Chapter 14: Mistaken Identity

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Lapis preferred a nice, dry bed. After the last few days, she needed a good, long sleep. Instead, she traipsed into the rainy night, shuddered at the chill, and made a production with Brone of deciding whether to brave the elements while two hunched figures walked towards the Eaves. They wore light coats and hats, much like any other Grey Street resident, but took an unwarranted interest in her hood. She did normally wear one without a cloak when she worked, so good on Lars, for telling them that.

“That them?” she asked.

“Yeah.” Brone’s voice, heavy and worried, tweaked her own uncertainty. “Lady, you shouldn’t go alone.”

She patted him on the shoulder and grinned with lukewarm reassurance. “I’ll be fine. Get in the Eaves, get some tea, get warm. I’ll see you sometime tomorrow morning.” She did not bother to look at the men before scurrying into the rain, her hands in her pockets, head bent. She took the nearest alley so she did not have to walk past them, then headed for the bustling night market area.

The glass windows of the few businesses that sported them did not reflect enough of the street to allow her a chance to look behind without looking behind. She felt over-alert; every sound, from the rush of rain to the scrape of wind blowing items across the remains of cobblestones to the creak of poorly hung signs, caught her attention. Hopefully she caught a good view of them when she scaled the tree up to the roof. Tensing with dread for the rest of the night, waiting for them to sneak behind her, had no appeal. If they wished to stay out of the rain, they would probably remain just outside the night market, under the tarps that shielded a scattering of tables and benches for hungry eaters getting off their evening shifts.

She heard the fast trot of someone behind her. She recognized that gait, just like she recognized his shoes walking down stairs he had no business walking down. She whirled and glared at Rin. He had decided Lyet’s cloak suited him, and he carried the small pack with her chaser tools.

“Rinan, I swear—”

“Swear as you like, ‘cause yer brother thought of it.”

“Did he.”

“He’s concerned. So’s we. Lady, I wanna help.”

Sincere and motivated—Faelan took advantage, but Rin was not a rebel; he did not deserve to suffer this danger. She knew, from experience, Perben did not spare anyone, no matter their age or status.

Rounding on him allowed her a glimpse of the two men. They paused and attempted to hide within the dark recesses of a wall; hopefully Faelan never used them for secret missions, because they sucked at trailing. She curled her fingers into hard fists, smashed her lips together, and continued down the street, Rin easily keeping step.

“You knows them, Lady? Brone and Phialla said they’s tellin’ the rats they’s wantin’ t’ get back in touch.”

“I know who sent them to nose about. I’m their primary target, but their boss can’t know Midir’s at the Eaves.” She whispered, even though she doubted they could hear her. “Promise me, if things go bad, you’ll run back to Faelan. I don’t want you hurt because of them. This isn’t your fight.”

“I c’n care fer myself, Lady,” he said prissily. “I c’n take a shank’er two, when I gotta.” He grinned. “You’s goin’ on a stake?”

That explained his interest. “Yeah. Have you heard of Barad?”

“Hmm. Think so. Some guttershank. Gots him a good deal with onna them burial rings.”

“The guard superior of the Box Guardhouse thinks one of his men is slipping tech in with the bodies and this ring’s smuggling it to Coriy that way.” She half-laughed. “The families have gotten suspicious, and they don’t want to be held responsible for violating more than one law if caught. It’s an uncomplicated stake, though. I just need to see him with a guard.”

“You get paid just fer that?”

“I’ve been trying to catch them together for half a year. It’s not as easy as it sounds.”

“So t’night’s gonna be borin’.”

“Most chasing I do is.”

He pondered that for a moment. “S’pose,” he murmured. “I’m thinkin’, maybe I should chase. Pickin’s fine n’ all, but I wants somethin’ more.”

“Patch says you have quite the reputation outside the Lells.”

He quieted and rubbed at the back of his neck, head bowed, embarrassed. “Well, yeah, s’pose I do. Not deserved, mind. I gets blamed for all sortsa things others do, ‘cause that’s easy. They knows it, too, ‘cause I ain’t got no stake, neither.”

“Chasing’s a dangerous profession, Rin. You may think it glamorous, but it’s not. If researching your stake doesn’t bore you to death, you’re fighting them.”

“You don’t fight,” he reminded her. “That suits me. I c’n handle a bit ‘o boredom. Like trollin’ the Lells.”

“I guess.”

He rubbed at his arm, keeping his head down. “N’ I wanna talk t’ you.”

“Okay.”

“’Bout . . . ‘bout somethin’ important.”

She waited patiently, curious, but he did not speak before they arrived at the tree she used to reach the roof. They scurried up it, and Lapis led the way across to the black canopy that kept the elements at bay while she stared at the second-story of the brown-washed apartment building on the opposite side of the street. She nodded towards her stake.

“The second floor, third door from the stairs,” she told him. “I’ve seen every Box Guardhouse employee, so if one shows up, I’ll know. He’s a popular guy, but the weather might keep his friends from visiting.”

As she expected, the two men who trailed them trotted under the cover of the night market’s red-stained awnings. They huddled against the black brick wall and began a conversation while glancing up at the roof periodically. She sighed and settled herself on stacked crates, high enough to keep them in easy view, and leaned against the next tier, as comfortable as she ever managed. Rin joined her; she felt him shiver and slid near to share a bit of heat with him.

“So what’s up?”

He stared at his shoes while he worried his cloak. He did the same, whenever he had ill news to impart. What had happened? She had fretted about him since the night she took in the Alchemist, and she hoped her queasiness was unfounded. He took a large breath, which meant she would not like what he was going to say. “Well, we went to the library. Me ‘n Lyet ‘n Scand.”

The library? “Quite the adventure.”

He did not take offense, as he normally would. “This’s serious, Lady. We’s curious, ‘bout . . . ‘bout things.”

“Curiosity’s not a bad thing.”

“We wanted t’ look at them old newspapers.”

“Newspapers?” Cold dread filtered into her stomach.

“From eight years ago. ‘Bout a fire, in Coriy.”

“Rinan.” Her heart beat faster, and disbelieving fury descended.

“Lady.” Worried anxiety leaked into his voice. “We saw pictures, there. Of you ‘n your family. ‘N we read ‘bout the raid. How ever’un died.”

She choked on rage, on tears. How could they? How could they pry like that? She never asked after their pasts, respected their privacy if they did not wish to share. Why not give her the same consideration? The roof fell away, Rinan fell away, as her vision narrowed, fuzzing at the black edges. She dug her fingers into the crate, but she felt nothing below the tips. She dug harder.

“Lady?”

“How could you?” She barely formed the words.

“Yer reaction t’ that man, in the Lells. Never seen someone break like that, but you broke. ‘N we guessed, there’s more t’ yer brother than you’s sayin’. Now . . . now we knows. You’s a rebel, Lady? Thought you hated ‘m.”

“I’m a rebel to kill the traitor who helped Kale slaughter my family.” How did she speak? Her throat constricted, and she struggled to get air past the lump. “Eight years I’ve waited for revenge.”

“Yer brother didn’t know you survived. That’s what he meant, when he said he’d want to renew kinship ties.”

“Yes.” Rin was too, too smart, too observant. Too . . . too . . .

The trickle of deep betrayal became a rushing river.

She trusted him. She let him stay in her room. She let him know where the money niches were. He paid her tabs and helped the rats when other things occupied her. Their bond transcended the luke-warm tolerance most Grey Streets residents possessed for each other, enough so that when he needed her, she never turned away.

It had rained that night, too, when she rushed to the House and interrupted Patch while he met with Baldur and several other leaders. She could not delve into the shadows and reach Rin on her own, but with Patch’s help, the impossible became achievable.

They had raced to the ring’s Underhouse, and he shredded the ineffective guards to the inner sanctum, the place they sold their rat catches to the highest bidder, night after night after night. They arrived as Rin grabbed a knife from his captor and stabbed the man—and stabbed everyone who came near. His rage and pain and fear blended into a shrieking berserker act, and he tore through the rough guttershanks with only that knife.

Fourteen. Just fourteen, with too many bloody kills under his belt.

She dared to race to him. She dared to grab his hand, take the weapon from him, lead him from the wretched place. She had to scrub him down at the bathhouse, because he stared blankly, unmoving, unblinking. She forced him from the tub, forced him to the Eaves, led him to her bed, and let him snuggle into the mattress. He vented that night, and several nights after, afraid to return to his cubby, afraid of the mockery he expected from the rats due to fear. Afraid of what he had become in the few moments he lost his mind and what remained of his innocence.

He healed fast. He brushed off the concern of others, waved her away, and planted a grin on his face he thought hid his guilt and despair. It did not. It never would, at least from her.

She slowly came to the present; Rin had wrapped his arm about her, holding tight as she trembled.

“Please, Lady,” he begged softly. “I’s sorry fer it. We shouldn’t a pushed. But . . .”

“Rin,” she said hoarsely. “Do you realize your danger? The crown has no care for who gets in the way, and if they knew I survived, they would go after you, go after the other rats. They’d slaughter everyone I’ve ever known in retaliation for their mistake, even if they caught me first. You can’t tell anyone.”

“Lyet said that, too. We knows it. Them articles, talkin’ ‘bout the raid—we knows how the propaganda works, Lady. There’s no justice, in killin’ kids. There’s no justice, in killin’ servants. Pretendin’ there is?” He shook his head. “The king’s a guttershank, as cruel and sadistic as any of thems that prowls the streets.”

She buried her face in her hands. Stupid rat, he said such pretty words when he thought on it.

She wanted to leap up, move, race through the streets, gasping in cooler air until her lungs ached and she could no longer draw a convincing breath. She wanted to curl up and blot out the Grey Streets, the rebels, the rats, everything in her life. Would Perben’s men follow her? Why not lead them on a merry chase, circle about, and maybe re-find Mama Poison, introduce them. It would be quite the experience . . . at least for those trailing her.

“Um, Lady?”

She looked blearily at Rin, whose attention remained on the two across the way—whose group had grown to four. Lapis thought she recognized the new arrivals as two who had accompanied Perben on Relaine’s tour. They talked, relaxed and sociable, and glanced up at the roof; two against four men with rebel training.

“We’s can hit the night market,” he told her quietly. “Might not be us watchin’ fer yer stake, but it’s safer. More people ‘round, and they knows you, Lady.”

“And more Lars and his group.”

Rin made a rumbling sound of disgust. “Maybe, iffen the rain’s keepin’ ‘m in. He ‘n his, been goin’ out late t’ do stuff with them Blossom bit shanks, the one’s who’re runnin’ errands fer the undermarket. Prob’ly gonna be a shank. Fits ‘m.”

Lapis sighed, depressed. She desperately wished to save street rats from the despair that led them into a guttershank’s life, but she would never succeed. She chose, due to circumstance, to offer her aid to the kids who joined the reading circle. She did not have the time or the funds for anything else, though she did her best to pay for a doctor’s care if non-circle rats needed it.

Rin was her first reader, and those rising up behind him showed potential. She bought books for Brone so he could learn songwriting while he learned to read. Scand had a fascination with the smithing arts, so she dug about in used bookstores for a few books about them, keeping him interested in the written word. Gabby wanted her knights, a topic easier to find than Phialla’s art books. Such a small thing, to provide something of interest, something that might steer them into a profession off the streets, humble, perhaps, but legal.

Sometimes she wondered if Lars had always seen the gutter as a more viable lifestyle than that which she wished to promote.

“Hey, stake’s goin’ in, too!”

She peeked over the edge; sure enough, Barad, a woman on his arm and giggling, staggered over to the night market, a laborious task in the rain. Lapis blew her breath through her teeth, then smashed her palms into her cheeks.

“I’m bringing you with me more often.”

Rin’s cheeky grin did not settle her emotions, and it felt like a lie to act normal, but she managed it. He scampered off the roof, and she pondered how his muscles had not stiffened like hers. She followed him across the way, ignoring the four rebels who did not appear to know quite what to do with her in so prominent a place, and into the spicy air of the night market.

She loved the dark, smoky atmosphere of the building. It provided a comfortable environment without the stark reminder of Grey Streets' hardship. Remodeled from the black brick remains of a dilapidated warehouse, it was the primary destination for south-western Jiy workers who just completed their evening shifts and needed a place to unwind and eat.

An enterprising man named Jersen spruced it up a hundred years ago, made permanent stalls against the walls, and sold contracts for space rental. His descendants kept the business as he originally intended; lots of food, from stalls and eateries sharing ovens and stoves, to second-story markets, which offered exotic edible items usually only seen in the Blossom stores, with random knick-knacks, clothing booths and entertainment scattered about. Hazy yellow fruit-oil lamps hung down through the center aperture, illuminating row upon row of tables, benches, stools, all waiting to seat hungry people tearing through large, cheap meals.

The hot scent of pepper spice filled the air, along with the odors of fried meat, vegetable skewers, lots of fish. They mingled with the floury aroma of soft buns and sweet pastries, the tang of fresh beer and the bitterness of warm tea leaves. Delectable food smells did not quite cover the rancid stench of unwashed bodies, and Lapis hoped they found a seat away from the most malodorous—and the most loud. The noise, after the rainy quiet of the streets, made her wince.

At least all those bodies and ovens and stoves kept the place warm on so drizzly a night.

Rin grabbed her hand and led her to a tall table with stools right next to Barad and his date. They both looked far too unstable for just alcohol consumption, and she bet they would lose their purses sometime during that night. He leaned close, so she could hear him over the general chatter.

“Faelan gave me some bits. I’s getting’ somethin’. Whatcha want?”

“Rin—”

“You needs somethin’, Lady. Maybe somma that crispy steak you like.”

“That’s expensive, Rin.”

“Yeah, well, you should spend a bit on yerself sometimes. ‘Specially iffen yous doin’ guard work fer Midir.”

She frowned at him. He raised an eyebrow. “Weren’t hard, t’ put Krios and Midir together,” he told her drily. Sir Armarandos had mentioned his father met with Krios, and his conversation with Midir at the Eaves had indicated a closer friendship, but still . . . what tipped off Rin to the fact they were the same person? She sighed, defeated, as he hopped up and strode confidently to the appropriate stall.

She stared morosely after him. When had he gained that? He typically ducked when in crowds, unwilling to draw attention to himself, as if that act hid his height. She rubbed at the back of her neck before planting her elbows on the table and facing the pitted wooden surface while her eyes darted about. More pressing concerns than Rin’s confidence should occupy her.

Perben’s men entered and found seats a distance from her, which somewhat surprised her; if they had told the rats at the night market they wanted to get back in touch, it would make more sense for them to wander on over and speak with her. Did they make smarter choices on missions?

She noticed Lars, but he and his boys kept away, for which she gratefully thanked the non-existent gods. Their public spats always put her in a bad mood, and that night, she could not guarantee her good behavior. She had not seen them in a while, but they all now sported the scraggles look, a style too many guttershanks used as a visual cue to their employment. Other rats gave her speculative looks; she smiled at them, attempting nonchalance, though she doubted they bought it. The ones who worked the night market tended to be older, more observant, more cautious, and if word spread to them that Hoyt had taken an interest in harming her to get back at her partner, they must wonder about strangers asking after her.

One rat sidled up, Heran, a pickpocketing genius according to Rin. She had stayed with the reading circle long enough to learn basic reading skills, then returned to the streets. She dreamed of owning a clothing store, but that desire seemed to dwindle the longer she remained a Lells picker. “Lady,” she breathed, leaning across the table. “There’s been men, askin’ after you.”

“So Brone and Phialla said,” she agreed. “From their description, I take it they are sitting over by Fish Goods with two others?”

She nodded, serious. “Lady, they’s strange,” she admitted. “We heard ‘bout yer getting’ targeted by Hoyt, ‘n all, but I don’t think they’s from him. They’s too unfamiliar with Jiy. But I takes it, they ain’t friends, neither.”

“No.” She half-smiled. “They have something to do with my brother’s business rival. Unless you’re part of the reading circle, I don’t think they’re going to cause you mischief.”

“Yer brother?” she asked, her eyes lighting. “I heard, he’s just like you, Lady! Black hair ‘n purple eyes, and really cute!”

Really cute?

Rin slid a tray in front of her; she did not jump, no, she did not. He grinned and set down his own before snagging a stool. “Hey, squirt,” he told Heran.

She glared, unamused. She struggled to find a similar nickname for him and had yet to discover one that stuck. She would, Lapis was certain of that, and when she did, Rin would absolutely hate it and regret his teasing. She looked forward to his beet-red blushes.

“You need somethin’?” he asked, motioning to the food trays.

“Nah,” She shook her head. “Been good pickin’s at the Lells. Gots enough fer good meals, too.” She studied him. “Yous watchin’ out fer the Lady?”

“Yep.”

Satisfied, she wandered away, and a cluster of rats who regarded Lapis favorably ringed her, wanting information.

“See? We’s all concerned, Lady,” Rin said as he set two bottles of fizzy drink between them, accompanied by cheap, two-pronged wooden forks and one of the steak knives she would need to return to the booth. He flipped his hood back and dug in.

When given the opportunity, Rin slathered that orange, spicy pepper sauce across every bit of food surface he could find. She smelled the heat wafting from his seared fish on a pile of vegetables and rice. He generously purchased her something less toxic; the promised thin, fried steak drowning in cheese, and mashed tubers and green florets, topped with the succulent brown gravy that she loved.

“Figured,” Rin said between happy mouthfuls, “we c’n discuss chasin’.”

“What do you want to know?” She still battled a twinge of depressed rage in her chest concerning his impromptu library visit, but she refused to mention it with anyone else near. It was another thing she needed to bury until she could hide, mull over her emotions, and put them into a semblance of civil feelings. She did not imagine it would change much between them unless she desired it, but the hurt would linger far beyond what Rin might anticipate.

“Well, you gets stakes from the guard and you’s careful in yer choices. But how do you choose?”

“Normally, I take the stakes no one else wants. Then I won’t have to compete with another chaser for the pay. They’re easy to spot; they get moved to the bottom of the board and sit there for a few weeks. The compensation is sparse, though.”

“You makes more, with Patch.”

“Yeah, though the stakes we take together aren’t the dangerous ones. He earns a lot less with me than he does on his own. What he does make, he spends on his special charities.” She almost laughed at the thought of the rebel House as a charity. She cocked her head at him. “You’re serious about this.”

“Been thinkin’, off ‘n on, me ‘n Lykas. We’s old enough, gettin’ caught pickin’ means we’s goin’ t’ end up in a cell. Not much else we c’n do. We’s lookin’, but no takers. Too much a reputation, they says. But Sir Armarandos, he thinks that we’d be up t’ learnin’, ‘n, well, yer the chaser we knows. ‘N charity stakes ‘n the like—there’s worse out there, than helpin’ people.” He pursed his lips. “’N the readin’ circle. Ain’t leavin’ that, Lady. I kinda like gettin’ the young’uns t’ read.”

“You’re good at it,” she admitted. Reluctant rats idolized Rin to the point they would keep at the letters and numbers and words and sounds until it made sense. Lyet attracted the same adoration, with a bit more diplomacy. She should start slipping them a few bits for their work with the urchins. Now that he occupied the suite, they would be available most nights when a rat or two showed up for reading practice, and that increased involvement deserved pay. Depending on her stakes, she could not guarantee consistent or decent recompense, but she would do her best to get them bits every week.

She took a few bites of steak, worrying at the thought of offering Rin the option of being a ‘keeper. She could extend the same to Lykas, and through that, guide them, like apprentices, into properly performing the work. And she hoped constant references to Patch would make the boring parts tolerable.

“If I do take on you and Lykas, you’re going to act as my ‘keepers first,” she told him. His attention riveted to her and stayed, his eyes sparking bright. “And I’ll teach you in the same way Patch taught me. It’s boring, Rin, I guarantee it. But you’ll learn fundamentals that will help you become successful chasers when you decide to go out on your own.”

“Like the paperwork?”

“Yeah. Judges release prisoners due to sloppy paperwork, which means justice isn’t served, and guards have less want to pay you well the next time you fulfill a stake. Patch spent days and days showing me how to fill out the forms and explaining the words and phrases that make responses more effective. I did nothing else. It was a relief, to actually go with him on a stake. And then he made me fill out the form when we turned it in. I sat next to another chaser who fumbled about, so I helped her with hers. She was grateful I explained why and where to place information because her choices had already affected her payouts. Quite a few who enter the profession think the paperwork’s an afterthought when it’s the primary thing the guard and judges use in convictions. Never underestimate it.”

A boisterous man and an even rowdier woman joined Barad and his date. How did individuals talk that loud? Did they have special throats, to project so broadly? Rin glanced at them, quietly chuckling at her consternation. They listened to the conversation while they finished their meal, one every person in the vicinity heard, about how the new arrivals made it past the bridge blockade from the Kells through ingenious bribery.

“You’s at the Kells?” someone asked. “Are them syndicates gettin’ into an underwar?”

“Don’t know ‘bout that,” the rowdy woman said as the talk and laughter died about them. People intently listened, which startled Lapis; the fear of an underwar weighed on more than a few. “There were explosions, though. Rocked buildings! Somethin’s goin’ on.”

Lapis glanced at Rin, then piped up. “I was on a stake in the Kells earlier,” she said. “Hoyt attacked a Minq house.”

Everyone gasped, then mumbled among themselves.

“That’s stupid,” the rowdy woman said, her enthusiasm dying into a serious frown. “I got trapped with the last one, between the Strikers and the Yoh Rikarde. Sat in a friend’s house, hopin’ it didn’t fall on our heads. Neither looked to win, then the Minq showed up. Obliterated ‘m all, slipped away before the guards knew what was goin’ on, and peace returned. Hoyt ain’t got enough backin’ to take on the Minq.”

“What’s he doin’?” Another woman asked, flabbergasted. “Since Shara took over, they haven’t been at each other’s throats. They don’t work together, but they ain’t fightin’, neither. It’s better for everyone that way!”

“Well, he was in on the attack against Sir Armarandos,” Lapis told them. “Thinking about consequences doesn’t seem to be his strong suit.”

“Heard you were there,” Barad slurred. He wobbled about, one eye half-closed, but far more serious than his condition implied. “Nevid and Hoyt, together, attempting to sneak some really bad tech shit into Jiy. That’s Minq territory. That’s why he attacked a Minq house? Trying to make up for that confiscated tech?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “But the guttershanks I fought with Sir Armarandos dropped their weapons and ran more often than they tried to strike. If he plans to attack the Minq with such poor backing, he’s going to fail, hard.”

“Someone’s pushin’ him,” a man sitting near, and who looked very concerned, said. “Hoyt’s been real careful since he started buildin’ up his ring. Never stepped outta line enough to warrant a second look from the guards. This’s not like him.”

A cook from the Rudy Shack hustled up, wiping her wrinkled hands on a towel, her red face puffy with smiles. “Lady Lanth!” she crowed. “My cousin was at the Eaves! Missed the bet on your partner!”

She shrank down as everyone else perked up. Rin smashed his lips together and glanced at her, far too merry.

“Missed the bet?” someone asked.

“He was there ‘cause the trouble in the Kells brought ‘m over!” she crowed. “He met Lanth there. They all took bets, ‘bout who he was.”

She had everyone’s attention in the vicinity. Lapis knew a handful of faces, if that, and no one well. Why the interest?

“It’s Patch!” Heran shouted into the expectant air. The cook rounded on her, annoyed the urchin stole her glory, while everyone else gasped.

“Patch?” several asked, a disjointed chorus.

“My cousin said you’ve known him for eight years!” the cook said.

“We were street rats in Coriy together, we moved to Jiy together, we chase together.” Lapis shrugged as she felt the sharp sting of blush. She usually remained in the background, quiet, unnoticed, and she should have kept her mouth shut and stayed there. She rose, planting her hands firmly on the table to hop down from the stool. “And with that, I bid you all goodnight,” she told them.

Rin returned the trays as she made her way through the suddenly excited and question-oriented crowd. She had not quite made it to the startled rebel men before he caught her, chuckling under his breath. She kept her head bowed as they squeezed past, unwilling to bring even more attention to herself.

“Well, Lady, you’s sneakier ’n SOME people ‘round here,” he said, loud enough to carry to the four.

There were times, Lapis restrained herself from shaking sense into the rat. At least he made certain they would follow them, rather than remain at the market. If they chose a confrontation, she needed to quickly decide on what to say. Perhaps make it obvious she knew about their interest and found their stalking irritating?

The night cried harder, and the rain came down in sheets, splattering everything. Despite her gear, her pants and boots soaked up the water, and Rin did his best to keep her chaser bag as dry as possible. Patch paid to have it coated in a waterproof mixture, and it worked well enough, but she did not want the contents to dampen.

Patch. He had not taken a cloak or a hood, a jacket or a coat. The drops were cold, and while he behaved tough, he shivered as often as she. Would the push of anger keep him warm?

She heard footsteps. She whirled, raising her hand and triggering her blade.

Lars. Stupid Lars and his group, following them. For what purpose?

“What’s they wantin’?” Rin asked grumpily.

“You piss them off recently?”

“Not t’ my recollection.”

“And what might you want this fine night?” she asked as the small mischief froze, the rain bouncing off their heads in small splats that reflected the dim ambient light from the market. Lars eyed the blade resentfully, then glared at her. Hopefully it kept them from attacking; Rin dealt with enough danger, being in her company. He did not need to avoid a knife from wanna-be guttershanks.

“Heard Hoyt’s lookin’ fer you,” he said through gritted, stained teeth.

“Yeah, I heard that as well,” Lapis agreed. “And Patch’s a bit pissed about it.”

All five flinched. “Patch,” Lars spat.

“He isn’t thrilled Hoyt decided someone else is my partner and that he’s targeting me over it. And since we got caught up in the mess at the Kells, Hoyt’s really not on his friend’s list right now. If you’re planning to try and take me out to hand over to him, expect Patch to have a long and productive conversation as to why.”

“Lars,” one of the lackeys said.

Lars hissed at him. “You believes that?”

“Who brought it up in the night market? A cook whose cousin was at the Eaves when he showed up. You don’t have to believe it, but Patch won’t care one way or the other when he pays you a visit.”

One of the other lads grabbed Lars’s arm and hauled him away; he almost protested before he noticed the four rebels following them. Their presence caused them to skitter away, through the nearest alley, running fast enough to evade whatever danger they perceived.

Did they think the men were from Hoyt? That treading on her stake would prove ill?

The men paused, out of reach of her blade, though within striking distance if she threw one of her little knives. They looked just as miserable as the rats she just confronted, hunched over as rain pelted them, shivering slightly. She kept her weapon out while Rin took a step behind her.

“You’ve been asking after me all night,” she said, attempting an amiable tone. “I know more than you four were out and about. So what does Teivel want?” The name soured her spit.

They glanced at each other. Had they not decided on how to proceed? Had they not expected this confrontation?

“He doesn’t trust you,” one of them finally said. “He thinks it’s odd that Faelan does.”

“Oh, I’m certain he doesn’t,” she agreed. “I’m certain he can’t fathom what Patch and Faelan see in me that makes me a better confidant than him.” Two flinched. “Patch was very clear about who Faelan could trust once he reached Jiy, and I, as his partner, made the top of the list.”

“There are rumors,” another one told her, flicking a glance at Rin.

“There are always rumors,” Lapis growled.

“Relaine, she said you have black hair and purple eyes, just like Faelan. She said the resemblance is uncanny.”

Damn that woman to the bowls of the soul-cleansing volcano the religious always spouted about. “Did she now. I’m certain the look is rare enough to elicit that reaction among a certain subset of our mutual acquaintances. I wonder, does she believe Patch and Ciaran are related because they both sport blond hair and blue eyes?”

The group did not enjoy the mockery.

“We’re just here to talk,” the second said, jerking his chin at the blade. “You don’t need that.”

She laughed. “I’ve learned it’s a necessary precaution when dealing with certain merchant types in Jiy.” Not that they would understand the oblique reference to the explanation she used concerning her brother and his business associates, but she hardly cared. “Better prepared than dead.”

“We’re not the enemy,” the first snapped.

“No? Stalking has never seemed a friendly pastime to me.”

“We were simply trying to find you,” a third man said, his voice soothing, which irritated her. Who did he assume he spoke to?

“For what purpose? I have no business with Teivel or you.”

“There’s something . . . not . . .” The second rammed his fingers through his bangs, driving them from his eyes. “Faelan doesn’t trust many people, even on Patch’s say-so.”

“There’s a very good reason he doesn’t trust people,” she responded as her heart beat a painfully angry rhythm. “And he has the scars to remind him why.”

The men looked at each other, groping for a way to proceed. She had not played into whatever game they planned, and besides physically subduing her and carting her back to the House, they could not detain her long. Rin was squirrely enough to evade them and make it to the night market if they attacked, and the Eaves was not that far away. He could retrieve help before the men managed much more than an attack or two.

“Do you know Teivel from Coriy?” the second suddenly asked.

“No.” That was true. She knew him from Nicodem, as her brother’s best friend and, subsequently, traitor. “Why?”

“He thinks he knows you.”

Fear shot up her back. It would not be long before he chanced attacking her. “Does he, now. And why would that bring you around to my part of town, sniffing at my boot heels?”

They glared at her. Good.

“He wants to get reacquainted.”

Oh, she was certain he did. “Reacquainted, huh? He doesn’t trust me, but he wants to get reacquainted.” She exaggerated the shake of her head. “Unfortunately, I have work I must do. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a stake to complete with my apprentice and a nice, warm bed to return to before dawn. You might want to consider a warm bath and a warm bed as well—rain tends to bring the sniffles.”

She let the handle go, and the blade shot back into her gauntlet, a fast act, the shing of metal against metal resounding down the street. She turned and walked away, listening so hard she nearly forgot to breathe. Rin paused, studied them, then hastened to catch her step, willing to look back and make certain they did not follow.

“You’s quite the steady hand, Lady,” he told her. “I don’t think I coulda done that.”

“It takes practice, like everything else.” She sucked in a shuddering breath. “We’re going to circle around, back to the roof, and keep watching. If they’re still paying attention, they’re going to think we entered the night market to see if our stake was there, and they’re going to assume we’re camped out waiting for said stake to leave.”

“We might be there ‘til dawn,” Rin grumbled.

“No, I plan to follow a random person away if Faelan doesn’t send someone after us first.”

Lapis woke to loud banging and someone screaming her name. She frowned and sat up, disoriented. Her still-damp hair clung to her cheek, and she swiped it away as she unsteadily gained her feet. Sunlight barely filtered through the window, indicating a time far earlier than she normally rose. Far earlier than she wished, after the late night she had.

Ciaran had finally come for them as midnight approached, interrupting the plans to follow the next people leaving the night market. He studied the four who had planted themselves against the black brick wall and waited for her to do something, surprised that the man who brought up Patch and trust stood with them. He went by Gerrit, and he had lost family to Gall’s depravity—something they unwittingly shared. He never seemed particularly inclined to Perben or to Meinrad and Rambart’s ideas, so his presence seemed odd. The rebel grimly listened to her retelling of the confrontation and promised he would make certain she always had company until Faelan cared for the problem.

Then Rin led them down one of his secret routes, and they lost the rebels trailing them.

She opened the door, scratching her head and yawning. Despite returning in the wee hours, she stayed up too late waiting for Patch, but he obviously did more than lead the guard to Hoyt’s front door. What had he and Varr gotten up to?

She squeaked as a fist raced past her. Heran fell into the room, landing heavily on her knees. Her face was red, swollen, her expression devastated. Phialla grabbed her, trying to help her stand.

“Lady! They’s came,” Heran cried brokenly.

“What?”

“Lookin’ fer Rin,” she choked. “Asked about the Lells, real early.”

“They asked all of us,” Phialla said, tears racing down her cheeks. “They said they wanted Rin for a job. Brone and Scand were suspicious, and the circle rats ignored them. But . . . I don’t know. I don’t know what happened. But Nilas found a body and—”

“A body?” Dread rammed through her.

No. No. Not Rin.

“Rin?”

Phialla sobbed. “We can’t find him. He’s not at the Lells, he isn’t in the room, and the guards won’t let us see—”

Lapis stumbled to her closet and dressed in a haze before snapping on her gauntlets and racing from the room. The rebel guards still stood as sentries at the bottom of the staircase, and someone she did not recognize grabbed her arm. She jerked away and ran, through the after-rain cold air, through sludgy puddles, through the hard, greyish-yellow sunlight, past grey buildings and sidewalks burdened with broken grey stone, to the morn-shadowed Lells.

The early merchants clustered together, some holding one another, tearful, grim, afraid, their booths and stalls half-prepared, bright canopies left on the ground next to abandoned boxes of wares. The street rats congregated to the side of Windy Alley, crying, the older ones blank of emotion as they tried to comfort the younger. Brone held Jesi as she sobbed into his chest, and Scand and Gabby huddled together, younger rats clinging to them. Ness planted his face so hard into the lad’s side, his features were probably smashed into his skin.

Guards stood at the entrance, stern, stiff, their eyes blank, saving the emotions for later, when they could drown them in ale. One lifted a hand, palm out, wanting her to stop; she glared at him and he paused, long enough she whizzed between the two.

She had to know. Her heart broke as she forced herself to look. She flashed to Endre, how he raised his hand in greeting . . .

It took her a moment to process the scene. Three guards studied the body sprawled on the ground, across a pile of debris, blood running from the empty neck to the head that lay next to the wall.

Beheaded.

Perben.

Short, stocky, stubble, cropped red hair.

Miki. Not Rin. Miki.

“Lady.”

Copper, one of the guards who patrolled the Lells and had a soft spot for the rats, reached for her. He lived on the streets in his youth, and after transitioning to the guard, did charity work in his spare time to help the neediest ones, the disabled urchins. He cried, and he did not bother to hide his reaction.

He gently grasped her arm and turned her about. “I’m sorry, Lady,” he whispered. “We need to have a look around before you take the body.”

Rats held parades to the Pit, for those who died. Despite the illegality of mourning the dead, they carried candles, walked in front of the body, and tossed the still-burning stubs over the side of the bridge with the deceased. Dozens of parades had occurred since she moved to Jiy; street life and disease took too many, too soon. No guard stopped the processions, though she did not know if Sir Armarandos played a hand in that or not.

She nodded and patted his fingers. “We’ll wait,” she told him.

The rats had not budged. She wandered to them, shoulders slumped, numb, and stopped next to Heran and Phialla. Heran had wrapped her arms about her torso and she stared at the ground, venting, stomping. Phialla had her hand on her back, worried.

She did her best to swallow the lump in her throat. She knew Miki in passing, a cheerful lad on the edge of moving beyond his street rat living and into something more akin to a shank. He did odd jobs for several Lells merchants, never made enough bits to get him off the streets, but he ate regular meals and bought decent clothing. The only thing he and Rin had in common was the red color of their hair.

The bastard, he mistook Miki for Rin. Or had he decided to target every rat with red hair, to make certain he killed the right one?

“Heran.”

The lass looked up, gasping.

“Nilas found him?”

“Yes, ‘twas Nilas. We all saw thems men askin’ fer Rin come outta the alley, all rushin’ ‘n scared, so he went t’ look. He . . . took off yellin’ fer the guard. They’s close, came rushin’ over. Don’t knows, where he is now.”

“It’s . . . it’s Miki. Not Rin. Miki.”

“Miki?” Heran shook, hard. “Miki? Who’d go after Miki?”

“Lady?”

She looked at Nerik, who rose from his huddled position against the pitted stone wall. “Miki was talkin’ to those two men lookin’ for Rin. One seemed normal enough. He had dark hair and eyes, looked like he spent time outside. The other . . . he was smilin’ like a druggie guttershank on too much dargil. He had curly brown hair, kept tuggin’ at it while he talked to Miki. Was real nervous, kinda shaky. Lady, Miki laughed at them. They asked if he was Rin. Said sure, he was Rin, but he wasn’t takin’ any job from them. He thought it was funny, gettin’ mistook. I didn’t see them go after him, though. He was runnin’ an errand for Ruthie, said he was late, and needed to take the shortcut.”

Waylaid? Likely. Would it have made a difference if he grabbed a friend to go with him? No; they would both be dead.

“Where’s Rin?” The need to see him fiercely battered her.

“Don’t know,” Scand said, his voice trembling. “He came with us to set up, but I haven’t seen him. He was tired, so I thought he’d gone back to the Eaves after he made sure we all had partners.”

Where to look. Where would he go? Lykas’s corner? Did he have much to move? Were they carting Lyet’s things to the room? Or had he taken a jaunt elsewhere? Was he lying dead in another alley? She needed to know. She whirled, stopped; Rin and Lyet, Lykas and Jandra, racing to them.

Rin. Alive. Joy smashed through her.

And guilt obliterated it, shattering it into thousands of tiny pieces. It could have been him. She could have seen his head lying against the wall, empty of thought and feeling, just another unlucky rat meant for the lizards. Nothing left of the individual, only memories, of treasured times and vile regret, damning hopelessness and despair.

The rats jumped up, overjoyed, surrounding Rin and shouting and laughing through their tears and pain. He looked at her, unable to break free.

“Lady? Jandra came ‘n got us. What happened?”

“They killed Miki. Thought he was you.” Her heart steadied, her emotions fell into a dark, sludgy pit, coated by the numbness that let her walk and talk when she felt too broken to function. She cried, but she could not feel the heat of tears. “They thought he was you.”

Endre. Her family. Miki.

She whirled and ran.

“LADY!”

She would make certain, Perben never killed another.


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