Chapter 13: Another Rainy Outing

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Rin caught Lapis’ hand just before she retrieved the teacup from the corner table near the door. She had no idea how to even describe his expression; confusion, yes, but eagerness touched with annoyance, maybe pride?

“Lady!” he breathed. “You knows Patch?”

“We were street rats together in Coriy,” she informed him, her voice blending with the rain’s thrum. Lyet closed the door and pressed into Rin, as expectant as he to learn about their relationship. “We moved to Jiy together. We thought that hiding our relationship would protect me, but it hasn’t, so there doesn’t seem to be any need to continue it.”

“He’s your partner.”

More questions filled Rin’s voice than the words implied. “Yes.”

“I never would have guessed,” Lyet told her. “I never would have thought you even knew him. He takes outrageous stakes, and you’re so careful with yours.”

“He’s as careful with his as I am with mine, especially when we work together.” She sternly regarded them. “Just wait until he, Lykas and Jandra return before you say anything. Don’t tell anyone.”

Lyet frowned. “Why?”

“Just in case he really doesn’t want to expose us,” she whispered.

Rin raised a skeptical eyebrow. “He ain’t seein’ too worried ‘bout that.”

“And I’ll introduce you properly,” she muttered, annoyed. The lad’s eyes lit, and Lyet, normally reserved in unfamiliar company, matched his eagerness. True, Patch’s reputation proceeded him in the Grey and Stone Streets, but should the rats ecstatically jump at the opportunity?

How were the Eaves’ regulars going to react? Should she care?

“Lykas talks about Patch all the time,” Lyet whispered. “He always tells that story, about when Patch helped him after he got kicked out of his cubby and all his things destroyed by that greedy ass who bought the place. Patch stole the entire store out from under him, then instead of taking payment on the stake, he took him to the underground to sell the jewelry he kept back from the guards. He gave him all the silver, too. He bargained for his and Jandra’s place with it. It’s hard to believe a man like him is interested in helping people like us.”

“He understands what it’s like, to be on the streets.”

“Because he was a street rat.”

She nodded, though she felt as if it were a lie. She and Patch described their Coriy experiences as living on the street, and while semi-accurate, they never resided in a cubby. Patch had rented a single room in a run-down inn with the money he made as a rebel. They honed their chasing skills together, but since he already trained to that end, she had mostly played catch-up. It still confounded her, that he willingly took her in and taught her the art of the chase, because nearly all others would have left her to the mercies of the streets, refusing to get involved with a disheveled girl wearing a once-nice dress and ragged shoes.

The Eaves appeared to have even more people, and Lapis scanned the crowd for any odd ones before she turned to the table. Rin and Lyet joined the readers while Midir listened as Phialla and Ness explained their pottery business to him. Neassa sat opposite, smiling and drinking from a large, steaming teacup. Ciaran stood against the wall, holding one as well, and they looked no worse for their tunnel trip. Some of the rats regarded them skeptically, but the majority took her ‘be nice and nicer and then some’ to heart.

“Patch said everything went fine,” she whispered. Ciaran nodded and sipped his drink.

“It surprised me, how concerned Shara was about Neassa,” he admitted. “Faelan mentioned something of it, but I never took him seriously. He claimed the families with centuries of involvement in syndicates had more of a rebel feel to their kinship ties than any casual observer would suspect.” He took another sip. “Patch knew, though, or he never would have asked Neassa about the tunnels.”

“Yeah.” She gripped his arm briefly. “I’m glad you’re safe.” She moved to the bar and placed the teacup on it. Dachs hustled over, his jollity a façade that did not fool her.

“Everythin’ alright?” he asked under his breath.

“So far,” she whispered back. “Lykas and Jandra saw a couple of suspicious men, and my partner went with them to have a look. They’ll be around soon.”

Dachs’s concern fell away under a wide grin. “They’re takin’ bets, Lady,” he murmured.

Of course they were. “Rik here?”

He laughed. “He’s puttin’ Megan up.”

“Whatever he wants tonight, put on my tab. He got us across the bridge without problems, and I owe him for that.”

“As you like.”

Dani bustled up with a warm tea. “Midir says he knows your partner, but he won’t say who it is!” she exclaimed, annoyed, as she handed the brew to her. The scent of soft cookies wafted from it, and Lapis appreciated that. After the last few days, an indulgent cup sounded better than good.

“Are you betting, too?”

“Yep.”

Lapis raised an eyebrow as Dachs clapped the young woman on the back and almost cracked his face smiling. He likely thought he knew. If no one guessed, what happened to the pot? Rin better not put in, considering he now possessed insider information. She glanced at him; he sat back, gleeful grins and bright eyes, with Lyet snuggled into his arm and beaming. She rubbed at her forehead as she rejoined the group; the two would burst, if Patch took too long.

Midir expectantly regarded the door leading to the residential stairs and the back door, then raised an eyebrow at her. She squatted down next to him, holding the cup close to her chest. Ciaran bent down, and Neassa planted her elbows on the table, leaning far enough over them she came out of her seat.

“Lykas and Jandra noticed a couple of men who looked out-of-place,” she whispered. “The three of them went to look.” She took a deeper breath. “Two of Perben’s men were looking for me.” She tamped down on the hate fighting to surface and told them about the flunkies.

Ciaran growled, annoyed. “Perben’s friends had a special inroad to Faelan through him,” he told her. “They greatly resent being cut off.”

“He’s misled many.” Midir’s voice lowered in heavy melancholy. “Not all those who follow his lead are evil or malicious. Most want what every other member of the cause wants, even if they believe Meinrad and Rambart have the right way to proceed.”

“There’s going to be a lot of resentment and disbelief and antagonism when Lady Ailis gets here with the evidence,” Neassa reminded them. Her eyes flicked to Lapis. “Varr’s been concerned about attempts on Midir’s life by those whose loyalty will suddenly be questioned.”

“Are you sure you want to go through with this?” she asked. He smiled with gentle aplomb and nodded.

“Yes. Especially now that I know you survived. Has Faelan spoken about his extended plans?” She shook her head. “We’ll talk about it later, but know, the Blue Council is in for a shock. It won’t be pretty, but it is necessary.”

Nothing about the Blue Council was ever pretty.

Lapis remained next to Ciaran, waiting for Patch, Lykas and Jandra to return. They tapped their teacups together and drank, an odd reminder that she had enjoyed his company as a child and wanted to know the man he had become. Would he mind? How should she initiate that? Maybe she could ask if he wished to have a meal with her sometime, somewhere absent of rebel and rat.

Rik raced through the front door, to loud greetings and laughter. He kept his eye on her small group as he plowed through a large dinner of soft biscuits and thick gravy with a hunk of seared meat, expectant, until a few others started a back-and-forth argument about the identity of her partner, which he immediately joined.

A few regulars made loud bets and Ciaran smirk. Why did so many people care? Because she kept his name a secret? While Grey Streets inhabitants knew a chaser or two, they had only heard stories about those with renown, like Patch. They hardly had a large pool to draw from. After all, chasers rarely encountered those who initiated stakes; the guard paid them from the funds the placee already gave them.

Some of the underground people mentioned offended her, though no one suggested Patch. Why would they? She, careful chaser who focused on small stakes, he, the dark and deadly assassin, would prove too far opposite for a partnership. Hopefully he did not seethe about being outed in so public a fashion. It might ding that reputation.

She retrieved another cup of tea and settled near Ciaran when cold air from the open back door blew into the bar area. She glanced over; Lykas and Jandra hastened inside, cheeks deep red, beaming as brightly as Rin and Lyet. They brought the chill with them, sending a freezing breeze into her that slowly dissipated as they squeezed into the table area. Patch followed, quiet, his expression neutral as he regarded the packed house. He planted himself against the wall next to her. He dribbled, but she did not care. She leaned into his arm and he looked down.

“They took bets on who my partner was. If you don’t want them finding out—”

He shook his head and touched his nose to her hair, a gentle caress. “Bets? Why?”

“Secrets and curiosity.” She held up the cup. “Want some?”

He accepted it, sniffed it, and did not bother to sip before downing it. “That warmth feels good,” he said. “What kind of tea is it?”

“Dani said it’s spiced millen leaves with milk,” Ciaran told him. “It’s designed to warm someone up during cold nights.”

“And those men?” Lapis asked.

He shook his head. “I don’t know who they are. They’re definitely odd, they’re definitely looking for someone, but that doesn’t mean it’s us. If Faelan brings enough people with him, we’ll put a tail on them.”

“Faelan?”

“I sent a Minq courier to Whitley,” Patch admitted. “We need to get Midir to the House as safely as possible, and that means an escort. I distrust the quiet—that battle is going to spill across the river and to the Grey Streets, it’s just a matter of when.”

“We’ll know more when Varr arrives,” Midir murmured.

The rats got very quiet. They slapped each other’s arms and pointed.

And stared.

“Shit,” Patch said, so under his breath she barely heard him. Everyone, from noble to street rat, knew Patch’s description; the elite needed to recognize him if he came for them, and the commoner needed to know who to avoid when he chased. And there was the myriad of stories, from those like Lykas’s to horror fictions warning all within hearing of the tall blond man with a blue-decorated black patch across his right eye and a deadly record. They laughed together over it, though the attention made him uneasy.

Gabby leapt up and raced around the table, skidded to a stop and stuck out her hand, almost bapping him in the tummy. “I’m Gabrielda, but Gabby for short,” she informed him. “I’m a reading circle rat! You’re Patch, aren’t you? You’re the Lady’s partner?”

“I am,” he said, shaking her hand. “Nice to meet you, Gabby.”

Nerik shoved right next to the other rat, his eyes wide. For the reserved, suspicious lad, Patch’s presence meant something more to him than famed chaser, because he would have held back, otherwise. “I’m Nerik!”

Patch shook his hand, too. He beamed brighter than Rin and Lyet put together. “Hi, Nerik. Good to meet you.”

Not all kids snatched the opportunity, but most of them squeezed into the group surrounding him, eager to be recognized by someone they respected and revered. He glanced at her and she batted his arm with her shoulder, amused at his discomfort. She had been with him long enough to know his toes had curled in his boots and he fought not to flee.

The older kids of her reading circle held back, though Scand wanted to jump up and join the crowd. His gaze flicked between Rin and Lyet, Lykas and Jandra, but he kept his seat, along with Brone, who unabashedly stared. Midir and Ciaran smiled, fighting not to laugh aloud, and Neassa twinkled in amusement while she sipped her tea.

It took a moment for the rats to realize silence fell. They turned around and stared at the adults who, in turn, gawked at Patch. Reactions ranged from fearful to faint to shocked to flabbergasted astoundment. Dachs swore into the silence, annoyed.

Patch smirked at him. “No one won.”

“No,” he rumbled. “I’ve ‘kept for you! How’d I miss this?” He planted his hands on his hips and glowered at them, while his custom came to their senses. Patch just grinned smugly, relaxing into the wall.

She eyed him speculatively, and his grin widened. Dachs had ‘kept for Patch? When? Why had neither mentioned it?

“Patch is your partner?” Dani asked, standing in the kitchen doorway with a stupefied Dalia.

Midir slapped a hand over his mouth and merrily shook. “I see your reputation really DOES proceed you,” he chortled. Ciaran and Neassa laughed, unconcerned with the unfriendly glare he gifted them. They laughed harder, most of the rats grinned, and the Eaves’ custom collected themselves, thoroughly bewildered and not certain how to handle someone of Patch’s stature standing among them, or how to respond to the giggles of those who knew him. They were working folk, delivery people like Rik, or sellers at the Lells, or stablehands, or craftspeople. They rarely encountered anyone with a city-wide reputation, especially someone who the underground feared, the rebels used, and the nobles hired on occasion. Someone who mingled low-end stakes with the extravagant payoffs the wealthy provided, but who few had met in person.

“You ‘kept for him?” Rik asked, eyeing Dachs. He expressed more of the curiosity the rats exhibited than the fear many of the other adults experienced. The barkeep waved a hand, annoyed.

“Just a few times. Made enough to buy this place,” he huffed. “Patch doesn’t go after the little ones, you know.”

“Sometimes he does,” Lykas piped up. “He takes our stakes.”

“I thought Lykas was just telling stories,” Dani said, studying him.

“No, I took his stake. I take a lot of street rat stakes,” he told her. “They deserve justice, as much as a fat fool of a merchant who thinks a couple silver can buy revenge over a stupid slight.”

At least Patch watched his tongue because of the younger rats. He voiced far stronger ones when speaking with her in private. Sometimes she wondered if his entire vocabulary did not consist of swear words, said in the darkest of tones.

“So Lykas really has met you,” Jesi asked, impressed. The other Wings’ members hushed her, but she ignored them. “He’s always telling us you’ll help. I guess it’s not surprising, because the Lady helps us, too.”

“You’re like a knight!” Gabby proudly proclaimed. Patch had no idea how to take the remark, though he should realize, the rat spoke from a fairy tale point of view and not from a guard one. She would see his work for kids as chivalrous charity, one desperately needed in the poorer Jiy districts, and that insight would keep the urchin from fearing him.

Dani hustled over, tea in hand, and gave Patch and her fresh cups. He quietly thanked her, very out of character considering what the streets said about him. Lapis settled her head against his upper arm before she took a sip. Despondency descended, for exposing him to something so overt. He preferred the shadows and worked quietly in the background. It made him an exceptional chaser and helped grow his aloof reputation, one he cherished.

But, as with everything else surrounding her, that, too, began to fall apart.

Talk resumed through the Eaves as the rats peppered him with questions. Their intensity made her nervous; it seemed blasphemous, to her secrets and her life, to speak about the few years she and Patch spent in Coriy before moving to Jiy. It felt more so, when they asked after the stakes they chased together. Midir’s subdued laughter grated, though Ciaran and Neassa’s amused sympathy did not soothe her, either. She tried to refocus her thoughts and pondered when to introduce him to the rest of the mainstays of her circle; they kept their seats, rapt, anticipatory. Rin caught her eye, and he grinned, as cheeky as normal.

The tavern quieted again.

Sir Armarandos, dressed formally and soaked, entered with four guards. He glanced about and sagged with relief when he noted Midir. Midir raised an eyebrow in return.

“I’m happy you safely arrived.” He placed a hand on his breast and made a curt bow. “Have you seen my father?”

They all shook their heads. “He sent Captain Ryalla to warn us,” Midir said. “She said he was fine. He decided to give chase?”

The annoyed anger, buoyed by concern, etched itself on the knight’s face. “He’s extraordinarily pissed right now,” he growled. “As I’m sure you can guess. He disappeared with several of his personal guard, Varr, and your people.”

Midir reflected the annoyed anger and concern. “I see.”

Sir Armarandos’s gaze flicked to Patch, though if he experienced shock at his presence, he hid it. “Do you know where Hoyt’s Second House is?”

“Yeah.” He easily fell into his typical nonchalant chaser guise as he regarded the knight. “It’s not that far.”

“I’d like to hire you to show us.”

He nodded and popped from the wall, handing her his cup. The rats melted away to the table, eyeing the guards suspiciously. Midir caught her partner’s attention by raising his index finger.

“Tell Varr to get his ass back here,” he muttered. Patch half-smiled at the command. “And Mandi, tell your dad he’s an idiot.”

Mandi?

Sir Armarandos laughed with sour humor. “He might actually take that to heart, since you said it.”

Lapis grabbed Patch’s arm before he moved far and stuck her mouth in his ear. “Orinder had crates of eggs,” she whispered. “He’s supposedly working for Hoyt and getting illegal tech through that arrangement. I thought they were duds, but we discovered Hoyt’s people using Dentherion tech weapons with Taangis tech innards. Those eggs might be active, and who knows what else he has. Be careful.”

Patch eyed her, then gently tapped his forehead against hers. “We really need to talk,” he told her. “If you can, be here when I get back. If not, I guess we’ll try to find a place at the House.”

“Okay.”

Patch glanced behind them, and she almost gasped—when had Faelan arrived? He stood against the wall near Ciaran, rain cloak dripping, quietly observing, Tearlach and Mairin at his side. Her partner said nothing, just waltzed to the guard, his arrogant chaser swagger on full display. The knight eyed her brother and his companions, but kept whatever observations he made to himself. Patch proceeded them out the front door, and Sir Armarandos hesitated, before glancing back at Midir.

“This is not the most secure of locations.”

“No, but neither was the apartment.”

The knight pursed his lips grudgingly, then nodded once. “My father may search you out.”

“I’ll be here for the time being,” Midir told him.

The Eaves remained quiet for a moment or two after they left before bursting into obnoxious, anxious talk. Lapis returned to the wall and planted herself between her brother and Ciaran. How long might they wait for Lord Adrastos? Did Midir have that much concern, or did he wish to continue with whatever meeting they planned before the attack occurred?

Dachs trotted up, wiping his hands on a towel. “My place is most of the third floor,” he told them. “If you’d like some quiet, it’s good and restful.”

“Thank you, Dachs,” Midir said. “Perhaps a bit later. I’d like to wait for Varr and Adrastos, though I have little hope Mandi’s going to convince him to leave the fighting to the guard.”

“You know Sir Armarandos well?” the barkeep asked. Lapis smiled at the question, for her curiosity needled her, too.

“I’ve known him for as long as I’ve known Adrastos and Nerine,” Midir said. “I was surprised, he decided to wrangle the guard into shape, considering how much his father dislikes them as an enterprise. He inherited his stubbornness from the man, though, and once he decides something, little will sway him.”

“Poor Lady Nerine,” Lapis murmured. Midir made a face while Neassa laughed.

“She believes so,” she intimated.

Faelan leaned over as the rats began to squabble over a book. “I brought a few more with me. They’re on the roof and patrolling the area. I don’t trust that this battle won’t traverse the river and end up in the Grey Streets.”

“I think it will,” Lapis whispered. “Hoyt believes his secondary headquarters is secret. If Patch knows where it’s at, so do the Minq, and they’ll come for him.”

“He either has over-inflated hubris, or he has several allies and thinks those numbers are adequate. The Minq aren’t exactly the syndicate to mess with without a city’s worth of backup.”

“The older rats and I did a sweep earlier. Lykas and Jandra noticed two suspicious men, and Patch went to look. He said he didn’t recognize them, but he wants a tail on them if you brought enough people.”

“I did.” He licked his lips. “Do you remember Keril? He’s on the roof.”

She nodded slowly. Anthea’s friends mooned over him, a tall, handsome lad with a quirky smile and wispy, dusky hair. His deep brown eyes sparkled with mischief on his best days. Anthea scorned him in company, but they had a hot and heady affair in secret. Tiege noted it first and made certain to open the kennel before loverboy climbed out of her window at dawn. The dogs chased him to the fence at the back of the property, and he would pull himself over, land in the grass, and lay there for a moment, collecting himself.

When Anthea realized Tiege’s naughtiness, she tore into him like the dogs tore into bones. Lapis had decided to vacate and let them yell at each other—and she never saw them again. Alive, anyway.

“He goes by Ehren now. Tell him we need to put Eithne on them.”

She trotted up the stairway to the roof. She had spent many a hot, muggy midyear night on top of the Eaves, attempting to soak up a bit of cool air. Sometimes Patch joined her, and they snuggled while the red sunsets turned into bluish-purple nights, leaning against some odd, boxy contraption with no other modern use. Sometimes Rin sat with her, when street life troubled him, and he needed a quiet place to think. Sometimes Lyet kept her company, wrapped in a ratty blanket and shivering despite the heat.

She carefully opened the covered door and noticed Sherridan first; he leaned against one of the tall canopy poles, arms crossed, staring into the dimly lit city night. He wore a long, thin, black leather jacket against the rain and cold, one Lapis secretly wished she owned. He glanced at her and she slipped over to him; she felt far more comfortable around him than any of the Blue Council people.

“Are you alright?” he asked. She nodded.

“I’m fine. Midir’s fine. I’m glad you’re here.”

He chuckled. “I’ve a chance to meet Midir,” he told her. He rarely expressed awe, but it colored his tone. “I have the impression not many in the Blue Council know him because he trusts so few.”

“That’s true. It’s why he didn’t want to stay at the House, but I don’t think he’s going to have much choice. Anyway, two of the rats saw someone suspicious earlier, and Patch suggested a tail.”

He grunted. “Why did he leave with Sir Armarandos?”

“He’s taking the guard to Hoyt’s second Underhouse. Hoyt attacked Lord Adrastos on his way to meet with Midir, and since Lord Adrastos is Sir Armarandos’s father, he’s now personally involved.”

“I wonder if Hoyt realizes that. After the incident at the Tree Streets Guardhouse, he should.”

“It depends if the guard left anyone free and alive to tell him. We need to be careful, in any case; Hoyt’s people are using Taangis tech hidden inside Dentherion shells, and it’s nasty.”

Three out of the six other rebels walked to her, avoiding the extraneous items left out on the roof by either Dachs or some rat. They wore rain gear but did not hide as she; she recognized Keril and Klyo. Lapis swallowed the punch of dislike; Keril was nice enough, but Klyo never treated the younger Nicodems with anything bordering respect. She had thought Anthea too kind, allowing her into her inner circle, and Klyo jumped to take advantage when such presented itself. The third, a woman with brown hair, large brown eyes, and an overtly serious expression, struck her as a typical rebel.

“And you are?” Klyo asked suspiciously. Lapis noticed Sherridan stiffen; had the woman already aggravated him?

“Lapis,” she said, just loud enough for them to hear her over the rain.

“Lapis.” Klyo narrowed her darkly lined eyes at her. “The one Faelan’s having run errands?”

“That would be Whitley,” she told her, fighting to remain pleasant.

Klyo lifted her lip in a snarl; Keril cast her a warning look, which she ignored.

“You got Midir to safety,” he said. “That’s the important thing.”

“And to continue keeping him safe, we need to watch two questionable men. Faelan said that Eithne should tail them.”

The third woman perked up while Klyo face darkened into ugly black lines and shadows. “Did he now.”

“Where are they?” the third woman asked, eagerly moving forward. Eithne, apparently.

“Down on another street, outside a place called Ruddy’s. They’re dressed Dentherion, holding drinks they aren’t drinking, and examining the crowds. Patch said they’re suspicious, but we don’t know if they’re a threat to us.”

“So, a bit job,” Klyo said sweetly. Her personality had not changed, and Lapis fought not to shudder at the remembered insults and belittlings the woman bestowed upon her. She never understood the antagonism and had decided jealousy of Anthea prompted the meanness. Tiege hated her and snarled right back, and Calanthe disappeared whenever she visited.

“At least he trusts me to do it without someone holding my hand.” Eithne’s sarcastic sweetness almost mimicked Klyo’s hostile tone.

“Partners are necessary,” Klyo reminded her. “And since he’s not sending one with you, that does say something, doesn’t it?”

“I don’t count as a partner?” Lapis asked drily.

“Adelind,” Keril warned, eyes narrowed, as Klyo turned her full attention to her. Let her whine. That would not change who Faelan chose to conduct the tail. Sherridan pushed from his post, darky annoyed.

“Let’s go,” he snapped. Eithne eagerly hopped after him as he headed for the stairwell; Lapis turned, barely avoiding Klyo’s grasping fingers.

“Don’t touch me,” she whispered, backing a step away.

“Faelan doesn’t even know you,” the other woman snapped. “His trust’s always misplaced.”

Lapis churned over retort after retort, all firmly embedded in past faults, but she distrusted Klyo enough she refused to reveal herself to her and Keril. She wanted to tell him, that she empathized with his loss of Anthea, and why her sister had been at Nicodem and not with him on the planned picnic that horrible day, but that would need to wait for a time when his partner was nowhere nearby. “Many of us trust those who harm us.” He winced and she produced a smile neither would witness. “In this, you’re no different than any other Blue Council rebel.”

“You think the traitor’s in the Blue Council?” Klyo huffed.

“Yes.” She whirled and fled away, replaying Ehren’s wariness as he eyed Klyo and her oblivious seething.

The two men had retreated into Ruddy’s since so few walked the streets due to rain. They sat at a corner table adjacent to the door, stiff-backed, out-of-place, and gruffly annoyed any customer who shuffled too near. The crowd numbers matched the Eaves, which meant several individuals backed into their table area and paid the price in verbal abuse.

Sherridan braved the bar while Lapis squeezed her and Eithne into a space against the opposite wall, away from the brashest drinkers. The other woman observed everything with curious delight, a reaction she would anticipate from a tourist but not a native Jilvaynan. She smiled brightly and accepted the drink that Sherridan gave her and sniffed at it before carefully taking a small sip. One cheek curled up as she winced.

“Ruddy’s doesn’t have for the best brews,” he apologized. “If you want, I can take you to a better place later, one that doesn’t water their beer and add sour to every mixed drink.”

“I’d like that,” she admitted. “I’d like something a bit more memorable for my first time in Jiy. I thought Coriy was huge! But Jiy is so much bigger.”

“Where are you from?” Lapis asked. She judged, by her accent, that she hailed from a rural settlement.

“Kewrik,” she admitted. “It’s a small farming community in the southern hills. There isn’t much there besides grain and a couple of orchards.”

Lapis sipped the drink; for Ruddy’s, the taste was downright divine. Compared to any other bar, it was undrinkable swill. “Sounds like the south.”

“I haven’t traveled south,” Sherridan admitted. “Only to communities in the north and east. The plains are littered with farms and small towns.”

The rest of his words drowned under a few louder individuals who said something about trouble in the Kells, but the majority of the custom ignored them—except for the two men, who took an unwarranted interest in the talk. That bothered Lapis, and from Sherridan’s expression, he disliked it as well.

“Maybe I should stay,” Sherridan said. “It looks like they may have more of a local interest in things.”

Lapis nodded as Eithne looked startled. “You wouldn’t mind?” she asked. “I’m not up on Jiy happenings. I’ve spent the last year nosing about rural communities and seeing if their new Headpeople are working out. It’s not the most exciting of experiences.”

“Oh, come now. Watching cows mate and grass grow can be rewarding.” Lapis grinned, reminded of Patch. She did not mind the country, but he was a city boy through and through, and every venture into the fresh air irritated him into a constant barrage of dark complaints. He stopped voicing them when she, annoyed in return, had snapped at him about it, but he continued to snarl inwardly, glaring at any poor blade of grass or animal visible along the roadways.

Sherridan laughed. “Patch usually puts a few more explicit words in that description.”

“His fondness of the country equals his fondness of the throne.” She handed him her half-drank beverage. “Have the rest,” she said, magnanimous. “I need to return to the Eaves. How many did Faelan bring?”

“He brought everyone who works this type of job that he trusts,” Eithne whispered. “There aren’t that many of us, truthfully. You need to know—those at the Eaves right now, the Blue Council isn’t expecting them. We’re not officially here, but protecting Midir is far more important than our original intent, so Faelan’s using us.” She pointed at her. “Faelan trusts you explicitly. He told us that. That’s why Adelind is so upset. She’s tried everything to get into his good graces, but nothing works.”

“Nothing will,” Lapis told her. “He knew Adelind from before his family died. She was an ass then, she’s an ass now. Why is she with you?”

“Ehren,” Eithne replied. “They’re together, though I think it’s more on her side than his.” She cocked her head. “You know them.”

“I used to. Anyway, stay safe. I don’t want to see anyone else’s life upended unexpectedly.”

Sherridan gripped her arm in sympathy before she moved away. She had expected him and Brander to seethe about her revelations, but they both swallowed the shocking news and continued on. Sherridan’s initial frustration had not stomped on their mutual respect, and she hoped she proved worthy of the trust. Of course, through her and Patch, they now had a place within Faelan’s inner circle, something she doubted either would casually throw away. They had too much vested in the rebellion for that.

She still did not understand the lack of distrust, of hate, that accompanied her revelations. She anticipated it from Faelan, Varr, Midir, but they only seemed relieved and overjoyed that she survived the terrible slaughter. They seemed to want to renew their relationship with her. Why? Tearlach’s initial gut-punch of shock did not ride with him, either. Why? She expected Ciaran’s nonchalant acceptance because he and his mother knew, from the beginning, about her escape. But the others?

Her hair raised on the back of her neck, as the two suspicious men rose and followed her out the door.

She slipped to the side and turned, ready to trigger her blades, but they ignored her. While the dark and rain had driven most people into shelter, a woman on the brink of middle age and two escorts hurried down the way. She wore a typical wealthy-merchant coat of a softly shimmery, pale pink, the buttons to the right side and sparkling, and a wide-brimmed matching hat with a fake jewel design in the front. They froze as the one nearest Lapis pulled a bulbous, red tech thing that reminded her of the Alchemist’s weapon. Were they actually Hoyt’s men?

She whipped around and slashed, ripping through cloth and flesh, exposing bone. He howled and dropped the weapon, clutching at his gushing wound. His partner did not react before Sherridan nailed his head, his metal knuckles glinting in the dim light. He toppled as a couple more guttershanks ran out Ruddy’s door; hired help, and they held their knives as poorly as those Hoyt employed at the Tree Streets Guardhouse. If he wished to take on syndicates like the Minq, he needed to upgrade to undershanks rather than rely on easily bought but incompetent street thugs.

Eithne tripped the backup; they flailed, fell, and floundered on top of one another before rolling excitedly around, trying to gain their feet. Lapis snaked her blade under one’s chin, and they all stopped, frozen, their eyes twitching. They would run, given a moment.

“Did they hire you?” she asked coldly as she nodded at the two felled Dentherions.

“Need the bits,” one whimpered as a thin trickle of blood made its way down the neck of her target.

“Them’s hirin’, said it weren’t tough, just needed bodies,” another trembled. “Just t’night, here at Ruddy’s.”

“So you’re backup?”

Her target whined.

“They work for Hoyt?”

“No no no, jest Dentherions! Nuthin’ t’ do wit’ the Kells ‘n that mess!”

“Git.”

They fled, as fearful as the shanks that supported Nevid. Other customers within the bar emerged, to see the commotion, like good little curious Grey Streets residents. The wounded Dentherion howled something at them; they noted the dropped tech and stopped, fear striking fast and deep. Lapis cleared her throat.

“Whoever wants to ‘keep can keep the pot,” she told them. Only a couple stepped forward, interested; the rest retreated, stepping on each other’s heels, casting the tech terrified looks. It lay in the mud, splattered, useless, a truly horrifying sight.

“Thanks, Lady,” one said, toeing the weapon. Nothing happened; he sucked up a breath and used the ratty edges of his jacket to grab the item. “We’ll take ‘m on in.”

“Make sure they give you at least a silver for the tech.”

Another grinned. “Aye, Lady.”

Sherridan intercepted the three Dentherion targets before they moved much beyond the incident, and she and Eithne hustled to keep up.

“He has a stake?” the rebel asked.

“He has tech, so it won’t matter,” Lapis told her. “All they have to do is show the guards what he possessed. To get free, he and his partner will have to worm their way around some riled people who will automatically think they’re involved with what’s going on over in the Kells.”

The stranger bowed slightly to Sherridan, her black-gloved hands clenched, her desperation coating her. “Thank you for your concern, but really—”

Sherridan did not move. Her escorts, one man, one woman, tensed, though they did not reach for weapons. Good. Lapis did not look forward to harming another that night, but she would, if they pulled one.

“This isn’t a night to be out,” she began in a pleasant, sympathetic tone, as the unmistakable ting of a bell reached them. It came from the direction the three wished to go.

“Shit!” one of the shanks shouted. “Mama’s comin’! Let’s go, louts!” They quickly snagged their stakes’ feet, intent on dragging the two men to the nearest guardhouse. The injured one howled as they tugged him across the worn, broken road, but his struggles ended with a boot to the head.

The woman and her escorts frowned, confused, as Lapis sighed. “That’s the guard bell signaling Mama Poison’s up and about,” she told them. They blankly regarded her. “Mama Poison’s one of the carrion lizards that live in the Pit. She likes to take walks when the enclosure floods, and it’s rained a lot lately. It’s best to stay out of her way until she decides to wander on back.”

“A lizard?” one asked, skeptical.

“You can wait around and see for yourself,” Sherridan said congenially. “She’s larger than a farm wagon and faster than you think.”

The woman stared, aghast. “Larger than a farm wagon?”

“She’s old, big, and while not temperamental, if you fall on her bad side, she’ll take you out quickly.” Lapis jerked her chin after the shanks and their prize. “Do you think they’d flee before a small and insignificant lizard? If you want, the Eaves is a good place to hole up. You can hide in the crowd.”

“I thank you, but—” She trailed off, and her escorts gasped.

Lapis glanced over her shoulder as the large animal lumbered their way through the rainy mist, swaying side to side, filling the center of the road. She barely distinguished the bellringer jangling their bell, far behind the enormous beast.

“He did bleed a lot,” Sherridan admitted. Lapis nodded; it would not surprise her, for a carrion lizard to follow the scent of blood. She smiled warmly at the woman and headed the opposite direction, intent on taking a side alley, Eithne practically walked on her heels. She almost chuckled when the three strangers hastened their step and followed.

“What is that?” the woman asked, her voice trembling.

“Mama Poison.” Lapis attempted to make her voice as calm as possible. “Like I said, she’s a carrion lizard. There are several in the Pit, and they’re large, strong, and we basically let them do what they want when they walk around town. Mama’s usually the one who leaves, though. She’s quite amiable, if you don’t anger her. She typically ignores us as she wanders about, but every so often, some stupid shank will decide to tangle with her. Her claws are deadly, and then she eats you.”

The stranger looked to puke.

Eithne did not look much better.

“I . . . have a question.” One of the escorts hissed, and the stranger hissed back. “Are you chasers?”

Lapis nodded. “Out on a stake that’s taken an odd turn,” she said. “Why?”

“Someone called you Lady.”

“I’m Lady Lanth,” she said carefully. Any identity she wished to hide from the rebels had already washed away with the tide of ill-luck, but she did not know what the stranger wanted to do with the knowledge. Did she work for Hoyt?

The woman nodded abruptly and dug her hand into her coat pocket; Lapis tensed, but she only retrieved a crumpled piece of paper. She took it, unfolded it, and stared at an old but obvious portrait of Faelan and Midir. It was a Dentherion-style image, taken with their special cameras, not painted or sketched, like a Jilvaynan one. “I’m looking for these men,” she said.

Both Sherridan and Eithne peeked over her shoulder, and Lapis gave them credit for not reacting to the unexpected question. She slowed, halted, turned on her heel, and held up her index finger. All others stopped with her.

“I want a truthful answer,” she told the woman, keeping a pleasant tone. “And maybe I can help. Why are you looking for them?”

The two escorts might have throttled her in another situation, but their warning glares did not stop her. She swallowed hard, then licked her lips and regarded the picture. “I’m here for a special meeting with them, but, well, the Kells—”

Lapis’s mind whirled. Had Midir set up a pre-meeting? Did Faelan know? Was that why Sir Adrastos went to the Kells? He played more of a role in the rebellion than Lapis thought. “And who is your mutual contact? Not Hoyt, I hope.”

She relaxed slightly. “No. Everyone at the bridge whispered about him, but I don’t know who that is. Our contact is named Karnival.”

Istak was Karnival to those outside the Wolf Collaborate. Shit.

“Well, you’re in luck,” Lapis said. She held up the paper. “Because I do know where to find the men in this pic. That mess at the Kells isn’t the disaster I thought. We can discuss payment at the Eaves. Sherridan, would you mind getting a table?”

It made her nervous to ask; he, after all, held a position of power within the rebellion while she was ‘Patch’s woman’. He slipped away without a word, continuing to play the part, while Eithne stood and smiled, a tinge of greed giving her the feel of a chaser. A good act. The escorts looked anything but happy, though the woman accepted her words without comment; something about her identity as Lady Lanth triggered it. She led them the few blocks to the Eaves, which stood, brightly lit in the downpour, an unintentional beacon. The noise from the packed house filtered into the dark, and she hoped it and the bodies who produced it concealed this unexpected meeting.

A woman leaned against the wall near the back door; she thought she remembered her from Coriy but could not clearly recall. She and Eithne greeted one another warmly, which meant she was a rebel, and someone Faelan trusted. The three strangers stepped nervously into the interior, though their surprise at the dimly lit, small entry nearly made her laugh. Neassa waited with Tearlach near the door to the tavern proper, doing her best to ignore them while intently studying them.

“Welcome back,” Tearlach said.

“Did Sherridan tell you Mama’s up and about?”

“He did,” Neassa said. “It’s been years since I had to worry about avoiding Mama.”

“She’s just a few streets away. Hopefully she stays there.” Lapis moved past.

The area to the side of the reading corner was clear but for two short tables shoved together. Midir sat in the middle sipping from a glass, Faelan and Mairin standing on either side. Unchipped plates with finger foods that did not look hastily prepared and a flower-painted ceramic teakettle with gold-washed cups made a nice if sparse presentation.

The street rats were just as rowdy as normal. The customers were just as chatty as normal. Why did the night feel like anything but?

The three did not hide their astonishment. Midir raised an eyebrow, then smiled calmly and motioned to the chairs awaiting sitters. “Tonight has proven quite the exceptional outing,” he told them congenially. “Please, join me.”

The woman recovered and nodded spastically before plopping down into the middle chair and shoving her hands into her lap. “I . . . I’m happy to meet you.”

“I’m Midir.” He waited for a reply. She looked at her escorts, who refused to sit, and swallowed.

“I’m Imaralis.”

Faelan and Mairin relaxed slightly. She confirmed her identity, though Lapis still wondered if she were a true potential ally or a plant. She glanced about for Sherridan; he stood with Ciaran at the bar, unobtrusive but alert. Eithne stayed in the entry, so perhaps she needed to return to the roof. Her regular reading circle rats and Dachs had disappeared; Dani manned the bar, bantering with the customers as eloquently and loudly as her boss.

The barkeep had offered the use of his place, and it looked like the rebels would need it. If Lyet helped, a quick clean would spruce up the living quarters enough for an important, impromptu discourse. She pondered Dach’s past role within the rebellion because neither her brother nor Midir would casually accept the help from a previously employed ‘keeper, even if they had been a rebel.

Faelan noted her, nodded, but did not indicate he needed her. She wandered over to the rats, uncertain what, exactly, to do. She did not particularly want to help clean whatever mess Dachs left his apartment in, but her anxiety made reading an uncomfortable endeavor.

“Lady!” Jesi waved her arm excitedly. She halted at the table and the girl leaned over far enough her torso lay on it. “They all went up to help Dachs clean up,” she informed her. “They said you accidentally found another important person and saved them from Mama!”

“It’s been an odd night,” she agreed.

Nerik skiddled up, his normal hesitancy about her absent. “She was at the Lells a couple of days ago,” he whispered, indicating the stranger with his finger. She bent down, and he pressed his lips against her ear. “She told some of the ‘keeps that she was here for meetin’s. She was lookin’ for a ride to Blossom, ‘cause she’s stayin’ there.”

Interesting. The Blossom district sat outside the city proper, a place that many, many underground rings and syndicates called home. The fabulous undermarket was there, the legit merchants occupying a large warehouse above ground while the ones selling illegal merchandise inhabited the tunnels below. It made sense, for a nervous Dentherion contact to hide where few asked questions.

“Did she say anything else?”

“Somethin’ about schoolin’ in Dentheria. Is she a tourist?”

“I don’t think that’s her primary reason for being here.” She lowered her voice. “Would you mind telling my brother what you just told me?”

“No, that’s fine.” He grinned. “You both know Patch!”

“Yeah,” she said, returning his grin. “I’m glad you got to meet him.”

“Lady, I never woulda thought, you knew him,” he admitted. “I never woulda thought anyone I knew would know him. I never woulda thought, people like him wouldn’t mind meetin’ people like me.”

“Of course he didn’t mind. He wants to help you guys as much as he can. Sometimes that isn’t possible, but when it is, if you ask, he will help.”

Nerik happily trotted over to Faelan to impart his information. His change astounded her. She doubted he would act familiar with many other adults, but the association with Patch meant something dear to him. She needed to ask the older rats about it.

The other urchins eyed her expectantly as Rik hailed her. “Lady, I must admit, I’m shocked!”

“Shocked?”

“I thought your partner would be an easy-going and considerate man, someone as careful as you concerning stakes. You mentioned a couple of times, you trained with him, so it seemed to me you would have shared similar traits.”

“Patch is very thorough,” she said. “He has to be, to succeed in the stakes he chases. He researches his targets and once he decides to give chase, he worries them into a jail cell.”

“You go on a lot of stakes with him.”

“Not the most dangerous ones, but yes.”

“And you’ve been partners for eight years?” another customer, a regular called Shoose, shook her head. “There're rumors about him all over the Grey Streets, but you’ve never been part of them.”

“No. But the reason we hid the relationship isn’t viable anymore, so . . .” She shrugged.

“Danaea’s gonna be pissed!”

Danaea?

“She’s always braggin’ that they have a passionate love affair,” the woman told her. “I always thought she lied about it to convince the guard not to cheat her on payouts. Seein’ him with you? I’m certain of it.”

Her heart twinged. Danaea was one of the most successful hunters in Jiy; she seduced her stakes and took them out when they were not in much of a position to save themselves. Just because Patch never mentioned her did not mean he had not met her, though he would have said something if they had worked together.

Phialla and Brone practically ran through the front door, avoiding the customers—barely—and staggered to a stop before her, panting. They carried scented candles, and Dachs must have sent them to the night market to retrieve some. Phialla swallowed and Brone’s seriousness alerted her.

“Lady, there’re men about,” Brone whispered. “They’re trying to pay the rats at the market to tell them where you are. They’re not guttershanks, though.”

“They’re not from Jiy,” Phialla murmured. “They said you were friends in Coriy and wanted to get back in touch. They sounded like Meris from the Lells, so maybe they’re from the south.”

Meris was a southern farmgirl who thought the big city held her dreams. A Jilvaynan accent like hers, combined with the remarks about Coriy, meant Blue Council members instead of Hoyt’s guttershanks, and Lapis did not know whether to feel grateful or terrified.

“Alright.” She smiled at them, hoping to alleviate some of their worry. “Take those things up to Dachs.”

“They were talking to Lars and his group,” Brone told her. “He doesn’t like you, Lady.”

No, he did not. He failed as a reading rat due to his own negligence and blamed her for his lack of interest. His jealousy over Rin’s success did not help. He and his small gang caused damage for fun, and he targeted the readers out of spite. The younger, the better, because they could not fight back effectively. Rin, easy-going and amiable with other urchins, beat him bloody on a couple of occasions; the last involved Lyet, and Lars would not forget the humiliation and the pain.

“Thank you for warning me.”

They eyed her doubtfully but left for the third floor. Lapis looked at Faelan; he raised an eyebrow and she meandered over to lean against the wall next to him.

“What’s up?”

“Brone and Phialla said that some men are trying to pay streetrats for info on me. They were speaking to a group who isn’t too fond of me or the reading circle, so they have probably found out where I live. They were telling people they were from Coriy and Phialla said they had southern Jilvaynan accents, which means they’re from Perben rather than Hoyt.”

“Dammit,” he hissed. “They can’t know Midir is here.”

“There’s a stake I’ve been working off and on for a while now, for the Box Guardhouse. They just want info on who the target deals with. He’s active at night, so I watch his place then. He has quite the menagerie of people who visit, and he never seems to be alone. I can wait for them outside, and maybe lead them there and have them sit and observe me work for a few hours. Or maybe Mama will wander by, and they can have a more exciting night. It’ll give you enough time to get Midir and the contact up to Dach’s apartment.”

“You need someone with you.”

“Midir and this meeting are far more important than me,” she reminded him. “You need everyone here for protection.” She pulled her hood over her face. “I’ll be across the street from the Moth Apartments, on a roof with a large boxy tarp.”

“Lapis—”

She waved her hand. “Don’t wait up.”

She understood Faelan’s concern, but the stake research would prove boring. It always did. More importantly, watching the people filter in and out of a nondescript, cracked wooden door would give her time to herself, to think, to feel, to break and recollect herself without interference.


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