Chapter 8: Unwelcome Surprises

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“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. Over a dozen unique, panicked voices drifted to Lapis, their words indistinct, hazy, 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 always believed stouter souls entered the guard. Did all 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 with a richer safe, 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, with the distinction in name only. He took nasty stakes 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 through the fog, crazily swinging short knives at their buddies, 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, Piteaters!” 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 rolled over onto his side.

Racing footsteps preceded a guttershank running 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 weapon, hitting the side with enough force 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.

Good.

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 his superior’s feet. Could he not process what just happened? Or did he realize his bid, despite the numbers he brought with him, had evaporated?

He truly expected to be rewarded for taking out a knight. Idiot.

The guttershanks wielded 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, jumped about to avoid the blows, always moving.

A few enemies tried to retrieve their blades, 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 soil. 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 snagged 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, 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 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; rather, they waved them about slowly, waiting for a chance to strike. She whirled, and they jumped away from her blades, far enough to keep themselves out of harming distance.

Red light zapped through the fog randomly, missing all marks, and the men yelled and scrambled backwards. The yard held no place to hide from the hidden assault. She could escape into the guardhouse or flee, putting as much distance between them as she could. Before she decided, Nevid leapt at her, grabbing wildly for her left arm.

She sliced the palm of his hand with her right blade, whirled and struck his upper arm with her left; he shrieked and grabbed the bleeding appendage, red pouring from between his fingers. He had not worn his uniform; the sleeves, chest, and pants had rougher leather protections for just such a thing. Instead, his well-made, thin Dentherion shirt provided no resistance, and since he wore no gloves, she had bloodied both hands. Why not wear protection? Or had he assumed that numbers would do the knight in, and he could sit back and watch without proper preparation?

More red light lit the surrounding fog; 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 ex-guard superior 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 hidden 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 possess a different tone if they had taken 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 attacked during a night of low visibility. Why not choose another time? Or did Nevid think a Mama Poison walkabout would provide the perfect cover for an attack? 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. A jerry-rigged breastplate made from wood protected his chest, and her weapon had left a deep line across it. Cracks ran from her cut, and she doubted it would hold under a protracted assault. She raised her blades, prepared for a confrontation.

She did not have to worry. The red light struck him, at the edge of the plate. Splinters showered about him, and he shrieked as the acrid smell of burnt flesh reached her nostrils. She fought not to puke; those memories, the ashy scent wafting from the remains of her family, her home, had to wait.

“Stop shooting at us!” a shank 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 a knife, but he trembled 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 completed a whirl to double-check for his buddies, but he stood alone. He stopped and refused to come closer, keeping the weapon pointed at her, his lips pulled tightly over clenched teeth. Would he convince himself to take another step?

Something whizzed past his back, a ball of shimmery yellowish light. It impacted 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 pieces were small and not sharp enough to tear her clothing, though they stung her skin.

The guttershank fled, shrieking, quickly disappearing into the mist. Others shouted, their voices shaking, receding; the hired help 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.

The crunch and squeak of heavy, wet boots on gravel caught her attention. A man slowly waltzed into view, holding a weapon like the one the guttershank at the Eaves deployed; 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 thigh pieces sewn into them. Predi? Wet hair plastered the sides of his head, so she could not tell if he had half an ear. He wore hunter attire, though, and considering Nevid called out to him, he likely was.

She raised her weapons, her attention on his tech. Red normally meant cheap, unreliable Dentherion crap, but if this weapon 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.

“Who’s asking?”

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, 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. Red streaks lined 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, mulling why the enemy divided their attack and gone after her, instead of concentrating solely on the knight, their true target. 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? If they meant to provide support for Nevid, the guttershanks and Predi should have focused on the knight. But so should have Nevid. Instead, both targeted her. The ex-guard superior even called her a snitch. Orinder must have said something, and they decided to get rid of a problem, despite their initial intent.

She knew better than to sneak up on a combat-primed person. “It’s me, Lanth,” she said before she neared enough to see him. She heard a meaty thump before he appeared through the mist, drawn by 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 not,” he told her. “I believe their misses and general ineptitude result from it, however. Are you alright?”

“Yeah, I am. Saw Predi. He has a tech weapon, like the one the guttershank at the Eaves had.”

“Interesting.” He paused and listened. Lapis stopped at his side and stilled, but noticed nothing.

“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 pressed against the rough wood just inside the large sliding door, straining to detect any sound. 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 powerful. 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. “I regularly look through the stake books and have personally dealt with my fair share. 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’s not one to find much of worth in those less fortunate than himself. They must be on loan from someone else, and since Seft works 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 it’ll be hard to 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 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, booted their weapons away. 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. A moment later a faint whisper floated from outside the door.

“Lady Lanth?”

Guard Superior Fyor.

“We are here,” Sir Armarandos whispered back. 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. He did not need to involve himself 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 the man was pretty pissed when he realized what the shanks 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 it surprised me that Scand brought the news,” Fyor told them. “We encountered a few shanks on the way, the only citizens on the streets that we noticed. One had burns, so we figured someone used tech. We heard nothing when we got here, though. Our men have circled the house, and your friends are quietly looking about, Lady.”

“I’m certain some are still here,” Sir Armarandos said. “We must be cautious. 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. “Ostensibly to overthrow me, but there must be more to it. Nevid will never survive my father’s wrath, 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 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. That Hoyt is provoking him will upset them.”

“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 the Minq terrboss Jo Ban and Double Catch, the Ram Syndicate’s leader in Jiy.”

“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 shocked as well. Krios had limited 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 normally used his rebel name, Midir, when he appeared in public.

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 rest of the clean-up to us.”

Rinan looked disappointed. She wanted to smack him. “Of course, Sir Armarandos.”

“Whatever your group finds, you can make a report,” Fyor told them.

Dismissed.

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?” the rat asked, dubious.

“Yep. And I don’t want it used on Sir Armarandos and Superior 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. “Ciaran?”

The rebel bustled after her, amused, silent. The rat growled before shuffling from the hiding place.

She did her best to orient herself and scamper to where she thought she discovered the weapon. Rin smacked her shoulder and pointed; someone else discovered it first. Caitria sat on the ground, legs splayed wide, a panel removed, rifling through the wiring. Mairin stood next to her, alert, and sagged in relief when she recognized them.

“The shell is Dentherion tech,” Caitria said as she ripped out a few more wires. “But the innards are Taangis.” She looked up at them. “Clips hold the actual weapon in place on small ledges, with the emitter pointed at the barrel. 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 use it against us.”

“Alright.” Caitria carefully withdrew a far smaller device from the cannon. Several blinking lights ran along its thin black metal sides, with four evenly spaced silver rectangles at one end, divided by thick layers of a copperish material. The rectangles angled towards a small red triangle at the tip. “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 big enough to destroy a wall.

“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 with the cannon 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 directly to the wagons that the Lells guards brought. No one stood around, and as she paused, she heard, though did not see, fighting.

Trepidation shot through her.

A nighthawk warble. 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 Tree Streets guards 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 up. It’s huge, it’s heavy. It’s a box, with 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 smaller 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.

“Yeah. She had an interesting childhood,” Ciaran said.

“Interesting?” Lapis grumbled as they continued on their way, searching for signs of friendly guards.

“She grew up 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?”

“No. Abastion.”

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?

The slap of several someones running through puddles reached them 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 people blocked their escape route; 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 it free, screaming curses. Instead of retrieving the tech, his buddies turned and fled into the fog. Bit shanks, indeed.

Rin surged ahead and caught the tech with the tip of his shoe, sending it reeling across the gravel. 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 man if this went poorly.

Predi dropped the knife and drew a long dagger with his uninjured hand, his eyes fiery with rage. “You’ll all die,” he informed them. “I’ll throw you in the Pit myself!”

He was fast. She barely avoided the slash of his 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, mirroring her. Moving targets were more difficult to strike.

“So who are you?” Predi asked the rebel as he turned on his heel, paying more attention to the man than either her or Rin. Yet another shank, impressed 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. 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 instead of 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 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 scurried 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 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 backed 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 has running lights and a red panel that’s blinking.”

“That doesn’t sound like something Tree Streets should have,” one of the other guards said. “It’s not a tech confinement center.”

“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 doin'?” Linden asked, shaking his head as he continued to study the device. “This is far more than bein' 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 a wagon; most sported tarps with several somethings making odd jutting bumps in the coverings. They had arrived prepared, but why were they not using it? The fog?

“There was a hunter named Predi, who had this,” Ciaran said as he placed the weapons tech next to the cannon. Before Linden could ask, the ugly odor 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 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 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 ineptness of the shots, and nodded.

“The smell and bells are comin' 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 care 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 she 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 beams; 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. Good.

Lapis glanced at Linden. “Sir Armarandos told us to scat, since you’d arrived,” she informed him. He tore his gaze away from the enormous shadow and nodded.

“Now might be the time to do it,” he agreed.

She gripped Rin’s shoulder, motioned to Ciaran, and scurried on her hands and knees to the other side of the wagons before crouching and retreating into the fog, following the sidewalk to the nearest street post. A dim light lit the sign but only produced enough glow to illuminate a small circle around it.

“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 how far they adventured from home. The Gardens district was not a simple walk down the street from their cubbies.

A faint nighthawk warble reached her ears; it was a good mimic, though she could tell a real bird had not made it. Rin turned, but Ciaran grabbed his arm and pushed both of them around the corner they just left. They planted themselves against the damp wall and waited for whoever he noticed to arrive.

“He’ll come after you,” someone said in a furious voice.

“So? Not standin’ ‘bout, t’ gets 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?”

“Away.”

Lapis bit her lip and Rin smiled; they both knew she would have made the same reply.

Her humor did not linger long. They now had evidence of Hoyt’s involvement in Nevid’s scheme—or should she reverse the roles? It did not matter; Sir Armarandos would not 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’ buy themselves outta it.”

A nighthawk whistled and Rin whistled back before they crept towards the sound. The rebels had taken a position in a corner of the backyard, behind bushes sparse of leaves. The wagon stood in the gravel circle in front of the wooden back porch, the tongue broken, no ox in sight. Guards and shanks circled each other in the light from the open door, 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 object 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 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 Jilvaynans 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 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. 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 thinks 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.” His faint, annoyed voice drifted to her.

“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 droplets 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?”

“Yes.”

“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 objects Dentherion nobles use as backup 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 with 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.

“Battery.”

“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 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 in a rush, as if overriding her better judgement. “It had Taangis tech inside, with a Dentherion shell.” She regarded Sir Armarandos, serious. “Lanth 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, barely understandable over the drum of rain on the gravel. She 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, one 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 serious, 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, 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.

She wanted the day done. Too bad, they still needed 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.


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