The Eaves’ cheery yellow oil lamps welcomed Lapis home. Customers stood outside the three-story, white stucco with half timbers building, smoking under the dark brown awnings, chatting, reluctant to begin the walk home even though most had to work the next day. They duly noted her, raised an eyebrow at her company, and turned back to their conversations.
Thankfully no one looked more interested than that. A chaser, accompanied by a guard, typically meant a large haul, and not all Eaves’ customers would leave her and her newfound wealth alone. While no one had yet discovered the stashes in her room, she distrusted her continued luck in that regard. Hopefully, once the custom realized Yedin and Linden were friends, and that the farmer had helped her with a stake, they would assume the three simply indulged in a friendly get-together to celebrate.
Linden looked nervously at the light crowd while Yedin appeared comfortable and curious. Surprisingly, the farmer decided to accompany her and the guard to the Eaves because he had a keen interest in exploring more of Jiy. He knew the streets around the farm stalls from which his family sold produce, but little else. Lapis had no idea what type of educational experience he expected, and she wondered if the Eaves would provide what he assumed. It was not exactly the rowdiest of places, a selling point for her initial decision to rent a room there.
“Come on in,” she said, motioning to the entry. The wide door stayed open in welcome during warm weather, allowing the noise and laughter to flow into the street and attract more custom. Lapis originally thought Dach’s insistence on it absurd, but when the wooden portal remained closed in the winter, she missed the sense of freedom it provided.
She did not have to worm her way to the bar, which she appreciated. Most of the customers sat at the tables opposite the counter, drinking and eating and gossiping, rather than keeping Dachs company. She settled herself against the brown-stained wall to wait for the barkeep to notice her. Linden appeared more nervous, and she winked, though her hood probably hid the show of support. He would relax, once some wine swam through him.
“Ah, Lady,” Dachs said, bustling up, wiping his large hands on a clean towel. He looked the part, with sleeves rolled up his muscular arms and wearing a linen apron, though anyone who underestimated the strength of the man and caused problems in the Eaves paid dearly for their ignorance. “Whatcha need?” She could practically hear his silent questions, and she patted his arm before leaning forward.
“I got a large stake,” she whispered.
“Sir Armarandos took it?”
“I’m buying dinner for the three of us. Mind if I pay tomorrow when there aren’t as many about?”
“Who’d you get?”
“The alchemist.” She barely voiced the words.
Dachs’s mouth dropped open, however briefly, and his brown eyes turned to saucers before he patted her shoulder in wonder. “Yeah. That’s fine. Do you want the meal from here? Dalia’s cookin’ stuffed biscuits and sweetrolls.”
“Sounds good to me. And some wine, to celebrate.”
“Don’t spill it on the books,” he said wryly.
As long as she kept the bottle more than a casual swatting distance away from the rats, it would be fine.
She straightened and, for the benefit of her guests, jerked her chin to the far back corner before wandering that way herself. She had told the street rats she was busy that night, but inevitably, a couple always showed up to read anyway. Scand and Brone sat there, their blond and black-haired heads squashed together while they tried to look over Phialla’s brown ponytail. She pressed her face close enough to the pages of her book, the bottoms of her thick glasses touched the sheets.
Perhaps she needed to purchase better eyewear for her. A blind street rat was a very vulnerable street rat.
“Have a seat,” she told the two men, then leaned over the table and eyed the three. “Be nice,” she instructed gruffly. That amounted to a severe warning that, if they did not obey, she would kick them out of the Eaves until their behavior improved. All three studied the men, then her as she made her way to the stairs.
Her door was unlocked, and she swung it open with a bang. Rinan only groaned and rolled over on the bed set against the opposite wall, wrapping her pillow about his head.
“Did I give you permission to sleep on my bed?” she asked grumpily as she kicked the door shut.
“No.” He snuggled down into the blankets.
“Then why are you there?”
“If you want to eat, get up.”
He kicked off the blanket and ran a hand through his unkempt sienna locks. While uncombed, they looked clean, and his clothing had the wrinkles of items washed, then dried while wadded up. He must have snuck into the Old Gods’ Temple Laundry and managed a bath that day. The street rats thought themselves clever when they did so; Lapis thought the servants feigned ignorance at their presence, since scented soap and clean if ragged towels always sat on the short cabinet in the small water room off the main one, awaiting use.
“You got the stake?” he asked, yawning.
“Yeah.” She flumped the bag of silver on the small round table situated in the middle of the room. Rin blinked, then sat up and bounded off the bed.
“Hey, now, that’s more’n what a bit thief’s worth,” he said.
“Yep,” she admitted as she poured the coins out. She needed to divide and hide them before anyone else realized she earned such a boon.
“Lady!” he exclaimed. “Who’d you get?”
She studied him before she retrieved several small pouches from her dresser. The rats gifted them to her, and now she had a reason to use them. “An accidental stake.”
“Not quite.” She raised a finger to her lips, wondering if she should say anything. But, of course, Rin would needle her until he got the information he wanted, and she did not want to navigate his guilt trip while guests sat at the table. “The alchemist,” she mouthed.
He gaped at her, his green eyes bulging as she filled one of the pouches.
“Lady,” he breathed.
“He was visiting my stake, got pissy, and took the thief out with that tech weapon of his. He broke it, and even though he tried, he couldn’t get it to work afterwards. He went to bed, I snuck in and knocked him out with sleep oil, and then off to the guardhouse with both I went.” She grinned. “There were some guards from Hoyt causing a ruckus. I got two of them on the way in.”
“Four stakes?” he asked, incredulous.
“Yeah. Sir Armarandos asked a guard to accompany me. His name’s Linden. Be nice. And the farmer helped with the guards. His name’s Yedin. Be nice.”
“I’s always nice,” he insisted as he grabbed a pouch and slid coins inside.
“Summa the young’uns, they showed up. Got ‘m t’ readin’ that knight book. They likes it.”
She tugged her hood off and tossed it on top of the dresser. “Most kids do like to read about knights fighting monsters.” She had, to the point her older brother absolutely refused to read her favorite book with her again, which, conveniently, coincided with its disappearance. She now admitted, after working with the rats, that her demanding the same story at bedtime for three years had probably driven him a little crazy.
“Yeah, but usually, them knights ‘er men, not women. Gabby’s real happy with that.”
Gabby held the notion that women possessed the sense and strength to do exactly what men did, only better. The other street rats teased her on her insistence, but she never wavered in the belief. Lapis wondered what she learned at her mama’s knee before she passed, but the girl rarely spoke of the painful subject. She had loved her mother, and having her only support ripped from her by age eight struck her hard. Rin discovered her wandering the Grey Streets, scared and alone, and brought her to the Eaves. Lapis and the others did their best to soothe her transition to street living.
Another failure of the sanctioned temples and orphanages, who never bothered to accept children from poor backgrounds because they did not have extended family to help cover costs. Gabby deserved better than a hidden cubby and random meals. All the street kids did, but in Jilvayna, that would never happen.
“Scand, Brone and Phialla are still here. I told them to be nice, too.” She eyed him in warning, then placed the bags in the cubby holes she had created about the room. Rin long ago understood how deeply she trusted him, that she never kicked him out of the room while she hid her pay, and even on his darkest days, he never stole from her. The Eaves’ customers often teased him on his self-control, since he kept his fingers out of her pockets but lifted from everyone else. He typically replied, ‘I’s the Lady’s man’, and refused to elaborate.
She still had not figured out which book he picked the phrase from, though she assumed it came from some fairy tale on knights. When she questioned him on it, he smiled smugly and remained mum.
“What’re we eatin’?”
“Stuffed biscuits and sweetrolls.”
He grinned widely. “Beats tryin’ t’ find some bread with the haul I gots.”
“We really need to work on your speech,” she told him. When motivated, he spoke with precision and care. Too often, he reverted to his charming street drawl. Charming street drawl would not net him a job, and they both knew it.
She withdrew the pins from her hair; the tightness had given her a headache. She slipped into the wardrobe that filled the right-hand wall, changed into more comfortable attire, and massaged her scalp before pulling her hair back in a long ponytail. She re-donned her throwing gauntlet and pouch; after her night, she decided being prepared was a prudent choice. Rin raised an eyebrow but said nothing as he kindly held the door for her. He locked it behind her and gave her the key; she wondered which hidden stash he plucked it from.
Yedin had the three rats’ full attention as he related the confrontation with the guards. Rin slid next to Scand and listened in while she accepted the wine flask and the special, fizzy drink for the kids from Dachs. She would have preferred straight water for them, but the Grey Streets did not have access to uncontaminated wells, so she bought them Dentherion drinks. Only Dentherion merchants imported them, and they made certain some of that money made it into city officials’ pockets, which guaranteed the same water conditions, and therefore the same profit, well into the future.
Which was why every Grey Streets establishment that had a shred of a reputation prominently displayed their large water tank somewhere on their property, and why they used it for only the most important things. Drinking, since alternatives were available, was never an important thing. Water cost too much to waste in that manner.
“And Lanth, she grabbed the crop from his hand! I don’t even think he realized she was there! How he howled about it!” Yedin grinned about, aware that more people than the kids paid attention to his rendition. “Howlin’s about all he did, too. Too scared, to get down and face her.”
“The Lady’s real intimidating,” Scand said, straight-faced.
“If you didn’t mess around so much, she wouldn’t be,” Phialla told him as Brone snickered.
“He finally had to dismount,” Yedin continued. “He was holdin’ the reins too tight, and the horse looked ready to buck and bolt. Woulda been somethin’, to watch him soar over the wagons and into the ditch. So he stamped on over to Lanth and told everyone he worked for Hoyt.”
Rin raised an eyebrow as the customers listening in exclaimed and murmured in surprise. He glanced at her and she lifted one shoulder as she slid the pitcher of fizzy drink to him and the kids. At seventeen, he was old enough for wine, but he had a particular soft spot for the sweetened liquid.
“That’s worrisome, innit?” he asked as he snagged a glass. “Hoyt movin’ in on them in the country?”
“It is,” she agreed as she slid wine glasses to the two men. “But it’s also not our problem to fix.” She poured herself some wine before passing the flask on, refusing to skimp on the alcohol. She slumped down on the bench next to Rin, happy to finally rest on something padded that did not move about. Months had passed since she last rode a horse for any length of time, and her thighs and back ached.
“Maybe that’s why he’s been hiring all those guards who were kicked out of the guilds,” someone at the next table hazarded. “He’s using them as bully boys to shake down the villages.”
“Maybe,” Yedin said. “But no one claimin’ to work for ‘m has reached mine. We’ve heard about ‘m, but it’s mostly rumor.”
“So his proclamation didn’t scare none?” Rin asked.
“No, it scared plenty,” Yedin said with a sad shake of his head. “There’s an older farmer from Brook’s Crossin’, goes by Dan. He had a wagon of winfruite headed for market. Took it off road, whippin’ his horses, frantic. Maybe he owes Hoyt, I don’t know. Seemed odd and misplaced, though. He went too far down the embankment, a wheel hit somethin’, and flipped the wagon right over. It took out a pair of oxen on the way down. Winfruite flew everywhere, and the animals near enough to receive a bounty ate them up.”
His exaggerated motions when he spoke about the wagon made her smile. “It was quite the distraction,” Lapis agreed.
“You got distracted?” Scand asked, eyes wide.
“Yes,” she sighed. “But so did the guard.”
Yedin chuckled. “I don’t think he knew what to do about it,” he said. “All the ruckus and noise diverted everyone from ‘m, and he wanted to be the star in his show.”
“Them’s ‘r the ones that fall quick,” Rin said before he took a sip and savored the flavor.
“He did, too,” Yedin said. “He didn’t expect Lanth to do anythin’ but cower and beg. She hit ‘m in the face with the crop and took out his knee while he was screamin’.”
“She’s the Manhater,” Rik, a deliveryman and Eaves’ regular, said with a snicker.
She rolled her eyes. She did not know when the average customer at the Eaves began to call her that, and the unfair assessment bothered her. True, she disliked many men, but not all men, just as she disliked many women, but not all women. Patch leapt to mind as one she liked, but no one at the inn knew about their relationship, and she would never tell them otherwise without his permission.
“Manhater?” Yedin laughed. “She did right by me. Since I helped her with that ass and his buddy, I got half the stake.”
“So you’re celebrating,” Rik said, nodding in approval before raising his glass and saluting them. A couple others followed suit.
“Never participated in a stake before,” he admitted. “Lookin’ through stake books wasn’t how I pictured chasers spendin’ their nights.”
Everyone laughed at that. “There’s a number of us who’ve done the same,” Rik said. “Chasers usually know who they got. ‘Keepers, not so much. It’d be nice, if they gave us more than a first name to go on.”
“What were you doin’ out-city, anyway, Lanth?” someone asked.
Lapis grinned. “I got the thief who looted Cossie’s place.”
“She’ll be happy to hear that,” Rik said with approval. Many customers agreed, and they raised their glasses in salute. Cossie had a warm personality and helpful nature, which went a long way on the Grey Streets. It was almost a currency, though she never used it as such. People liked her, and most said terrible, nasty things about whoever targeted her cozy store.
“You got a bigger stake, though, than a bit thief,” Brone said, eyeing the two men. “Otherwise, you wouldn’t be here, huh?” he asked, looking pointedly at Linden. “The guard was worth that much?”
“I got over two silver for ‘m,” Yedin offered.
He did not expect the loud, surprised congratulations that followed. Eaves’ customers tended to take a ‘Keeper job every once in a while to supplement their incomes, but she doubted many ever received two silver for it. Bit thieves, after all, were bit thieves.
Brone leaned over the table, suspicious. “Who’d ya get?” he asked in a low tone.
“A big ‘nuf fish t’ warrant a guard,” Rin replied. Both Scand and Brone squinted at him, realizing he knew, and pondering whether they had the clout to extract that information from the other lad. When he turned reticent, however, he kept his own counsel well. Lapis often banged her head against his stubbornness, and she doubted Scand ever had any better success. Brone normally threw his hands up in disgust and retreated, grumbling uncharitably about Rin’s obstinacy.
“Big enough to get you new glasses, Phialla,” she said as she sipped the wine.
“I don’t think I can handle new glasses,” she said drily, tapping the thick lenses.
“I have enough that you can visit Gervis. He can get you thinner glass.”
She perked up as both Scand and Brone stared, wide-eyed. “I can still make pots without them if you need the money for something else.”
“Nothing comes to mind.”
It surprised her, when the other three street rats did not protest. Usually, their sense of fairness and ‘share and share alike’ kicked in, and they demanded she purchase something for them as well. She understood it, considering they had nothing to begin with, but what Phialla needed outweighed new clothing and sweets.
“Sir Armarandos was delighted that he was there to take your stake,” Linden said, glancing at the kids before looking at her. “He said you always put the money to good use.”
That the five of them shrugged, in unison, made her inwardly sigh. “I suppose,” she said.
“This isn’t what I expected of a chaser,” Yedin admitted as he tipped back his wine. “I always pictured them as hard, cold, and always alone. You’d have to be, to do what they do.”
“Chasers I knows ‘re nice,” Rin disagreed. “ ’N what they do? Brings them that thinks they’s gotten ‘way with it t’ justice. ‘N they does it fer us paupers down in the Grey ‘n Stone Streets.”
“Some do,” Lapis murmured. The street rats held an inflated opinion of chasers because they knew her. She carefully selected her stakes and planned apprehensions in the same methodical manner. Several darker types took stakes because they thought excitement and killing would accompany the job. Justice had little to do with fulfilling their murderous yearnings.
“I’d think, it would be hard, to turn in someone in the same situation as yourself,” Linden said.
“Who says, they’s in the same situation?” Rin asked. “Chasers make good money, more’n us folks. They’s stayin’ in nice places ‘n gots families. They ain’t beggin’ fer bread.”
Lapis wondered what happened in the last few days, to make Rinan openly bitter. He typically held his opinions to himself, because too many on the Grey Streets simply wanted to live their lives in peace, rather than argue with a street rat about the squalid conditions and their lack of motivation to change it. She worried that he looked at the rebellion as a means to initiate societal transformation, and she knew, too well, the gut-deep, debilitating disappointment that accompanied that belief.
The food arrived, carried by Dani. She had joined in the reading circle once she realized what occupied Rinan’s nights, and quickly digested the books Lapis provided. She desired more and nosed about for jobs that would pay enough she could purchase reading materials. Dalia needed a helper in the kitchen, and the agreement they arranged satisfied everyone involved.
Rin glumly told her Dani had books clear to the ceiling in her room. Lapis reminded him that’s how jobs worked. He looked even glummer at the reminder. She discovered, much later, his attempts at finding work smacked up against his street urchin life, and potential employers found him wanting.
Stupid shits and their prejudices.
“Lady!” she breathed, her blue eyes sparkling. “I just bought a new book! It has all the plays Anres Playwright wrote!”
“I’ll borrow that,” she said with a smile.
“I figured you would.”
“Anres Playwright?” Yedin asked.
“He’s a Dentherion comic author who owned a theater company a hundred years ago,” Dani said brightly as she slid the heavy tray onto the table. “He mainly wrote about damsels in distress who really weren’t in distress, and who saved themselves when the knights who came to rescue them failed spectacularly and caused more problems. They’re really funny. Lady mentioned him when Gabby was asking about girl knights.” She eyed a disgruntled Rinan. “You’d like them, too. There’s always a jester character who tells the knight how badly he’s going to fail, and their words prove prophetic.”
“Jester character?” Scand snickered. Rin whapped his arm, annoyed, and Lapis sighed.
“Not the kind who wears funny hats and dances about with an exaggerated wand,” she said. Too many street performers relied on stereotypes to earn bits, and the jester personas aggravated her, though the Grey Streets appreciated their jokes. “The thoughtful, foil kind who knows better, whether the hero listens to them or not.”
Rin cast her a quick grin for that.
Scand truly had a death wish that night, did he not.
“NICE,” Lapis said forcefully through gritted teeth.
“Serves you right, if she kicks you out before you can eat,” Phialla told him as she snagged a roll. He made a face, and Lapis marveled at the elasticity in it. His exaggerations normally proved entertaining, but she realized she was not quite in the mood for his shenanigans. Rin’s disgruntlement worried her.
The two men ate nearly as fast as the street rats. Lapis sat back and leisurely chewed her way through a seasoned roll; if need be, she could find another source of food. She often let the urchins have what they wanted, considering how sparse and random their normal eating proved, and she saw no reason to change, though the rolls were very tasty. Rinan slid a couple onto a plate and set them before her, a silent demand she partake with the rest of them. She eyed him, but he ignored her and ate his fair share of the sweets.
Dani hopped back up as they finished the tray. “Do you want more, for the other rats?”
“I’ll make the rounds,” Scand immediately volunteered.
“’N I’ll go, t’ make sure he don’t eat ‘m all,” Rin said.
“I’d never!” Scand protested, puffing his chest out in indignation. Of course he would. He would weigh how much trouble he would find if he did so, and if the benefits outweighed the trouble, he would happily scarf down everything in sight. He already realized the trouble did not equal the benefits, a change in attitude from even a few months ago.
It took a moment for her brain to register, Gabby and Ness pelting through the crowd and zipping past them, heading for the stairs. Scand and Brone gasped, Phialla glanced up and looked around as Lapis rose, intent on the front door. She jerked her chin at Rin, and he scampered after the two younger rats.
“Stay,” she told the three urchins.
“Yes, Lady,” he said, but she caught the undercurrent of fear and uncertainty. The only reason rats raced through the Eaves, heading for her room, was if some guttershank had taken an interest in them and sought to kidnap them for illegal and despicable purposes. She told those who joined her reading circle, if danger came for them, run to the Eaves. She would care for the rest.
“What’s goin’ on?” Linden asked as the custom looked towards the door. The feel inside darkened considerably.
“Guttershank’s after the kids,” she said calmly as she walked to the front.