“Mama’s here,” someone gasped from the fog, their deep voice trembling.
“No, she ain’t,” another snapped, though he sounded as confident as a lad asking his crush to have dinner with him. Lapis heard several other panicked men, their words indistinct, hazy, despite the lack of other noise. She counted over a dozen unique voices, and she assumed several more accompanied them.
Sir Armarandos must inspire terror, indeed, for so many to gather to take him out.
Nevid quickly looked over his shoulder, while the men flanking him looked at one another then scattered into the fog. Lapis had always assumed stouter souls chose to enter the guard. Did the wealthier guardhouses have similar cowardly lots? Patch held disgust for most of them, arrived at by hard experience. His larger stakes required that he turn them in at a house that had more money at its disposal, and if this represented the quality he encountered, she understood his disdain.
Six men slunk into view, taking the place of the unfaithful guards. Guttershanks all, in various states of ratty dress and unkempt appearance. They held knives, nothing more, and she noted two clenched the handles so hard, they shivered.
Shouts and denials and a louder voice trying to intercede in what sounded like a growing dispute. Lapis hoped so; having guttershanks fight among themselves rather than target her and the knight would give them a chance.
“Predi, what’s going on?” Nevid called.
Predi? Lapis curled her fingers tighter into her palm. Predi was a chaser, not a guttershank, though he might as well have been one. He took nasty stakes, ones no official guardhouse would accept, ones that made it to the underground bookers. Patch had run into him a couple of times; the last incident left the other man with half an ear, time in a jail cell, and seething hatred for his better equipped and prepared rival.
Sir Armarandos glanced at her. “You know Predi?” he asked quietly.
“My partner’s tangled with him. He’s an underground hunter, usually takes death stakes.”
A jumble of men stumbled into view, swinging wildly at each other with short knives, screaming as they slashed and cut. Lapis smiled; good. Let them take each other out. Let them bleed enough, Mama Poison got curious and nosed about.
They barreled into one of the men behind Nevid, knocking him to the ground in a flail of arms and legs. He leapt up, pissed, slashing at them himself. “Yous all gonna pay, Pitsmellers!” he shouted. One of his fellows smacked him on the shoulder, annoyed, and he whirled, enraged. He shook off the touch and punched him in the side of the head; his buddy fell and meekly thrashed about before he managed to roll over onto his side.
Lapis heard the racing footsteps before a guttershank ran out of the fog, intent on her. Two others targeted Sir Armarandos. Her opponent raised his knife, holding it with the blade pointed straight down. She met the strike with her own weapon, hitting the side hard enough it flew from his hands and whipped through the air a couple of times before landing in the dirt near the walkway. He stared, hand still held out, and she kicked him in the gut. He gurgled and went down, clutching his stomach. She nailed him in the chin, hard, with the tip of her shoe. His head rocked back and he stopped moving.
Several men who followed in the fight’s wake noticed their unconscious buddy, then looked expectantly at the two attacking the knight. His nightstick flared bright, and his attackers jerked about and fell without catching themselves. They reacted moments too late to help their stricken companions, and rushed her and Sir Armarandos, racing around Nevid, who stared stupidly at the men sprawled at the other guard’s feet. Could he not process what just happened? Or had he realized his bid, despite the numbers he brought with him, had evaporated?
Had he truly expected to be rewarded for taking out a knight?
The guttershanks had knives, though their expertise varied greatly. Some dropped them as they overextended their inelegant slash while others flipped them about, intimate with their chosen weapon. Lapis did as she trained to do when outnumbered; she struck weapons from hands when she could and kicked them away, slashed fast and hard enough to drive the bodies away from her, and if she had to engage closer, jump about to avoid the blows, always moving.
A few enemies tried to retrieve their weapons, which proved difficult in the dense fog and rain. They slapped the earth with their hands, showering water and mud onto themselves, and groped about. Only two found them, and the handles were slick enough they had difficulties gripping them. They slipped out of their fingers and stuck in the soggy earth. She did her best to take advantage of their distraction and throw one of her small knives at them, striking them in the head or temple. They fell and remained down, holding their injuries.
One man managed to snag the back of her shirt; she twisted and struck, drawing a long line of blood from his right collarbone to his left waist. He howled and let go, and she knocked his feet out from under him. He thumped into the ground, hard, his head knocking back. Another leapt at her but lost his footing and hopped on one foot around her; she pushed him, hard, and he tumbled back and into a growing puddle.
She set her heel and spun, her blades jutting out. The men surrounding her backed up, away from them, and glanced at each other. They did not speak and continued to back away.
Nevid rushed in, holding the sheath over-tight while he frantically jerked at the hilt of his sword. He had not drawn it by the time he reached her; she sliced the hand that clutched the weapon and he howled, dropping it. The sheath’s tip rocked backwards and tangled in the legs of one the shanks who followed him. The shank stumbled forward, into his back, driving him forward.
She stepped to the side and slammed her knee into his abdomen; he grunt-squealed and fell, choking, while his buddy landed on top of him. The shank rolled off and struggled to regain his feet; she kicked his head and he nose-dived into the gravel.
Four men surrounded her, but oddly, did not throw a weapon. They all retained their knives, waving them about slowly, waiting for a chance to strike. She whirled and they jumped away from her blades, far enough they would have to run at her before they could harm her.
Red light zapped through the fog randomly, missing all marks, and the men screamed and scrambled backwards. She had nowhere to hide from the hidden assault in the yard. She could run to the guardhouse or flee, putting as much fog between them as she could. She only took a step before Nevid leapt at her, grabbing wildly for her left arm.
She easily sliced his hand with her right blade, whirled and struck his upper arm with her left; he howled and grabbed the bleeding appendage, red pouring from between his fingers. He had not worn his uniform; if he had, the sleeves had rougher leather protections for just such a thing. Instead, his well-made, thin Dentherion shirt provided no resistance. Had he bothered to prepare for his insurgency? Why not wear protection? Or had he just thought that numbers would do the knight in, and he could sit back and watch?
More red light lit the fog around her; their attacker could not see them, but he could hear Nevid, and did not seem to care who he hit with his random strikes. The guard was making enough noise to bring Mama in from half a city away to see about the commotion, so standing near him was not safe. If she tried for the guardhouse door, the light at the portal would make her more of a target. Did the enemy stand close enough to see the entrance? Should she chance it? Had other shanks hid inside? Probably, and she did not want to deal with them.
She did not see Sir Armarandos, but she knew he still lived. The muffled prattle and screams about her would have a different tone if they succeeded in taking him down. She caught a flash of light, too quick to focus upon, and smiled. The fog made a head shot nigh impossible, and he wore armor. Lucky him.
Lucky them. She did not understand why their enemy decided to attack in the dense fog, which inhibited their assault. Why not chose another night? Or had Nevid thought that a Mama Poison walkabout would provide the perfect opportunity for insurrection? Feeding the knight to her would hide the evidence of murder, and most would consider the unlucky circumstance an accident. Good thing, neither Mama nor Sir Armarandos were so accommodating.
Her neck hair prickled, so she jumped to her right side and then spun; her left blade struck something, then sliced through hard resistance. The man screamed as she faced him; the guttershank held his shoulder, sobbing and drooling, the rain making the blood run faster. He had some sort of jerry-rigged breastplate made from wood, and her weapons had struck the left side and left a deep line across it. Cracks ran from her cut, and she doubted the protection would hold under a protracted assault. Old wood would not stand against her blades for long.
She did not have to worry. The red light struck him, at the edge of the plate. Splinters showered about him, and he howled as the acrid smell of burnt flesh reached her nostrils. She fought not to puke; those memories, the burned smell wafting from the remains of her family, her home, had to wait.
“Stop shooting at us!” one of the shanks called, his tone strained and furious. The shot that immediately went his way proved his buddy did not care for the castigation. If they fought among themselves until help arrived, the better for her. Who knew, maybe the ragged support would leave, unwilling to die in a hail of friendly fire for this particular stake.
A shank edged towards her, hand out with knife, but trembling badly enough she guessed he did not want to attack. Had he joined this little outing, thinking the others would easily dispatch their targets, and he would get a bit or two for just being there? She did not hear any others around or behind her but did a whirl anyway to double-check. The shank stopped and refused to come closer, keeping the weapon pointed at her. He had his teeth tightly clenched, his lips pulled tightly over them. Would he convince himself to take another step?
Something whizzed past his back, a ball of shimmery yellowish light. She heard it impact the side of the guardhouse with a cracking crash. Bits of wood and stone flew out of the fog. She hunched down and covered her head as debris smacked into her; luckily, the bits were small and not sharp enough to tear her clothing.
The guttershank fled, shrieking, quickly disappearing into the mist. She heard others shouting, their voices shaking, receding; the hired help did not like being attacked by tech, and vacated for safer pastures. So should she; attempting Patch-cool in stressful situations worked well enough, but the unknown tech broke her concentration and her mind desperately wished to chatter nonsense at her.
She heard the crunch and squeak of heavy, wet boots on gravel. A man slowly waltzed into view, holding a weapon like the one the guttershank had deployed at the Eaves; red Dentherion tech, shaped like an extremely short, round boomerang, and no obvious trigger. He dressed in brown leather, with thicker chest, upper arm and upper leg pieces sewn into them. Predi? She looked but could not tell if he had half an ear; wet hair plastered the sides of his head. He dressed like a hunter, though, and considering Nevid called out to him, she decided her guess was accurate.
She raised her weapons, her attention on his tech. Red normally meant cheap, unreliable Dentherion tech, but if this weapon had shot the red lights, it posed too great a danger to disregard.
He pointed it at her. “Who in the Pit are you?” he asked calmly.
His immediate grin tightened her stomach. “Play all you want. I owe your partner, you shit.”
She jumped to the side and rolled. He missed with his first shot, and she heard an odd sizzle behind her after the second. She raced into the fog, weaving back and forth, rolling through a puddle. Dammit. Better that, than burnt flesh. The red light continued to shoot through the fog, but nowhere near her.
How had the underground found out about Patch? Or did he just assume she had a male partner, and made a ploy?
She stumbled over an object low to the ground. Dammit, she needed to pay better attention than that. Her life depended on it. She crashed to the ground and jumped back to her feet as the object teetered about but did not tip over. It looked like a small cannon but made of much lighter material, with a long red lever along the top. It had red streaks down the barrel, matching the weapon Predi boasted. What happened to the person manning it? Or had that been the hunter, and he took his murderous intent into his own hands?
She skirted the edge of the gravel and grass until she saw flashes of light from Sir Armarandos’s nightstick. She headed that way, not certain what else to do. She did not think it had been long enough to expect help, and none of her rebel companions had the armor to mitigate a tech attack.
Why had they divided their attack and gone after her, and not concentrated on the knight? His stick gave him away, and the cannon shot could have taken him out without being particularly accurate. Did they assume his marching shirt kept him safe from a stronger attack? Predi, if meant to provide support for Nevid, should have focused on the knight. But so should have Nevid. Instead, both targeted her. The guard superior even called her a snitch. Orinder must have said something and they decided to get rid of a problem.
She knew better than to sneak up on a fight-intent person. “It’s me,” she called before she neared enough to see him. She heard a meaty thump before he walked through the fog, towards her voice.
“They have some sort of cannon tech,” she told him. “Blew a hole in the side of the guardhouse.”
He hissed through his teeth. “I don’t know whether to thank the fog or no,” he told her. “I believe their misses and general ineptitude are the result of it, however. Are you alright?”
“Yeah. Predi has a tech weapon, like the one the guttershank at the Eaves had.”
“Interesting.” He paused and listened. Lapis stopped to his side, but did not hear anything, either.
“The ones attacking me fled after the cannon shot missed and hit the guardhouse,” she whispered. “Predi’s still here, though. There were a lot of men around, and I doubt all of them were so cowardly as to run.”
“True,” he replied in a very quiet tone. They heard the over-loud creak of chains, an unexpected, grating sound. “Come,” he told her.
She followed him to the stable, which stood empty but for a few piles of hay and two troughs. The air was clearer within, though wisps of haze still floated about. They stood just inside the large sliding door, pressing back against the rough wood. Sir Armarandos peeked around the corner, then shook his head.
“There were a few moments, when I thought Mama was here,” he told her. “Her odor was strong. The guttershanks fighting me fled at one point, and I think they thought she had arrived.”
“There were a lot of shanks, far more than Nevid needed to take you out.”
He laughed silently. “But they have not done so, have they? Perhaps they needed more.”
She admired his brass. “Point taken.”
“I’m not familiar with most of them,” he told her, “and I look through the stake books on a regular basis and have dealt with my fair share through the guard. I doubt they’re clean, but they must be bit shanks from the Stone Streets who have never drawn attention to themselves. It’s interesting, that Nevid is using them. He is not one to find much of worth in those less fortunate than himself. They must be on loan from someone else, and since Seft is associated with Hoyt, I assume he is the underboss Nevid propositioned. Hoyt certainly has enough sway to frighten a few desperate shanks into completing this stake.”
“It might explain Predi’s presence, but he came after me. He said he owes my partner.”
The knight raised an eyebrow. “Does he, now?”
“Their last encounter wasn’t friendly.” She took a deep breath. “He shouldn’t know who my partner is,” she admitted. “We keep it quiet on purpose. He’d never tell, and I haven’t said a word.”
“Predi may have lied, to rattle you,” Sir Armarandos said. “We will find out.” He peeked around the corner again. “I dislike hiding, but I see few options,” he murmured. “We have an unknown number of enemies, some carrying tech, prowling the fog. Help will arrive, but I’m uncertain when.”
“And the fog isn’t going to help them tell friend from foe,” Lapis said. “How many did you take out?”
“Over a dozen,” he said. “I injured far more who have fled.” He held up the nightstick. “My father insisted that I train in its use. I’m grateful he demanded it. And you?”
“Those I took out might not stay down for long. I tripped them, kicked them, kicked their weapons away from them. They didn’t seem easy with their knives. I’m betting you’re right about the bit shank part. They thought they’d get some easy coin without putting forth much effort, and when they realized they were wrong, ran away.” She paused and heard it again. The warble of a nighthawk. Rin?
She warbled back. Sir Armarandos glanced at her but waited patiently as they heard the creak of boards on the roof. She did not hear anything else until a faint whisper floated from outside the door.
Guard Superior Fyor.
“We are here,” Sir Armarandos whispered back. Lapis wondered if he heard, but the man slipped into the stable, Ciaran and Rin with him.
The rats had made it to the Eaves and the Lells Guardhouse. She relaxed, thankful they met no harm. She would yell at Rinan later, for putting himself in needless danger by returning. Rats did not need to involve themselves in this sorry business.
They hid to the side of Lapis. Ciaran touched her shoulder, and she patted his hand, relieved. “Raban didn’t make it back?”
“He beat the rats there,” he whispered. “Apparently Orinder’s house was the meeting place for the leaders of this attack. He said Orinder was pretty pissed when he realized what the men were using his shack for, but they threatened him and he went and hid. He knew the nearest guardhouse was this one, and he figured you’d come here with your info. The rats met us on the way and confirmed it.”
“We were ready, though I was surprised it was Scand that brought the news,” Fyor told them. “We encountered a few shanks on the way, the only citizens on the streets that we noticed. One was burnt, so we figured someone had tech. We heard nothing when we got here, though. Our men have circled the house, and your friends are quietly looking about.”
“I’m certain some are still here,” Sir Armarandos said. “An underground hunter named Predi is among them. He has a weapon similar to the one the guttershank at the Eaves possessed, and it is functional.”
“There’s also a cannon tech I stumbled over,” Lapis said. “It blew a hole in the side of the guardhouse. It’s on the gravel, but I’m not exactly certain where.”
Rin’s eyes widened while Fyor and Ciaran looked grim.
“It seems that Nevid has thrown his lot in with Hoyt,” Sir Armarandos said. “But there must be more to it. Even if this group managed to kill me, they have no chance of avoiding my father’s wrath afterwards, and Nevid is especially vulnerable. Gall will not protect him or his family. This guardhouse, to my knowledge, does not have a safe space for captured tech, and no one was in a cell. Why risk this for no obvious gain?”
“A warning?” Ciaran offered.
“Perhaps.” The knight smiled. “If so, Hoyt has greatly misjudged my support. My father personally took out the leader of the Minq Syndicate in Jiy, when he was old enough no one thought of him as a threat. Hand to hand combat, and he won in a matter of moments. The larger underground organizations have not forgotten, and they are comfortable in leaving him alone as long as he returns the favor. They will be very displeased to hear about Hoyt provoking him.”
“Is your father that powerful?” Lapis asked.
“Yes,” the guards said together. “He’s the most influential man you have never heard about,” Fyor continued. “He holds more sway in court than Gall, and while he demurs, I’m fairly certain he’s the richest noble in Jilvayna. He’s on speaking terms with the Lord’s Council, as well as Shorven Minq and Double Catch, the Ram Syndicate’s leader.”
“He gets around,” Lapis murmured.
“You’ve no idea,” Sir Armarandos said with a suffering sigh. “He gets bored. When he gets bored, he bookers agreements between the Minq and Taangis for tech. He chases petty thieves into the underground to face their underbosses. He meets with Krios for tea.”
Lapis congratulated herself for not dropping her jaw to the floor. He met with Krios for tea? She glanced at Ciaran, who did not react, but he had to feel shock as well. Krios did not have much contact with anyone from Gall’s court, considering he and the rebellion wished to retake his ancestral position and put him on the throne. He remained in hiding for a reason, and, as she remembered, only used Midir with all but his very most closest friends.
Did Sir Armarandos’s father have a rebel name?
“We must see, if they are searching for something within the guardhouse,” the knight said as he peeked around the door again. “Lady Lanth, I thank you for your assistance, but since guards have arrived, I ask that you leave the remainder of clean-up to us.”
Rinan looked disappointed. Lapis wanted to smack him. “Of course, Sir Armarandos.”
“Whatever your group finds, you can make a report,” Fyor told them.
The two guards hastened from the stable, but Lapis grabbed Ciaran and Rin before they followed. “I want to find that cannon, before it causes more problems,” she told them. “I’m not certain where, exactly, it is, but I can guess.”
“It took out the side of the house?” Rin asked, dubious.
“Yep. And I don’t want it used on Sir Armarandos and Fyor and their people. Or on us.” She took a deep breath. “Predi’s after me,” she admitted. “He’s carrying a working tech weapon, and I don’t want him to get that cannon and use it, too. He was haphazardly shooting into the fog earlier, so he doesn’t care who gets hit.”
“Why is he after you?” Ciaran asked, concerned.
She shook her head. “He said he owed my partner,” she whispered. “He shouldn’t know who that even is.”
He rolled his eyes. “Well, that will last for about as long as it takes for you to tell him,” he reminded her.
“They’ve tangled before,” she told him.
“Which will give him more reason to take him out.”
Rin glared at them, folding his arms, his lower lip stuck out. Stubborn rat, she was not about to tell him who her partner was. She turned on her heel and marched out of the stable.
“Lady!” he whined. She ignored him.
The two followed her into the fog, and she did her best to orient herself and scamper to where she thought she discovered the weapon. Rin smacked her shoulder and pointed; he had noticed it first, and so had someone else. Caitria sat on the ground, legs splayed wide, a panel removed, rifling through the wiring. Mairin stood next to her, alert, and had nothing but relief when she recognized them.
“This isn’t Dentherion tech,” Caitria told them as she ripped a few more wires out. “The shell is, but the innards are Taangis.” She looked up at them. “The actual weapon is set inside on small ledges and held in place by clips. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s pretty unstable, and as like to blow the shell apart as to fire correctly.”
“So the Jiy underground is hiding Taangis tech within Dentherion tech?” Ciaran asked, though he did not sound as shocked as Lapis felt.
“I couldn’t say, but that’s how this one is set up.” She looked at them, serious. “It means that those eggs you found might well be ready to deploy. Raban described them, and it would be simple to hide a smaller Taangis trigger in the covered side.”
Shit. Her chest went cold.
“We need to get this to the guards surrounding the place,” Lapis told her, concentrating on something other than the dread she could have accidentally blown Brander and the rats into oblivion. “We don’t want any of the shanks to try and use it against us.”
“Alright.” Caitria carefully withdrew a far smaller device from the cannon; it had several blinking lights running along the thin black metal sides, four silver rectangles at the end, divided by a thick layer of copperish material. The tip was a small triangle. “But it’s not operational anymore.”
“The thing that hit the guardhouse was as large as my head,” Lapis said, staring. Another device must be somewhere in the fog, one large enough to produce what she had seen.
“Some of Taangis’s tech produces small shots of energy that grow larger as they discorporate.”
Now was not the time to argue about it. Ciaran aided Caitria while Lapis and Rin took the lead and Mairin took the rear. The rat had a phenomenal sense of direction, even in the fog, and he led them almost directly to the wagons that the Lells guards had brought. No one stood around, and as she paused, she heard, though did not see, fighting.
She had a very bad feeling.
She heard a nighthawk. Rin immediately answered. Before she could chastise him, Brander and Tearlach appeared out of the fog, scaring her near to death. They did not apologize, either, which caused a burst of hot anger before their words sunk in.
“The guards here were hiding some tech,” Brander said, winded. Tearlach bent over, wincing. “It doesn’t look like anything I’ve seen before. Most of the underground stuff is small, and if it works, it works poorly. A wagon pulled up to the back and they loaded it onto it. It’s huge, it’s heavy. It’s a box, but there’s odd, colored lights running up the edges, and a panel that’s flashing red. It was making a whirring sound and the shanks weren’t happy with that. They’re afraid.”
“They might abandon it?” Lapis asked.
“We need to get to it,” Caitria said. “It might be malfunctioning.”
“Take Mairin and go,” Ciaran told her, taking the full weight of the cannon. “We’ll get this to the guard.”
She thrust the device at Lapis; she juggled it as Brander and Tearlach led the two women into the fog. It swallowed them quickly, even muffling their footsteps.
“She knows a lot about tech,” Rin said, holding out his hands, expecting to help cart the cannon to the guard.
“Yeah. She had an interesting childhood.”
“Interesting?” Lapis grumbled as they continued on their way.
“She was raised around tech. You won’t see the fear in her that others have when they encounter it. She finds it normal.”
“Where was she raised? Dentheria?”
Abastion was like all other Dentherion vassal states; tech was illegal, and the penalties for possessing it severe. Where, exactly, might she have experienced enough tech to not fear it?
Lapis heard several someone’s running right before a gaggle of men raced into view, too close to avoid them. Her heart sank as she recognized Predi in the lead. They stumbled to a halt as they realized their escape route had people in it; the hunter grinned and raised his tech.
She did not think; she popped a knife and threw, hard. It tore through his thin gloves and embedded itself between his fingers. He howled and dropped the weapon, unable to hold it. He bent over as he worked the little knife free, screaming curses. Instead of retrieving the tech, his buddies turned and fled backwards. Bit shanks, indeed.
Rin surged ahead and caught the weapon with the tip of his shoe, sending it reeling into the fog. He rolled as the hunter swiped at him, popped up faster than water on hot grease, and backpedaled before skidding up to them. Ciaran settled the cannon down, and Lapis gave the device to the rat; he would outrun the hunter, if this went poorly.
Predi dropped the knife and drew a long dagger with his uninjured hand, his eyes hot with rage. “You’ll all die,” he informed them. “I’ll throw you in the Pit myself!”
He was fast. Lapis barely avoided the slash of blade. She rolled and circled him while Rin planted himself out of the way. Ciaran turned sideways and stayed clear of the long reach of the dagger, moving as she did. Moving targets were more difficult to strike.
“So who are you?” Predi asked Ciaran as he turned on his heel, paying more attention to the man than either Lapis or Rin. Yet another shank, impresses with a weaponless man while ignoring the fully prepared woman. She should stick him for idiocy. “You’re not her partner.”
“As if I’d divulge to you.”
Predi snarled. “You’ve gotten on the wrong side of Hoyt,” he informed them. “You think you’re going to make it out of here alive?”
For the poise and deadliness Lapis expected in a hunter of Predi’s caliber, he did not seem all that confident, relying on threats rather than action. Had he depended overmuch on his tech, using it as a fear-inspiring object before taking down his stakes, rather than ability? That would explain why he preferred to face an unarmed man rather than her and her blades.
A large, muddy rock bounced off his shoulder; he dropped the dagger with a rough curse. Neither she nor Ciaran were near enough to kick it away before he retrieved it, but he ducked as another rock struck him in the back. The simplest weapons proved the most effective in some situations, and she knew some rats practiced throwing rocks in defense. Predi tried to straighten; another stone smacked him in the temple, bits of mud flying from the strike zone. He stumbled and went down, stunned. Lapis hopped in and kicked at the hand that held the dagger; it bounced away and landed within grabbing distance.
The hunter dug under his chest leathers and withdrew a disc. He flung it at Rinan, who hopped out of the way and ran from it, joining her on her side of the enemy. The object exploded, water, mud, gravel whooshing into the air before pattering about them. Predi covered his eyes with his upper arm to protect them; Ciaran did not bother. He kicked the man in the side, and when he howled and instinctively clutched at his ribs, nailed him in the head with his heel, a precise attack. He went limp.
“Grab the cannon,” he told them as he picked up the dagger. She and Rin snagged it and fled into the fog. Moments later, Ciaran followed, guarding the rear.
They happened upon more wagons by accident. The guards jerked into fighting position before one raised his hand and called them off; Linden, the ex-farmer who had escorted her back to the Eaves after she received her pay for the alchemist.
“Lady Lanth,” he said, eyeing the cannon with distrust.
“The attackers were using this,” she told him, indicating the outer shell. “It had that bit of tech inside it,” and she pointed to the device Rin held. A few guards back up while most paid closer attention to it. Linden cautiously retrieved it and turned it about in his hands.
“What is it?”
“I don’t know. There was an explosion that took out the side of the guardhouse, and I think this did it. There’s more tech, too. The guttershanks loaded a large box from the house into their wagon. It had running lights and a red panel that was blinking.”
“That doesn’t sound like something Tree Streets should have,” one of the other guards said. “It isn’t designated a tech confinement place.”
“Weren’t you with Sir Armarandos?” Linden asked.
“Sir Armarandos and Guard Superior Fyor went to see what’s up.”
“Of course they did,” the other guard muttered, exasperated.
“What is Superior Nevid doing?” Linden asked, shaking his head as he continued to study the device. “This is far more than being upset about his lack of promotion.”
“I think it has a bit more to do with him personally hating Sir Armarandos than anything about a promotion,” Lapis said. “Where do you want this?”
The guard had them load the cannon into one of the wagons; several had tarp covering somethings that poked up from the bottom. They had arrived prepared—which meant Sir Armarandos had suspicions about Nevid’s dealings long before that night. Why were they not using it? The fog?
“There was a hunter named Predi, who had this,” Ciaran said as he placed it next to the cannon. Before Linden could ask, the ugly smell of carrion lizard wafted to them. Lapis covered her nose and choked as she heard the very faint knell of a hand-held bell.
“Really?” Linden asked, outraged. “Could this night get any worse?”
Red light impacted one of the wagons, bursting into sparks and wood shards.
Lapis grabbed Rinan and they hid with Linden and Ciaran behind the one holding the cannon, as more flashes zipped past. They came from multiple directions, making it difficult to pinpoint a source. Who was wielding the tech? The guttershanks she had faced only held knives; had reinforcements arrived, to move that box?
Rinan brought his knees up and hunched over them, shielding his head. She placed a comforting hand on his back and made certain to glare death at Linden, who turned a brilliant shade of red, almost as bright as the red lights zipping around them. Ciaran, the ass, chuckled.
“My mother tells me I tempt fate too often,” he told them. “But even I’ve never said that.”
A couple of the other guards laughed, sounding far too happy, considering the situation.
The lights whizzed over them, into the night, far over the guards and wagons. She watched the attack, heard the bells get closer, and hissed through her teeth. “They’re aiming for Mama Poison,” she said in disbelief. Linden and a few of his fellows looked up, realized the lights did not come near the wagons, and nodded.
“The smell and bells are coming from this direction,” the guard admitted. His exasperated companion shook his head.
“That’s stupid,” he growled. “What do they think’s going to happen, if they hit a bellringer?”
“I don’t think they’re thinking about that,” Ciaran said.
“The hired help I fought were reactionary and scared, definitely not professional,” Lapis told them. “But they didn’t have tech. They had knives.”
“I’ll go warn the ringers,” the exasperated guard said before heading into the fog, keeping his head low.
If Lapis had not been sitting, she never would have felt the earth shake, ever so slightly. Rin’s head popped up; he felt it too. She hissed, loud, and the guards looked at her as the crisper sound of a handbell called out from their right. A very large shape moved opposite them, mostly hidden, just a smear of blacker black against the night. The black swallowed a few red lights; they hit and evaporated, no sparks, no burnt flesh. Thick lizard hide protected Mama to the point she did not even flinch when struck.
The shanks were in for a very rude surprise.
Lapis glanced at Linden. “Sir Armarandos told us to scat, since you’d arrived,” she informed him. He tore his gaze away from the large shadow and nodded.
“Now might be the time to do it,” he agreed.
She gripped Rin’s shoulder, glanced at Ciaran, and scurried on her hands and knees to the other side of the wagons before rising, hunched over, and retreating into the fog, following the sidewalk to the nearest streetpost. It had a dim light over the sign, but not enough to illuminate much beyond a small circle.
“We need to get the others,” she told them.
“I can gets us behind the house,” Rin said. He glanced towards the wagons. “Mama’s on this side, n’ the house’ll block her from gettin’ out back.”
He confidently took the lead. Lapis rarely asked the rats about their activities outside the Eaves, but the ease in which he traversed the streets, slipped behind bushes, and navigated through tumbled bits of wall made her wonder about their knowledge of places outside their immediate living area. The Gardens was not a simple walk down the street from their cubbies.
She heard a faint nighthawk; for a rebel, it was not a terrible mimic, though she could tell a real nighthawk had not made it. Rin turned, but Ciaran grabbed his arm and pushed both of them around the corner they had just traversed. They planted themselves against the damp wall and waited for whoever he had noticed to arrive.
“He’ll come after you,” someone said it a hot voice.
“So? Not standin’ ‘bout, t’ get eaten.”
“Not makin’ ‘nough on this t’ fight Mama,” a third said. Raggedly dressed men hurried past them, four ahead of a frustrated fifth, not a one paying attention to their surroundings.
“Hoyt wants this delivered tonight.”
“He c’n comes n’ do it hisself,” the second snapped. “You said there weren’t to be guards about. There’s plenty.”
“Where you gonna run?”
Lapis bit her lip and Rin smiled; they both knew she would have made the same reply.
Her humor did not linger long. Hoyt was involved in Nevid’s scheme—or should she reverse the rolls? It did not matter; she did not believe Sir Armarandos would allow either to remain unscathed after this confrontation.
“Must not have paid enough bits,” Ciaran said as they faded from view.
“Hoyt skimps on his pay,” Rin told him. “We all knows it. Stone Street shanks complain ‘bout it lots. Scarin’ ‘m into helpin’ ain’t workin’ much anymore, ‘cause they’s getting’ caught n’ can’t afford t’ pay themselves outta it.”
The nighthawk whistled and Rin whistled back before they crept towards the sound. The rebels had taken a position in the corner of the back yard, behind bushes sparse of leaves. The wagon stood in hazy view, the tongue broken, no ox in sight. Guards and shanks circled each other, with several on the ground, some rolling in pain, others motionless.
A high whir filled the air, almost drowned by the yelling. It came from the box, which looked rather pretty, the multi-colored lights on the edges soft and blinking in the mist. Even the glow of red at the bottom did not look dangerous.
Caitria stared at the box while Mairin and Brander leaned against the wall, bored, chafing their arms against the cold. “They’ve activated it,” she told them. “I don’t think they meant to, and no one seems to know what to do about it.”
“Mama’s here,” Rin said. “Out front.”
“Probably why the ox freaked out,” Brander replied. “It went bonkers and it was strong enough to break free. It trampled a few on its way to wherever it was going. The shanks had no option but to face the guard, if they didn’t want to lose the box.”
“Is it going to explode?” Ciaran asked.
“Maybe.” Caitria took a deep breath and rubbed a hand across her cheek. “I’m not certain it’s a weapon, though. It reminds me of the devices that Dentherions use in windmills to collect power. If the guttershanks think this is weapons tech, I think they’re wrong.”
“It’s been up for a while, and it hasn’t exploded,” Lapis reminded them. “I’m certain most Jilvaynians who see this will think it’s a weapon, because of the blinking lights. And it’s big, so they’ll think it has a lot of power to kill.”
“How badly do you want to take a look?” Ciaran studied the box briefly, then glanced at Caitria.
“Not badly enough to wade through that,” she said, indicating the fighting men.
“We met that hunter. He had some papers on him, but I haven’t had time to read them. We should retreat and take a look when we get back to the Eaves.”
“Hope Mama eats ‘m,” Rin declared darkly.
“He’s bloody, and if he hasn’t gotten back up, she will,” Lapis said.
“You think he’d be gettin’ back up?” Rin asked wryly. Ciaran said nothing, and she had no idea how to respond. It bothered her, that not only did the rat know she had friends outside the confines of Jiy, she had dangerous friends. What might he think about her partner, in that context? He would badger her needlessly about him, and she did not want to navigate the prodding.
New people swarmed the back of the house, dressed in uniforms that looked like they belonged to a noble household; guards did not wear dark rose and gold. Had Sir Armarandos’s father sent them? The shanks fell or fled under the fresh arrival’s onslaught, leaving the large box behind. Caitira blew out her breath, then pushed from the bushes and trotted over to it. Lapis immediately followed, holding her hands up to show that they did not possess a threat.
“Sir Armarandos!” she called.
“You listen well,” she heard his faint, annoyed voice.
“Better sometimes than others,” she replied. “We found that cannon and disabled it.”
“It isn’t safe to be here,” Fyor said, trotting towards them.
“I don’t think that’s a weapon,” Caitria said firmly. “I think it’s a battery.”
“A battery?” the guard asked, pausing.
“I think she’s right.”
The voice belonged to an old man who seemed to stand tall, despite the bend in his upper back. He had thin snowy hair that reached his shoulders and an over-large, saggy rain hat that hid his eyes. He wore a heavy coat of a sleek black material that caused the rain to roll off rather than soak in.
“Do you.” Affable and easy-going Sir Armarandos had turned into a man Lapis easily pictured biting through an anvil. So his daddy had arrived to help his son, who did not appreciate him butting in.
The elder waved his hand. “You expected me to sit around while these shanks got it in their heads to attack?”
“Have you seen this type of battery before?” the elder asked, ignoring his son’s anger as he peered at them from under his hat.
“Not specifically, but it reminds me of the ones used in windmills.”
“Ah!” His eyes brightened. “I hadn’t thought of that. It looks a bit like the ones that nobles in Dentheria use as back-up power sources to their homes.”
“One way to find out.” Caitria hefted herself onto the wagon and propped the glowing red panel open.
Sir Armarandos was not the only one who had brass.
Fyor ordered the men to back up as she briefly studied the inside of the panel. She flipped something and the whirring slowed, then stopped. The elder nodded.
“Yes. And there’s something odd about it. The writing on the panel isn’t Lyddisian.”
The man frowned and bent over the back of the wagon, squinting as Sir Armarandos came to stand next to him. Caitria sat on the wagon edge and flipped her legs over, jumping down while the two studied it. She walked to Lapis, chewing on her bottom lip. Did she know the language? If so, it bothered her enough not to say.
“Can’t place it,” the elder muttered.
“It’s Taangin,” Sir Armarandos said in a heavy voice.
Taangis tech? Nevid had a lot of explaining to do.
“That cannon, I took it apart,” Caitria said Caitria said in a rush, as if overriding her better judgement. “It had Taangis tech inside, with a Dentherion shell.” She regarded Sir Armarandos, serious. “Lapis found some eggs at that merchant Orinder’s place. If they’re normal, they’re duds. If they are like these and have a Taangis trigger hidden in the closed side, they may very well be ready to explode.”
“There were dozens of them,” Lapis said.
“Fyor, we need men to go to Orinder’s place, now,” Sir Armarandos told him. They busied themselves in arranging a raid, while the elder smiled at them, his teeth strongly white against his tanned skin.
“Good, to see not everyone’s a screaming baby when it comes to tech,” he said, very amiable, though he obviously directed his words at the guards who gave the box a very wide berth.
“No, sir,” Caitria said.
He patted Lapis’s arm. “Like mother, like daughter,” he hazarded in a low rumble. She barely heard him over the drum of rain on the gravel and choked as Caitria’s eyes widened.
“You must be mistaken—”
“No. I’d never mistake Iolanthe’s daughter.”
Horror coupled with tears never made a good pairing. The elder sighed, a deeply sad response. “Her and Thyra, they livened up the dullest days. Jiy got very boring, after they left.” His face smoothed, but the glint in his eyes reflected an anger as deep as his sadness, an anger that Lapis understood all too well. It dwelled in the pit of her soul, too dark to study long, too violent to release. “Every evil deed has its payback,” the man promised. His tone, so dark, so vicious, and Lapis believed him. “His will come.” He waved his hand, as if to rid himself of the pain. “That’s for another day, however,” he said, in a louder voice. “If Mama’s around, you might want to head home. No use getting under her feet when you can avoid it.”
“Which is where you should be,” his son reminded him without turning about.
“Sitting on my hands worrying isn’t my style.”
“I have known you long enough to understand that.”
The elder huffed and puffed out his chest. Lapis did not think the impending battle of strong wills between father and son needed her presence; Fyor jerked his head at the remainder of their group, and she and Caitria trotted over to them.
Lapis wanted the day done. Too bad, they still had to walk back to the Eaves. And then the House, because she did not have enough extra bedding to make the rebels comfortable in her room.
Did she really have to walk back to the House? The thought of Rinan refusing to let her sleep, sitting cross-legged on the floor, glaring and pestering her with questions about her friends, the night . . .
No. She would welcome the walk and thank the non-existent gods that she had an excuse to avoid the street rat and his insatiable curiosity.