Chapter 15: Vengeance

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Lapis ran, her lungs filled with cold, her heart filled with hate.

Miki died, like her little brother. No reason for it, other than a cruel and heartless man liking the sight of blood. A filthy traitor, who led Kale’s men to Nicodem and joined in the slaughter of man, woman, child, noble, commoner. A traitor who thought killing a street rat would get to her. No care for human life, no thought for the pain and tears and devastating heartache. He wanted a brush of her life against theirs to mean death, a crushing finality the memento of a harsh and unforgiving street existence.

The agony of bitter guilt that she had not done enough to protect those tangential to her burst through her, a river she could not dam. She would make certain, every single man Perben sent after her the previous day would pay for their involvement. She would take out his partners in death along with him.

The streets blurred; tears fell, rushing down her cheeks and soaking her collar. She silently apologized to Miki; he paid for her failure, and he never deserved the blade. She asked the rats for forgiveness, for not protecting them from the wrenching pain of the streets. Every street rat lost meant friends left behind, sometimes lovers, sometimes a brother or sister. The living mourned and their days remained heavy with fog and dark clouds, their lives a torrent of sorrow that faded slowly but never dissipated.

Only a few rebels completed chores outside the House when she arrived, trimming bright green hedges and sweeping the walk; all stared, startled, as she raced by. She ignored them; she had another target.

The foyer was empty but for Brander, who had another place to be. He stopped abruptly and studied her for one moment before rushing to her.

“What happened?”

She glared at him. “He killed Miki,” she gritted through clenched teeth. “A street rat. Thought he was Rin.”

“Lapis!”

She forced herself to still, to take a deep breath. "I need to speak to a Blue Council leader." Did she sound civil enough?

"Baldur decided to host a communal breakfast, so they aren't available. Lapis—"

“Don’t stop me,” she told him as she turned towards the room that Baldur used to feed his important guests. If the traitor did not sup there, she would--

Brander snagged her arm and she yanked forcefully away before fleeing. No. She had to stop Perben before anyone else died.

Rebel faces blurred around her as she raced past. She hated their shock, their dumbfounded expressions; not one yelled after her, to ask what was wrong. Of course not. She had lived among them long enough to know that, unless she walked the hallways with Patch, they thought nothing of her.

She rammed into the open door to the room; a few turned, to see what made the noise. Most stood about, ready to partake. She skimmed the attendees, searching. Tables with pristine white cloths, shining utensils and whitish glass stood ready for hungry rebels. Whitley and Relaine busied themselves at a wide table, setting out white plates. Covered dishes that smelled salty and too-sugary spanned the length, and beaded silver pitchers of something cold sat at the end. The room had no windows, with the sole light emanating from a myriad of wall sconces filled with fruit oil to light the peeling, white-stained walls and roughened wooden flooring. Too much brightness, combined with the over-sweet smell of the burning oil and food. She wanted to gag.

Perben, surrounded by a handful of friends, noted her. The slow, steady, smug smile that immediately parted his lips snapped the remains of her control.

“Lapis!” Baldur roared.

Ah. So he noticed her. He waddled from his place at one of the tables, intent on her. She had other business, and he was not involved.

“You killed the wrong rat, you fuck.”

Perben raised one eyebrow, still smiling. Everyone stopped what they were doing and turned to stare.

No one clustered about the traitor matched the description of his accomplice, but no matter. Plenty of others who had a hand in searching for her the night before kept him company, and they would pay for their involvement. “You and your friend didn’t kill Rin. His name was Miki.”

Perben stopped smiling.

“What are you talking about?” a round, bearded man with greying temples and angry brown eyes snarled at her. He wore scarlet robes and a fine gold cloth sash, an indication he was one of the rebel nobles. Meinrad or Rambart? She did not care.

“Melanthe.”

She heard the sick pain in that one word, but she could not respond to it and still give Perben his due. She knew the voice; a kinder time had imprinted the tone, when he laughed jollily at her antics before showing her a fat volume of closely written words that he planned to read. She always told him such small words made for terrible reading, but he assured her it meant the book held that much more pleasure. “Stay out of this, uncle,” she ordered, keeping her gaze on Perben.

“Melanthe?” someone asked, confused.

Perben managed another smile, a vicious, gloating smirk. “Melanthe.”

“I swore on the graves of my family I’d send your traitorous soul to them for retribution, and I haven’t rescinded my vow.”

“LAPIS!” Baldur screamed, barely managing the words past a tightened throat.

She ducked as someone tried to snag her. Perben snatched a knife from the table and threw, uncaring who might step in the way. She raised her right hand and the blade smacked against her gauntlet before rebounding, flipping through the air and clattered against the wall. It tinging to the ground and spun away. He drew a larger knife from his belt sheath as one of his friends slid between them.

Idiot.

The friend lunged at her; she slipped to the side and rammed her elbow into his back. He stumbled forward and fell into a chair, taking it to the floor with him. Another raced at her; she kneed him in the stomach. He fell with a startled cry and curled up, shaking. Perben surrounded himself with men who had no idea how to fight. Did he make certain of that?

Screams, roars; her side tingled, and she squatted and rolled as someone tried to wrap his arms around her from behind. She ran the short distance to her target as he took a fight stance, weaving his blade about. The man Ciaran had pointed out, Gerrit, shuffled back from him, disbelief mingled with disgust. He knew the traitor now—whether he believed it, she hardly cared.

She studied her enemy, waiting for his move. She had heard of Teivel’s skill in hand-to-hand fighting. His sneak attacks, his fast footwork, his faster strikes—he was the Rebel’s Devil because of it. Patch never seemed impressed with the tales, and she assumed him another rebel of standing who bloviated about their abilities so others would hold them in high regard. She could not take the chance he had no skill, but if her partner had thought the man could take her, he would have already warned her.

Perben assumed her unarmed; he gloated as he rushed to strike. She arched away to the left and triggered her right gauntlet; her own weapon slid out, smooth and quick. She sliced across, the edge carving a slit in his right sleeve, but it did not quite graze his skin. He leaped back, his eyes wide as she whirled with the momentum and struck out, slashing down. He narrowly avoided her cut against his skin, though it ripped through his shirt. He tangled with a chair and fell, planting his ass on the tabletop as another friend rushed her, holding one for protection.

He expected that to stop her?

She dodged him and jumped to the open section of floor, away from the confines of tables and chairs. She sheathed her blade with an ominous shing and grabbed the legs, tearing it from his hands. She glimpsed his stunned expression as she slammed the wooden back into his shoulder, sending him reeling into his friends, who had not processed what she had just done. She threw the seat at her enemy and redrew.

Perben had regained his balance and his hate; he easily dodged and confronted her, unimpressed. So be it. When her blade buried itself into his throat, he could drown in a moment of shock that he underestimated his foe before he bled to death on the floor.

He was fast. He darted in and out, slicing and retreating far enough her longer weapon could not touch him. Concern for being cut worked against him; he had more flexibility with a free blade, but he pulled attacks and skidded away, avoiding her slashes. It kept him fingerlengths away from striking her. She positioned herself sideways to him, making her body as thin a target as possible. She had no doubt, if he harmed her, he would not stop at one hit.

His position among the rebels relied on her being dead, after all.

The room fuzzed and narrowed to the point she saw Perben, his companions, but no one else. His friends tried to throw silverware at her; most missed, and she either dodged the rest or let them strike her. Spoons, especially, bounced away with a sharp but minute sting. An enterprising man shattered glasses at her feet, but she simply moved away from the shards. Could she force Perben to step all over them? She doubted the fine bits would puncture his boot soles, but it would make for a crunchy, slippery, foothold.

One of the men drew a sword, a short, stout weapon that had a longer reach than her blades by perhaps a fingertip. He faced her; Perben glared at him and barked something, which he ignored as he leaped past and ran at her. He expected her fear, he expected her to run.

She expected him to handle his chosen weapon better than he did.

He sliced down; she avoided his strike. He slashed across to the left, then reversed. She caught the sword against her blade, then triggered her left gauntlet. She slammed her second blade down crosswise, near the hilt, and jerked the tip of his sword upwards; the grip tore from his fingers and the weapon flipped away. It struck the floor and skidded; Brander snagged it and backed up, holding it to his chest.

The stupid man stared at her, clutching his hand. Stupid, and not her target. She slammed her foot into his chest, and he sprawled backward, nearly taking Perben with him. The traitor avoided the collision and stared at the second blade, his amusement gone.

“Stop this at once!”

The round man tried to wade into the center of the fight, but someone grabbed his collar and yanked him back. Perben attempted to take advantage of the distraction, and jabbed in, quick; she turned to the side and sliced at his forearm. Cloth ripped and a thin line of blood stained the light brown cloth. Too bad, she cut too shallow.

More men surrounded her; she held her arms out with a slight crook and whirled. They tumbled back, even though the blades came nowhere near their precious skin. A few fell, slipping on the shattered glass they forgot existed. Perben readied a lunge, and she made another circle; he, too, retreated, unwilling to get near fast and deadly weapons.

His mouth firmed and he attempted to take advantage of the spin, racing to her left. He slashed crosswise, expecting to cut her chest, and deep.

There.

Lapis arched back; Perben missed, carving air. She planted her right foot, turned and swung her right-handed weapon, aiming for his stomach. The glint of a blade, to her right, just behind. It would slice through her shoulder, down her back, if she followed her momentum.

She would gut the traitor, take the hit.

Strike. For her father, mother, siblings, Nicodem staff, the townspeople caught in a powerplay they knew nothing about until it killed them. She drove at his stomach; death and revenge, especially for Endre, and for Miki.

Someone impacted her. She shrieked as the room spun; her right-hand blade struck something and cut deep before she fell to her knees with the unexpected weight and they slid, turning about, nearly impacting the wall. The arm about her shoulders and chest tightened. What had happened? Who else had been near enough to act?

“Don’t come near her.”

Faelan. His low, enraged growl echoed through the room, silenced the others. Blood smeared the floor, leading to his right arm. He had taken the blade meant for her.

“You stupid fuck!” she cried, grabbing at his lower arm. Deep, deep slice, so much hot blood—

“Got it,” Caitria said as she tumbled to her knees next to them. “I need you to hold pressure to his arm here,” and the woman pressed her thumb against the inside of his elbow. Lapis let her blades go, a fast but cautious exercise, and tamped down as the other woman grabbed the device she had set on the floor next to her. Blood smeared the knobs and buttons, but she pressed a few and the white square object opened, revealing a cavity large enough to set the wounded arm in.

“Why did you do that?” Lapis asked, the blood, too much blood, scaring her. Too hot against her fingers, the metallic tang filtered into her nose, her mouth.

Faelan settled his forehead against the side of her head, as he used to do when she was a child. “I can’t lose you, Lapis,” he whispered, agony lacing his tone. “Not again.”

“Lose me? I could have taken the hit. It wouldn’t have killed me. I would have gutted him and he would have choked to death on his lies!” Her voice rose too high, and she tried to tamp down on it, with no success. “Everyone else is gone. Everyone! And if you die . . .  Faelan—”

He laughed; Lapis felt rage descend. How dare he endanger himself in that way, when she could very well have weathered the blow and continued functioning while her foe bled out at her feet?

“You realize, you’re speaking Fae-speak?” he asked.

What?

She blinked as another woman, in a prim pale blue dress and carrying a large leather bag sank next to them. She gifted Faelan with a glare torn from the depths of concern and acute exasperation as she snapped a pair of gloves onto her hands.

“You’re an idiot twice over,” she informed him as she settled her hands where Lapis had her own. “Must run in the family, since your father managed the same thing.” She eyed her, her expression gentling. “Slowly remove your hands. I’ll help from here.”

Faelan sagged against her; he had lost too much blood in so short a time. She hissed up her breath, but Caitria cast her a quick, amused smile that covered her concern.

“We’ve stitched him up plenty of times, Lapis,” she informed her. “He’ll be fine.” She settled the device about his forearm and red lights raced up and down, in the center of the buttons. Red normally meant bad, and her chest tightened at the thought of him dying in her embrace. She could not watch another funeral of a family member murdered by rebel hand.

She slipped her arm about his back and kept him propped up, a fuzz racing through her head. She heard nothing, saw little more, her gaze blurred on tears and numbness and Faelan’s assertion. Fae-speak. As a child, Faelan had unwittingly developed a language only he and Anthea understood; adults claimed it gibberish, but they comprehended each other just fine. She and their other siblings picked it up as small children and used it as often as Lyddisi. It led to several amusing, mischievous episodes, and deep frustration in the adults who could not stop them before they ran off on their adventures. When Faelan had upset her to the point her fury could not be contained, she screamed at him in Fae-speak, venting in a way few grasped. He had found her tantrums amusing, which only added to her rage.

They continued the tradition. How odd, she had not forgotten it.

“How did you even know where I was?” she asked, attempting a pathetic distraction. Midir had chosen to stay the night at Dachs’s place, and Faelan had joined him. Had one of the guards woken him, concerned she had raced from the Eaves with two rats, distraught?

“Rin and Lyet came and got me,” he mumbled. “They told me what happened and that you took off. It wasn’t hard to figure out where you went and who you planned to target.”

Rin and Lyet?

“Lyet knows a fast way to get here, and Rin agreed to bring Midir and the rest.”

Midir?

The royal stood in the doorway, Neassa by his side, Varr a towering presence behind them. His other protectors and the people Faelan had brought to the Eaves fanned out around the royal, stern and silent—except for Keril and Klyo. Keril looked ill. Klyo looked like a small child who needed to tell her parents she had accidentally let the family pet loose, and a wagon ran it over.

Varr. He had a coating of dust and a dark circle with black streaks surrounding it marred his vest on the left side. Tears and rough patches littered the leather and his shirt. He always wore a marching shirt, adequate protection against his foes, but the damage concerned her.

The rats eyed the shrieking and screeching rebels as they scurried over to them and planted themselves against the wall, keeping their small group between them and the rest of the room. She had always feared that Rin would see the rebels as a viable employer, drawn to the danger and excitement the organization promised. Would he still, after an intimate look into rebellion treachery? Had becoming a target for the traitor eliminated that want?

Lyet stiffly regarded Baldur, her distrust emanating from her. She must have met him before she left her mother’s home; her stepfather had several merchant associates from all manner of income levels. Of course, he had far more pressing issues than remembering a runaway and tattling to the man she fled from.

Patch strode after them. A fine layer of dust coated him as well, and exhaustion lay beneath his fury. He eyed her then his gaze fell on Perben, who had hunched over, clutching his arm, teeth barred, hate turning a pretty façade into ugly menace. Blood ran profusely from his bicep to his forearm; too bad she missed her objective. Friends looked helpless and turned to Patch for help; the traitor looked up at the chaser in time to meet his knuckles.

“If I can’t kill him, neither can you.”

Had those words just popped from her mouth?

Perben hit the ground, unconscious, blood from his nose and mouth smearing the floor about him. His supporters gaped and the bearded man hustled up, wildly swinging his arms, with another who had an armful of medical supplies.

Patch regarded her with steady annoyance; she felt hot, runny tears course down her cheeks but did not look away. Soft, amused if exasperated laughter echoed below the strangled shouting and confusion. The bearded man looked at the door and stopped, shocked. Several others paused and frowned; a scant few recognized Midir and Varr, and their dazed expressions proved that his presence, as he wished, came as a complete surprise to the Blue Council.

“Midir,” the bearded man whispered.

“What’s going on?” another shouted, his voice high enough to screech over the general babble. He was taller, thinner than Meinrad, with a very short beard that lined his chin rather than hid it. He had bushy brown brows and dark, angry eyes too large for his gaunt face. His blue suit, while plainer than his cohort’s clothing, shimmered with a purple subtlety indicative of expensive dyes.

“Something sinister,” Midir said quietly, though Lapis heard the contempt beneath the pleasant tone. She wondered who else noticed, or if she had because she grew up around him. His gaze flicked to her and Faelan, then back to the crowd gathering with Meinrad. “I would expect no less, from something involving Teivel.”

“What do you know of this?” Meinrad demanded, flinging his arm out towards Perben and the numerous others crowded about him. No one neared her or Faelan; did they expect Caitria and the other woman to care for him? Or did it mean Perben had far more of a following than her brother, and that rebels preferred traitors to honorable sons?

Talk dwindled, as Jiy and Coriy rebels alike faced the heir to the Jilvayna throne. Sherridan and Brander stood just to the side of the door with a scattering of bewildered locals and Baldur, stoic and unsurprised compared to the grey-skinned, flabbergasted headman, who rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet while he wringing his hands. She belatedly realized Relaine had joined the group surrounding Perben, distraught.

False concern. She chose the wrong side.

People evaporated from Patch’s path as he walked to their group. He briefly studied the injury and gave Faelan his exasperated but unconcerned look. “I thought you were faster than that.”

Her brother raised his head to glare, though the glassiness of his eyes defeated the purpose.

“Faelan,” she whispered. Her chest clenched as he slumped against her.

“I’ll be fine,” he reminded her.

“He’ll be fine,” Patch agreed. “Slaine’s an excellent healer, and Caitria is unmatched in using tech.” He squatted down next to her and pressed his lips against the side of her head, an act she did not deserve. “You don’t think I should kill him?”

“Evidence,” she reminded him, her voice trembling hard enough she barely managed the words.

Whitley scurried over, avoiding rebel and table to reach them. “I don’t know what you need, but I can get it,” he said, his voice strained, his face ashen.

Slaine glanced at him. “I need you to get boiling water in a large pan and put it in Faelan’s room. I’ll need clean, bleached cloth wraps as well.”

He nodded and glanced at Lapis; she managed a small smile before he hastened away to retrieve what Slaine asked for. He had a brief interest in Rin and Lyet, but his feet took him out of the room too fast for him to study them.

“He is NOT a traitor!” Meinrad roared. All attention shifted to him. He took a single menacing step towards Midir; the royal protectors immediately drew weapons and levered them at the man. He halted, hate emanating from him.

“You see him as your protégé and confidant,” Midir told him. “I still find it difficult to believe you ignored the obvious explanation for so many disastrous missions because you thought Teivel above reproach.”

“He is above reproach,” Rambart gritted, his guttural tone wobbling in fury. “Did you send her to attack him?” he asked, pointing an imperious finger at her. She had the irrational urge to bite it.

Midir raised an eyebrow. “Melanthe is her own woman,” he said. “She vowed, when Teivel helped Kale invade Nicodem, to revenge her family. I have no doubt she would have, had Faelan not interfered.”

“Melanthe?”

“My sister,” Faelan said, the same, ungrounded fury he used earlier lacing his tone.

“Your family’s dead!” Rambart protested. “We all know this! NO ONE survived!”

“One did.”

Lady Thyra.

Ciaran and a woman dressed in a sleek, form-fitting black leather outfit and strong boots flanked the older woman, both glaring at the gathered rebels. Lady Thyra wore a simple, purple travel dress and shawl, her hair tucked up in a messy blonde bun. Lapis remembered her steely expression from when she and Neola had done something that lit her fearful irritation, and its impact had not dulled with her age. Meinrad stepped back before he caught himself and reddened perceptibly at his cowardice.

“One survived. One terrified child who had to outrun the soldiers who showed up on my doorstep, demanding entry.” Her lips pressed hard together, her chin wrinkling with the act. “Melanthe.” Her loathing when she beheld Perben silenced some of the chatter that still sprinkled the room. “He killed my daughter,” she hissed. “I’ve spent eight years collecting the evidence to prove to you that he led Kale into Nicodem.” She raised an arm; she held a pack stuffed to the point the seams slightly parted. “Eight years of correspondence, of hints, of diaries and orders.” She let it fall to the floor with a soft plunk; it sagged over, muffled crinkling emanating from it.

“Ailis—” Meinrad trembled, staring at the bag in disgusted disapproval.

“Eight years, Meinrad,” she snarled. “I spent eight years knowing you’d never see his evil, even if I did find the evidence against him.” She pointed at Lapis and Faelan. “But I can’t let him take any more from those two. I’ll take him out myself if I have to!”

The look Ciaran granted his mother nearly made Lapis laugh. She doubted anyone who knew Lady Thyra would dare put a knife in her hand, because she would not hesitate to go after those who had wronged her, however ill-equipped she was to use it. The woman with them smirked, then glanced over at Faelan; her amusement died as her gaze trailed the blood across the floor. Ciaran jerked his head and she hastily walked to them, her brows knitting together.

“He’ll be fine, Jetta,” Patch said.

Jetta? Jetta?

Lapis felt her face heat before a dark cold settled in her chest. As a chaser and rebel, she respected the stories she heard about Jetta. She snuck into unsneakable places, cared for uncareable problems, and targeted the unassailable. Lapis had wanted to meet her, mostly to calm the dazzlement she felt when she heard the tales, but now, sitting in her brother’s blood, his injury caused by her actions—

Jetta cast the rats a brief, warm smile before settling on her knees behind Faelan and Slaine. He turned his head; Lapis could not see his expression, but her exasperation made him half-laugh.

“I’ve taken worse.”

“That’s not the compliment you assume,” she told him in a throaty murmur as she grasped and smoothed her darkest-black hair down her right shoulder. Her deep umber gaze flicked to Lapis. “What happened?”

“Perben killed a street rat,” she whispered. “He . . . thought he was killing Rin.” She pointed her chin at him. She knew, if Teivel had murdered him, even Falean would not have stopped her from returning the favor. As soon as circumstance presented the opportunity, she would have returned to the fight—and not missed a second time.

Jetta glanced over to the rats. “I’m sorry,” she told them. “We were delayed. We should have gotten here last night, but they had closed the city. I didn’t sneak us in fast enough.”

“Did you use the tunnels?” Patch asked.

“No. The Minq were waiting for us,” she said. “Lord Adrastos sent word through them, and they took us into the undermarket and to a lift. We ended up in the Vale and made our way by side streets.”

“He’s OK? Lord Adrastos?” Lapis asked.

“I believe so. The Minq certainly thought so.”

“He’s fine,” Patch grumbled. “He’s an idiot, but he’s fine.”

“He’s weaseled his way out of more than one tight situation,” the woman agreed.

“I don’t give a damn, Meinrad!” Lady Thyra shrieked, her voice echoing through the room. “You claim he’s like a son? He helped kill my daughter, my friends, their family! You’re supporting a murderer!” She sucked in a huge breath to scream more, but Ciaran settled his hand on her back; she whirled, glaring at him, but subsided.

“It doesn’t matter,” Patch said coldly. “I don’t need the evidence to know he’s the traitorous murderer. I’ve listened to Lapis’s nightmares about that day for the last eight years. You don’t want to admit his treachery? I don’t care. He’s staked through the blood of innocents, and I’ll bring due what is owed.”

“Don’t you dare touch him,” Rambart snapped.

Patch had a small, maliciously amused smile that expressed exactly what he thought of those who prompted it. “And how are you going to stop me?”

“The evidence is here, and is meant to be used,” Midir chided. He glanced at the Jiy rebels, his gaze bouncing over Baldur before focusing on Brander and Sherridan. “We need to place Teivel in a cell and have a guard on him at all hours.” He motioned to those surrounding him. “At least one should be from Faelan’s guard.”

“We have a cell,” Sherridan said quietly. “It’s in the cellar, and out of the way.”

“Sherridan!” Relaine cried out, aghast. “We can’t put Teivel there!”

“We can and shall,” Midir told her calmly.

“But . . . he’s a rebel hero!”

“He’s a rebel traitor.” The man motioned; Eithne and a rebel Lapis did not know purposefully strode to Perben and the cluster of friends about him. “He used his completed missions as camouflage for the ones he interfered with. Ailis also uncovered evidence that he had a hand in hiring Ahebban’s murderer, which puts a few others in a suspicious light.” He did not bother to hide his observance of Baldur.

“Is that why you’re here?” Meinrad scowled, his tummy jiggling as he held back stronger emotion.

Midir studied the surrounding rebels in his methodic manner. “No, though circumstance has forced my hand. There will be a reckoning, among the Blue Council as well as the Jiy House. I will initiate the changes that need to happen to make the rebellion what it should be. Teivel’s treachery and how he managed to hide his dealings is part of that.”

“Faelan, if you plan to walk on your own two feet to your room, you need to do it now,” Slaine said in a soft whisper. He nodded against Lapis’s shoulder before slowly sitting up; he kept his arm about her as she rose with him, being his crutch so he could stand. He garnered attention, which he ignored as he strode towards Midir, Caitria holding the tech around his arm and punching at the buttons. Slaine followed far enough away to prove that, after such a wound, he was resilient enough to leave the scene on his own. Jetta glanced at Midir and Lady Thyra—they both nodded, so she accompanied Faelan and those healing him. Patch motioned to the rats and they jumped from the wall, eager to leave.

Varr said something to Faelan as he passed; his unfriendly glare made the three women chuckle. Lapis hurried after, wanting to vacate the room so she did not have to suffer the reminder of what should have been.

She had failed.

“Are you alright?” Midir asked, intently concerned, as they passed him.

“Yeah,” she whispered.

“Melanthe,” Lady Thyra moved past the royal and gripped her shoulder; she wanted to hug her, but she had enough of Faelan’s blood marring her it would stain her dress and cause unwanted questions.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t—”

“No,” she said firmly. “It’s not solely your burden. I didn’t get here fast enough, to save another life.” She smashed her lips together as a single tear leaked from the side of her eye.

“That burden ain’t the Lady’s, nor yours, neither,” Rin said quietly. “An’ there’s another one ‘bout, tanned, with dark hair ‘n eyes. Some rats said he’d been wearin’ dirt-colored clothin’, nothin’ t’ mark ‘m as different from a Lells customer. You mightn’t be safe, even with him taken out.”

“You didn’t see him?” Patch asked.

Rin shook his head. “I weren’t ‘round, or I woulda confronted ‘m, in the open, ‘n made a fuss. There’s others wantin’ t’ get us, from Hoyt. Woulda thought ‘m from him, not rebels.”

“We’ll see what we can get from Teivel when he wakes up,” Varr said, glaring malevolently into the room. Many who watched Faelan leave shrank down, turned about, intimidated. Rin nodded and Lyet smiled with sharp satisfaction.

Lapis pointed at his marred vest. “What happened?”

Patch began to chuckle, then took himself out of the way of the man’s hearty glower. Both Lady Thyra and Midir studied the black spot while Varr puffed out his chest, growing bigger, like a cat.

“There is a reason I wear a marching shirt,” he reminded them huffily.

With Varr in a mood, Lapis decided to leave the mess in Ailis and Midir’s capable hands. She cast one look at the Jiy rebels. Neither Brander nor Sherridan seemed concerned about what had just happened; Brander stood placidly, still holding the sword, and Sherridan eyed the swirling movement about the room with an expectant smile. Baldur looked faint, numb. What had Ailis dug up about his involvement with the previous headman’s murder? Or had he taken advantage of a desperate situation that benefitted him and looked the other way concerning an event that aided him?

He had no hope of placating Midir’s anger with him.

Relaine joined them, shaking. One of the Jiy men touched her arm, concerned, and Lapis fled before she puked in revulsion. 

Faelan had collapsed on his bed by the time they reached the room; Whitley had already brought the boiling water, which Slaine used to clean her brother’s skin and wash away the bits of dirt and grime that somehow marred the wound. Caitria smiled at her as they waited for the healer to finish her job, wiping the device down with a cloth that smelled heavily of acidic cleaning liquid.

“He really will be fine, Lapis,” she told her. “He’s taken worse. It’s why he modded in the first place.”

“Modded?”

She nodded. “His arm bones aren’t bone,” she intimated. “He took that blow because he knew the blade couldn’t cut through the proxi-bone. I don’t think he anticipated it bleeding that much, though.”

“He rarely thinks about that level of injury,” Jetta said, leaning against the doorframe. Her arms crossed her chest, and her hands dug into her upper arms. “He’s hardly immortal, as much as he thinks it.”

“He might be more cautious now.” Caitria dropped the cleaning cloth on a small table near the bed and snagged another one from a compact, square white container. “He has two people to live for.”

“Two?” Lapis asked.

“You and Jetta.” The woman nodded at her friend. “After the invasion, Faelan was a zombie. Nothing and no one could break his sorrow, not even your uncle. He met Jetta a bit later, and she pulled him from the darkness and gave him a reason to continue existing. Now that he knows you lived, you’re another part of that.” She smiled softly. “He deserves a better life than he’s lived so far, and perhaps you can make him see that.”

“His guilt is a heavy and fathomless thing,” Jetta agreed.

She should have found him sooner. She should have gained the courage and asked Patch about him. Pain had kept her silent, but she should have known, the older brother she adored had not abandoned her.

“When will he wake up?”

“Hopefully some time this evening,” Slaine said. “I dosed him good, though. Luckily there are others who can take the burden of leadership for a few.”

“I made a mess of things.” Lapis bowed her head, shame and rage and guilt washing through her. Perben should be dead, sprawled in a puddle of his own blood. Instead he lived, his continuing existence a threat to everyone she cared for, and he would lie his way out of punishment for his murderous ways with the support of several righteous rebels.

“You’re much like Faelan, acting on impulse when pushed.” Jetta squeezed her upper arms even harder. “I don’t think you appreciate how similar you are in that regard.” She laughed quietly. “You’ll find out.”

“If he still wants me around.”

“Don’t be silly.” Mairin peeked into the room, studied Faelan briefly while reflecting the exasperation of her brother’s other friends. Lapis did not recall her being in the dining room, but she must have accompanied Midir, because she was with them the night before. “He’s been wanting to meet Lady Lanth for a couple of years now, and not just for rebel purposes—and now we know why.”

“Did you bring the pack?” Caitria asked.

“Yeah. We’re going to have to replace the supplies soon, though; there weren’t that many to begin with.”

“Jiy’s large enough to have what we need,” she replied.

Patch peeked in as well, then regarded her soberly. “Rin and Lyet want to go,” he told her. “The guard won’t keep the body that much longer.”

“They’ll want to bury him,” Slaine agreed.

“There’re no burials in Jiy, Slaine,” the chaser informed her. “Everyone gets thrown into the Pit so their corpse can be eaten by a carrion lizard.” The woman’s shock slid off Lapis; she had other worries than to soothe another’s trepidation and outrage. “They’ve outlawed burials in Jiy and expect the guard to throw the bodies to the animals. The rats, though, they make a procession of it, light candles and walk with the body before throwing everything over the side of the bridge. No one stops them because it dings the reputation of those who try.”

“That’s horrible!”

“It saves on the cost of dumping rotting flesh into the earth and praying over a stone that marks it.”

He wormed his mouth to the side, realizing Lapis did not have the tolerance for his nonchalance.

“If anything really bad happens while you’re out, we’ll send word to the Eaves,” Mairin said.

“With Midir here?” Jetta asked, snorting on laughter. “Meinrad and Rambart are going to be feeling lucky they didn’t step further on his bad side. Tehy will hide like good little mice until they can figure out a way to maneuver around him—and that isn’t going to happen before Midir calls meetings.”

Midir’s kindness towards others had limits. While Lapis believed he had relaxed in some ways, his presence in the dining room reminded her of his hard side, one that simmered beneath his outward pleasantness. He possessed a ruthlessness borne of hardship and familial expectations that weighed against his sense of justice and belief in the rebellion. Teivel’s betrayal had smashed every single emotional button the man had, and his supporters would be hard-pressed to convince the royal of anything other than punishment for the traitor, and, through their purposeful ignorance of his actions, themselves.

Rin jumped up from the comfy couch as soon as she exited the short hallway, antsy. Lyet rose, uncertain and hesitant.

Before she said a word, Rin raised his hand to stop what she wanted to say. “We’s here ‘cause we chose it, Lady,” he told her. “Prob’ly not healthy, t’ know where the rebels is, but—”

“Despite Teivel, rebels don’t make a habit of killing innocents,” Patch said. “You’ve more to worry about with Hoyt.”

Lapis inwardly shuddered at his hard and deadly tone. “You didn’t find him.”

“We found a trap,” Patch agreed. “Varr took the major hit, wasn’t too happy about it, but he saved lives—include Lord Adrastos’s. The guard had to bring in a Dentherion tech squad to diffuse the rest, and Sir Armarandos is . . . in a very unpleasant mood. I’ve a suspicion where Hoyt’s at, but it’s in the western mountains and not easily accessible.”

“Thems at the Lells, they’s sayin’ this ain’t like Hoyt.”

“It isn’t. And I have no idea why he stepped outside the comfortable existence he had. The Minq think they were the target, and their association with Lord Adrastos made him one. They also think Hoyt hooked up with a Ramiran syndicate that’s trying to move in on their territory and is acting in their stead. In a way, it doesn’t matter; we know something’s up because Hoyt has access to expensive, advanced tech he never should have been able to touch. It gives us something to start with.” Patch motioned to the door. “Let’s go. I need to get some wake juice before the procession.”

Lyet blinked, surprised. “You’ll join us?”

“Who’s going to go after you if I’m there?”

Who, indeed.

The Lells half-heartedly conducted business; the merchants moodily sold a few products, some silently cried. The customers walked about with sagging shoulders and melancholy gaits, only purchasing necessities. The tourists were easy to spot; they looked confused and suspicious and regarded the growing mischief of rats as if they had somehow conspired to ruin their outing.

Nilas had returned to the alley and sat among the huddled rats; Lapis breathed a soft sigh of relief. He hunched over his knees and stared absently at his feet while Heran sobbed into his shoulder. Her reaction surprised her; she normally held her emotions in reserve, concerned about how expressing them might harm her street standing. She behaved more like a lover left behind than a mourning friend, which made Lapis feel even worse.

She had a moment’s warning before Gabby jumped up, stressed. “Lady!”

Oh. Right. She had not changed into clothing unstained by Faelan’s blood. Patch should have pointed it out, but his concern was to find enough wake juice to keep him on his feet a while longer.

“She’s fine,” Rin said, emphasizing each word. “Fought one of ‘m that killed Miki. He ain’t goin’ nowhere.”

The street rats stared, as shocked by the revelation as by Miki’s death. The two guards at the alley entry glanced at each other but remained at their post. Good. She did not want to explain that the blood belonged to her idiot of a brother, who thought inserting himself into a knife fight a smart thing to do.

“Really.”

The nasty tone made her shudder. Lars and his buddies wandered up, eyeing her clothing with disdain. Half the rats shrank down, instinctively making themselves small, insignificant targets. How much bullying did Lars conduct that she knew nothing about? Rin took a confrontational stance and Lyet backed towards the cluster of reading rats.

“He’s dead, ‘cause a’ you,” Lars continued, a snarl remaining on his stubbled lip. “’N you ‘spect us t’ believe you did his killer in?”

“Rin never said I did him in,” she responded evenly, though her heart beat a painful, guilty pattern. “He said he’s not going anywhere—which he isn’t.”

“Looks like he gots the best a’ you,” Lars said, waving his hand at her bloody side.

“You think this is my blood? That I’m walking without bleeding everywhere, without pain, without being wrapped up?”

His buddies suspiciously studied her side while his eye twitched at the obvious counter to his implication. He had transitioned from dislike to hate for her, and that drove him now. She had no doubt she would become his scapegoat for whatever befell him, and at some point, he would attack her, aiming to kill what he erroneously believed harmed him.

“Here.”

Patch shoved a small, folded pack that smelled strongly of cleaning solution for kitchen blades in front of her face. She needed to wipe down her weapons before the walk to the Pit, with the hope the blades did not become gunked up with drying blood before she could properly clean them. When they got stuck, she had to give them to Patch to take to a special cleaner, and she would rather keep them close. Her chaser pair did not have the length or strength of the ones Patch gifted to her.

He tipped back a humongous bottle of wake juice that smelled stronger than Lars and his boys, then studied them with a narrowed eye. They all fidgeted, though Lars attempted to return the glare with a muddy glower of his own. He looked more like a guttershank caught with his hand in the till rather than a rat defying a well-known chaser.

The guards became far more interested in the group and nervously watched Patch. Had they experience with his temper?

She sat down as Rin stepped up, taking a wide-legged stance behind her. She opened the pack and withdrew a damp cloth, then triggered her right blade. The rats reared back, though only a few remained wary. Lars and his buddies did, especially after they noted the shine of red that coated the tip and the edges.

“He’s still dead, ‘cause a’ you,” Lars muttered resentfully.

“He’s dead ‘cause he made a mistake,” Rin countered. “A stupid one, considerin’. We all knew, Hoyt’s alookin’ ‘round t’ hurt us t’ get t’ her. So’d you. So’d Miki. You told them killers ‘bout the Lady, ‘cause you wanted to get her. ‘N they saw us t’gether, ‘n came lookin’ fer me. ‘Spose that’d do you fine, getting’ back at me fer the last time.”

“When did you wake up?” Lyet called. “Your friends had to drag you away, he hit you so hard.”

Lapis wanted to slap her hand over her forehead. “Now is NOT the time,” she hissed through clenched teeth.

“You hit him that hard?” Patch asked, amused, regarding Rin.

“He did not!” Lars protested, clenching his hands at his side. He never took humiliation well, and Patch’s presence did not help soothe this particular embarrassment.

“Too bad you didn’t learn a thing from it.” Her partner studied the furious lad, noted his trembling hands, his stiff stance, and shrugged. “For all your bragging, I doubt you’ll last more than a few weeks in the undermarket,” he said. “You think being a bully is going to get you noticed by the undershanks. There are many who are better at it and larger than you—and they won’t like a kid mouthing off to them.” He took another large swig, then offered it to her. She managed a swallow before shuddering.

“There’s something called cream,” she reminded him, coughing. She handed it back, her eyes watering hard enough tears leaked from them.

“Ruins the flavor.”

Decking him in front of the rats and guards would do neither of them any good.

Lars and his buddies stayed, though they kept away from the rest of them. Lapis finished wiping her hands just as Copper and another guard stepped from the alley. Copper eyed her weapon, noted the blood on her clothing, and stopped.

“Lady?”

“It’s not mine,” she informed him.

The guard did a double-take when he noticed Patch.

“You’s ready?” Rin asked quietly.

“Yeah.” Copper collected himself quickly. “We have the evidence we need.” His unusually sharp gaze bore into her. “Unless you took care of them?”

“Only one’s been incapacitated,” Lapis admitted. “The one with tanned skin and dark hair and eyes, he wasn’t around. I don’t know who he is or where he might be.”

“If the one Lanth caught talks, we’ll get the info to you,” Patch said. “This isn’t the only atrocity he’s committed, and he’s in an underground cell right now.”

The guard did consider the rebellion part of the underground, so while not the entire story, it was the truth.

“Are they staked?”

“Yeah. Probably not by whom you think.” He shrugged.

Staked? Yes. By her.

Several Lells merchants hastened up, clutching the stubs of candles. They lit them and passed them out to the rats, then handed the remainder to her. Oddly, most did not react to Patch, other than to caution him to help her keep the procession safe. Lapis had expected unease, maybe fear, but no. One woman even brought him another humongous bottle of wake juice, which he appreciatively accepted.

He caught her speculation, and grinned. “I can piss in an alley,” he reminded her. He tried to squelch his laughter at her lack of amusement.

One of the merchants provided his handcart, one easily pulled by a single person at the front. Patch helped the guard put Miki’s body within, carefully covered with a thick blanket. Rin chose to pull it, and other than Lars, no one objected. A line of mourners formed, and murmured blessings followed them from the market.

Copper watched, sober, and she recognized the stern internal suppression of emotion, one that would burst forth at a later, maybe unfortunate, time. “You alright?”

He shook his head. “No.” He firmed his lips, his gaze hardening. “I knew Miki pretty well. Helped him out numerous times. He wasn’t the brightest rat, but he was kind, he was funny. He was stupid this once, and it cost him. Just a dumb mistake, for a laugh. It’s . . . it’s not fair, and . . .”

“Not much is,” Patch told him. “People like you try to make it fairer, and it helps. You might have some rats looking to you, after we put him in the Pit.”

“They know where I live.” He licked his lips. “Keep an eye on Heran, OK? She and Miki were getting close. I don’t think they started a relationship, but it’s going to hit her, hard. And Nilas, too. He said he warned Miki to be cautious and feels responsible for not forcing him to listen.”

“Yeah.”

Heran, Lyet, Jandra and Jess led the way, silent, cupping their candles in both hands. The rest trailed the cart, a few shedding tears, all quiet. The wind puffed up and down, a cool touch, and thick grey clouds hit the sun, promising more rain. The Grey Streets residents kindly made way for them, a few even drawing oblivious others out of the streets. They soberly regarded the blood-stained blanket and the lump beneath, and a few whispered condolences to the rats.

Lapis remained at the rear, head bowed, her emotions quaking. She had walked with processions before, but not with one that held the body of a rat who died because of her inaction. Some urchins had passed due to illness or injury, but she had done her best to get them medicine and a doctor’s care. They weren’t dead because she had agreed to let a traitor live a few days longer. Miki may have laughed at the danger, but caution never would have been needed, had she acted when she first saw Perben at the House. He never would have anticipated her strike, and while she doubted Faelan could have convinced other rebels he was the traitor and saved her from retribution, Miki would not have died.

Patch settled a hand on her back. “You can’t blame yourself, Lanth,” he whispered.

“I should have gone after him when I first saw him.”

“Maybe. But there’s a reason I made you and Faelan promise not to.”

“And what could that possibly be?”

“Neither one of you are killers. Both of you would regret taking his life until the day you died, and he doesn’t deserve the consideration or guilt.”

A weakness, in them. “Faelan’s Leader.”

“Yes, and he plans marvelous things. He fights when necessary, takes risks, but that doesn’t mean he has the strength to kill someone he considered his best friend for a good portion of his life, even if that man committed atrocities against him. Empathy’s a precious thing and breaking it on Perben is unconscionable.”

Sometimes Patch should keep his opinions to himself.

“It won’t matter much longer, either way,” he continued.

“Why?”

“Midir and Faelan plan to break the rebellion apart.”

She almost stopped. “What?” she asked, aghast. Midir had hinted at something, but that?

“Too many are like the traitor, Meinrad, Rambart. They want a clean break, a restart. That began with the replacement of headpeople around Jilvayna, with few the wiser. They waited long enough for the infighting to make a potential counter organization untenable, and the Wolf Collaborate has quietly supported their choice.”

“Is that why they’ve kept that Dentherion contact secret? They met with her last night.”

“Did they?” Patch sighed. “Varr and I arrived just as Rin led Midir up to the door. We haven’t had time to talk.”

“She was going to meet with them at the Junperrijer apartment, wasn’t she?”

“Yeah.”

“The city guards cut off access to the eastern part of the city, and she and her guards were wandering about. They got attacked and Sherridan, Eithne and I helped them. She showed me Faelan and Midir’s picture and told me she was looking for them.”

“Life’s getting strange.” Patch took a long drink. “I wonder if that’s a good sign.”

Probably not.

Some of the younger rats wilted as they reached the Stone Streets border, but they determinedly continued. A few dropped back to walk with her and Patch, and they slowed a bit to accommodate them. She knew the others would wait for them to arrive before they completed the short ceremony. A few trotted back to her to retrieve another candle because theirs had burned out, and Patch lit it for them with his dented lighter.

The sky darkened slowly, ominously, as they trooped through the Stone Streets. Residents cast them sympathetic looks, and even guttershanks moved out of the way once they beheld Patch at the end of the line. They reached the bridge as the first fat drops fell, and Lapis resigned herself to a soggy return to the Eaves.

Heran, Lyet, Jandra and Jess stopped at the top of the gentle arch and threw their candles over. Each rat did the same as soon as they reached the area, and after all had done so, Lapis dumped the remaining candles over the side. They wobbled down and plopped onto a rotting pile of flesh and bone and cloth, bright white dots against the dark brown of decay.

The oldest male rats, Rin, Lars, Lykas and Nilas, without a word, took the bundle of once-rat and hefted it onto the railing before pushing it over. The remains landed heavily, splattering the area about it with dark gunk.

“’Bye, Miki,” Heran whispered.

“’Bye, Miki,” the rats said, disjointed but heartfelt. Even Lars and his buddies had tears in their voices. They stood, silent, as the rain intensified, drowning them and the broken stone in torrents. They stood, silent, as a large shadow filled the Pit and the surrounding streets, and slowly rolled to them, casting darkness in its wake.

Lapis looked up; it had been a year or more since the last Dentherion Skyshroud had docked at Jiy. The empire had built a platform for the frontline airships to land and retrieve supplies, but Jilvayna, a relatively peaceful country after the invasion, rarely garnered such attention. It slowly moved across the urban landscape, a multi-leveled, black, rectangular city-like structure set on a wide base, with several running green lights and a dull but grinding whir. It kicked up small whirlwinds and sent debris skittering in all directions.

“How wonderful,” Patch grumbled as he shielded his eyes and glanced up.

“Let’s go,” Lapis said as the shadow blanketed the bridge and darkened everything about them. The rats scurried to the street; a few lingered, staring over the side, attempting to ignore the intrusion, but they, too, ran as the ship blotted out nearly all ambient light, leaving the area in heavy darkness. Rin and Lyet pushed the cart while Jandra grabbed Heran and forced her away; they left, heads down, shoulders hunched. Patch snagged Lapis’s hand, and they walked down the sloping way, the last to vacate. The reading circle waited for them with a scattering of others, including Heran and Nilas. Good. Lapis did not think either one should remain alone that day

As one, they headed for the rain-drenched, comforting familiarity of the Grey Streets, their imperfect home.


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