Chapter 3: Unexpected Ghosts

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Lapis stood in the cozy room she and her partner shared at the Jiy rebel House and stared at the small sheet of paper in her hand, rereading the neat handwriting.

Paving the way for the elite. Wait for me.

When had Patch left? His note just arrived at the Eaves! Had the courier been delayed? She closed her eyes and pressed her lips together, hard. What so desperately needed his attention he vacated before she reached the House?

She read the paper yet again. Paving the way for the elite. Did he mean rebel leaders? She knew the Blue Council leadership toured various Houses throughout Jilvayna, in both the cities and the countryside. They offered advice to those that needed help while granting a certain amount of autonomy and more important missions to those that passed inspection. The Jiy House trained quite a few replacements for ousted headmen, and they all shared a similar tale; Faelan, they said, booted undisciplined and unscrupulous House leaders and replaced them with those better suited to lead—including women. Not all rebels thought that prudent, and several sour individuals had taken their leave of the organization due to their misogyny.

She always wanted to shove Jarosa down their throats. The Commander of the Ramiran Skulls was not a person to disrespect or disregard, in her rebel or her religious Veritiate Deathknell role. Lapis knew her as a child, and the woman’s charisma and dedication charmed her, though she did not realize how potent a leader she was until joining the rebel cause in Jiy. That was when she heard about Jarosa keeping the Wolf Collaborate together and active after Alaric’s murder, and made certain that the various Dentherion Empire rebellions worked in unison, sharing information and resources, rather than breaking apart to muddle about on their own. The last century or so proved the futility of that effort, which was why her father wanted to create the Collaborate in the first place.

And look at his reward for it.

She whacked the paper against her leg and forced her dark thoughts back to the present. Did Patch hint that the Jiy House was next on the list? She smiled to herself; Baldur deserved a swift kick in the ass on his way out the door. His atrocious leadership killed far too many good, reliable rebels, and his dislike of women in power stunted the House growth—and, of course, so did his greed. If Patch held any sway with the Blue Council leaders, the Headman would find himself back in his opulent mansion with no prospects in paying down the outrageous bill he acquired dealing with some of the shadiest underground merchants, using the name of the Jilvayna rebellion as collateral.

“He’s gone?”

She turned and nodded as Sherridan stepped into the room. His teal gaze fell to the paper clenched in her hand before he sighed and ran his palms over his silky black hair. It hung free, and combined with his nondescript and comfortable clothing, he planned to head home to the small apartment he owned at the edge of the Grey and Shell Streets. A nice gesture, for him to peek in before doing so.

“He told me to try to arrive before he left. When did he send this? I just received it, and he’s already gone.”

“This afternoon. I got the impression he wasn’t certain you would get it in time.”

She glanced at her hand. “I was on a stake.”

“That’s a late stake.”

Sherridan, unlike several other members of the Jiy House, never questioned her ability to chase. She experienced the teasing and disbelief often enough that she rarely mentioned it in rebel company, but he never doubted. The rebels teased him as well, for believing she managed a stake or two on her own, rather than watching Patch care for things and only pretending to help. A certain subset that looked to Baldur for leadership would never accept the success of a woman chaser, which coincided with the richer subset that never set foot in the Grey Streets other than to visit the House.

She nodded. “It’s been a weird night.” She dropped the paper onto the top of the nightstand. “I had trouble getting back in the city because guards claiming to be Hoyt’s bully boys stopped in the middle of the road to beat some poor farmer, and blocked traffic for a good while.”

He frowned and crossed his arms. “Hoyt?”

She laughed quietly. “Yeah, I took one out, and another fell off his horse and hit his head. A farmer helped me bring them to the nearest guard station. We spent a good while looking through the stake books to find them.” She stretched. “The farmer said that he’d heard rumors that Hoyt was replacing town and village guards with his own, and that the countryside no longer trusted them.”

His frown deepened, and he thrummed his fingers against his muscles. “We need to look into that.”

“Yeah. I was on the road to Wisserdem, so maybe send someone to nose about habitations that way. They need to be careful, though; the city guard’s looking into it as well.” She dropped her arms. “Hoyt’s been hiring down-on-their-luck ex-guild guards. He may want to grow his influence, but the country seems a strange place to start. The barons won’t stand for it because of the chance it will interfere with their own, legal theft.”

He half-smiled at that. “That’s an awful lot of effort for Hoyt. He normally sits back and lets things happen. If he is replacing guards, I bet someone else planned it and he’s just going along for the silver.”

“He has such a terrible reputation, I wonder who decided to work with him.”

“Someone who finds him a helpful idiot.” Sherridan shrugged, then relaxed his stance. “Baldur wants to see you, late morning, tomorrow.”

She pursed her lips, annoyed. “Why?” She had done nothing to warrant a personal meeting with the headman. She had stayed in the city for most of Mid Year Three, not hung about the House causing consternation.

“He’s said nothing, but we’ve heard from other Houses, that the Blue Council is coming to Jiy.”

“Then he has a lot of important visitors to plan for. That doesn’t involve me.” Her heart twittered slightly at the thought. How many would come? Would she know them?

“He’s giving various people tasks, though he isn’t telling them why. It’s causing confusion and unease in the House, but he hasn’t said anything to Brander and me about it, either, so we can’t answer questions. Before he left, Patch claimed they’ll arrive in a day or two, but he never said where he received that information. Baldur openly dismissed it, but he’s been acting . . . odd, since Patch said it.”

Joys upon joys. “How does Baldur expect us to prepare, if he’s all hushy-hushy?”

“I don’t know. Selda’s in a state because she doesn’t know how many to cook for. The new leaders we’ve trained, they’ve said that one or two Blue Council members show up with an entourage of advisors and bodyguards, and the number depends on the size of the habitation. Jiy . . . well, Jiy’s huge.”

“So you anticipate more than a handful.”

“Yes, but I really have no idea who to expect, and Patch just smirked when Brander asked. Since Jiy’s the capital, this House is a rebel center. They might send a few more to nose about.”

She heard the unease underlying his tone and smiled in encouragement. “I don’t think you’re the one who needs to worry about the inspection,” she told him. “Though I think a special someone who loves to attach Headman to his name is going to be sweating himself right out of the House because he won’t know who to bribe before they show up.”

Sherridan half-laughed at her sarcasm. “Yeah. Brander pointed out that we two have done the bulk of the instruction since Baldur became Headman, and without major complaints. If we had screwed up, they would have pulled Jiy out of the training loop and sent the new rebels to someone else.”

“They would have,” she agreed.

“Anyway, I’m off. Just thought I’d relay the message before Baldur surprises you.”

She hated his surprises. “One more thing. Before I came, there was a commotion in the Grey Streets. Some guttershank tried to grab a couple of street rats—and he had a working tech weapon.”

Sherridan’s shock reflected that of the Eaves. “How can a guttershank afford tech?”

“I don’t know. This one, he was dirty, he was smelly, he had dargil on him, but he took something else before he chased the kids. Normally, someone like him would never see viable weapons tech in their lifetime, let alone use it. But this tech spurted a red light into the ground, and it left a burnt hole. We might need to look into that, too.”

“That might even be more pressing,” Sherridan said. “Especially considering how rare and expensive weapons tech is. The last I saw in the underground markets, a hand-sized, hollow metal stick the merchant claimed could shoot a projectile fast enough to kill a man, was going for ten metgal.”

Lapis winced at the thought of so much money being spent on an unremarkable gadget that probably did not work. “It happened outside the Eaves. They were waiting for a Guard Superior, so people might still be there.”

“I’ll tell Brander. He might know someone in the crowd he can ask about it.”

Her civic duty done, and happy to plop the problem into Sherridan’s lap rather than worry about it herself, Lapis waved him on his way and readied herself for sleep. She eyed the bed, which consisted of two plump rolls sewn together, lying on top of thin cushions, and sighed. She should have waited at the Eaves until morning. She had a real mattress there, not just haphazardly stuffed padding to shield her from the floor.

At least she did not have to worry about lugging a huge mattress away when the House moved locations. She and Patch rolled up their bed, rolled up their clothes, snagged the few items they housed at the House, and left the cheap furniture behind. She had no idea how the families, with more belongings plus children, managed it. If the palace raided, the guards were not going to wait around and smile as the parents packed up and carried everything to a cart.

Of course, that was why Patch paid informants to alert the House before a raid. That was why he insisted on creating various escape routes, in case trouble unexpectedly jumped through the door.

Yawning, she crawled into bed. The day had been too long and wearisome—and if she needed to meet with Baldur in the morning, she had an even less stellar day to look forward to.

Relaine intently burnished her long, pink-painted nails as they waited for the headman to arrive at his office, a small, pleased smile playing at her lips. Her slippered foot absently pointed up and down as her crossed leg moved about, belying anxiety. Why? What did she anticipate, that made her expectantly nervous?

Lapis studied her, wondering at her appearance. Her plain, dusty pink cotton dress, covered in a white apron, seemed very unassuming compared to the low-cut outfits she normally wore when meeting with leaders. She firmly believed in showing off her best side, so chose colors that brightened her dark brown eyes and brought reddish highlights to her otherwise dull brunette strands. She owned several pieces of glass jewelry she wore all at once, as if the gleaming items somehow reflected her importance to the Jiy House.

The chair next to hers creaked. Lapis glanced at Whitley, who had slumped down, settled his cheek in his hand, and looked to fall asleep. As a lad of sixteen, he did not much care for impressing any adult with his attire, let alone his behavior. How loud might Baldur yell, if he arrived for this very important meeting, only to be met with snores?

She longed to roll back up in her blankets, but Whitley knocked on her door far earlier than she wished, telling her that the headman wanted to see them immediately. Sherridan was probably correct, that the upper echelon of rebel leadership planned an inspection, and the man now realized he had run out of time to prepare.

Lapis mulled over why Baldur chose the three of them for this meeting. As far as she knew, he never requested Whitley’s presence unless he wanted him to perform footman duties for influential rebels; he never cared about making a visiting village trainee comfortable. And Relaine expected important news, or she would have taken her time and dressed up rather than rushed to the office in her everyday wear. So why ask to see her, too?

Her tummy twisted, and she looked down at her tightly clenched hands while she tried to un-grit her teeth. Few Jiy rebels thought her more than Patch’s woman, an appendage they dealt with for his sake, and Baldur was one of the more spiteful critics. He made crude insinuations about their sleeping habits and declared her suitable only for serving duty at important meetings. Strange, how he never realized how many missions she accompanied Patch on—and how many of those involved cleaning up his personal screw-ups. Sherridan and Brander knew, but he seldom believed much of what they said when it came to her.

She fought for calm. She disliked showing nervousness before Relaine, for the woman used it against her at the most inopportune moments—unless Patch kept her company. Then she held her nastiness in check, as if she thought a few warm words and a fake cheery smile would hide her darker personality from him. Patch considered her a friend, and Lapis still could not fathom why. The woman’s insincerity permeated her.

Whitley yawned and Relaine granted him a dark glare before she returned to neatening her nails. He rolled his eyes at the disapproval before closing them. He, as most Jiy rebels under twenty, did not care for the pretentious woman, having suffered her sharp tongue numerous times. As far as Lapis could tell, Relaine only showed deference to those she thought would grant her higher status in the rebellion, and no one his age qualified.

Baldur banged into the room, huffing loudly as he carted his wide girth across the lumpy, expensive Dentherion throw carpet. He fell into the heavily padded red silk chair behind the battered pinkwood desk, nearly tipping over as the seat tottered backwards under his weight. He snagged the edge and kept himself upright, his rings digging into the soft wood. The candleholder and the inkwell violently trembled, but stayed put.

Perhaps he needed sturdier furniture.

He had brought several items of luxury to the House, decorating his office and a few of the meeting rooms with the lavishness of a wealthy merchant’s taste, but with whitewash peeling from the broken walls and stained, scruffy floors, the décor looked uncomfortably odd. It reminded the less-fortunate rebels that their continued stay at the House relied upon Baldur’s largess, and he had no interest in smoothing over the wealth disparities, but rather bragged on them. Considering the snobbiness, Lapis wondered why more of the nicer stuff had not walked out one of the doors and into the underground markets. Gold candlesticks and tinted glass drinking cups would fetch a good price and be nearly untraceable by their irate ex-owner.

He pulled his wine-red, wide-sleeved long jacket tight about his midsection, but his embroidered belt did not keep it in place, and it sagged, revealing an even darker red shirt resplendent with gold thread vines. Lapis wondered who he thought to impress, in a House where the average rebel’s city guise made a few bits of shell in a warehouse, enough for a couple of meals and a closet room, and little else. Few would find it impressive, rather than annoyingly vain.

He must have realized a leader or two planned to visit that day.

One of his two armored bodyguards closed the door with a loud not-slam-but-close, jerking Whitley from his half-doze.

Baldur glared at the lad, his grey eyes so hooded under the saggy eyelids it ruined the dark look. “We have a situation,” he began.

Relaine raised an eyebrow and lowered her hands to her lap. “Situation?” she asked, in the sultry voice she used when powerful men were in the room.

Baldur’s deep frown made him look as if he smelled something unexpectedly rank. He did not particularly like the woman, though she plied her wiles on him time and again. Lapis privately thought her low birth interfered with any favor he might give; he treated the wealthier rebels with far more respect than those who came from poor neighborhoods or the streets, a severely misdirected response to money.

“A surprise visit from rebel leaders,” he admitted gruffly as he tilted back; the chair squeaked in loud protest at the movement. Relaine perked up and leaned forward, a light in her eyes that made Lapis weary. She was not the only person who thought ingratiating themselves to the rebellion’s leadership would translate into more power and influence, but in the Jiy house, she was the most flagrant about it.

“Who will be coming?”

Baldur looked more dour. “I’m not sure,” he grumbled. “I was informed this morning that several would arrive to inspect the house in the next few days. They gave no specific time table.” His tight grip on the armrests proved how annoying he found the declaration. She wondered if Patch had a hand in keeping the leaders’ identities a secret, so the headman had no idea who to prepare for—meaning he had no idea what expensive item to purchase that would butter them up to the point they overlook his poor leadership.

“And you want my help?”

Whitley’s head lolled over and he looked at Lapis with a disgusted frown at Relaine’s eagerness. She half-smiled back, though dread began a slow, steady march from the pit of her stomach to the middle of her chest.

“I need you to get some women together and clean those rooms in the guest wing,” he told her. She reared back in appalled surprise at the request, her nail file falling from her fingers and landing with a soft plunk on the carpet. Lapis found the demand absurd. Was Selda so busy she could not oversee something as important as preparing rooms for honored guests? Why else ask Relaine, who spent most of her time weaseling out of housework? Did she even know what end of a broom to use?

And why only badger women into service? Why not have her bat her eyelashes at the eager men who twisted themselves into knots to assist her, and convince them to change bedding and sweep?

Baldur ignored the reaction and glowered sourly at Lapis, then focused on Whitley. “It’s time you two made yourselves useful,” he stated. “They’ll be here several days, and I need someone to serve—”

Relaine interrupted, her voice quivering with outrage. “What about me? I deserve to serve them, not this street bit.” Lapis clenched her hands as the woman slurred the last word. Of course she was pissed that Baldur wished to hide her away in domestic service rather than allow her the opportunity to personally meet every high-ranking leader sent to Jiy, but insulting her would not change his mind.

“You’re needed elsewhere,” the headman reminded her angrily as he waved aside her protest with a chubby hand. “Lapis and Whitley will serve the night meals. That’s final.”

Was it, now? How kind of him, to ask beforehand. Who had he spoken with, to reach that conclusion? Certainly not herself.

He studied her and Whitley with a steady, disapproving eye. “I don’t want you working in rags,” he said. “Make sure they’re clean, too. You’re going to be serving the night meals for as long as they’re here, so have a few outfits ready.”

“I haven’t agreed to anything,” Lapis told him coolly, digging her nails into the backs of her hands as she fought not to retaliate at the insult. Unlike some rebels, she knew what a bath was, and how to use it.

“You have no choice,” he snapped back. “I’ve decided.”

“Have you?” Relaine growled. She normally behaved with far more reservation in Baldur’s presence, but being denied an opportunity to associate with rebel leadership while they were effectively a captive audience obviously infuriated her.

“If Relaine wants—” Lapis began.

Baldur slammed his hand on the desk, hard enough it rocked up on two legs. His face turned an ugly shade of purple. “I told you that you’re going to serve, and you’re going to serve, Lapis!” he shouted. “You’re going to see Selda about how to behave while you do. There’s going to be nobles visiting, and you will not embarrass me!”

Ah. He found Relaine embarrassing enough to keep her from serving. Interesting. And she and Whitley, by suffering his bullying, apparently fit his idea of sufficiently subservient. He would have them fill wine glasses and serve meat to overly self-impressed leaders without worrying they might act inappropriately.

Relaine sat back, contemplating the headman with a thoughtful glower. Lapis had no doubt, she would make certain the visitors understood she would accommodate any requests, especially if they were noble. Baldur could not keep her completely sequestered while the elite visited, and she would take advantage of the opportunity.

The headman waved his hand. “Get going,” he snarled. “Relaine, those rooms need to be ready by tonight. Lapis, Whitley, I’ll send for you when they arrive. Go see Selda this afternoon. You have a lot to learn on short notice.”

The three of them rose. Relaine snagged her nail file with a jerky, angry action, and they left with more haste than necessary. The guards glared daggers at them as they hustled down the hallway, a normal reaction to a decidedly not-normal meeting. Lapis fought the urge to turn and smirk at them. She knew their bravado did not carry over to their fighting abilities, despite the fact Baldur believed it did and paid them accordingly. Patch fully expected the headman to get into trouble with the palace guard, sooner rather than later, and those bodyguards would either fall fast or flee fast. They would not protect him, and the rebels would have to go through the painstaking process of finding another leader for the largest House in Jilvayna—which should, by rights, fall to either Sherridan or Brander.

“Huh.” Lapis winced inwardly as she glanced at Relaine, who pivoted and awaited them in the center of the peeling hallway. The woman wrapped her arms firmly about her midsection, a strangely protective action, and stared down her nose at her. She wished she had grown taller so she might look her in the eye instead of tilting her head back to see her face. It always made her feel on uneven ground. “Who’d you beg to get assigned to serve?” she asked petulantly.

“No one,” Lapis snapped.

“Why would we?” Whitley grumbled. “Serving a bunch of drunk jerks isn’t exactly the highlight of our day. Unless . . .” His eyes lit. “So do you think Faelan will be with them?”

Relaine’s bell-like laughter echoed down the corridor. “No,” she said, so forcefully his enthusiasm fell. “Why would he bother with the Jiy House? He never has before. They’ve likely sent some up-and-coming rebel with a small entourage of advisors. There have been complaints, that the leadership is uninvolved and indifferent to the average House, and this is the way they’ve decided to rectify it.”

Relaine did not know Faelan, to say that. He had always taken his role in the rebel leadership seriously, and from what the trainees said, that had not changed in the last eight years.

Of course not. That was all he lived for, was it not.

Lapis smashed her lips together and tried, hard, not to think of him. It brought nothing but pain, and she did not wish to spend a moody day dwelling on bitterness and hate.

She put her hand on Whitley’s shoulder, hoping to comfort him. “I think they’re going to send several important someones to poke about. If they didn’t plan to, Baldur would be in a more accommodating mood because he’d know who to bribe.”

Whitley perked up as Relaine glared.

“And who told you that? Patch, of course.” She pushed her snubbed nose into Lapis’s face, and she reared back at the sugar-sweet perfume wafting from her. The woman’s mocking laughter was sharply bitter. “You’re no better than a common street rat. Why is he so fascinated with you? You’re hardly one to trust with such things.”

Lapis edged past and walked stiffly away before she pulled her knife and cut the woman, something she would immediately regret. Whitley rushed to catch her step, glancing behind them before concentrating on their route.

“You shouldn’t let Relaine get to you,” he told her. She lifted her lip in response. “She’s just pissed Baldur’s refusing to let her flirt with the leaders while they get drunk, and maybe convince one to take her with him when he leaves.”

“You think she’d leave Jiy?”

“If she thought she’d move up in the rebellion, I think she would.”

Lapis doubted it. Relaine was a city person, through and through. She could not quite picture the prettily primped woman slogging through mud or snow, or shivering in an over-patched tent in a rebel camp, just to be near leaders. Not all Houses were large buildings with multiple rooms able to house the area’s rebels, as in Jiy. Some consisted of a table at a less-than-prosperous inn, where local headpeople conducted business. Relaine liked free rent and a stipend she did not have to work hard to receive, and Lapis did not think she would interrupt that good fortune after a chance meeting that might end with her stuck in a rural village without prospects. Why escape from the Stone Streets slum only to land in another poor and helpless living situation?

Whitley flipped his long blond bangs from his eyes. “I think you’re right, though. I bet that’s why Relaine’s angry. There’s going to be a real leader coming to check on us.”

“A real leader?” Lapis asked, amused. Apparently Baldur did not count.

“Well, someone really in charge. Not like those small-town leaders who’re sent here to get some experience under their belt.”

His tone indicated he had a far less rosy opinion of those rural rebels than either Sherridan or Brander. Of course, neither trainer would suffer the demeaning words of disillusioned villagers who sought to break the dreariness of country living by joining the rebellion. Those men eagerly arrived in Jiy, expecting accolades for their daring choice to join the underground cause, but quickly realized the seriousness of the general rebel organization. After their first few days under Sherridan and Brander, they also realized that claiming to fight for justice was far, far different than actually fighting for justice, and that fight, when free of ideals and lofty words, was dangerous and hard. They could not take their bitter frustration out on better-placed rebels, but they could snarl at the lesser.

Many of those disappointed people returned home to drink themselves silly during their free evenings, bemoan the state of Jilvayna and their sorry existence, and trundle home just before dawn to sleep off the alcohol, too cowardly to complete the missions given them. While some of the best operatives the rebels had lived in rural Jilvayna, most were not wealthy enough to take time away from crops and businesses to travel and train in the capital.

And the lucky Jiy House got to deal with the conceited ones.

“Did Patch have anything to say about it?” Whitley asked.

Lapis shrugged. “He said he’s paving the way for the elite. Despite what Relaine said, the Blue Council has been looking into the management of the Houses for a few years now. They started shortly after the old headman here was murdered. Their interest and involvement seems to have helped; we don’t hear about arrests and executions very much anymore. They’re putting the right people in charge, ones who care about those under them, and who weigh risks carefully before taking them.”

“Baldur isn’t the right people,” he told her.

“No, and that probably explains why he’s upset. He sees the visit itself as a condemnation of his management.”

“You think the rebel leaders will put someone else in charge?”

“It depends whose voice they find most reliable. They listen to Patch, though, and he hates Baldur. He won’t be shy about telling them Sherridan and Brander do all the work, and that Baldur puts profit above lives.”

Whitley’s eyes widened. “My dad says Baldur’s greed endangers this House.”

“It does. He’s made several terrible decisions that Patch had to clean up.” Whitley looked surprised, but Lapis knew, intimately, the results of the merchant’s lust for wealth. After accompanying Patch on a couple of those clean-up missions, bashing the headman’s head against a wall had sounded better than good, though she doubted that would ever knock sense into him. “Baldur thinks he has unfettered access to underground markets through the rebels, and it interferes with his decisions. Considering the changes made in other Houses, that’s probably coming to an end—and he knows it.”

They entered a larger, stark room with six hallways intersecting it. Rebels had scraped most of the peeling whitewash from the walls, but the decorative pilasters still had huge chunks missing, ruining the tidiness effect. Would Baldur attempt to improve the look before the leaders arrived? He had let the six-hundred-year-old building languish, though he bought pretty things for the spaces he occupied. The average rebel, in his estimation, did not need fresh paint or a luscious landscape to study when bored. Did he already regret that choice? It would serve him right, if he could not find enough seating for the visiting elite.

It would serve him right, if she vacated the House and spent the next several days in the city. Then Relaine could fill glasses and flirt and . . . 

“He’s in his office.”

Lapis frowned. Sherridan sounded strained. She paused as he exited one of the hallways, accompanied by four strangers in travel gear . . .

She froze. No.

NO.

Stefan stopped and blinked in surprise, but Teucer . . . Teucer looked to have seen a ghost.

She supposed he had.

Sherridan frowned and glanced back when he realized his guests had not kept step, then looked warily at her. “Lapis?” he asked, confused. Whitley’s concern washed off her as she stared at two men she had not seen in over eight years.

Apparently she did know some rebel leaders.

“Hi.”

Had she nothing better to say?

“Hey.” Stefan hid his shock better, and Teucer shut down. She could see him bottling the rush of emotion away, to scream about later. The two women with them appeared as confused as Sherridan and Whitley, and looked back and forth, obviously wanting to blurt out questions but keeping their peace.

“You’re part of the rebel leadership coming here to inspect the House?” she asked.

“Yeah. There’re several more, but we’re supposed to tour the city before too many others arrive,” Stefan replied.

“Wait. You know Ciaran?” Sherridan asked, stunned.

Ciaran. Jiy rebels spoke the name with awe and unease, though no one had met him to experience his darkness and dangerousness in person. Rumor claimed him a deadly opponent, though her mental image based on gossip had just shattered into a million bits. After all, he was the older brother of her best friend, who let her and Neola steal sweets off his plate when he was purposefully not looking.

Even duckberry tarts. And he loved duckberry tarts.

“Yeah. I do.” She almost managed a laugh. “From before the fire killed my family.”

Ciaran would take the hint, and hopefully Teucer followed suit. There had been a fire, and Nicodem had burned to the ground, but her family perished long before Kale’s men lit the first match. Ciaran and Teucer knew that, but the Jiy rebels did not. They thought her family died in a city fire—it explained her screaming nightmares that echoed through the empty halls on random nights.

Dammit. What was she going to do? She needed anonymity if she planned to take out the traitor who betrayed them.

“Maybe you can show us around Jiy,” one of the women said. She had shoulder-length copper hair, deep brown eyes, and a smattering of freckles across her reddish cheeks that she did not try to hide under thick powders. “It’ll give you a chance to catch up.”

“Yes,” Teucer said. She had no idea how to interpret the tone in his voice, but a small shiver ran up her spine.

“Lapis, meet Caitria and Mairin,” Ciaran said, gesturing to the woman and their dark-haired, petite companion. “And, well, you already know Tearlach.”

Tearlach? She nodded. “Welcome to Jiy.”

She really did have nothing better to say.

“They need to talk to Baldur,” Sherridan said. He seemed unhappy, and Lapis had no idea whether the situation or the revelation hit him harder. “We’ll find you after they’re settled.”

“Whitley and I are going to learn serving from Selda, so we’ll be in the kitchens.”

“Learn serving?” Ciaran asked, raising a skeptical eyebrow. Both women narrowed their eyes at the admittance.

“You need someone to flop a steak on your plate without insulting you in the process.”

The women smashed their lips together while Sherridan looked as amused as a wet cat, and based on their expressions, neither Ciaran nor Tearlach enjoyed the description. Whitley’s eyes grew so large, she assumed he was silently telling her to play nice.

“The headman is having you serve?” She detected the growing outrage beneath Tearlach’s question.

“He doesn’t have much other use for me.”

“Patch says he doesn’t have a favorable opinion of women in the rebellion,” Caitria told them. “I’m certain Mairin and I won’t change his mind.”

“No,” Ciaran said with a sigh.

“Baldur isn’t one who takes comments and demands from women seriously,” Lapis warned them. “And he’s surrounded himself with sycophants who do the same. Not Sherridan or Brander, though,” she said hurriedly; she did not want to insult a friend. “They’re the reason this House still functions.”

“Well, we still need to go see him,” Sherridan said, breaking the unexpected reunion apart. Lapis and Whitley moved out of the way to let them pass, and Mairin winked at her before they walked on. She realized they had much, much more planned for Baldur than ousting him from his position.

“You really know them?” Whitley squeaked as soon as he thought them out of hearing range. “You know Ciaran?”

Lapis nodded with a small, sad smile. “Yeah. Ciaran was there when I was born, so he’s known me my whole life.” And, hopefully, he would have a short but urgent talk with Tearlach before they saw her again.

Because the rebels could not know, a Nicodem survived the slaughter. Not if she planned to carry retribution to the traitor who helped murder them.


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