Lapis shifted her seat on the moldering ceiling beam, sending a shower of fine dust particles into the air. They drifted through the sunset’s light, sparkling and blinking, to land lightly on the hay-strewn floor.
She snarled at herself while rubbing at her drippy nose; why, again, had she decided this stake a good idea?
The wind blew through the open shutters of the loft windows, picking up random debris and curling the dust back up to her. She shoved her lower face under her shirt collar and squeezed her eyes shut, hoping she did not start sneezing. Earlier in the day, she had dreaded her stake waltzing into the barn, hearing her, and fleeing to safer pastures while she wiped at her tearing eyes and tried to follow his blurring figure. She had held her breath, muffled her sounds, and waited.
Now, after sitting in the barn for half a day, she hardly cared about quiet. Her sore butt was far more than ready to knock the target silly and haul him to the nearest jail cell. Hopefully, he weighed less than he looked. She did not have the coin to pay ‘keepers to cart him away, and besides, no city folk would traipse out to the countryside and lug an unconscious body back to a guardhouse for the amount of shell bits this one had on his head.
Besides, she preferred working the small stakes on her own. She despised dealing with men who had nothing better to do than criticize her chosen profession, though they kept their more personal opinions of her to themselves. The denizens of the Grey Streets had learned very quickly that her street guise, Lady Lanth, did not tolerate the insults, and the very public humiliations the bullies suffered ensured that few transgressed her boundaries anymore.
She winced as light rays broke through the cracks in the wooden wall and blinded her. Between the dust and the sunset’s light, she had no doubt her purple orbs swam in reddened whites. If she walked the city streets in her current state, most would assume alcohol or a drug caused the reaction, not floating specks of dirt. In the past few years, she had dealt with far too many scum who thought to take advantage of her supposed inebriety. For that reason, she typically hid during the days her head reacted most strongly to plant blooms.
Fortunately spring had long receded under the heat of midyear, though she did not know which she disliked more; coughing and sneezing, or roasting.
A whistly wind whisked through the barn, and she wished her target accompanied it. If he had followed his pattern, he should have arrived in the barn long, long before the sun even began its slow descent down to the horizon. She had trailed him for several days and learned his habits, which he never bothered to hide. Originally, she thought it ludicrous, his lack of interest in his environment, but he did not think stealing from Cossie particularly noteworthy. He assumed no chaser would take the poor Grey Streets merchant’s stake, because she did not have the bits to pay for justice. Normally that was true. But Cossie passed along third-hand books to Lapis for her street rats, and Lapis appreciated the thought. Bringing this bully thief to a guardhouse would pay back a kind soul for their generosity.
She heard the argument before the footfalls. Two men entered the barn; one, her stake, carrying an armful of dingy tack and sporting his typical stained clothing, shouted angrily at the other, a gaudily dressed, velvet-jacketed underground scam artist who proudly proclaimed himself an alchemist and who preyed on the needy and desperate. Few of his remedies worked, and his last foray into the Marble Markets proved it. The stakes from the poisonings were still active, though no one had yet attempted a capture; he had access to Dentherion weapons technology, and it made him far too dangerous for the average chaser to apprehend.
Lapis, curious, had asked the city guard about the technology since the alchemist was not exactly rich, and the illegality of Dentherion tech put its cost far out of reach for him. They shrugged, unconcerned about it or its lethality, which made Lapis doubt the terrifying claim. She bet he used some sort of alchemical device he passed off as a weapon, and because it looked odd and maybe glowed, people took him at his word. It was far too easy to frighten the average citizen with the mention of Dentherion tech. Imaginations filled in inadequate explanations and changed vague descriptions into hard facts, ending with the fearful Jilvaynan citizens deciding a strange object would turn them to ash if they got on the wrong side of the guttershank wielding it.
People, in general, were gullible.
Sisen, a guild silversmith, had posted the highest stake for the alchemist. He made enough that when family members took ill from the poison, he attempted to attract a chaser through silver coin rather than shell bits.
And she now had the chance to earn it.
What might she do with silver, rather than the few shell bits she usually earned from a chase? Definitely buy some books that did not look as if dogs had played with them, perhaps upgrade Phiala’s pottery wheel, maybe try to bargain a cheap room out of Dachs for Rin. She had no doubt, once she gifted one to him, he would meet the rent requirements, but the initial sum, even at the Eaves, was far too much for a street rat to save for.
“You couldn’t leave it alone, could you?” the thief shouted as he dumped the tack onto the ground. “Are you pissed, too many people bad-mouthed you? What did you expect them to do? I’m not putting you up again. It’s too risky.”
“You’ve no choice,” the alchemist said with cool contempt. “Hoyt demands it.”
“Hoyt ain’t here,” the thief reminded him. “Get lost.”
The alchemist laughed, a forced sound that made Lapis wince. He dug into his long coat front, and withdrew a shiny, hand-sized object that flashed as brightly as his fake gold hemming; the thief gasped and held up his hands before a gray smoke billowed from it and he fell, unconscious, maybe dead. The alchemist, with a sniff, toed him with the tip of his shoe to no response, and grinned widely before looking around the barn’s ground level. He carefully peeked outside, then shook his head and shuffled out.
Lapis scurried across the beams to the hayloft, dropped down, and peeked out the large crack between the loft doors. The alchemist was shaking the object, and he cursed loud enough she smirked. He had broken his protection, and she had the perfect opportunity to take advantage.
He pointed it at the shack wall; nothing happened. He jerked it back and forth, but the weapon continued to do nothing. He smacked his hand against his waist and held the thing out from him, disgusted, before storming into the shack and slamming the door behind him, hard enough to rattle the structure.
Lapis hastened down the loft’s ladder before walking to the thief. She bent down and stuck her hand in front of his mouth; he breathed. Had the alchemist mistaken his collapse as death? How long might he remain unconscious? If the item did not work as intended, then perhaps not long. Once he woke, he would likely attack the alchemist in fury, and she did not need that annoyance.
She dug in her pouch, withdrew a cloth soaked in sleeping oil, and slapped it over his nose and mouth. Satisfied he would not wake, she scavenged a rope from the odds and ends that littered the floor and tied his hands and feet behind his back. As the last bit of business, she popped a small throwing knife from its place in her gauntlet, cut a square of cloth from his dirt-crusted shirt, and gagged him before smacking her hands against her thighs, satisfied. If she pulled this one off, she would finally have another tale equal to those Patch told while they sat on top of the House roof, watching the sun sink behind the smoky horizon.
The alchemist noisily rummaged around the shack, and she softly snuck from the barn to the sole window of the small, squat structure. She pressed her back to the side and listened intently. He grumbled and moaned about the lack of food, all the while chewing around his words. He ate long enough she decided he swallowed everything edible he could find, then he retired with loud, heavy snores.
He obviously thought the thief dead, due to his lack of concern for a confrontation. He also obviously believed himself safe on the farm because of Hoyt’s blessing. She doubted he would take much interest in his surroundings, which suited her just fine. She planned to take advantage of his nonchalance.
She cautiously peeked through the window. The alchemist lay with his back to her, huddled down under a ratty blanket, comfortable enough to relax and sleep. She doubted he would hear her enter the shack, let alone anything else, over his own noise. She peered around the single room and noticed the odd, shiny object on top of the small dining table, next to a dirty plate and half-full glass. It had a short hilt and fingerguard attached to a bulbous midsection and a triangular tip. The midsection must hold some sort of smoke, released through the tip. Had the alchemist broken it, or was it empty? As long as he could not use it against her, she supposed it did not matter.
Lapis toured the grounds surrounding the shack and found nothing out of place. The short lane ran to the still-busy road, but no one bothered to pay much attention to the farm that rested at the end of it. The fields lay fallow, with random farming equipment scattered about, half-buried in the soil. Several horses cropped the remains of short grass in a paddock made from thin wooden posts and knotted ropes. One came to whuffle at the front of her shirt, a fine, sleek lad, but she did not have a treat for him, so he wandered away. How odd, the thief refused to keep the land but held so many well-groomed horses. How lucky for her, since she planned to use them to cart her catches to the Jiy guard.
She returned to the window and peered through, but the alchemist had not moved. Good.
She turned the doorknob and slowly, slowly, opened the door. It squeaked a little, but the snores drowned out the sound. She slipped inside and snagged the tech from the table. It sported multiple scratches and dents, with an awkward weight towards the tip. She wondered at it. She always had the impression that tech was sleek and well-maintained, otherwise it did not work as expected. The object she held looked as if someone had dropped it multiple times. Maybe that was why it broke. Hopefully it remained that way.
She took it outside and set it to the side of the horse paddock, hidden in the tall grass. Then she returned to the shack, studied the alchemist, and pondered her options. She could knock him out using the cloth soaked in sleep oil and drag him to the cart. She could wake him, bind him, then force him to walk to the cart before she knocked him out. She really did not want to interact with him, however; if he managed to buy his way out of a jail cell, she did not want him to know what she looked like, so he could hunt her down. As important as he was to Hoyt, he would have the means, and want, to do so. That would put her street rats in danger.
Lugging his ass to the cart, it was.
She slapped the cloth over his nose and mouth; he woke and made a muffled sound before the chemical did its job. He slumped, drooling.
Ew. Next time Patch suggested a new way to apprehend a stake, she needed to ask a few more questions about the undesirable effects of that new way. She did not want alchemist spit on her clothing.
The thief had a large wagon and a smaller cart; she decided the smaller vehicle would do nicely. She hurried to the barn, waded through scattered piles of hay, and grabbed two halters from the messy row of tack hanging on the back wall. Why did the thief have such a cluttered barn when the horses were so neatly groomed?
She returned to the paddock and selected two placid horses to outfit. Neither balked nor showed any fear of her, a small boon, but one she gratefully accepted. She retrieved a grungy, fraying harness unceremoniously dumped in the empty trough at the side of the barn and hooked one mare to the cart; the animal immediately munched down on the taller grass. The other joined her in the meal after she tied the lead rope to the cart. At least they would be well-fed for the journey into town.
Lugging the thief about broke her back. She strained to lift him high enough to get at least a bit of his torso into the cart, and winced, hard, when she dropped him and his chin slammed onto the edge of the floorboards before he slid to the ground. She was not the strongest woman alive, but she did not count as weak, either. She should be able to drag him up and into the vehicle. Maybe she needed to start lifting heavily weighted items, like the smithy boys did. She doubted they would have had difficulties lifting him up and tossing him inside.
How was she going to manage the heavier alchemist?
She wiped at her forehead, disgusted with her weakness, and tried to will strength into her arms. With effort, she dragged the thief over the edge of the cart and dumped him on the floorboards. She hopped down and did a quick check of the land, noticing no other soul. Good. She had expected no one, but she really did not want to deal with a good ol’ farmer concerned that a city chaser stuck her nose into country affairs. Two times now, folk had interfered, and the second nearly lost his life to the panicked stake. That one blamed her for putting him in danger and demanded the guard pay him her stake for his suffering. They refused, and his bumbling attempts to bully her into giving it to him had not ended well for him. He sulked the next few days away behind bars, screaming about his ill treatment by the nasty city scum and vowing revenge.
Muttering darkly to herself, she hurried to the shack to retrieve the alchemist. She grabbed his chubby arm and rolled him over before hooking her hands under his warm, damp armpits and tugging his body off the bed; items fell out of his coat. Sighing and chastising herself for not looking first, she shuffled through them; nothing of import, just some smoking studs, a couple of rings that, up close, looked like gold-washed wood, bits of shell, and a small, torn piece of paper that told him to return to the horses. Hoyt’s note? Perhaps.
She dug around in his pockets and discovered a small book poorly bound with thinning thread. She opened it and blinked. A schedule of Hoyt’s guards. No names listed, only places, and the times each guard should arrive and leave. Why did he have this? She flipped through the pages, stared at the tiny script that indicated two guards would arrive at the farm just after sundown, and shoved it into her pouch before grabbing his arm and dragging him with far more effort and speed.
She was not going to lose these two stakes.
She had dealt with Hoyt’s men before; all chasers had. The scum were ubiquitous, since Hoyt paid better than most and did not have a high standard in choosing help. Unlike other chasers, however, she had nabbed an important member of the ring; Cimis, Hoyt’s older brother and once-favored enforcer. The man, a nasty mix of strength and vicious anger, had used his bulk and his temper to bully merchants into paying a protection tax. He also had led raids on orphanages and temples to kidnap children for Hoyt to sell. Guards rarely left a confrontation with him intact, so let him be, despite the heavy stakes and demands for justice.
Lapis had stumbled upon him while at the Shank for another stake; he had taken who knew how much drug, washed it down with alcohol, and lay in his own vomit, sleeping it off. Someone kindly lugged him into a back room so other customers would not have to witness his shame, turned his head so he did not choke on what came up, and left him on his own.
She had rolled him out the side door and to the nearest guard station without any Shank employees the wiser. Even Patch had raised an eyebrow at her bravado, since Hoyt would retaliate the effort. Fortunately, since no one witnessed her, red-faced and huffing, dragging the dead weight to justice, he had no idea who to target when Cimis ended up dead in his cell. Patch told her later that Cimis had killed a few city guardsmen during a recent raid on an orphanage, and given the surprise opportunity, their compatriots exacted revenge.
She had not meant for him to die in a cell, and it still irritated her, the guards placed her life in danger for their own little game rather than carting him before a magister. It irritated her even more, that they only paid her twenty silver when the stake should have been much higher due to those guard deaths. That experience illustrated that she needed to know exactly who her stake was, and what they had done to warrant being staked in the first place. Too many guards, eager to pocket a little something, would correctly identify a stake but lie about the pay and stuff the extra into their own purse.
The unexpected pay caused an odd difficulty; what to do with the money, considering some would question her sudden boon and wonder which stake had paid so well. She had not wanted the attention, because someone from Hoyt would come snooping. She finally decided to pay five years upfront for her room at the Eaves. Dachs duly took the silver, claimed he received an unexpected inheritance, and used the sum to make several improvements to his establishment. He transformed the drearier tavern into a lively inn-type affair that served food, and he turned a very tidy profit.
After pondering her options, she used some of the remainder to purchase the beat-up books the street rats still used as they learned to read, bought the pottery wheel for Phiala, and bargained for bits of clothing and blankets for the few kids who regularly attended the nightly reading sessions. Those expenditures surprised no one, and since she spread out her purchases, it triggered no suspicion in the merchants. The rest sat in a hidden bag in her room, ready for an emergency.
And if she wanted to add to those savings, she needed to haul her current stake to the guard. She hefted herself into the cart, leaned over, grabbed the alchemist’s arm, and let fear help strengthen her arms. She heaved him over the edge, then scavenged twine to tie his hands and feet together behind his back. She used her small knife to cut a strip off his fancy shirt and gag him. Satisfied, she studied the restrained men and realized she needed to hide them from casual view, or questions would surely follow. She retrieved the ratty blanket and covered them as best she could, hoping no one took too much of an interest in the cart to peek inside. For good measure, she applied the knock-out oil cloth to their faces again, hoping they remained unconscious for the trip to the city.
She reclaimed the bulky tech, frowning. She only wore a small pouch; the item would never fit inside. She returned to the shack yet again, found a knapsack, and set the tech inside. She did not have time to construct something more appropriate for a dangerous weapon.
She attached the lead rope to the cart horse and mounted the other mare bareback. Instead of urging them down the lane and to the road, she clicked her tongue and got them moving to the overgrown dirt path that led into the fallow fields. She knew from her scouting expeditions that another road lay to the south, one traversed by local farmers but few others. Hopefully, Hoyt’s guards did not take that way to reach the farm.
Dozens of carts and wagons plodded to the city, some filled with produce for the next day’s markets, some empty, some occupied by farmers, some by more prosperous merchants. She did not look so out-of-place with her cart, though some cast the mares a speculative glace. Hopefully, no one recognized the horses and confronted her about her theft.
She was not stealing them. She only borrowed them in the name of justice. The guard could figure out what to do with them once she reached a guardhouse, because she had no way of caring for them. She had enough difficulty dealing with her street rats and her own personal expenses.
Originally, she had planned to enter the city and dump her prize at the Meggan Markets Guardhouse, which sat a few blocks in-city from the Kells Gates. The excruciating slow nature of the road traffic, however, meant she would not reach the gates in time to enter the city proper before they closed, and she would have to produce an entrance fee. She pondered which guardhouse to visit outside the walls. She knew a couple of out-wall guardsmen in passing, but not in the numbers to guarantee someone she had previously worked with manned the night shift. She hated dealing with unfamiliar guards; they smirked, made rude remarks about her appearance and assumed lovers, and then cheated her on her stake payout. She refused to be short-changed on the alchemist’s stake.
She darkly realized she had chosen the wrong way when she heard shouts above the general traffic noise. Four sweaty men on horses, in bulky outfits that semi-resembled noble house sentry uniforms, had taken exception to one poor farmer who had not pulled his team over far enough for them to pass unhindered. Apparently the grass to the side of the road was so inferior, they could not force their mounts to walk on it.
Country folk had issues, but city folk proved just as stupidly annoying.
Traffic stopped. She had the urge to take the cart off-road, but she hardly wished to get mired down in the soft dirt. Farmers called to one another, merchants loudly complained, but no one inserted themselves into the confrontation. The poor victim hunched down, his arms over his head, while one horseman used a riding crop on him.
She slid from the back of her horse and wormed her way through the wagons and animals. If no one else planned to help, she would. The bullies did not look all that imposing, and the unease two possessed in handling their horses hinted at a lack of riding practice. One had extreme difficulty keeping his mount stationary, and the tighter his grip became on the reins, the more the horse shook its head about and backed around.
The bully smacked the farmer, leaving red welts across his fingers, and laughed, sounding like a gleeful bullfrog. He paid her no mind, and once his compatriots realized she was a woman, they ignored her as well.
He lowered his arm. She grabbed the crop and yanked it out of his hands.
The countryfolk and the merchants gasped and called out warnings. The bully turned his horse and tried to grab her, but she stepped away and between two stationary wagons. She flipped the crop between her fingers and watched as he screamed insults, his face turning a brilliant shade of ruby. If he did not want to leave the safety of his mount, he had effectively tethered himself in the small space between vehicles, and yelling would not make them miraculously disappear.
The horse became as aggravated as its rider, and he finally dismounted before he was thrown. He stalked to her, his dark eyes sparking with the fire of consuming rage. “Do you know who I am?” he screamed, foamy spit flying before him.
“No.” She continued to flip the crop about, unimpressed with his temper and his stature. He looked scrawny, and she bet she had more muscle than he did. If he tried to strike her, she would punch back and make it hurt.
“You heard of Hoyt, you country bit?” he asked.
Hoyt? Were these the guards the alchemist had listed in his little book? She bet the one confronting her had a stake, if so.
“Hoyt?” Someone yelped. She could feel the horrified fear shoot through the crowd. Hoyt had a name in the countryside? Why? No street gossip indicated he shook down farmers and poor merchants in small towns for money. It would surprise her if he did. Not only was Hoyt a city boy, the barons who collected the taxes from the countryfolk would not appreciate his interference in their own wealth stealing. Barons had access to greater law enforcement options than the typical city-dweller and they could make life very, very difficult for a man who preferred to remain least-in-sight and let others break the law for him.
The bully’s buddies still blocked the way, so those who wished to escape from the confrontation tried to take their cargo off-road. One wagon, with the terrified farmer flailing about and trying to get his oxen to move faster, tipped over, spilling large red fruits everywhere. It struck another wagon that rocked back and forth, causing the draft horse to stumble and go down.
She turned back to her foe, cursing her distraction, but he also watched the mishap, his face wrinkled with dark anger. “I’ve heard of Hoyt,” she said over the shouting and confusion around her. His head snapped back to her, and he stepped menacingly forward.
“Give me that back, and I won’t mention your interference to him.”
She held up the crop and studied it, waving it back and forth slowly. “This? Why? So you can beat another poor farmer some more and make us all late?”
“You’re holding us up. We need to reach the gates before they close,” she told him crossly.
“I don’t care about the gates,” he said with a wide, white smile. He seemed better spoken and better kempt than Hoyt’s typical hire, and she wondered at his background. Patch had heard the man had begun to employ seedier merchant types and down-and-out guild guards for his organization, though where the headman acquired the money to do so puzzled him. While Hoyt ran a successful underground criminal enterprise, it was still a fledgling endeavor compared to some of the older drug runners and the Minq Syndicate, which pre-dated the Dentherion occupation. He did not have the reputation or clout to demand huge payouts from business partners.
Her foe leapt at her and reached for the crop.
She smacked his face with it, slashing a deep gash over his right eye. He stumbled back and shrieked. He really had not expected her to attack, had he? Stupid man, thinking being brutish intimidated all women. She kicked his right knee, which gave out, and he crashed to the ground, rolling and screaming. His buddies gaped at her, shocked that the mere mention of Hoyt’s name did not instill mind-obliterating fear in her, as it did with others.
She tugged her soft black hood down a little further, grateful she had worn it that day, grateful she had pinned her long, black hair tightly to her head, grateful she chose old, nondescript, mottled clothing for this chase. The precautions made it harder for the enemy to find a characteristic that they could use to hunt her down later.
Her act of defiance lit a fire under several of the younger lot. One joined her, kicking the lout in the head hard enough he stopped screaming. Three others faced the guards and their horses; one lunged and the two jumpy mounts whirled and fled. One guard kept his seat, though he struggled to remain in the saddle. The other's horse threw him, and screaming and flailing, he landed in the short grass at the edge of the road. He did not get back up. The remaining guard fled, refusing to face a growing crowd of angry farmers with the muscle to show him an immediate and intimate look at pain.
“Are you alright?” the man next to her gruffly asked. He had sun-touched, dry sandy brown hair, a deep tan, and dusty brown linen clothing, in decent shape but hardly new. He had the look and speech of a profitable farmer.
“Yeah,” she said. “Thank you.”
“Whadder we t’ do wid dem?” someone asked.
“I’ll take them,” she said.
“You?” the man asked, amused.
“Yeah. If they work for Hoyt, I’m betting there’s a stake on their heads. I could use the cash.”
“I’ll help,” he offered.
She shrugged. As long as he did not try to claim the alchemist’s stake, she would welcome the aid. “I’m Lanth.”
“Well met. Let’s get them into my cart.”
Yedin possessed the muscle to pick the bully up by the arm and drag him to the cart. She envied him the ease in which he handled him. She needed to start lifting heavy smithy objects and build some strength. After he cleared the road, the farmers and merchants once again began to make their way to the city, with a bit more speed than earlier.
He looked at the floorboards, noted the lumpy blanket, and frowned. “What are you haulin’?”
“Two other stakes.”
He blinked in surprise. She bent over and shoved the oil cloth in the guard’s face, and his half-awareness died under true unconsciousness.
“Throw him on top.”
He did not treat the man with much respect as he dumped him in place. She grinned as he retrieved the second, who laid in the taller grass to the side of the road, unconscious. Maybe she did need to avail herself of ‘keepers. It made certain tasks far easier.
She applied the cloth, and he dumped the body on top of the first. She checked to make certain all the men breathed and remained unconscious, then mounted her horse, ready to be away. Yedin waved his companion on without him, another stout farmer with so similar a cast she guessed they were brothers. The brother, while exasperated, did not protest, as if he expected the man to help. Yedin grabbed the lead rope; not a perfect solution to guide a horse, but she had not expected a driver, so had not bothered with reins. He squeezed himself into the small cart seat, though the wooden box bulged slightly at the sides. He clucked the horse into motion, and they fell in line with the steady movement of traffic to the city.
“Do you have a preference for guardhouse?” she asked.
“I know a guard at Kells Gates,” he said. “He’s farm-bred and takes kindly to visits. He gets bored at night. Name’s Linden.”
Linden. She did not know him, but she did not exactly have a better option. “Kells Gates it is.”