Chapter 11: Trust

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Baldur’s deep, petulant frown irritated Lapis no end. She sat in his office, she in a simple black outfit with her hood shading her eyes, clutching her bathing supplies, he in a resplendent get-up of shiny Dentherion green cloth with a gold, swirled pattern stitched throughout. His fingers contained multiple jeweled rings, and his heavy necklaces hung low enough to drag that fine cloth down his chest, where it bagged unattractively above his curved belly.

Most rebels avoided such obvious Dentherion displays.

He tapped his fingers on the desk, the thrumming increasing with his annoyance. “You went with Blue Council members,” he gritted out, his voice rough with anger.

“Yes.” She crossed her legs and sat back, waiting for his wrath to descend. She noted his anxiety underneath his overt anger and wondered what stupidity he had decided that he knew would cause problems, but revenge drove him harder.

“You know some of them.”

“Ciaran and Tearlach, yes. I know them from Coriy. They thought I had died in the fire that killed my family.”

His eyes squinted so hard, she could not see them under the folds of flesh. “And Leader Faelan?”

Leader Faelan? When had he decided to be polite? “And?”

“Do you know him?” he gritted through clenched teeth.

How was she going to answer? She truthfully did not want the attention it would bring, but she had no idea how to navigate around the obvious physical similarities. All the rats who had shown up the night before at the Eaves had taken one look at him, looked at her, and grinned. Every damn one of them. If the rats noticed, so, too, had the Jiy House rebels.

Worry pricked her. Other rats said they had seen Rin, Lyet and Scand, but the three had not returned to the Eaves before she and Faelan left, and considering the danger the streets posed, she could not bury her concern. Where had they gone? She would understand if just Rin and Scand took off; they pickpocketed together. But they never involved Lyet.

“Lapis!” Baldur shouted.

She should have asked Faelan, what he wished to do. Missed opportunity, and she may pay for it.

Baldur sucked in a deep breath, ready to scream, when a sharp knock on the door startled him out of his rage. It opened, without his permission; a giggling Relaine waltzed in, Perben a step behind.

Lapis immediately looked away, her heart pounding so hard she could not hear.

She could not kill him. Her gauntlets sat in her brother’s room, useless, because she had wanted a bath, retrieved her supplies, and Baldur had intercepted her on the way. She should have taken Faelan’s offer to use his, instead of insisting on retrieving her own because she wanted to smell like herself.

So easy. She would have out-run Relaine and Baldur, raced past the useless bodyguards, and reached Faelan before any ramifications slammed into her. She clenched her hands so tightly the glass containing her soap cracked. One thin skin slice bled into her towel, and she pressed it against the cloth, hard. The pain, though slight, brought her back to the reality of the too-small office and Perben’s presence.

“Teivel wants a tour of the modifications we made to the House,” Relaine said cheerfully as Baldur’s face turned a beet red. “I told him we needed your permission.”

Teivel. Teivel, the Rebel’s Devil. Typical, a man so heavily respected in the rebel community for being a thorn in Gall’s side, was a traitor. No wonder Lady Thyra declared she needed mounds of evidence against him. Who would suspect or accept the Devil capable of such heinous crimes against the rebellion? He blew up Dentherion army depots and helped Ramiran rebels sabotage vehicles.

She stared at her hands, satisfaction mingling with fear. She hardly cared what he did for the rebellion. She now had a name.

Baldur’s fingers dug into the desk. “And that’s why you interrupted me?” he demanded. Relaine sighed and pursed her lips as Perben stopped to her side, body loose, not expecting trouble.

“As Headman—”

“GET OUT!” he roared, leaping to his feet and pointing imperiously at the open door. “I’m busy—”

“I’m sorry to have disturbed you,” Perben said softly, his voice low, calm. “I’ve been asked by Meinrad and Rambart to make certain we have adequate protections, and since Faelan’s here, it can’t wait.”

Lapis’s tummy twisted and prickly anxiety descended. He would peruse the protections and happily give the info to the crown. She needed to alert Faelan. She would inform him of the secret passages Patch had created that only she, Brander and Sherridan knew, because his life would depend on it.

“Talk to Sherridan!” Baldur snapped.

Relief twined through Lapis, combining with the dread. Sherridan knew about the traitor and would look upon any rebel asking about House escape routes and protections with suspicion. She wondered what the Blue Council members had imparted to him and Brander the day before, because she doubted Ciaran and Tearlach let the opportunity pass.

“Sherridan isn’t—” Relaine began.

“Then find Brander!” Baldur screamed.

Apparently, he had no care for what Blue Council members thought of him. Relaine frowned in annoyed disgust and Lapis gloated. She had likely insinuated she had a closer relationship to the headman than she had, and Perben would pay for her misdirection.

And she now had a name.

Relaine looked down at her and sniffed, then remembered she kept important company because she quickly replaced the ugly grimace with a smile as she turned back to the traitor, attempting to return to pleasant and helpful rebel. “Well, let’s see if we can find Sherridan,” she told him. His arms moved as if he shrugged, unconcerned. No body language indicated he found the confrontation insulting, but which likely meant he planned revenge for later. The Rebel’s Devil was known for taking advantage of underhanded dealings.

Baldur sank back, shaking, as Relaine huffed out the door, Perben a step behind. She left it open, which one of the bodyguards closed quietly. Lapis studied the headman as he regained his composure.

He did not trust Perben—and it had to be Perben, because Relaine never triggered that reaction in him. He wiped the sweat from his brow and glanced at her, the fire diminished. He waved his hand in dismissal, frowning, his thoughts elsewhere. She nodded to him and fled, refusing to wait until he got his roar back. The bodyguards glanced at her, but their normal, sarcastic disdain had fallen into tense unease. Baldur must have mentioned something to them about Perben—or, perhaps, if they knew he was Teivel, they feared the retaliation he may indulge in for their boss’s screaming.

What did he see, sense, that triggered him? Most people she knew did not see the starkly vicious animal in Perben, and she had a hard time believing that the headman noted it in the other rebel. He simply never seemed that observant.

Relaine had her hand on Perben’s arm and had a bounce to her step as they slowly walked down the hall. Lapis’ stomach rolled as he chuckled, amused at something she said, and tugged a stray curl from his forehead, congenial and relaxed. She crept after them, unwilling to squeeze past and garner attention. She needed to remain as hidden as possible from the man, until she had weapons at hand and could slice through his unprotected throat, dealing to him what he so happily gave to her little brother.

The two exited into the larger room, in time to interfere with a rebel carting an armload of fabric through it. She dropped the items, and, laughing in guilty humor, Perben bent to help her retrieve them.

Lapis slipped past, hugging the wall. Relaine made a point of smiling at her, a self-satisfied meanness underlying the expression. Let her play. It would keep Perben interested in something other than hunting her down. She turned away and took another hallway that led to the House bathing area, where they likely expected her to go. She glanced behind, but neither Relaine nor Perben seemed interested in making certain of her path; she sidestepped into a small hallway and practically ran back to Faelan’s room, her heart beating too rapidly.

He, Ciaran and Brander sat at the table, talking about something, as she whisked inside and closed the door not-so-quietly. They all glanced at her and she stared back, trying to gather her wits and her bravery.

“So, Relaine and a certain Teivel were asking Baldur about inspecting the escape routes of the House.”

“Shit,” Faelan and Ciaran said together, vehemently annoyed. Brander narrowed his eyes, and she guessed someone had informed him of Teivel’s not-so-rebel association.

“There’re escape routes only Patch, me, Sherridan and Brander know about,” she continued. “I’m going to show them to you.”

Faelan studied her as she turned on her heel and heading to the bathing room, her supplies clutched so tightly to her chest, they were nearly one with her breasts.

“He made me promise the same thing.”

She froze, her hand on the doorknob, and looked over at him. “What?”

“Patch,” he told her, his voice mild, his look heated. “He made me promise not to kill.”

The soap container shattered, and she hissed, then fled to the sink to rinse the blood away. Damn Patch, anyway. He knew, and he elicited her promise, knowing when she faced the Rebel’s Devil, it might stay her hand. Did he expect it to protect her, protect Faelan? Had he another reason? When would he return, so she could scream until hoarse at his underhanded methods?

Faelan handed her a thin handkerchief, and it smelled strongly of alcohol. She cleaned the slices, lips pressed so tightly together it made her neck quiver. He said nothing until she looked around for a place to set the blood-smeared item.

“Lady Ailis will be here in a few days,” he reminded her quietly. “Her evidence will shred his support among the general rebel alliance and give me a solid reason for evicting those who will still back him. We have our own trials, and he will face justice, Lapis. If Patch doesn’t just get rid of him first.”

“I can do it,” she whispered. “We don’t need to wait for Patch. I’ve eight years—”

“Lapis.” She remembered that tone, one of deep disapproval tinged with anger. In her childhood, she had hated his use of it, because it usually meant he had discovered some naughtiness she had completed and while he would not tell their parents, he would make her burn with guilt over her indiscretion. “Revenge isn’t worth your soul.”

“My soul died long ago,” she muttered bitterly.

“No, it didn’t, or you never would have reacted to me or to Perben the way you did. It’s still there, as strong and moral as I remember. It’s why you created the reading circle, and why the urchins love you.” He folded his arms and leaned against the wall near the sink; small bits of white flaked off and floated to the floor, twirling in the slight breeze that blew from the open window above the bathtub. Who would think twice about them, other than to sweep them up? Would the thin shards of her fractured life be so easily wiped away? “Lapis,” he said softly.

She looked at him; big mistake. She knew better. When he looked sad, thoughtful, concerned, her guilt took over and she agreed to whatever he asked, only half-questioning why. She sucked in a quivery breath, held it while trying to grab her emotions and knot them into a semblance of order. She failed.

“You weren’t there,” she told him bluntly. “You didn’t watch him kill Endre.”

He flinched before he squeezed his fists, his knuckles cracking. “No,” he agreed. “But I mourned every one of you. I still do. I can’t go a day without thinking about Dad and how we traveled Jilvayna together, or how I read to you, or how I’d take walks with Anthea.” He looked at the sink, his eyes blurring. “Lady Thyra told me, she thought the traitor had purposefully led the attack when I wasn’t there, because it would torture me to know my family died and I could do nothing to prevent it. She wasn’t wrong. I didn’t use a sword, but I always felt I had, in some way, helped kill you all. It’s a hard guilt, Lapis. Even justified, you don’t want to carry it.”

She had spent the last eight years plotting in the darkness, vowing revenge on the traitor. She had spent the last eight years honing her skills, thinking about how to approach him, how to cut him, how to make him, however briefly, suffer as her family had. How to make him watch his blood pour from him and know he had moments to live. Why give it up? “I know the guilt of survival, Faelan. It’s in my nightmares. I’ve lived with it for a very long time, and I doubt it will ever go away.”

“Then why add to it?”

Revenge.

“When you’re done with your bath, maybe we can look at those hidden escape routes,” he said. “I don’t have anything planned.” She nodded and he left, closing the door quietly behind him.

She looked at the bath through blurring eyes. She had a bit of time to herself, a secluded space to mourn, vent, but she knew, her thoughts would remain jumbled, her emotions a wide, raging ocean of pain, fear, confusion, acceptance. She sat on the cold edge and cried.

And wondered, what might Patch do, if she killed her enemy.

“This . . . is really clean.” Faelan ran a finger across the unpainted wood in the narrow walkway that led from a hidden door near his room and to a small cellar under the back garden.

“Patch keeps them that way,” Lapis intimated. Not that he had a neat streak like Lyet, but he did insist on keeping the ways clear, so they proved less attractive to vermin. “He tours the house with a brush and cloth. No one knows he’s doing it, either.”

“I’d image not,” her brother murmured. “He tends to prefer the secretive.”

Lapis smiled as she led him through the way, a small, single-candle lantern held in her left hand. She had done her share of wiping away cobwebs and dusting floors, especially in the routes designated for the rebel children. Sixteen of them, from babies to twelve years of age, attended a daycare Vivina, Baldur’s daughter, ran for them. Most were under ten, and she knew, from experience, that if it came to running for their lives, having a grubby, rat-infested place to navigate would not keep them calm and attentive.

“I’m surprised the rebels are still here,” Faelan said. “The House used to move about far more than it has these last few years.”

“Baldur likes it here, and he hates the warehouse,” Lapis told him. “So here we stay. Patch thinks it’s a bad idea, but Baldur rarely listens to him.”

“It is a bad idea.”

They reached the cellar. It was a small stone room that held nothing but a short ladder leading to the trapdoor. Lapis went to the left wall and grabbed the mottled grey stone with the tips of her fingers. She slowly pulled it out and grabbed the key from the back of the hole. She quickly opened the door, then returned the key to its hiding place.

Faelan waited patiently as she raised the door, listening for sounds in the garden. Hearing nothing, she opened it wider and climbed up, then held it for him. The unwieldy bushes Baldur neglected to trim provided a dense cover for any using the door, and Patch, while he insisted on neatness in other places, kept the plants overgrown there, on both sides of the wall. Lapis crept to the tumble of dirty stone by a large hole in the barrier and pointed to the hedges on the other side of the street.

“Sneak behind those hedges, and you’ll reach a ladder on the side of the building. It’s bolted and rusted into place, so it’s unlikely someone will remove it before it’s needed. Once you get to the roof, there’s an arch from it to the next roof over. Get down to the alley on its western side and enter the very busy Greystone Street. It has traffic day or night, and it’s easy to mingle with the crowds.”

“Why is it so busy?”

“It houses drug dens, bars, clubs, you name it. The entertainment never stops, because Dentherion merchants man the businesses and they want them to be open all day. There’s a lot of underground deals that take place there. The two sides will hire a prostitute or a drug handler, then complete their deal under the guise of doing something else. They usually pay well for silence, so the men and women they tap refuse to talk about it.”

“The underground in Jiy works a bit differently than in other parts of Jilvayna,” Faelan said. “They seem far more open here.”

“They are. I’m not certain why. Patch thinks Gall has too many deals with underbosses, and if he plans to keep them silent, he needs to put up with their outings.” She padded back to the door, slid the rock from the base of the wall that held the key, and relocked it. She returned to the wall, peeked through the hedge, and led him from it; she never dared try to creep through the bushes facing the House, just in case someone looked out of the windows at the wrong time. Patch meant for certain ways to remain secret, looking to Faelan’s eventual visit.

They walked to the western side of the House, which had far more activity than normal. Teens and women had hauled heavy bedding there for washing in the fire-heated tub. Lapis felt grateful she had not been tapped to do so; she disliked scrubbing her own things, let alone items for nobles who would never appreciate the work that went into making them comfortable. Most cast her jealous looks, and she hardly blamed them. She would hate to be out washing laundry, too.

They avoided rebels rushing to and fro and managed to make it to a vacant hallway. Lapis glanced up at her bemused brother and nudged him with her elbow.

“What do you want me to say about us?”

“That Patch speaks often of you, and I wished to meet you. It doesn’t have to go beyond that.”

She nodded. She doubted it would salve the curious mind, but she never cared whether other rebels approved of her or not.

The afternoon drifted away as she cautiously showed Faelan the shadowy corridors and hidden doors he could use as escape routes. She ended the tour in a room with new, unpainted wooden walls and sconces that behaved as stereotypical doorknobs. He raised an eyebrow at her and she half-laughed in quiet disgust. “Baldur’s idea,” she told him. “He needed something easy to remember. Third sconce to the left opens the left door, third sconce to the right opens the right door.”

Faelan sighed as she demonstrated. The thin wood swung open, creating a large perpendicular barrier that would easily break under sword or mace, and swung back closed with a loud crack. “Easy to remember, huh.”

“Yep.” If Gall’s soldiers busted in, either she nor Patch believed he would hustle to the room and remember the correct sconce through his panic. Hopefully the sympathizers they paid for advanced warning of raids would alert the House long before the soldiers stepped foot in the place.

Relaine’s high, delighted laughter echoing from the hall raised the hair on her neck. No. No. Faelan donned the peaceful expression he used when he had to navigate trying circumstances, and Lapis envied him the ability. She pulled her hood lower, a shiver racing through her hands.

How many times could she encounter Perben before she struck?

Relaine, accompanied by the traitor and a couple of men she did not know, sauntered into the room, beaming like a child given chocolate for the first time. She halted, surprised, when she realized others occupied the space, and Perben and his buddies smiled in greeting.

“I see you’re looking at the House routes and protections as well,” Perben said. “That’s good. Meinrad and Rambart are concerned they aren’t adequate.”

“I’m under the impression Patch has spent a great deal of time making certain they are,” Faelan said smoothly. One of the other men snickered at that.

“With the Headman undoing it all?” he hazarded.

Her brother smiled at that, but the humor remained on his lips; his eyes sparkled with a coldness no one else recognized. “Perhaps. This room is quite the example.”

“It’s good that you’re here, Faelan,” Perben said, running his fingers through his curls to push them out of his eyes. “This is Relaine, and she’s been kind, to show us about.”

Relaine leaped forward, happily eager. “Hello! I’m making certain everyone knows that, if they need something, I’ll be the one to contact. My door’s always open to the Blue Council!”

“That is kind of you,” Faelan said, bowing his head slightly. “So far, however, I’ve found the previous preparations suitable to my needs.”

“That’s good,” she gloated, believing the acknowledgment of her hasty arrangements indicated more than he intended. She glanced over at Lapis, and her excitement could not quite hide the maliciousness that lit her eyes. “Since I’m already leading a tour, I can show you the rest of the House. Lapis is serving at the dinner tonight and needs to prepare for her duty.”

Lapis wanted to smash the self-satisfaction off her face. She did not get past the thought before Faelan laughed and shook his head.

“I’m afraid I’ll need to leave such to my friends here,” he told her, sweeping his hand towards the men. Perben’s face fell at the words, while his buddies accepted his refusal with knowing smirks. “I’m told there’s correspondence from Midir waiting for me, and considering the mood he’s been in, I feel obliged to respond quickly.”

“Is Midir coming?” one of the men asked, surprised. “Meinrad said something about it, but I didn’t believe him.”

“He plans to,” Faelan said. “Our visit hasn’t prompted it, however. He’ll stop by with Varr—” and two of the men winced “—and make a rare appearance, then continue with his true business here. I’m not certain exactly when.”

“Who’s Midir?” Relaine boldly asked. Perben raised an eyebrow at her and Faelan managed a half-smile.

“An important member of the Blue Council,” he told her. “He’ll not be staying here, so you need not ready yet another room.”

“He’s secretive and not very sociable,” another of the men told her. “Most of us haven’t even met him.”

Lapis had no doubt, Varr kept Midir far, far away from Perben, which meant he kept him far, far away from Perben's friends. Faelan wore the badge of Leader of the Jilvayna Rebels, but Midir was the royal he fought to place on the throne. If he suspected his best friend of traitorous acts, even if he told no one else, he would have imparted the information to Varr. And Varr, the staunch and loyal bodyguard, would make certain their contact remained minimal.

Faelan ushered Lapis from the room with laughter and smiles for the men, while Relaine cast her a look that would have killed her, had she the power of fairy tale witches. No doubt the thought of capturing Faelan’s attention made her drool; too bad, because Lapis had a few things to say to her sibling about Relaine and her fake sincerity.

And, if what she had heard about Jetta held any truth, Faelan already had a beautiful and talented lover who had no need to grovel for attention.

She glanced at him as they walked quickly down the hallway; an inner fire burned within him, and while he portrayed a pleasant exterior, he made her uneasy.

“What?” she asked, hoping to dispel the twinge of fear.

“Meinrad,” he gritted quietly. “How did he find out? Midir’s visit was supposed to be a closely guarded secret. I told Caitria and Mairin because they need to scan my room for hidden tech, but no one else, and they would never betray my confidence. He asked me about it while you were gathering your bathing supplies, and he avoided answering my questions about how he came to acquire this information.”

“Misguided note?”

“Perhaps. Unfortunately, Meinrad is the type to open said misguided correspondence and nose about." He sucked in a cleansing breath, which did not help calm him."The runners in this House are atrocious. Caitria, Mairin, Ciaran and Tearlach have all mentioned something, with varying angst..”

Baldur likely gave the duty to his closest sycophants, and they had a single brain between the lot of them, and that brain was Baldur’s. “I can introduce you to someone who can stay discreet.”

“You don’t want to run my errands?” he asked, a tinge of laughter creeping into his tone.

“No.”

He chuckled at her firmness.

“Baldur wanted him and me to serve at the evening meals because he figured we wouldn’t embarrass him. His name’s Whitley, and if you impress upon him the importance of silence, he won’t mutter a word. If what Relaine said is true about serving, he’ll be in the kitchen.”

Whitley was there, leaning against the yellowed, peeling paint while Selda bustled about, getting something for Caitria. He looked as bored as a sixteen-year-old managed, though he watched a rebel, someone obviously conscripted to help in the kitchen, hold the leg of a plucked chicken in one hand, a knife in the other, and grimace in confused dislike as he considered how he was supposed to butcher it. He must have upset the stout cook, for her to have given him the task.

“Faelan!” Caitria called, delighted.

Every eye snapped to them. Lapis wanted to crawl into one of the cabinets and hide.

The rebel proffered a bowl of crisp tuber strips, golden-brown and sprinkled with the special hot and sweet spice blend Selda only used for exceptional guests. Faelan grinned and took some. Lapis could not stop herself from taking a handful when she offered her some as well.

“Selda is amazing,” she told him. “These are the best fries I’ve ever eaten.”

Selda, normally red-faced from her heated work environment, turned an even brighter shade of burgundy. Faelan smiled at her, the careful mask he showed to Relaine and Perben gone.

“I also told her that you’d be eating in your room, not with the rest of the Blue Council.”

Selda’s hue returned to a lighter shade. She nodded, her blonde bun flopping about. “I understand bein' careful,” she said—and Lapis knew her dislike of Baldur prompted the words. She motioned at Whitley, whose casual boredom had switched to intense interest. “Whitley here’ll deliver your meals.”

“Ah, Whitley,” Faelan said, looking at him as he popped a fry in his mouth. “Lapis said I should use you as a runner.”

His shock, and Selda’s immediate, wide-grinned approval, settled something within Lapis, for having volunteered him without his permission.

“I need someone who is discreet and knows how to keep quiet.”

“I can do that!” Whitley declared, popping from the wall. Lapis knew, he would agree to quite a lot more, for the chance to work for Faelan. She imagined the jealousy the assignment would bring, from the younger adult rebels who thought themselves far more reliable and rebel-y than the lad—and the fury from Relaine. She wished she had thought of that before mentioning it, but she also knew he would follow where Faelan led—no listening to the Perben’s of the rebellion and stabbing him in the back when convenient.

“Good.” Faelan popped another fry. “These are really good.”

“I’m going to eat them before I even get them to Ciaran,” Caitria said guiltily. Then she brightened, her cheeks glowing pink under her sprinkle of freckles. “I’ll blame you.”

Faelan had a fry half-way to his mouth before he sternly regarded his friend. “Do that,” he muttered before scarfing the rest.

“There’s plenty.” Selda waved at several baskets with the food haphazardly displayed inside. They sat among breads and covered pots, boards with soft cheeses and crackers, and wide plates with seared vegetables. The House rarely ate so well, and Lapis wondered how much of his own funds Baldur poured into the food budget to make him look leader-like. “I’ll send Whitley with more.” She looked at Lapis, serious and morose. “Baldur wants you to serve tonight,” she began in a heavy tone.

“Unfortunately, I have need of Lapis,” Faelan immediately responded. “I’m certain Relaine or some other rebel dying to attract Blue Council attention will happily oblige Baldur in this.”

“You’re in a good mood,” Caitria said wryly as the kitchen staff gaped at her brother, except for Whitley, whose satisfaction coated the air about him. The dig at the absent woman caused Selda to raise an eyebrow, but she did not defend her, either--and would spread his unimpressed words to whoever wanted to hear them.

“Am I?” he asked as he snagged more fries before turning on his heel and heading to the hall. Lapis waved at Selda and trailed him, not certain what else to do, Caitria laughing behind her.

“I don’t think this House is ready for Faelan,” she intimated.

“Ready or not, they’re stuck with me.”

Lapis felt her hair prickle before she consciously recognized Relaine’s laughter. She hissed through clenched teeth; Caitria settled her hand between her shoulder blades, a comforting act but also a warning. She fought to regain the control she had earlier, when they appeared in the unpainted room. Were they following them? Of course, after a walk around the house, Relaine probably suggested a visit to the kitchens for refreshment, thinking to show off her new toys to the House gossip, so their presence was not so odd.

Hopefully Selda intimated Faelan's words to her, in front of the men she so desperately wished to impress.

Accompanying the woman were a few more younger rebels, obviously on friendly terms with the original group. Perben eyed the rambunctious set with a critical eye but said nothing to dowse their fun, though he had his arms wrapped about his thin frame, his fingers clenched into fists that tapped against his upper arm. Faelan nodded to them; Lapis kept her head down and hurried past, while they acknowledged Caitria and asked after her delicious-smelling snack. Her bright replies sounded off; her tone was not so light, her words careful, guarded, not the easy-going way in which she had just spoken with Faelan.

Her brother put as much space between them as fast as possible; Lapis had no doubt he could not stand to be around Perben anymore. Caitria did not look askance at the behavior, so she said nothing. She did not have much time to her own thoughts before they reached his room and placed a closed door between them and the rest of the House.

“Lapis, since Patch isn’t back yet, I want you to stay with one of us until he returns.”

She blinked at her brother, and his seriousness made her tummy flutter.

“You think they were following us.”

“I do, though I suspect Relaine wishing to show off is behind it. That doesn’t mean Perben won’t take advantage of her generosity and discover where you sleep.”

“It’s a good guess,” Caitria murmured as she flumped onto the couch next to Ciaran. “If following you will get her into the good graces of a few Blue Council rebels, I think Relaine’ll take it, no matter who they are, and Perben’s never been picky about contacts. I don’t understand her need, though. She has other talents that serve her well—why not rely on those rather than the vacillating whims of Blue Council men.”

Vacillating whims. Lapis almost laughed; the words described her as well. She should stamp them on her forehead, because she doubted she would get the opportunity to sit alone, think about the events of the last two days, and draw hard-won conclusions from the sludgy mess of her emotions. “I’ll stay here,” she said quietly. “If you send me out on errands, people will assume I’m a stand-in for Patch, so it won’t seem odd if I’m in and out at all hours.”

“Don’t say that,” Tearlach advised as he stretched and rose from the table. “He’ll abuse it for all it’s worth.”

She smiled. In her youth, Faelan never took advantage, and never forced another to do what they really did not want to do—her included. Of course, he made her feel worm-low for not apologizing or admitting her wrongs, which proved far, far worse.

“And why are so many of the secondary members here?” Faelan asked. “I made it quite clear that only those who sat in Council meetings needed to travel to Jiy.”

“You mean, Meinrad and Rambart ignored your orders?” Ciaran asked drily as he tapped at the map spread out on the coffee table and hanging low enough to touch the floor. It was a beautifully colored display, with each district a different hue, important structures and businesses denoted, and names for nearly every street. Its glossiness indicated a Dentherion printing. “Brander and Sherridan suggested several places that would serve well for the meeting, and we’re planning to tour them in the next few days. How clandestine do you want it?”

“Istak said the potential ally is from a wealthy family but has spent the last few years in Abastion working with charities. They won’t balk at a meeting in a less reputable part of town, though something outside the Stone Streets is preferable. The Shale Alliance set up their meeting at an autumn festival beer tent without mishap. But—” and he held up a finger— “we need to consider Meinrad and Rambart’s nosiness. Meinrad already asked after Midir’s visit, and no one outside my circle should have known. I don’t want them to even have a whisper about this meeting.”

“Wait, how did he find out?” Caitria asked, outraged.

“I don’t know, but we need to look into it.”

Ciaran nodded absently, then returned to the map. “Most of the places they suggested are in the Grey Streets, the Orchards, or the Kells. There’s a couple in the Blossoms, and it’s out-city, so might be more secure.” Ciaran lifted a few sheets of paper and waved them at Lapis. “Take a look.”

She retrieved them, flipped her hood back and settled in a chair to read while the others discussed Meinrad and his illicit knowledge. She skimmed the names of restaurants, cultural centers and underground businesses; she had no outright objections to any of them, though, when she reached the Eaves, she paused, raised an eyebrow, and regarded Ciaran with lidded eyes. He ignored her, though Caitria’s impish smile indicated she knew the cause. She perused the remaining list; they all held some risk, but considering the sensitive nature of the outing, the choices were carefully considered. Personal visits would help narrow down the places to an appropriate few.

“Brander and Sherridan are taking this very seriously,” she told them quietly as she handed Ciaran the sheets. “Each one of those suggestions has potential escape routes and large enough casual crowds to hide underhanded business.” She stretched, her mind replaying the names. “Blossoms might be our best choice, though. The underground conducts business there all the time, some of it very open, and few are punished for it. You’d be hiding among thieves.”

“We’ll canvas that first,” Ciaran said. “We might need you to take us about, Lapis. Baldur called for Brander and Sherridan, and it appears they might be stuck here for the time being.”

Lapis glanced at her brother, then briefly ordered her thoughts. “He’s afraid,” she finally said.

“Afraid?”

“Relaine brought Perben to meet him while he was yelling at me. He freaked out. Perben said Meinrad and Rambart had asked that he look at the escape routes and he screamed at them to get Sherridan. He got very quiet after they left and waved me on. He’s never done that before. If I’m in his office, I’m in his office until he chokes on his rage.”

“I don’t think he’s met Perben before,” Faelan said. “At least, not that I’m aware of.” He fixed his heated gaze on her. “Until he chokes?”

“He really doesn’t respect the rebels here,” she replied, a non-answer but one she felt comfortable expressing. He continued to stare at her and she fidgeted; she had not had the annoying pleasure of a family member glaring at her for eight years and having over-protective brother mentality kick in did not make it more pleasant.

A knock on the door caught their attention; Tearlach answered, and allowed Whitley in. He shuffled slowly under the weight of a large tray that smelled delicious. Lapis jumped to help him cart it to the makeshift bar, where they settled it on the countertop. Everyone in the room gathered about as she withdrew the lid, revealing a nice appetizer spread of crackers, cheeses and vegetables, along with a huge pile of fries liberally coated in the special seasoning, accompanied by a cool-tasting, savory cream sauce.

Caitria slipped behind the bar and withdrew a black box from underneath the counter. She pressed a few small black buttons held within silver circles, and it made a strange clicking sound before a green light swept over the food. Whitley’s eyes practically popped from his head, and while he trembled, though he remained rooted instead of nervously stepping back. Lapis set her hand on his shoulder and squeezed; hopefully he overcame his trepidation with tech, because it seemed Caitria owned her fair share of it.

The box produced a series of beeps. Lapis thought the small black screen at the top displayed chemical names. Was this their poison detector? How did the green light manage to extract chemical information?

“It’s clean,” she announced. “Which doesn’t surprise me. Selda doesn’t seem like the poisoning type.”

“She isn’t,” Whitley said firmly, shaking his head. He swallowed hard before continuing. “She’d never consider it.”

“Not Selda,” Lapis agreed. The cook, while gossipy, would never intentionally harm another, especially with something as underhanded as poison. She nudged Whitley. “What happened with Relaine?”

Whitley grimaced, his fear of unknown tech falling away. “Selda told her she was going to have to serve because the Leader needed you, and if the other rebels weren’t there, she probably would have exploded and given herself a heart attack and died on the spot. Apparently she’s the only one allowed to schmooze with the Blue Council. Not that she doesn’t want to serve, because she does, but she’s really upset you’ve upstaged her. And then Selda told her what Faelan said and I thought steam really did come out her nose.”

“I upstaged her?”

Whitley motioned to Faelan; no words necessary. “She asked if anyone’s reminded you that you’re supposed to be Patch’s lover.”

The House rebels really thought that was all she was good for, did they not.

“I don’t understand why this is an issue,” Faelan said, annoyance tinging his tone as he snagged one of the small plates and piled it high with fries.

“J-e-a-l-o-u-s-y,” Caitria spelled before grabbing another plate.

“Whitley.”

He stiffened at Falean’s calm words, almost saluted, thought better of it, and kept his hands clenched at his sides. Faelan smiled, amused, before walking to the table and retrieving a purple-sealed white envelope with Lord Adrastos’s name and address neatly written on the front. “I need this mailed, but at a city place, not here.”

He took it carefully, as if he touched precious gold. “I can do that,” he said. Her brother dropped a few coins into his hand for a stamp, and the lad whisked away, intent on his duty.

Caitria glanced at Lapis. “How well do you know Whitley?”

“Well enough. He’s not the most popular or liked teen here, so Baldur lumps us together to serve for special occasions. His father’s a staunch rebel, and neither would betray the Blue Council.”

“I’m surprised, how many resent us,” Tearlach said as he retrieved food.

“They don’t resent you as much as they dislike the fact your presence is questioning Baldur’s leadership. Wait until you meet people through Brander or Sherridan. They’ll be more inclined to you.”

Lapis took some food, not in the mood to eat, but knowing she needed something in her stomach. She tended to feel sick if she went too long without a bite, which happened all too often when her emotions played havoc with her body. She had to admit, Selda definitely provided her brother with far better fare than she normally prepared, and Lapis would be remiss, if she neglected her taste buds for her tummy.

Faelan walked over to the table and retrieved another envelope, flipping it forward to call her attention to it before tossing it down. “That’s going to Midir,” he told her.

“Faelan—” she began, but he held up his hand.

“You’re the only local I trust with this one, Lapis.”

She wanted to whine. She did not know how to respond to Faelan, let alone Varr. She sucked in a trembling breath and set her plate down before sitting and hunching over. Varr would be so disappointed in her. In all her fantasies about Perben’s death, she never once assumed she would see the bodyguard again. He had doted on her as a child, and she cared deeply for him, but she never thought he would reenter her life.

“Where is he?” she asked hoarsely.

“At a hidey-hole apartment Adrastos set up for him. It’s in the Kells, on Junperrijer Street. The building's called The Swan on Junperrijer, and it's the entire top floor. We haven't settled on a code phrase yet, so ask after Varr.”

While the Kells did not have the fanciest neighborhoods in Jiy, Junperrijer was a very, very nice place. It had trees growing wherever a tree could take root, carefully manicured hedges, delectable flowerbeds, a wondrous library and arboretum, and darkly painted, refined buildings. Many, many wealthy but not too influential underbosses called it home, so she did not have to worry about a concerned resident wondering why a Grey Streets resident like herself wandered its streets.

“I’ll go tonight, when everyone’s at dinner.”

“You’ll need a partner,” Faelan reminded her.

“I’ll go with you.” Ciaran held her plate under her nose and waited patiently for her to retrieve it. She glared at him, but he did not move until she hesitantly grabbed it. Dammit, she had two men playing at annoying older brother and she resented it. She could damn well decide when she wanted to eat and when she did not.

Her shoulders slumped. How was she going to manage the rest of their visit?

Lapis heard the laughter and giggles and loud talk echoing all the way to Faelan’s room when she and Ciaran crept out, the letter for Midir in a small pack her brother had lent her, one with his seal on the flap. It resembled Nicodem’s, with a twisted ellipse surrounding the first letter to his name. If Midir’s security questioned her and Ciaran, they would get to see Varr based on that symbol.

She led him quietly through the back halls, avoiding the foyer and its crowd. Caitria and Tearlach had gone to the spectacle as personal representatives of Faelan, and she had the impression several would ask after Ciaran. She did not want to give them a chance to squirm up to him and ask annoying questions. Darkness would hide their exit, and hopefully no random rebel happened upon them while they were slipping away.

She snuck to Baldur’s escape room, inwardly giggling over Faelan’s reaction to the space. Anyone who did not know, would assume something odd about the room and investigate. Patch had chosen not to care, and Lapis saw followed his lead. Let the Headman do what the Headman wanted to do—it was not as if he listened to them, anyway.

She idly wondered if Faelan planned to move the House, making this preparation for naught.

She pulled down on the third sconce to the left, whose corridor exited on the street they needed to take.

Nothing happened.

Frowning, she pulled it again. She heard the grind of wood protesting, but the door did not swing out. Ciaran glanced at her, but she could not see his expression; the only illumination came from the hallway, and it did not enter far into the room. Sighing, she went to it; just her luck, Baldur’s contraption got stuck, just in time not to impress a Blue Council member. She touched the edge and felt indents in the wood. She ran her fingers along the edge; indents, every so often. One was slanted, and she felt the top of a nail.

Someone had nailed the door shut.

She scurried over to the other sconce; she heard the grinding after she pulled it, but the door did not open. Again, she felt the edge; nails, running the length of it.

How many other escape routes had been closed?

“Lapis?”

“They’ve been nailed shut. They were fine when I showed Faelan earlier. These two doors are Baldur’s preferred escape route, so he’d never block them.” Ciaran joined her and felt along the edges. He tried to push the pads of his fingers into the slim crack and pull, but it did no good. The doors were effectively barred. She scratched at her head. “We need to tell someone before we go. These have to be freed tonight, and Brander and Sherridan are going to have to put someone on a rotation to check to see if the routes are still clear.”

They retraced their steps to Faelan’s room; Lapis knocked briefly, hard, before cracking it open and peeking around the edge. “Hi, guess what, someone’s nailed Baldur’s escape route shut, and who knows how many others have been as well. Have fun tonight!” Faelan and Mairin, holding cards, stared in surprised as she closed it with a click and hurried back down the way. She did not quite round the corner before the door opened and Faelan stepped into the hall, a very annoyed expression on his face. Ciaran shrugged before they placed the corner between them.

“You certainly know how to yank his chain,” Ciaran chuckled as they headed for another, secret door that Relaine, and therefore her rebel charges, had no idea existed.

“He wants a little sister, he gets to put up with little sister things,” she told him.

“I’d wondered, but really, you haven’t changed as much as you might think.”

She narrowed her eyes. “What?”

“You were always the unruly, stubborn one.”

“Unruly?” She refused to comment on stubborn.

“It’s not necessarily a bad thing. You pushed limitations and lived to the fullest, even as a child. It frustrated your parents, and it frustrated my mom, but I think you learned to navigate the world a bit better than some of your siblings because of it.”

Had she? She normally thought she wandered through a rough and shoddy world without a clear destination, or even a hint that she could discover one. She did the best she could, but she never thought she would conquer that world, but rather drown in it. Her emotional turmoil over the past few days only solidified her belief.

And now, she would meet with Varr, with Midir, and that turmoil might sweep her away.


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3 Apr, 2021 15:16

I think you write really well. It's a great story, and the characterisation is detailed and clever. Keep going!

3 Apr, 2021 20:17

Thank you! IAnd yeah, I'm planning on going and going until the tale stops! Which will be a long while yet :)

4 Apr, 2021 13:00

It takes as many words as it takes. Are you planning to self publish? I tried to find an agent for my novel but couldn't. So I think I might try the self-publishing route whilst I work on my next one.

4 Apr, 2021 18:49

Yep, I'm an indie author! I have published The Wellspring Dragons Books 1 and 2 through Amazon's Kindle Direct, and run Lapis of Nicodem here. It's not easy, because you do everything yourself, and trying to get a following is hard, but there's a lot wrong with the publishing industry that makes being an indie an attractive choice. I know that here at World Anvil, people have monetized their work through Patreon (I don't do that, but it is a future possibility). The main thing is, you now have a lot of ways as an indie author for getting content out there to readers, without the go-between of a publishing company. There are services like Lulu and Smashwords and Ingram Spark, there's Kindle Direct. There's World Anvil Manuscripts! I'd much rather put my time and effort into producing work than begging agent after agent to take a peek at my stuff, or trying to convince publishing companies that I don't have to write urban fantasy light to get a readership (very disheartening to be told your work is great, but you need to write fantasy light to be taken seriously). I'm pretty happy with how my indie career is going so far (I published Wellspring Dragons in August 2020, so it hasn't been a year yet). I wish I had more of a readership than I have, but I know that will come in time. It takes a while to grow a following.

5 Apr, 2021 10:09

That's so helpful. Thank you. The situation frustrates me a lot. I think I might look into something similar to you. I was reading that I need a website and all that social media stuff, which I hate, and it just takes time away from my writing. I might look at the Amazon Kindle thing, as that seems like a good start. I really do not excel at 'social media presence' and all that, so that's why I have tried to go to agents. But even they seem to want you to have some sort of presence online. Anyway, I'll try that. To be honest, I'd like to put all my ideas and the first couple of chapters of my new book on World Anvil, but I'm worried about it getting lifted, copied, stolen or something. I know it sounds silly - it's not like I'm Tolstoy or something. But you know, it feels odd.   Anyway, thanks for the great advice.

6 Apr, 2021 05:49

Yeah! No problem. BTW, I'm not a social media butterfly, either. I have Facebook and Instagram and that's it. Do what you feel comfortable with. You can also dip your foot in, try out Instagram or something, see how it goes. It took me months to warm up to it. I do have a website and run a blog there, but I don't have a newsletter, which apparently every author should have (I actually don't know anyone that reads newsletters, let alone author newsletters, but apparently people do). The reason I have a website is it has links to everything. Truthfully, if you put your stuff up here at World Anvil and start a world site, you can have all your links there. You won't have to man a separate website if you don't want to. The important thing is to have some place where readers can use links to access your writing.

7 Apr, 2021 18:42

So I guess your website could link to world anvil? That sounds manageable. But you're right. There's just too much of social media and I really don't want to be managing all of that if it means taking time away from writing. Slow but steady, as you say. As for a newsletter, maybe that's something you can do when you feel your following is big enough to justify it. As you say, what's the point of writing one if no-one's going to read it? I get that it might be necessary if you're Stephen King, but for me at least it feels like putting the cart before the horse really.

7 Apr, 2021 19:11

Yeah. I'm thinking about turning my Wordpress site into a dummy page and sending people to World Anvil. I really hate Wordpress, and find it clunky, confusing, and any 'help' provided equals "Pay $200 more bucks so you can use plugins." The reason to have at least a dummy page on a large site is that Wordpress gets a lot of traffic. And yeah, newsletters are definitely for when I have a following. I have a "What's New" on my world pages, and that pretty much keeps people up-to-date on what's going on with my stories.