Chapter 1: An Accidental Stake

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Lapis shifted her seat on the moldering 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; why, again, had she decided this stake a good idea?

She rubbed at her nose as the wind blew through the open shutters of the loft windows, picking up random debris and sending the dust back up to her. She shoved her lower face under her tight shirt collar, 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 tearing eyes and tried to follow his blurring figure. She had held her breath, managed to muffle her sounds, and waited.

And waited.

Now she hardly cared about quiet. She had sat on one of the barn’s ceiling beams half the day, and her sore butt and sore emotional state were 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.

She preferred it that way. She despised working with men who had nothing better to do than criticize her chosen profession, though they tended to keep 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 the sun beams managed to break through the cracks in the wooden wall and blind her. Between the dust and the bright setting 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 tiny 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, and 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 weak, whistly wind blew through the barn, and she wished her target had accompanied it. If he had followed his pattern, he should have arrived in the barn long, long before the sun even began to slowly sink down to the horizon. She had trailed him for several days and had learned his habits, which he never bothered to hide. Originally, she had thought it ludicrous, his lack of interest in his environment, but he did not think stealing from Cossie particularly noteworthy. Normally, the Grey Streets merchant would not have had the funds to pay for a stake, and the thief knew that and thought himself safe. But Cossie tended to pass along third-hand books to Lapis for her street rats, and Lapis appreciated the thought. Bringing this bully-thief to justice 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 had proven it. The stakes from the poisonings were still active, though not many wished to attempt a capture; he had access to Dentherion technology, and it made him far too dangerous for the average chaser to apprehend.

No one, apparently, had ever bothered to find out what specific kind of technology. Not even the whispery Grey Street gossips had any idea. She had asked the city guard, curious, because the illegality of Dentherion tech put its cost far out of reach of most Jilvayna citizens, and the alchemist was not exactly rich. They shrugged, unconcerned about it or its lethality, which made Lapis doubt the claim. She bet he had some sort of alchemical device he managed to pass 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 fact, ending with the fearful deciding a strange object would turn them to ash if they got on the wrong side of the rabble wielding it.

People, in general, were stupid.

The highest stake for the alchemist had been posted by Sisen, a normally jolly man with a wide smile despite his lack of teeth. Sisen, as a guild silversmith, earned 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 as a chaser? 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. “Too pissed, too many 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 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 his hand back and forth, but the weapon no longer activated. 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 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 the interference.

She dug in her pouch, withdrew a cloth soaked in sleeping oil, and briefly 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 did manage to pull 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 slowly sink behind the smoky horizon.

She heard the alchemist noisily rummage around the shack, and 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 had swallowed everything edible he could find, then he retired with loud, heavy snores.

He obviously thought the thief dead, due his lack of concern for a confrontation. He also obviously believed himself safe on the farm due to 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 immediately 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 immediately grabbed the tech from the table. It had 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 to have been dropped multiple times. Maybe that was why it had broken. 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 effects of the 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 managed to hook one mare to the cart; the animal immediately began to munch 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 hardly counted 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 finally 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 not expected anyone, but she really did not want to deal with a good ol’ farmer concerned that a city rat stuck her nose into country affairs. Two times now, folk had interfered, and the second had 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 had not, and his bumbling attempts to bully her into giving it to him had not ended well for him. He sat 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 pants 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 when it came to choosing help. Unlike other chasers, however, she had managed to nab 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 had 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, 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 had 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 had 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 had proven that she needed to know exactly who her stake was, and what they had done to warrant the stake 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 had 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 began to turn a very tidy profit.

After pondering her options, she used some of the remainder to obtain the beat-up books the street rats still used as they learned to read, buy the pottery wheel for Phiala, and bargain 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.

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 had a small pouch; the item would never fit inside. She returned to the shack yet again, found a small 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 headed slowly 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 decided to confront her on 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 station, 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. The plodding 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 tended to smirk, make rude remarks about her appearance and assumed lovers, and then cheat her on her stake payout. She refused to be short-changed on the alchemist’s stake.

She knew 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 began to call 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 slide 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 reigns, 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.

Good.

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 did dismount 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 that 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 which 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 about 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?”

“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 managed to acquire the money to do so puzzled him. While Hoyt ran a successful underground criminal enterprise, it was still a fledging endeavor compared to some of the older drug runners and the Maecon 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 right 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 immediately 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 had some of the others.

She tugged her soft black hood down a little further, grateful she had chosen to wear it that day, grateful she had pinned her long, black hair tightly to her head, grateful she had worn old, nondescript, mottled clothing. 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 was thrown, screaming and flailing, and landed in the short grass at the edge of the road. He did not get back up. The remaining guard chose to flee, refusing to face a growing crowd of angry farmers who had 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.”

“Yedin.”

“Well met. Let’s get them into my cart.”

Yedin had 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 really did need to start lifting heavy smithy objects and build some strength. Once 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 inside, 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 managed to squeeze 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 Kell 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. “Kell Gates it is.”

The Kell Gates were two large, stone-based barred gates to the southeast, each side with a guard tower that had oddly not fallen to the Dentherion army two centuries ago. Now they mainly provided Jiy access to out-country merchant wagons and the like, though the bustle tended to die down at night. Merchants with the money stayed in the scattering of nearby, small, homey inns if they reached the Gates after they closed, rather than pay an entrance fee. Some of the entertainments at those inns had reputations that reached to Dentheria, and if given the opportunity, travelers leapt at the opportunity to experience them.

Brone wanted to play his drums at one of those inns. His eyes lit whenever he mentioned it, and his excitement ricocheted around him. While his drumming brought it some bits, street entertainers rarely had the skill to compete with merchant kids who had the backing of a music school education. She never mentioned it because she did not want to quell that inner light.

Kell Gates Guardhouse was a far nicer one than she normally did business with. It had two blue-stained wooden buildings, both thin and long, brightly lit by nicely-scented oil lamps, and no random trash scattered about the yard. The city guard banner of a plain white shield on blue background hung near every door. While a smattering of guards looked through a caravan’s cargo as they chatted at one another, not one of them rushed over, suspicious, demanding an immediate explanation as to why she brought a cart to them. Yedin glanced about, then set the reins down.

“I’ll get ‘m,” he said and bounded into the house.

How often did he visit? Often enough he did not provoke the interest of the guard, she supposed. If his friend smoothly worked the transition, this would unexpectedly become one of her more pleasant guard interactions.

Two men exited the house with Yedin; one, a reedy, excited lad, walking nearly on the heels of the second, Sir Armarandos. Lapis relaxed instantly. While their interactions were few, he had always treated her with respect and never once cheated her on a stake. Patch spoke highly of him as well, a rarity, since polite words referencing the guard rarely left his mouth. He had been cheated by far too many of them on important stakes and targeted by a few more because they saw him as dangerous. Sir Armarandos never questioned him or why he chose a particular stake, and always made certain to thank him for the service he provided to Jiy after every transaction. The poorer residents had few others willing to exact justice on those who wronged them, and he appreciated having a skilled chaser take an interest in the lesser stakes.

The man smiled and twirled his greying mustache about. As usual, he wore a pristine knight uniform of blue and white, with his ranking official patch of a white guard shield on a dark red background prominently displayed on his right breast. While most officers wore a soft cloth hat that sagged to the left, he normally neglected it in favor of his slicked hair. Other officials found the lack of decorum embarrassing, but Sir Armarandos came from a prominent and very wealthy court family, and no one had the guts to disparage him to his face.

“Ah, Lady Lanth,” he said.

Yedin must have mentioned who he arrived with. “Sir Armarandos. I hardly expected you at an out-city guardhouse.”

“Inspection time of year,” he admitted.

“Well, I’m about to liven up your night.”

“Howso?”

She dismounted and waved him to the back of the cart. Curious at her hesitancy to name her stake, he followed her.

“Yedin here says you have four? That’s quite the busy night.”

“Yeah. Two of them are guards who caused mischief on the road here. The one with a cut over his eye beat a farmer with this riding crop,” and she raised it up. “I stopped him, two fled on horseback, and the other was thrown. They’re wearing odd uniforms, and the one I cut said he worked for Hoyt.”

“Bit guards?” he asked as he studied the two briefly. “I’m not familiar with this uniform. It seems strange, for Hoyt to have his men wear them. He normally refuses to use any identifying mark that would lead the law back to him.”

“The farmers and merchants were frightened when he mentioned his employer.”

“Interesting.”

“We know about Hoyt,” Yedin said quietly. “There’s a lot of rumors goin’ around the towns near Jiy recently. They say he’s been killin’ guards and puttin’ his own men up to take their place. People don’t trust 'm, anymore.”

“So the uniforms might mean they work for a town?” Lapis asked.

“We’ve heard the same rumors,” Sir Armarandos said. “Perhaps we now have proof.” He motioned at Linden. “Guard Linden, remove them from the cart.” Yedin helped his friend haul the two on top to the ground, which took so little time Lapis privately admitted to her envy.

Smiling and avoiding the temptation to wax dramatic, she whisked the blanket away from the other two. Sir Armarandos’ mouth dropped open briefly, then he laughed in disbelief. He tapped the slipper of the alchemist, who did not respond.

“What did you use on them?”

“Sleep oil from Grandin’s shop. I soaked a cloth with it. Knocked them right out.”

He chuckled. “I’ve used that a time or two. Small doses, of course, but I slept the night and day away like a babe. Who’s the other?”

“Do you know Cossie, a merchant in the Grey Streets? He knocked her over, and since she’s given me books for the street rats, I decided to do her a good one.”

“Moons luck on you this night. Relate the rest inside.”

At least he realized the need for secrecy.

He jerked his chin to the house door. “Linden, get Hatch and put these two in separate trap cells while we look through the stakes for the other two.”

Linden’s shock was short lived, and he hustled inside to retrieve the man to help. Sir Armarandos kept his eye on the two, more important stakes, while Yedin looked ready to burst from curiosity.

“Did you recover any items?” the officer asked.

“Yes.”

He nodded absently, and stood, deep in thought, until the two guards rushed outside. He then bustled her and Yedin into the house and to a secluded, windowless room with several padded chairs, a worn table, several lit sconces, and a couple of poorly done landscapes. He motioned to the chairs before leaning out the doorway and demanding someone bring the stake book. Another officer walked in with it, and since Sir Armarandos did not throw him out, she chose to believe him safe.

“What did you recover?” he asked as he closed the door. Both Yedin and the other officer frowned at the action, but she knew what he sought.

She withdrew the tech from her bag. His immediate seriousness made her slightly nervous, but she presented it to him. He took it with a frown and turned it about while the other two gaped in shocked trepidation. It was not every day, that guards dealt with Dentherion tech, and if a farmer saw anything like it in their lifetime, it was a momentous, singular event. She had seen more than her fair share of it, but she quelled her darker memories. She had better things to do than remember them.

“I’m not certain whether it’s broken or not. The alchemist tried it on his thief friend, there was a bunch of smoke and it made him pass out, but apparently something went wrong. He shook it about and kept trying to use it, but it did nothing else.”

Yedin and the officer yelped together. “The alchemist?”

“Yeah. The alchemist just happened to be visiting the thief, my original stake.” She held up a finger and pulled the small book listing the guard rotation details from her pouch “And I expect more than a few bits for this.” She handed it to Sir Armarandos.

She had never seen the man’s bushy eyebrows reach so far up his brow, but they practically fled to the top of his head. “This is a remarkable find.” He smiled in wonder. “I never would have expected you to attempt such a capture. Not with the alchemist’s use of Dentherion technology.”

“I normally would have let him be, but with his weapon disabled, he was an easy stake. I waited until he slept, put the oil cloth to the nose and mouth, he passed out, and I dragged him into the cart.” She made a face at her weakness, compared to that of the farmer and guard.

“Sisen’s going to be very pleased, someone managed to catch him. I’ll keep your name out of it.”

“That’s very appreciated, Sir Armarandos. Thank you.”

“You accidentally caught the alchemist,” the other officer said in awed disbelief.

“I could hardly pass up the opportunity. The thief was my original stake. He was holed up on a fallow farm on the way to Wisserdem. The alchemist showed up unexpectedly and told him Hoyt sent him there. The thief refused to put him up, so the alchemist used his weapon on him in response. Luckily the horses and cart were already there and easily accessed, so I could bring them both in at the same time.” She looked at Sir Armarandos. “I leave the horses and cart in your capable hands.”

“I know that farm,” Yedin said. “We all think it’s odd, how they raise horses but no food for ‘m. It’s a waste, especially since that farm was once really profitable. How's he even payin’ his baron, without growin’ anythin’?”

“We’ll check the farm out,” the officer said.

“The book says a guard patrol consisting of two men from Hoyt was supposed to visit tonight.”

“I’ll get some men,” he said, glancing at Sir Armarandos. He nodded and the other man hurried out.

Yedin got a good dose of the dreariness of flipping through page after page of staked drawings with descriptions and a few Dentherion glossy images. His enthusiasm did not dwindle as hers did, and she had no idea why he found the experience exhilarating in some way. Sir Armarandos’ amusement at his excitement did not dwindle, either, and Lapis wondered if he anticipated the farmer changing professions in the near future. She could tell him, from hard experience, most stakes did not proceed so smoothly.

Linden and Hatch joined them after they had looked through approximately a quarter of the stakes, reporting they had secured the two men and placed a guard with them. Armarandos handed them each a book. They did not share Yedin’s interest in staring at face after face.

They finally found the stakes for the two guards. The bully had a much higher one, having tried his harsh techniques on a wealthy Greenstone District merchant who did not appreciate Hoyt’s interference in his legal schemes. Yedin’s eyes about popped when he realized he would receive two silvers and random bits for his efforts. Considering the pay was half the yearly income of a farmer before his crop and taxes went to his baron, she understood his shock. She liked the fact, a good deed by a decent man was richly rewarded.

Both he and Linden were shocked at the heavy bag of sixty silvers she got for bringing in the alchemist and recovering his tech and schedule book. She would have preferred a note-silver, but banks and merchants normally refused to accept paper money from someone poor enough they lived in the Grey Streets. They always assumed it counterfeit, even if the person proffering it was a known chaser.

“Lady,” Sir Armarandos said sternly as he handed her the reward. “I would prefer if Guardsman Linden escorts you back to the Eaves. There’s no use pressing your luck on this one.”

“Sir Armarandos, thank you for the concern,” she said, placing her hand over her heart. “I have a feeling ‘no’ is not an option.”

“Correct.”

She sighed. She very well could return to the Eaves on her own, but Sir Armarandos proved very strict about safety. Patch claimed the man had even sent an escort with him once, which he did not appreciate, and which earned him the laughing sympathy of the guard, who insisted on performing his duty anyway. Of course, that stake had paid ten metgals and some change, and the guard needed to vouch for him at the bank when he put it into his account. Random chasers did not earn the equivalent of 200,000 bits for any job. Patch was not a random chaser, but the bank still felt as if they needed a guard signature to justify their acceptance of his pay.

She signed the forms required of her, placing Sir Armarandos’ name on the one for the alchemist. It was common enough to name the officer who paid the stake fee if another guard had questions in the future; chasers were not known for their helpfulness after the fact. She helped Yedin with his; while he wrote, he did not do it easily, and the paragraph required for an explanation of the capture proved difficult for him. He was surprised she did not mock him, which elicited a chuckle from Sir Armarandos.

“She’s known in the city for helping the street rats learn to read, if they’re willing to sit still for a few moments,” the officer told him. “She has patience in abundance.”

She half-grinned. “It’s not so bad, normally.”

“I know a couple of those urchins, Lady,” he reminded her drily. She did smile at that. “How you ever got Rinan to calm down and study is beyond comprehension.”

“He’s motivated.” Terrible happenings on the streets tended to light a fire under a particular type of individual, and Rinan had decided to stick his nose in a book and keep it there because it gave him a greater chance at living free rather than dying, face down, in a street puddle. He still had not settled on an occupation and pickpocketed his way through life, but she knew, he would choose a way and run with it. Eventually.

And she now possessed the impetus to make him decide a little more quickly.


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