Fyor told me while we were in the stable,” she said, forcing her voice to remain steady. She needed calm. Coolness. Detachment. “They said he gets bored and does outrageous things to liven his days, like having tea with Krios.”
“If he has tea with Krios, then he’s not a threat to our cause,” Tearlach said. “I can’t imagine he’d entertain anyone he wasn’t absolutely certain about. I suppose we need to ask.”
“Yes,” Faelan said absently, then looked at Ciaran. “Or ask your mother.”
“I’m uncertain which old, grumpy man he might be,” Ciaran said. “My mother has quite a few she’s exceedingly not fond of.”
What had Caitria told them about the man’s parting words? Nervous dread raced through Lapis, and she dug her fingers into her leg, then stretched them out, trying to relax through the simple gesture.
Faelan’s eyes flicked to the outer door before he turned back to the two Jiy men. “Is there another location we may speak, that is free of mousy ears?” he asked, quiet enough not to filter much beyond the small group.
Not the Eaves, not the Eaves!
“Here? No,” Sherridan said. “We don’t have a single room that would serve. Cracks, holes, ill-fitting doors, nothing is completely secure. Patch has pointed out time and again, that we need a secure meeting room, and Baldur has no interest in fixing one up.”
“My city dwelling is large enough for a meeting,” Brander said. “It’s a walk, though.”
“A walk will do us good,” Faelan replied with a smile. He glanced at the door again, then rose and padded to it. He yanked it open with an abrupt action. Lapis would not have believed it, if she had not seen Baldur squatted down, tummy hanging over his knees, ear pressed against the door, his two guards leaning against the far wall, disagreeable frowns pulling their lips down to their chin. The headman squawked as he waved his arms about and landed heavily on his side, across the doorway, his thick golden necklace slamming into the floor with a tingling ring.
Lapis looked at Brander and Sherridan; their shock reflected her own. Baldur never struck her as the kind of man who would listen at a door when he could order someone else to do it, preserving his dignity and giving him an excuse if the underling was caught. Humiliation twisted her tummy, and the sickness climbed quickly to the back of her throat. She hated Baldur, but he represented the Jiy House, and to have him stoop so low as to eavesdrop when the Leader of the Jilvayna Rebellion rejected his presence . . .
They all rose far more hastily than prudent as Baldur righted himself. Faelan magnanimously gave him a helping hand, which the headman took, huffing, then set his legs against the pull of the heavier man while he staggered into standing.
“We’ll have prepared dinner—” he began.
“There should be other arrivals this afternoon,” Faelan said pleasantly. “They’ll enjoy the meal with you, since I’m afraid I’ll be busy and will need to skip this evening.”
“But—” Baldur busily swatted at his clothing as he looked into the room. His face turned into an ugly morass of disapproval. “Where are you going?”
“We’ve business in the city,” he replied. “And who best to navigate the streets than locals?”
He grunted, and his dark gaze fell on her. “Lapis, I want you in my office—”
“She’ll be with us,” Faelan told him, sharp and firm.
Baldur swallowed and stepped back. Faelan’s pleasant words coated, but never hid, the fury in his eyes. She often experienced that look after doing something stupidly dangerous. He had also used it with the younger rebels who disregarded good sense and social niceties, and he had made more than one adult uncomfortable when he glared at them after they uttered an asinine comment about those he cared for.
“She’s Patch’s woman,” the merchant barked.
Why in the godless souls of Dentheria had he declared that?
Faelan laughed as everyone else bristled. “I’m aware she’s Patch’s partner,” he said. “He speaks of her often, and very fondly. I’m surprised, you ignore that.”
Lapis could not help the humiliated burn spread across her cheeks and neck. She could not help the ineffective fury that ripped through her. She could not stop her heart from pounding loud enough the entire room likely heard it, could not halt her gasp for breath. Sherridan placed a comforting hand between her shoulder blades, and gently pressed her forward, remaining close enough that Baldur noticed and highly disapproved. He attempted another blustery comment, but everyone moved past and down the hall, unwilling to wait through whatever he wanted to say.
Lapis retrieved her gauntlets; no one protested the protection. Her brother and the other non-Jiy rebels understood the danger she now faced, since she had defied Hoyt and fought his men. Truthfully, she had not thought about the repercussions past helping Sir Armarandos survive, which, considering how carefully she chose and studied her stakes before creating a plan to fulfill them, felt odd. She made a quick decision, and the price might turn out very high. Patch needed to return fast, because she would feel far safer with him near.
The envelope sat on the small table, a white burst of brightness against the dimness, and she snagged it as well; a quick trip to the Lells Guardhouse, with a ready excuse to leave, was in order.
The morning smelled fresh despite the acrid smoke of fires attempting to warm abodes after the storm. The droopy grass and thin-leafed bushes surrounding the grey, peeling exterior of the once-stately mansion held a myriad of tiny droplets which reflected the sun in a dazzling sparkle. The street beyond the building bustled with typical Grey Streets activity; everyone must assume Mama had returned to the Pit. Lapis glanced at the cloud-heavy sky and guessed that another storm would drive people indoors that afternoon and probably send Mama into a new walk-around.
Faelan raised his hands and stretched, then eyed Brander. “Does the headman know where you live?”
“No. Those of us in the city keep our places secret.”
“I see why.”
“He’ll send someone to trail us,” Lapis whispered. She could not manage a louder sound, because her voice would tremble, hard, with pent-up rage.
“How did he become headman? He’s nothing like his predecessor.”
Neither Brander nor Sherridan answered Faelan's question, so she did so for them. “The truth? He paid Cadman a generous amount to fix the vote for him. Cadman denies it, but he lives in the Orchard merchant quarters now, with a fine little smithy shop he never should have been able to afford. Baldur is a most attentive client.”
“Cadman is an invaluable asset in the field. He knows many of the palace servants personally,” Tearlach told her.
Lapis sighed and rubbed at her eyes. “He also has a cousin that works for Baldur in one of the Docks warehouses. Baldur promoted that cousin the day after he won the election. I’m not saying that Cadman doesn’t have his uses. I’m just saying he helped Baldur win the election by speaking for him and earned something nice in return. No one even knew who he was, until Cadman introduced him.”
“It began the rift between the merchants and the common rebels,” Brander told them as they meandered down the street. “Not all see Baldur as an effective leader, and they resent the merchants for voting for him because of his outside social status.”
“Patch and other House headmen have complained about him,” Caitria told them. “I can’t see where they’re wrong.”
Lapis thought of Whitley’s words, how his father believed Baldur’s greed endangered the House. If enough rebels throughout Jilvayna considered him a threat, they would definitely wonder why he still retained his position in a place so central to the cause.
The small chit-chat continued as they made their way through the Grey Streets. Lapis had no idea where Brander lived, and she became nervous as they neared the streets her rats traversed. She did not want to explain why she, again, showed up with a large group of people in tow, when, the night before, she had insisted she could not stay at the Eaves. As anticipated, Rin despised her abdication and hated her refusal to enlighten him even more.
She had a sinking feeling, he would discover her secrets long before she shared them.
She noted a few non-reading circle urchins, and while they studied her and her companions closely, they did not approach. They neared the Lells, and she desperately wanted to plead with Brander, but remained silent. Her rats would be out and about, and the dread that twisted her stomach when they beheld Faelan grew.
The thief led them to a three-story apartment building that rested one street over from the market. While not a marvel of luxury, with a brown-washed exterior, chipped wooden railings and a dingy, brown-tiled roof, it and its four sisters had the reputation of being far nicer than the average Grey Streets living space. The abodes had several rooms, access to water, and a multitude of windows that looked out onto bush-lined walkways. They mostly housed the better-off merchants who did not make enough money to move to a place like the Gardens.
The upper-story doorway Brander opened was a dingy blue, and it did not prepare her for the tidy and well-maintained interior. The walls had an unchipped wash of dark taupe, which matched well with the darker wooden furniture and the deep brown trappings. The outer room held two couches, several padded chairs, one large square table and one short round one. Displays on the wall held several bladed weapons in nicely decorated sheaths and a few musical instruments. A kitchen with dark cabinets stood at the back, a small fire smoldering in the stove. The right held a closed doorway, and Lapis wondered how many more rooms the place had.
“Don’t get the wrong idea,” the thief told them wryly. “My sister cleans for me because she can’t stand the state I leave this place in. It’s too nice an apartment to leave it the way I leave it.”
Mairin laughed. “Caitria’s the same way.”
The other woman made a face. “Wading through underwear isn’t the titillating experience that some claim.”
Lapis kept her small room somewhat tidy, though she hardly had a strong neat streak. Lyet did, and at times she would return home to find the teen folding clothes, hanging outfits up, and dusting. She now had a second abode to clean—and she doubted Rin would prove a tidier resident.
Brander gestured to the chairs and couch. “Have a seat.”
He retrieved drinks as they found a place to sit; Lapis sank onto a couch, and immediately regretted the decisions when Faelan plopped down next to her. Dammit, just because the padding looked more comfortable did not mean she should have indulged. She should have dumped herself in a chair.
Brander passed around the ceramic cups and settled a couple of bottles of the fizzy Dentherion drink Rin liked so much onto the table. “I buy this for my niece and nephew, and right now, it’s all I have.”
He made enough money as a thief to afford very nice things.
Faelan poured a cup, a signal the other Blue Council members could drink as well, and leaned back, his contentment slowly leaking away.
“Did you recognize Baldur’s tail?”
“Yes,” Sherridan replied. “We lost him, though. Baldur doesn’t use the best we have, and it shows.”
Lapis had not noticed, though she expected it. Her mind, so preoccupied with the presence of her brother, so concerned with discovery . . . her failure to pay closer attention humiliated her. At least it was a personal, silent humiliation she could shove into the back of her mind to ponder later.
“I’ll make this quick.” Faelan tipped the cup back and guzzled the contents. “While I will replace Baldur during this visit, that’s not the reason the Blue Council is here. We are going to set up a meeting between myself and a potential Dentherion ally. I need your help to accomplish it.”
“No.” The word just popped out. Lapis curled her hands in her lap; could she not just stay silent? Brander and Sherridan looked surprised, but whether due to her outburst or the content of Faelan’s ask, she did not know.
The resigned expressions of the other four, and Faelan’s understanding, made her feel low.
“It’s through the Wolf Collaborate,” he told her gently. “Istak already met with them, and if I also decide they’re serious about aiding us—”
“They’re going to kill you.” She spent the last eight years trying not to care what might happen to him, and now, in person, she could not regain that hate, could not regain her fury, her gut-punch sickness at the betrayal. Not while she sat on the same couch and could see the rope scars on his wrists. How could that have changed her mind so quickly, so drastically?
“Not during that meeting. Patch and Varr will be there. They’ll not allow anything to happen to me.”
They would both die before anyone touched him.
“Midir looked into their background. You know he’d never agree to this if he thought it more dangerous than expected.”
She would know? The way he said it, the conversational tone . . . That meant he knew.
“That’s why we are going to choose the meeting place, and why it’s going to be gone over by Patch and Caitria and made as safe as possible.”
“Clandestine meeting in a docks warehouse, with a table in the middle of an empty room?” she asked sarcastically, her heart beating faster.
“Maybe, but I was thinking of something . . . warmer.”
“The Blue Council is not as familiar with Jiy as they are with Coriy or Vraindem,” Caitria said. “We need local suggestions and support, but—” and she held up her hand “—only those who are absolutely loyal can even know about this. Patch was very insistent about who those people are, and I don’t think stepping away from his suggestions is a good idea. Not in the environment Baldur’s created.”
There was a knock on the door. Brander said nothing, but retrieved a knife from the wall before answering. Apparently, he was unaccustomed to guests. Lapis felt dread worm through her, and she touched her left gauntlet; the space, while large for a living quarter in the Grey Streets, did not have enough for maneuvering during a fight. Keeping the larger furniture between the attackers and—
“Guard Superior Fyor says it’s from Sir Armarandos.”
Lapis jumped to her feet and rushed to the door as Brander stepped back, nonchalant, but put his blade on a small entry table next to it, one hidden by the slab of wood. The street rat, accompanied by Scand, held up a very pristine envelope, his normal good humor absent.
“He gave lots of us these,” Rin told her as she snagged it and opened it. Good on him, for not peeking. “Looked real worried, too. There’s not much talk ‘bout last night, but somethin’ happened after we left. Guards ‘r grim ‘n silent.”
Lapis scanned the neat writing.
Lady, I dislike the urgency, but we must speak. Please visit Fyor soon. Sir Armarandos.
Brander raised an eyebrow and she glanced at the thief before grabbing them both and hauling them into the room. Her luck, the two would draw the attention of Baldur’s tail and he would note who stood in the doorway. “When did he give you this?”
“Early, like afore we’s settin’ up at the Lells,” Rinan told her. “He weren’t shy ‘bout it, neither. He tapped Lykas ‘n Jandra, ‘n the Wings. They really want t’ talk t’ you, Lady.”
Scand gasped, brightened, and jumped past her, his attention on the wall and its myriad of weapons. “Scand!” she hissed, which he ignored in favor of standing in awe, staring up at the display. She regarded Brander sourly, but she decided his satisfaction at the rat’s interest in his collection kept him silent. That, and their association with Chinder, gave them a bond that might transcend the streets.
Lapis glanced at the curious others. “Sir Armarandos says we have to speak and that I need to visit Fyor soon.”
“Fyor. You said he was there last night,” Faelan said.
“He’s the Guard Superior for the Lells Guardhouse,” she told him. “He and Sir Armarandos are working together. I thought it was mainly to get Nevid, but maybe tech has more of a role.”
“Or it does now,” Brander murmured. She caught Rin studying Faelan out of the corner of her eye, and she knew his curiosity just kicked into a full and unmitigated flood of interest.
She could no longer hide. The numbing thought drifted away, leaving a hollowness behind.
“Maybe. Or he might have questions about why a hunter’s targeted Lanth,” Tearlach said.
Faelan jumped up. “Let’s go.”
“I’m interested in what they have to say.”
“Who said I’m taking you with me?”
“After last night, you need a partner, and everyone else is in the planning stage.”
The benefits of being in charge. Rin smashed his lips together, though she understood the humor welling in the pit of the stomach at the flabbergasted and annoyed responses to the declaration.
“Planning stage?” Ciaran asked darkly.
“How far is the guardhouse?” Faelan asked, ignoring him.
“It’s not,” she began, intent on telling him that the quick jaunt through the Lells would earn her no adverse attention, but he slipped past and opened the door, his long stride easily taking him away. She rushed after him and the rats followed on her heels, anticipatory.
“Don’t take long!” Caitria called as the portal closed. Faelan grinned and hopped down the stairs. Lapis watched, confused, as happiness leaked into the air about him.
“Lady, who’s that?” Rin whispered.
She swallowed and shook her head, a very minute gesture, and bounded down the stairs. She did try to say something, but the words, so accustomed to remaining inside, stuck in her throat. She wanted to stay hidden, she wanted to stay Lady Lanth to her rats. She wanted her old existence back, of plots and plans that remained plots and plans, without action. She wanted Perben dead, but what would she do, once she accomplished it? How radically would her life change?
Patch had asked her not to kill, to injure if necessary, but never kill. He said he understood, too well, the consequences of that darkest path. She refused to ponder it concerning herself, because, in a way, she never imagined the opportunity would arise. She expected to remain sealed away from the greater rebel cause, from her brother, from her enemy. Based on that premise, she created a new life for herself in the Grey Streets. How destructive was the unexpected turn going to be?
Faelan waited for them, almost lazy in his demeanor. She never recalled him enjoying plans and plots, and in the past, he readily used the first excuse available to leave such things to others. He must trust the four other Blue Council members greatly, to do so when his life depended on it.
“I’m Rinan,” Rin said as soon as he cleared the bottom rung.
“And I’m Scand,” Scand piped up. Their normal hesitancy with strangers was absent, and she wondered what they assumed about her brother to cause it.
“Call me Faelan,” he said congenially.
“You’s with them others from yesterday?” Rin asked.
“Yes. I arrived a day too late, it seems.” He smiled, then regarded her. His happiness dimmed ever so slightly. “But it’s never too late to renew kin ties.”
Well, she supposed he could be blunter, but not by much. “It’s been eight years.”
He nodded and fell into step with her as she turned towards the Lells Guardhouse, the rats on her other side. He wanted them to know that, but why did he want their relationship more open? “It seems everything’s changed,” he said. “But maybe not so much.”
What did he mean by that?
“Eight years?” Scand asked. “You’re talking about the fire?”
“It separated us through unintended ignorance,” her brother replied quietly.
“You look lots like the Lady,” Rin told him.
“We inherited our mother’s black hair and purple eyes,” he said. “I don’t think we look that much alike, but most others think we do.”
“I think you do,” Rin stated. Lapis pursed her lips and thought sour negatives at him. It meant that, as she predicted, the Jiy rebels would find the coincidence of black hair and purple eyes too compelling and would gossip about it. The traitor would find out about her long before he saw her, and plan accordingly.
Faelan knew him. He would know both his rebel and non-rebel name. She looked up at him, trying to coalesce a quick strategy to convince him to tell her. He raised an eyebrow, as if realizing her intent. He had a long track record of following her devious mind along its twists and turns and sometimes hampering the ending, but he had kept her from trouble on numerous occasions. Did he still have the knack?
She kept an eye out for the rebel tail as they skirted the main street of the Lells. Rin and Scand remained at her side, alert. Their gaze lingered too long on the average strolling tourist, and she had the urge to hiss at them to stop, but if they recognized someone who truly did not belong, they would tell her. Fyor’s insistent worry played them, hard, because they assumed underground retaliation. That may be; she would find out.
She hurried through the awning shadows and did not cross any of the busy thoroughfares until they reached the street upon which the guardhouse sat a few blocks up. They needed to worm through the crowd to the other side, but no one who might hold ill—
Everything melted into a dark red blotch of color, except for that tanned face, those dark eyes, the wispy brown curls that flew about his head as he laughed at something his companions said. Scarlet cheeks, scarlet throat, plain brown clothing . . . who would notice, if she slipped up from behind? She would spray his friends with his blood.
Red broke as Faelan slipped his arm about her shoulders and pulled her under a canopy, behind a stack of boxes of merchandise containing cheap clothing. His other hand rested on her wrist, keeping her arm down.
She had drawn her blade.
Faelan’s stern, cold voice wormed through the heat, chilled the hate, stopped her heart from racing so fast she gasped for breath.
“You know his name.” She sounded ugly. She sounded desperate.
“I’m not making him a martyr.”
“No,” she choked.
“Too many don’t see his evil. Too many will support his memory. We have evidence. You have to let that speak.”
“Lady?” Rinan asked, reaching out and touching her arm. His distress flowed over her, grounded her; Scand blinked too rapidly, his eyes over-bright. Blackness fuzzed at the edges of her sight, and she fought for the calm that encompassed her brother.
Dammit. He deserved to die. He deserved a knife to the back. He deserved to feed the ground with his blood and panic as he realized his life ran away with it.
The blade shot back into the sheath and she slumped, trying to suck in a trembling breath. She failed as hot tears heated her eyes and cheeks.
“We need a place for Lanth to calm down,” Faelan whispered, so soft she barely heard him over the general Lells noise.
She was vaguely aware Rin took the lead, of a cool drink set in her hand, Lyet’s urge to drink, and swallowing. She was vaguely aware of the sharp wind slicing through the already muggy heat wafting from the ground. She was vaguely aware of continued tears and her brother’s arms cupping her close.
One sinister, caustic sentence broke through, sharpened her thoughts, her intent. “Accidents are not always accidental,” Faelan said.