Chapter 12: Cacophony

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Junperrijer Street bustled with activity despite the late hour; finely dressed people with glittering jewelry and overwhelming perfume wandered the pristine, cobbled streets, laughing gaily and loudly. Some staggered about, already drunk, and Lapis did not envy their friends and significant others, who would need to drag their sorry butts home after they passed out in whatever establishment they patronized.

Most side-stepped her and Ciaran, no care or concern. Hooded figures must zip up and down the street so often, residents ignored them. Even the Grey Streets cast her the odd glance or stare when she wore her black hood, and some people hustled away after they realized a chaser walked near them.

The Swan was a posh wooden building stained a deep brown with soft pinkish-white trim crisscrossing the walls. After their successful invasion, Dentheria constructed many similar structures, designating them as the temporary housing of loyal elite before they secured land for their mansions. Lapis stared up at the generous eaves and pondered how they might reach the fifth floor. No stairwell marred the exterior, and she dreaded entering the front because security for the place would immediately and suspiciously ask questions. Having no other option, she firmed her backbone and opened the wide, pinkish-white door.

The foyer was tall, reaching up to the third story. Four more pinkish-white doors with numbers etched into gold plaques above them spanned the whitewashed walls, without a smudge marring them. A larger brown door opposite the entrance led to a clear-windowed office. Men in rough grey uniforms sat inside, cards in hand, and, after a glance, paid them no heed. Bright, fruit-scented lamps marked the stairwell, so she took that way, Ciaran behind her.

“Interesting security,” he murmured as they proceeded up.

“Are you going to complain?”

“No.”

At least they knew they needed to climb to the top.

White sconces brightly lit the stairway, a contrast to the dim interiors of the Grey Streets. They illuminated dark-stained wooden stairs, the banister elegantly carved with flower designs, the shimmery gold caps atop the posts. The air felt cool, crisp, much like the sharp sound of their footsteps on the treads, creating a forlorn atmosphere.

Large gold plaques with numbers marked the two doorways leading from each landing, and cabinets with gold nametags stood between them, awaiting mail. They had no keyholes, and Lapis wondered how the residents opened them, or if the owners placed them as decorational items, a way to add elegance to an otherwise plain space.

At the top, someone had propped open the single door with a delicate gold jamb. Just inside, a bored guard with crossed arms and legs stared blankly at the blue wall opposite him. He wore a simple brown shirt and pants, which Lapis thought odd; normally sentries in richer abodes sported stuffy uniforms to differentiate themselves from the riff-raff. He studied them as they halted a few steps onto the scruffy blue runner.

“We’re here to see Varr,” Lapis said.

He pushed from the wall. “Are y’ now?”

He sounded like a Stone Streets guttershank who wormed his way into a decent job. Good for him. “Yes, thank you.”

He shuffled down the short hall and to the dark-stained double doors at the end. He pounded on one. “Summun t’ see Varr,” he shouted. She winced; too loud, for the hallway and the time of day. She did not understand the muffled reply, but the doors swung open and a man wearing Lord Adrastos’s rose guard uniform with gold trim rose from a desk placed just to the side of the entry. Pages littered it, and the scattering of pens indicated he had other work to do.

“And who shall I say is calling?” he asked in a monotone voice.

“Melanthe and Ciaran.”

She thought she saw the flicker of recognition at Ciaran’s name, and he hustled away.

“Y’know Varr?” the first guard asked idly, staring after the other one before slowly regarding them again.

“We’ve met,” Lapis said. Her chest twinged in nervous fear; what would he do, when he saw her? Would he stare in shock? Would he even recognize her? He might yell. Varr yelling was a sight to behold; muscular man towering over the target of his displeasure, his deep, booming voice as potent as his enormous fist. He intimidated with his height and build, and his no-nonsense air, coupled with black hair and beard and intense greyish-brown eyes, proved too menacing for most.

For most, but not her. Calanthe and Tiege had feared him, but Lapis always considered him gentle and kind, an uncle who read her stories when he visited. She made certain to watch him practice his martial techniques when he and Midir stayed at Nicodem. She sat on the top of the wooden fence that surrounded the dusty ring and stared, rapt, at his movements. He, as much as Patch, influenced her decision to become a chaser, however unintentional.

She tipped her hood back and fluffed at her hair, the nervousness riding her, hard. Why had Faelan decided he only trusted her? Brander and Sherridan would have made the trip as easily. He must want her to meet with Varr and Midir again, though she had no idea why he pushed. Did he not realize her emotional difficulties? Did he not realize that, sooner rather than later, she would break?

 The sound of heavy boots striking a wooden floor whose carpet could not muffle the sound echoed to them. She fought not to throw up as he walked into view, as confident and stern as she remembered.

He wore stiff brown leather pants and a teal tunic that reached his thighs, a belt haphazardly tied below his belly that threaded through a thick longsword sheath, and a long brown leather vest with several pockets and one stout button that held it together. As a child, she had investigated those pockets thoroughly and delighted in the strange devices she discovered. He had laughed at her inquisitiveness and even shown her how some of the items worked. Most were common things, but the small bits of wondrous tech that flashed, or beeped, or grew warm at her touch, always attracted her.

The odd, concerned frown darkening his face completely disappeared when he focused on her. He stopped and stared, startling the two guards, his mouth falling open in shock.

“Melanthe,” he whispered.

She had not planned to cry, but she did. She had not expected him to cry, and by the flabbergasted stares of the guards, neither had they. She wrapped her arms as far around him as they could go and buried herself into his chest as she had as a child, finding a warm comfort there when childish fears overcame her sense. He clutched her too tight, and she gasped for air hard enough he loosened his hold—slightly.

“Melanthe.” His voice broke.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she whispered. She could think of nothing else.

He pushed back and settled his large palm against her cheek. “You lived?”

“Yes.” She swallowed. “Only Lady Ailis knew.”

He bowed his head as more tears came. “If . . . if I had known . . .”

“You and Midir aren’t exactly easy to track down.”

He huffed with sad laughter. “No.” He set his hands on her shoulders and squeezed. “Does your brother and uncle know?”

“Faelan found out a couple of days ago. I don’t think Ulfrik’s here yet.”

“We’ve a message from Faelan to Midir,” Ciaran said quietly. Varr snuffled and straightened to his full height; despite having grown, she only reached to the middle of his chest.

“Come,” he said, waving his hand backwards.

They left the stunned guards behind. Hopefully they regained their senses before someone else showed up.

Varr guided them to the end of the hallway and through a couple of rooms before reaching a grand reception area. It contained plush sunset-blue furniture and carpets, vine-decorated wooden tables, end tables and chairs, all stained a dark walnut. Gold flakes and ornamental blue flowers marched down the deep brown wallpaper. The gold-flecked brown marble fireplace matched the animal-themed statuary and the floor vases holding long-stemmed, blue and purple blooms. Landscapes in outrageously brilliant hues, especially compared to the rest of the room, filled the upper walls.

Patch.

He sat in one of the couches, his feet planted on the coffee table and shedding dirt upon the surface, glaring moodily at the tips of his boots and holding a flask.

Patch. When her brother told her he escorted rebels to Jiy, she never anticipated he meant Midir.

She jumped to the table just as he took a drink and slammed her hands, palm down, onto the surface.

“Hey, AETHON!”

The ass, he spit the drink all over his boots, the table, her. Pissed, she reared back, hands out, looked at the splatter, and rounded her leg up, planning to ram her foot into his upper arm. He caught her boot as he hacked, which, she supposed, she should have anticipated, but it threw her off and she windmilled her arms to keep her balance.

Varr helpfully steadied her as Ciaran laughed.

Patch let her go and staggered up, heading towards a hallway lit by oil sconces, coughing. Standing just to the side, eyes only for her, was Midir.

She remembered his extravagant clothing the most, and it startled her, he wore a simple but soft, long-sleeved cobalt shirt with plain black cuffs, black pants and comfy shoes. No elaborately embroidered designs in gold thread, no tooled boots, no jeweled coat, no rings and necklaces. Even his black hair reflected a plainer man, being bound back in a loose tail rather than styled with palmfuls of goopy product. His green eyes, sharp and intense in a thinner face, remained the same.

“Melanthe.” He smiled, and the tears shocked her. She swallowed as Varr set her upright and bowed; he immediately waved his hand and walked to her, shaking his head.

“After your family died, I decided the pomp no longer reflected me,” he told her. “I think I’m happier for it.” He settled a hand on her shoulder, his eyes roaming her face, her hair. “I’d say you look like your mother, but truthfully, you look like Melanthe.”

She wiped at her face before she hugged him. He held her far tighter than she anticipated, and she hoped she did not bring too many terrible memories to the surface. Just her presence would remind him about how her family died, and on her best days, she never wished to think on it.

“I’m so happy you survived,” he whispered. “Does your brother and uncle know?”

“Faelan does, Ulfrik isn’t here yet.”

He pushed gently away, then placed a hand to her too-hot cheek, as Varr had. “I’ve two children now,” he told her. “My little girl is a lot like you, getting into trouble with every breath.”

The bodyguard laughed and she felt oddly morose.

Midir jerked his head to the hallway Patch took. “There’s a bathroom you can use to wash up,” he told her.

“Thank you,” she whispered before she scurried away.

Patch was wiping his face with a thick towel as she entered the spacious, brown-tiled room with a ceramic tub large enough for Varr, a flushable toilet, running water, and a clean, crisp soap scent. He looked at her with his one intense sky-blue eye, then flipped his pale golden locks from his face with a sharp jerk of his head. He wore tight, mottled black pants and a sleeveless shirt with a high collar, an outfit that warned the House he was in a mood and to leave him be.

“Aethon?” he whispered, his deep voice harsh, but she detected the shock. He shook his head and tossed her the towel; she dowsed it under the faucet and wiped at the wet spots. “Lapis?”

“Faelan told me after Lord Adrastos met with us.”

“You met with Lord Adrastos?” Patch eyed her skeptically. She supposed it should not surprise her he knew the man.

“He sort of introduced himself after I helped Sir Armarandos beat off a hit job by Guard Superior Nevid—”

“You helped Armarandos against Nevid?”

“Yep. And Lord Adrastos got the message to me the next day about being staked by the underground because I’m supposed to be partners with someone named Aethon. I didn’t know who that was, and the guard thinks the underground’s made a mistake. Lord Adrastos said he’s going to meet with the underbosses about it.”

Patch jerked a hand through his bangs, bewildered. “That’s . . . I haven’t been gone that long.”

“Oh, there’s more.”

He settled his hands over hers and she stopped trying to drive the towel into her shirt. She paused and watched the thin fingers, struggling to push the rush of helpless dread down into the pit of her emotions, where it belonged. “More?”

She snuffled before she sternly firmed her reaction to the night, the last few days, her life. He wrapped her in a tight and warm embrace, his hand slipping through her hair and laying against the back of her head. He settled his lips against her forehead and did not move, the solid rock she craved to steady her legs and her feelings. She clung to him because he never turned from her, and while it might embarrass him to have her so needy before Varr and Midir and whichever servants and guards were there, he would swallow it and comfort her.

“You’ve reunited with Faelan.”

“He told me he guessed.” She sounded raw; too much crying. “And since you knew—”

“Lapis—”

She shook her head, digging her cheek into his shoulder. “You should have told me.”

“I should have,” he admitted. “But I couldn’t. Not after listening to you relive the raid night after night in your nightmares. I didn’t want you to keep remembering once the sun rose and feel obliged to discuss it with me. I wanted to give you a safe time, when you didn’t have to think about it.”

She dug her hands into the towel. She had not thought much about why he kept the secret because she did not want to know the answer. That he recognized her need, one she never voiced but desperately needed, soothed and enraged her simultaneously. Why could she not rattle her emotions like dice in a cup, throw, and pick the most appropriate ones? But no, she had to smash them all together and wade through the remains, uncertain, searching, despairing.

“Drinks ‘r up!” Varr called.

She looked at Patch; he did not seem as annoyed as she might anticipate. “You know Varr and Midir, too.”

“I trained with Varr,” he told her. She poorly covered her surprise. “Before . . . well, before. I had met Midir. He basically went into hiding after Gall killed your family, and while Faelan gave me a note or two to take to him, we didn’t interact much. He knows me though, and Varr vouched for me, so I got called up to escort them into Jiy.” He shrugged. “It was a boring exercise of staying least-in-sight on a busy street.”

That sounded very much like Patch, underplaying the danger. Lapis settled the towel over the hook with exaggerated care and headed back to the room. He trailed her, his hand on her waist, a warm, steady, comforting touch. Had he realized how much she needed it?

The men sat around the table Patch had used as a footrest, holding short, fat glasses with ice and a dark brown drink. A woman had joined them; she had a soft smile, full cheeks and twinkling eyes, one light blue, one light brown. Pins held her dark bun in place, with wispy strands tangling in her small ear hoops. She wore a traditional seneschal robe with wide hems and cuffs in Midir’s family colors, deep crimson and gold.

“Lapis, I’d like you to meet Neassa,” Midir said, motioning to her. “She’s my assistant, and keeps me where I need to be, when I need to be.”

Lapis put a hand to her breast and bowed her head. “Well met,” she said softly.

“I’m happy to meet you,” she replied. She seemed sincere, and Lapis wondered what the royal had told her. Even before her family fell to Kale’s men, he preferred to keep his movements and his friendly contact secret, and she must wonder at the woman who he immediately trusted.

Lapis shrugged out of the pack and sat on the couch with Varr, and Patch plopped down next to her. Sitting between the two produced an aura of warmth and safety, something she had precious little of in the last few days. She withdrew the letter and held it over the table to Midir. He took it, broke the seal, glanced at the contents, and smiled with a nod.

“I take it the House is full of excitement, with the Council there.”

Lapis rolled her eyes. “I suppose.”

“Meinrad found out about your visit,” Ciaran said, leaning on his knees and dangling a glass between his fingers. “We’re not certain how he discovered it. It might be as simple as a misdelivered letter—which we’ve already experienced.”

“It’s the simplest explanation, and in line with what I’ve learned about the House,” Midir said in a heavy tone.

Lapis glanced at Patch, then at Midir. “I told Faelan to use Whitley. If you send runners, make certain they give him what they have, if they can’t find my brother.”

“And how are you taking their presence?”

Her mind whirled, and she thought about brushing aside her anxiety and fear, but if she wished to rebuild any type of relationship with Varr and Midir, she needed to speak the truth. “Not well.”

Patch sighed and placed a hand on her back. “Not well?” he asked, resigned. She thought she had sounded truthful but reserved. Apparently more emotion leaked into her tone than she wanted.

“I’m hiding as best I can from Perben,” she said. “It’s not enough. Relaine’s snuggled up to him because she thinks he’s important enough to raise her status. She showed him about, made certain I saw them together because she thought it’d be impressive that a Blue Council member let her latch onto him. She showed him the all escape routes because he said Meinrad and Rambart had security concerns.”

Patch blew his breath out between his teeth.

“When we tried to leave, we discovered someone had nailed the ones Baldur uses shut,” Ciaran said.

Both Varr and Midir grimly darkened at the words. Neassa’s twinkle diminished, though she did not appear surprised at the news.

“I showed Faelan the secret ways,” Lapis said. “Anyone he trusts needs to know where they are. If you are planning on visiting the House, you need to know, too, Midir.”

“Maybe we should forsake the visit,” Varr said, his deep voice rumbling through the room.

“There are reasons for me to meet with the Council,” Midir reminded him. “Lady Ailis asked it, and I will support her. You know as well as I do, that her evidence against Perben will play poorly with Meinrad and Rambart and those who consider them important voices in the rebellion. They will try to use Lapis against Faelan, but they can’t do that with me.”

Lapis dropped her gaze. Of course they would. Noble power plays never favored those they considered less and using her as a ram against her brother and his Leadership would please far too many who assumed they held the answers to the rebellion’s success.

“I planned to have you help here,” Patch said quietly. “You still can.”

She shook her head. “Faelan needs someone local he can trust, and that’s me.”

“And do you trust him?” Midir asked. He had always seemed too perceptive when it came to her emotions, and she greatly resented it as a child. She had reminded him, on more than one occasion, that he was Faelan’s godfather, not hers, so his nose should point in that direction if he wanted to snuffle about. He chuckled at her exasperation and continued to pry when it suited him.

“I wouldn’t, if Tearlach hadn’t told me about his rope scars.” She glanced at her wrists, the tanned skin, smooth, unblemished, mostly hidden by gauntlets. “But he tried to return to Nicodem. He tried, but the rebels tied him up and he couldn’t break free. I thought everyone had abandoned me, that I wasn’t important enough to even try to save.” The tears came, and she did her best to ruthlessly suppress them. “He didn’t leave me to die.”

“He didn’t,” Patch confirmed. “I don’t think he’s ever going to forgive himself for failing, especially since you survived.”

“I didn’t hear about the massacre until far too late to help.” Midir’s voice was heavy with sadness and unmitigated anger. “Varr and I thought that if anyone escaped, they would have made it to Coriy and informed the House there. We mourned, and we renewed vows to eliminate Gall and find the traitor. There didn’t seem to be anything else to do.”

Well, everything devolved into depressing real quick.

Patch patted her back. “What took you so long with that stake, anyway? He was a bit shank, hiding by himself in the countryside.”

Her partner, attempting to dispel the mood? She could help with that.

“Well, he had a visitor.”

“A visitor.”

She could not stop her smile. “The Alchemist.”

A brick dropping on his head would have been less shocking. “The Alchemist?” he asked, concerned and flabbergasted.

“The Alchemist?” Varr raised a thick brow.

“He’s a shank who works for a local underboss called Hoyt,” Lapis glanced at the bodyguard. “He likes to sell snake oil, and his last attempt killed a lot of people. Someone staked him, but chasers knew he had a tech weapon, so didn’t bother with him. He was visiting my stake because Hoyt told him to hide in the country for a while. My stake didn’t want him around, even told him to scram. He got pissed and used his tech to take him out. He broke it, though. He shook it all around and tried to use it again, but no luck. I waited ‘til he went to sleep, stuck a cloth filled with this special sleeping oil under his nose, and drug his fat ass to a cart.” She made a face and hunched her shoulders. “I could barely haul him over the tailgate. At least I didn’t drop him like I did the shank.” She looked guiltily at Patch. “I think he lost a tooth or two when his chin nailed the gate.”

Everyone winced except for Neassa, who laughed into her palm, then choked when she realized she had become the center of attention.

“I was running late and tried for the city gate, but four of Hoyt’s guards had stopped traffic so one of them could beat some poor farmer. That annoyed me, so I took the attacker’s crop away from him, and the farmers helped with the others. Piled two of them in the cart, too. One farmer went with me to the Kells Gate Guardhouse, and Sir Armarandos was there—and he’s not one to rip off hard-working chasers on high-payout stakes.”

Patch closed his eye, ran a hand through his bangs, then laughed. “I thought you were going to have another Cimis story.”

“I think this one was just fine,” Lapis muttered, offended. “The Alchemist even had a guard roster on him I got extra silver for. That’s much better than rolling a drugged-up drunk to the nearest guardhouse.”

“Drugged-up drunk?” Ciaran asked, his eyes sparkling.

“Cimis was Hoyt’s enforcer. He was a nasty, nasty man with a nasty, nasty temper, and he did whatever he wanted whenever he wanted. I discovered him at the Shank while looking for another stake. He had passed out in his own vomit, and by the looks of him, he had drunk enough to fell Mama Poison and added drugs on top of it. I rolled him to the guardhouse. Literally. He had a round tummy that sort of worked like a wheel. It was ro-o-o-ll-thump, ro-o-o-ll-thump all the way there.”

Varr’s red face and lips smashed together proved he thought she told amusing tales.

“That’s a lot of money to hide in the room,” Patch cautioned.

“That’s why I gave some of it to Rinan so he could bargain Dachs for a room.”

Her partner’s expression softened at that. “Which room?”

“The suite.” She sounded as put out as she felt over that. “It has a tub! A tub! I want a tub!” She glared at him. “And some Dentherion stuck her nose into the bargaining and bet against Rin because she said he couldn’t ‘win’, which wasn’t the point, and so the regulars bet on him and of course Dachs ‘lost’ and they cleaned her out. Rin added that to his bargaining pile.”

“Who’s Rin?” Midir asked.

“A street rat. He’s part of my reading circle. He’s the reason I started it in the first place. He and the other rats deserve a chance at a better life and knowing how to read can provide that edge.” Patch sat back, and she glanced over her shoulder at him. “Brander said he’s heard of him. Is Rin that well-known?”

“Yes. He has quite the reputation outside the Lells. If you ever pried, I’m certain he would proudly tell you about it. He, Lykas and Scand cause all sorts of mischief.”

She pressed her lips together. “That’ll stop after I get through with them,” she grumbled, remembering their ill-thought adventure to Orinder’s home. She grabbed her waiting glass, then paused as the rest of them raised theirs. Patch hurriedly snagged his flask, and she lifted hers with him.

“To Lapis and a renewal of ties. May luck favor us further,” Midir said before they drank.

Lapis never used the ancient phrase. She depleted the goodwill of the Four Stars of Chance escaping from Kale’s soldiers, and she had no illusions about so-called karma. In myth and fairy tales, justice never seemed much on the minds of the gods when they turned their attention to mortals. Well, the Seven Gods and their various Star retainers, anyway. While they had their terrible sides, Jilvayna’s old gods brought goodness to their followers, unlike the Dentherion pantheon, whose members’ schizophrenic behaviors often ended in merciless death and destruction.

She supposed, they reflected the empire that served them.

The room shook, enough to rattle glass. Lapis glanced at Patch, who raised an eyebrow but settled his hand between her shoulder blades. She hated the small, intermittent earthquakes because she always anticipated a stronger one striking and obliterating all she cared for. He never turned away from holding her when they struck and he was near, and she now had the answer for his concern.

Another shake, accompanied by what sounded like an explosion.

The second guard raced into the room, distraught, with a black-haired, dark-eyed woman in dark rose and gold; another of Lord Adrastos’s guard. Midir stood, his pleasantness destroyed.

“Lord Midir, we were attacked on our way here,” the woman said, saluting smartly. “They have tech, so Lord Adrastos sent me ahead to warn you.”

“Is he alright?”

“Last I saw. The attackers seem to be guttershanks, but it’s hard to tell. My lord doubts it’s a local Kells effort because the enemy isn’t careful about what buildings they hit.”

Everyone levered themselves off their seats.

Lapis expected a larger contingent of armed protectors to seep out of the rooms, intent on safeguarding Midir, but only three others popped in after Varr’s roar, all wearing typical brown leather and no identifying cloth or badge.

“How close are they to the Swan, Captain?” Varr asked.

“We’re just down the street,” she said heavily. “You need to evacuate, my lord.”

Patch had contingency plans for nearly everything, something he shared with Varr. Lapis scooted over to Ciaran and they waited patiently for orders, though her heart beat hard and fast against her chest.

What if Perben had followed them? What if he brought Gall’s soldiers to the Kells to get rid of his most pressing threat? She should have been more careful, she should have used more backways and ugly alleys to reach their destination. Guilt slammed her, hard, and she fought against it—a losing battle, but she fought anyway.

A hard crack and crash resounded from the outer door. The leather-clad people, one man, two women, rushed towards the commotion with Varr as Patch retrieved two lamps from a closet. He turned a knob to light them and handed one to Ciaran before opening a door next to the large window and jerking his hand to them.

Ciaran made certain to bring up the rear, which prompted more guilt, but it allowed her to hustle onward with Neassa, who had turned a not-healthy shade of pale and rapidly blinked over-bright eyes. She smiled at her and settled her hand on her back, hoping it brought some comfort.

Patch led them down a steep flight of creaking stairs that went down further than five stories. It ended in a small earthen room once used as a cellar. The rotting wooden shelves held no items, which was fine because the thick, musty smell would have seeped into anything stored there and made it inedible. A rough, dark tunnel braced by wooden beams stood opposite them.

The air silently vibrated after another explosion, and bits of dust and dirt erupted from the walls. The larger debris hit the ground in a shower, the rest dirtied the air and hung there, bright sparkles in the lamplight. Her partner rushed them through the passage, and they exited into a hallway completely covered in large white squares. Grime coated them, but the surfaces remained clean enough their soft glow lit the space, and far better than the lamps.

“What are those?” Neassa asked as she peered at the tiles, distracted.

“Some sort of pre-Dentherion light,” Patch replied. “This part of the Kells has hundreds of similar tunnels. Most are still in use because so many underbosses live here. They’re pretty overprotective of the tiles since they’re left-over tech from before the invasion, and no one knows what they’re made of, let alone how to replace them. So don’t touch them.”

What material still produced light after two hundred years? Lapis’s curiosity about tech rarely elicited answers to her questions because no one knew. She supposed there might be an old book somewhere in a noble’s library that spoke of the miraculous accomplishments, but those remained far outside her ability to access.

They proceeded through short hallways and larger rooms, some dimmer, some brighter. Broken, rusting metal tech casings lined the walls, with buttons, levers, cracked screens. Some contained cabinets below them, the doors asunder, wires tangled about the interior. Fractured, dented lockers with thick cobwebs stood in a few spaces, small mounds of debris dusted against them; the rest of the passages looked as if someone habitually swept them. If underbosses used them, that made sense.

Neassa had her sleeves bunched up and shoved under her nose, as if she did not like the rot-underlying-dust smell that permeated their path. Lapis would have done the same, if she thought it would block the stench.

The Stone Streets had several underground escape routes, too, ones that failed to help the royal family and their retainers evade Dentherion soldiers, but which served modern guttershanks well. Considering the rot that seeped into the very earth there, Lapis never attempted to enter one, no matter how lucrative the stake. But, perhaps, she needed to ask Patch and Brander about other, viable routes.

They exited into a humongous, shadowy room with a high ceiling hidden by a dull brownish haze. The whitish tile lights disappeared, replaced by the flickering flame of multiple fires. People crowded about them, singles, families, some cooking, some huddled close for warmth. Boxcars of various dilapidated states spanned the entirety of it in irregular rows, some decorated with curtains, some with yard art stuck near the makeshift doors, some painted bright colors at odds with the hazy and dull atmosphere. Stairways ran up to a brighter lit second story that wrapped about the walls, and more sound came from the area.

“What is this place?” Neassa asked, nervous, distrustful.

“Underville,” Patch said shortly before he led them through a back alley that skirted the better-lit sections containing people.

Lapis caught Neassa’s step. “Underville’s a community where shanks beholden to underbosses live,” she whispered. “The ones here don’t make enough money to pay rent in a better place, but they’re on a high enough rung they can stay here rather than the Stone Streets. Some of them are very wanted criminals, so Underville’s their hideout. Guards don’t come here, which suits everyone just fine.”

Underville was notorious for letting residents be. It had a loose sense of community that the underbosses promoted, but little beyond that. They took pride in being a step up from the Stone Streets, however they managed to obtain it. Lapis never had cause to visit, but Patch caught many a stake there. They accepted his presence as they accepted any other, and his reputation kept him safe amongst the thieves. A few had even helped him, figuring that, if a shank did something terrible enough that the famous assassin hunted them down, a decent payday as ‘keeper would ensue.

Patch never skimped on paying for that help. He had a quiet, melancholy respect for those living there, for they managed a way out of the Stone Streets, however illegal.

A burly man with dull brown, cropped hair, dull brown skin, and dull brown clothing, sat atop a stout box to the side of a wide, empty doorway. Hanging fruit oil lamps lit the corridor beyond, their scent spicy and sweet. He noted them and did nothing as they passed through; Patch poured a few coins into a dented metal bowl next to him. He accepted the bribe with a grunt, then gaped in shock when he realized the price paid for his silence.

The corridor led to a wide set of chipped concrete stairs with a mangled, discolored rail down the middle. Faint square grout lines marred the walls, indicating someone had long ago looted the light-producing tiles. They climbed three floors before they left the underground. A curved metal awning spanned the entrance, heavily dented but still standing. Taller, Dentherion-constructed buildings circled it, the narrow gaps between providing convenient escape routes.

Patch led them to one, then halted. “I’m going to scout ahead,” he told them in a deep, emotionless whisper. “Lapis, Ciaran, you shouldn’t have any problems. This is the least-used exit from Underville, so there shouldn’t be more than a person or two using it. If you see more than that, head to the street. I’ll find you.”

Lapis had stood through more agonizing waits for Patch than she cared to think about, but the present one proved especially painful. What would she do, if he did not come back? She would get Midir to safety, probably to the House where Faelan and his people could help him, then return, searching for her partner. She always thought about losing him when she stood alone, in dread anticipation, and made mental plans to look for him, to find him, take him to a doctor if necessary. She never got past that part, because she did not think she could bear to violently lose another close to her.

She almost laughed. She never pondered it, but that might explain her deep, inscrutable reluctance to renew ties with family and friends from her youth. Death stalked nearly all of them.

Midir exuded calm, standing with his hands behind his back, while Neassa paced, her small fists under her armpits. “Are you alright?” She had to ask, considering the situation.

He nodded. “I don’t think I’m in any danger, actually.”

Ciaran raised an eyebrow. “No?”

“Adrastos has corresponded about his current underground affairs. He’s pissed off the underboss you mentioned earlier, Hoyt. If the man deals in Taangis tech, as Adrastos thinks, he might believe that his men have the weapons to take him and his guard out. They don’t. They’re underfunded, undertrained, and Adrastos and his people have years of experience with forbidden, illegal things.” He laughed without humor. “I think this Hoyt tried to catch him and his people unaware, hoping for revenge. My being there was a coincidence, nothing more.”

“If they believe an important guest was there, and that harming them would harm Adrastos, you still are in danger,” Ciaran pointed out.

“True, but they have no idea who that guest is. And they will not find out—I doubt you realize, but the Minq’s third-ranked underboss lives on the fourth floor. Attacking anywhere near the building guarantees syndicate involvement, and Hoyt will wish to his dying day, he had not roused them. Shara refuses to bow to the warlike behavior of her predecessor, but she will act on an obvious threat to her people.”

“You know the Minq’s primary underboss?” Lapis asked.

“She’s my cousin,” Neassa murmured, so quiet her words barely made it past her lips. “I’ve introduced them. Shara’s a wonderful person, she really is, and she has far more friendly feelings towards the rebellion than the throne assumes.”

Lapis almost laughed at the absurdity. One did not become an underboss of the Minq through wonder and nice thoughts.

“The Minq are a bit different than you might suspect,” Midir agreed. “The larger organization is sympathetic to rebel causes because Lord’s Council incompetence has affected their business, and therefore, the money flow. They may be greedy, but they also take their status as grand old syndicate very seriously, with several members claiming the Minq began the original rebellion against the Dentherion empire. A conceit, surely, but one I work with.”

Perhaps Midir did not remain as hidden as she assumed.

Patch returned, slipping into the alley silently enough, Neassa did not realize he stood next to her until she turned.

“Well, it’s becoming a full-blown underwar out there,” he grumbled. “The guard and palace soldiers are just arriving, and they’re targeting any large group just in case they’re involved. We need to get out of here. Lapis.”

She focused on him.

“Rik’s here, with his cart stuck in a line of drivers. He has crates with Lord Daros’s seal, so he probably has a pass the guards will accept if they stop him. Ask if he wouldn’t mind taking you across the bridge, then get Midir to the Eaves. Neassa, do Shara’s people know you?” She nodded. “Good. She has access to a particular section of tunnel that leads under the river. We’ll need your connections to use it. Ciaran, you’re with us.”

Patch trusted her with Midir’s safety. The sudden bout of cold anxiety combated with the warmth filling her chest; he believed her competent enough to keep the heir to the Jilvayna throne protected. “Where’s Rik?”

“Down the street from here, near Greenling Park.” He pointed to the left and south.

She hugged him briefly, then hugged Ciaran. “Stay safe,” she said, ignoring his startled look. She may not have spoken with him for eight years, but she had strong, wonderful memories of him, and that he worked to bring the traitor to justice without losing his objective proved his integrity.

She led Midir away, thankful he did not have an eyesore of an outfit that would draw unwanted attention. How drastically he had changed, from the ostentatious noble she remembered.

Rik looked bored. He lounged back against the backboard of his cart, one leg up, arm on the knee, loosely holding Megan’s reins. The horse appeared as apathetic as her owner, perhaps a tad more annoyed. The way she eyed the park’s grass, she obviously wanted dinner—a meal that would be long in coming. They stood in a lengthy line, among others who shrieked at each other and waved their arms at the guards hastily finishing a blockade. Good thing so many horses and oxen wore blinkers to keep them visually ignorant of the alarm.

“Hey, Rik.”

He glanced over and smiled in greeting. “Lady,” he said pleasantly. “On a stake?”

She nodded. “Any chance we can hitch a ride?”

He laughed. “Yeah, sure,” he said. “If we ever reach the bridge. Hop up.” He eyed Midir. “Your partner?”

She shook her head. “No. This is Midir, a family friend. Midir, this is Rik. He’s an Eave’s staple.” She jerked her chin at the cartman. “If you’re there tonight, you’re going to meet him, though.”

Rik’s dark eyes lit. Midir laughed.

The noble sat with the driver, while she planted herself atop a crate, high enough for a good view of the gathering crowd. Everyone she noticed looked upset at the unexpected delay, and more than one grumbled threats towards the hapless guards and their impromptu checkpoint. Talk died abruptly and Rik sucked in a large breath as an entire guardhouse worth of men moved past, swords in hand, stern and determined.

“What’s going on?”

“Explosions and underground fighting.”

He attempted to hide his sudden fear under a thick layer of disgust. “Figures, when I have a load.” He glanced at her and weakly grinned, a poorly implemented mischievous look better suited to Rin. “This is an important shipment from a noble, and I have papers. They won’t detain us, even if there’s trouble.”

Despite the reassurance, the guard checking passes regarded them suspiciously, ignoring the shrill shrieks of sidelined drivers while he sharply interrogated Rik. His eyes drifted to her, and on impulse, she smiled.

“Lord Daros likes to keep his merchandise safe and on time,” she said.

“Safe?” he asked, squinting at her waist. He expected a sword?

She triggered her blades. The guard started, made a disgusted-but-agreeing expression, and waved them on. Rik’s tense smugness, combined with the guard’s annoyance, hinted at previous clashes, and she hoped it did not come back to bite her in the future. Chasers needed to stay on the good side of those that paid them.

Of course, guards needed to stay on the good side of court nobles, especially the nasty ones with guttershank reputations but enough wealth to cover their misdeeds.

“How did you know this is Lord Daros’s stuff?” Rik asked, glancing at her after they placed a lengthy distance between them and the guard.

She just grinned.

They chatted on idle topics of no import. Midir exuded calm, with his voice, his casual way of sitting, and Rik relaxed enough to ask a couple of impertinent questions that elicited laughter but no serious answer. He even graciously dropped them off at the Eaves before he continued with his delivery, though she had no doubt, he would return quickly. His curiosity about her partner demanded no less.

She almost mistrusted their luck, but accepted it. She would far rather have an uneventful travel-by-cart than a fight with underground shanks and suspicious guards. “I owe you,” she told him. He waved a hand at her, amused.

“If you insist, but really, it’s not necessary.” A raindrop plopped on her nose, and he glanced up, hand held out, squinting. “Maybe buy me a warm drink when I get here.”

“I can do that.” She had not realized the cold, but now that rain splashed on her, she felt it, deep. Her body moved stiffly to the door, and Midir stretched before following. She eyed the custom, did not see anyone of suspicion, but as soon as she got Midir settled, she would conscript Rin and Lyet and have them help her complete a quick tour about the place. Rin, especially, had a good sense of who belonged and who did not, and any skulkers would grab his attention.

The interior was a warm, cozy yellow, somewhat hazy with lamp oil. The number of people startled her, considering how the rain had kept so many in their homes. Regulars met her eye, and those she did not recognize looked as they should—common Grey Streets residents out for dinner or drinks in a not-so-expensive place. A couple hailed her, but most ignored her.

Lapis thought Dachs’ reaction to Faelan surprising if amusing. Upon beholding Midir, he looked as if a heavenly being had floated down to him, blinding with holy light, then demanded a disgustingly cheap beer from the bar. He recovered quickly and hustled over, despite the full counter. What position had he in the rebellion that he had met the heir to the Jilvaynan throne?

“Dachs,” Midir said warmly, shaking his hand.

“Welcome to the Eaves, my lord.” His respect startled Lapis, but she understood it. “I’ve food, drink. Anythin’ I can possibly get, I’ll get.”

“A rain sour, if you have it,” Midir murmured. “It seems the night for it.”

“There’s an underbattle going on in the Kells,” Lapis said drily as the barkeep raised an eyebrow. “Explosions and everything.”

“That’s odd.” His eyebrows knit in a deep frown. “Been quiet, these past few years, since Shara took over. The other underbosses aren’t that interested in bickerin’ anymore.”

“Hoyt might have something to do with it.”

Dachs pursed his lips unhappily. “Figures, eh. Hubris kills the delusional. Tea for you?” She nodded. “I’ll bring the drinks. Take a seat, if you can find one.”

Lapis smiled and glanced at the corner. Yes, she told the rats to hide at the Eaves, but the numbers surrounding the table startled her. Hopefully Rin did not complain too much about his new abode being an urchin shelter for a few days. She understood, the need to make a new space one’s home before inviting guests.

“I told the rats to stay here because they might be a target for knowing me,” Lapis whispered to Midir as she touched his arm and indicated the far table. “Someone’s after Patch, and they’ve targeted me to get to him. Do you mind sitting with them?”

“If they think to threaten Patch through you, that’s ill-conceived,” he murmured back. He had a soft, warm smile, putting her uncertainty to rest. “And of course not. This is the famous reading circle?”

Famous? “Yes.” Her brother mentioned his interest as well. What was it about the circle that caught their attention? She squeezed through bodies of custom, then wedged herself into the table and leaned over, avoiding the books sprawled across the surface. A warm, fuzzy feeling spread through her chest at the sight. Despite the danger, they read. She noted Nerik, the Wings, a few others who had not officially joined, but she preferred them in the Eaves than in the streets.

Their eyes took in Midir, then focused on her.

“This is Midir,” she told them. “Be nice. And be nicer—and then nicer than that.” She forced her face to match her sternness; every rat paused, reflecting her seriousness. She eyed Scand and Brone, Phialla and Gabby—and noticed Phialla wore new glasses. Rin had done as she asked and taken the girl to the eye doctor, without a reminder. The thin, silver rims and clear glass were almost unnoticeable; hopefully they held up under street rat forays. “There’s trouble from the Kells that might reach here. I need to scout the exterior. If anyone comes in who’s suspicious and Dachs gives the word, you need to get him away from here and to the meeting place near Scand’s cubby. Understood?”

Four heads nodded.

“Where’s Rin?”

“He’n Lyet are up in the room,” Scand told her with a straight face. Just her luck, to interrupt.

Dachs bustled up, rain sour and warm tea in hand. Midir accepted with quiet thanks, and Lapis happily took her drink. Eight years ago, the heir would have said nothing polite and simply waved his hand, dismissing the barkeep as if he were a servant. A small thing, but it emphasized his changes. The guilt over her family’s death must weigh like a necklace of boulders around his neck, to shift his behavior so.

“Where’s Varr?” he asked.

“Coming,” Midir promised. “Along with my assistant, Ciaran, and the Lady’s partner.”

Everyone in the Eaves who had a passing acquaintance with her and were near enough to hear, perked up. The noble smashed his lips together as he realized the unwanted attention, and took a long drink.

The color rose in her cheeks and to cover her reaction, she breathed in the steam rising from the tea. “Dachs, I need to look around.”

“I’ll be alert.” He settled a hand against her arm. “Take care, Lady. An underwar’s nothin’ to mess with.”

“Yeah. We got caught in between. Not a comfy place.” She left Midir with Dachs and the rats; even if the rats did not know what was at stake, Dachs did, and he would react accordingly. She savored the warmth of the drink as she hustled up the stairs, not wishing to bother the two teens, but needing their aid.

She knocked, hard. “Rin, I need your help,” she called. The door opened almost immediately, which startled her; Lykas held the knob, with Jandra sitting against the wall, keeping the other two company. Relieved and embarrassed, she stepped inside.

The room felt sparse, but the lack of furniture was likely due to the sprawl of ragged blankets and bedding and packs belonging to other urchins, that ran through the open door and into the smaller study. A lamp glowed dimly from the top of a small crate, casting all in warm shadows. Any lingering street smell fell under the soft scent of baking spice incense.

“Lady?” Rin asked, rising from the new, large bed set in the far corner, neatly made with dark blue sheets and a much larger comforter.

“There was syndicate trouble at the Kells,” she told them. “I rescued an important noble who got caught in between the fight and I have to make certain no one followed us. I need your help, to look around.” She eyed all four of them. “If you aren’t busy.”

“I’s the Lady’s man,” he reminded her, puffing up with importance. Lyet grabbed her cloak from a bar nailed to the wall, placed far too straight for Rin to have managed it on his own, and handed another to Jandra. The lads did without; she supposed rain-sodden rat was the least of her worries.

“Look around. If you see anyone suspicious, tell me when we meet back up at the residence back door. Don’t engage. There were explosions, so they’re using some nasty stuff and you don’t want to be a target.”

That sobered them, but all four followed her down the stairs anyway. Some called street rats cowards because they ran from everything, but her experience proved the exact opposite.

“If you see a giant of a man, that’ll be Varr,” she told them as she set the teacup on the tiny corner table and opened the back door. The rain fell, light but steady, the precursor to a cold downpour. “Dark beard, greyish-brown eyes. You can’t miss him. Believe me. He’s the noble’s bodyguard, and if you see him, tell him where we are. You remember Ciaran? He’s with the noble’s assistant and my partner. We separated, and I’m not certain when they’re going to show up.”

“Your partner?” Rin asked, hesitant curiosity lighting his eyes.

“Aren’t you lucky, you get to meet him.” She pointed down the alley, uncertainty squirreling about her tummy. He would see Patch as an idol, someone to imitate. He dealt with the dangerous stakes she wanted to keep the rat far, far away from, and which he would find far, far more interesting than her hum-drum chases. “Rin, Lyet, take the alley to Coin Street. Look around, take Shicker Way back. Lykas, Jandra, go the other way to the Bits, and loop around to Candor. I’ll take the rest.” She eyed them sternly. “Be careful. Don’t engage. You need to live long enough to meet my partner.”

“That’s why we’re going with them,” Lyet told her drily. Jandra laughed gaily, as the lads glared.

Lightning flared, thunder cracked, loud enough to startle her. She shooed them on and began her tour, weaving through the rapidly thinning crowds as she scouted the immediate area around the Eaves. She noted no one of interest and even recognized a face or two. People hurried on their way, escaping to whatever shelter they could manage. Hopefully Mama Poison stayed in during this storm because Lapis did not want to avoid her again.

She glanced into other establishments, but the patrons looked normal—normal Grey Streets citizens, normal tourists, normal shanks. One woman stood outside her chosen shelter, wobbling about, drink in hand, half-under the awning while her other side got soaked, but Lapis decided her altered state explained her soddenness.

She almost returned in relief—almost. But something nagged at her. She experienced the internal warning when she sensed something wrong on a stake. She normally left the situation or hid, avoiding harm, but she did not have the luxury that night because she needed to keep Midir safe. He, of all the rebels, was the most important man in Jilvayna, and they could not lose him to her mistake.

She almost ran into two men as they exited a dive bar down the street from the Eaves, annoyed and muttering. She bowed low in apology and murmured quietly enough they could not make out her words. They glanced at her, and she fought not to tug her hood further over her eyes. She recognized them as having accompanied Perben during his tour with Relaine. They showed no interest or recognition, and she gratefully accepted that the rainy night darkened her visage enough they could not see her.

They viewed the rain with disgust. “How much longer should we stay out?” one asked.

“Let’s go back,” the other grumbled. “No one’s going to be out who isn’t already out. If she did run some errand for him, he didn’t send her here.”

“Teivel’s right,” the first said. “There’s something odd about her, but I don’t think it’s nefarious.”

Lapis curled her lip. Nefarious? Is that what he told his friends?

“He’s just pissed Faelan’s relying on her instead of him. He needs to accept, their friendship’s dead. Being Leader went to his head. He’s too important for us now.”

She wanted to throw up. She had to get away. She made a show of racing from one awning to the next, but neither paid her attention as they wandered in the opposite direction, tangentially towards the House. She circled about in the darker alleys and caught up to them on Coin Street, but they hustled on, hunched over as the rain pounded the backs of their heads and shoulders. Good. She did not think she needed to fret about them that night.

No one else waited at the back door when she arrived, and a prickle of worry spread through her chest. Yes, they had farther to walk than she, and it made sense they would arrive later, but she still anxiously waited. A guttershank might try to take advantage of the situation, and her guilt would never end if any of them suffered injury because she needed help.

The soft crunch of boots alerted her before she recognized the gait, and she sagged as Patch rounded the corner. He kept to the shadows of the building, but the blue decoration that lined his patch glinted in a circular pattern, giving his position away. He must have taken a walk around as well, and activated his tech. He dripped, and his clothing clung to him like a second skin—and her lust kicked in. Dammit, she had other worries. She still wrapped herself about him and hugged tight; he returned it, his lips resting against her temple, his breath warm against her cold skin.

“Did you have trouble?” he asked as he reached up and pressed the center of the patch. The glints faded away.

“No. Rik’s pass and me pretending to be escorter-of-goods got us on the bridge. He even brought us to the Eaves’ door. The tunnel was fine?”

“Yes. Shara was near, getting ready for an assault. She was very, very happy Neassa made it out of the zone without mishap. Neassa mentioned her cousin has a strong attachment to members of her family, but I disregarded it. She’s an underboss, after all. But her concern wasn’t fake. Apparently she and Adrastos are on better terms than he implied, because she’s concerned about him, too.”

“I sent Rin and Lyet and Lykas and Jandra to look about. They aren’t back yet.” She hissed out her breath. “I saw two of Perben’s men. They were looking for me but decided to leave because they didn’t find me and it’s raining. One said there’s something odd about me, like Perben said, but he doesn’t think it’s nefarious. They think Faelan’s no longer friends with him because he’s too conceited now.”

“Those fucks,” Patch said, with a depth of disgusted animosity he rarely expressed. Patch hated many things, but he normally kept the darker loathing bottled in her company. “You need to stay with Faelan until I get there. We don’t know what Perben’s planning, but I do know he won’t attack your brother.”

“Faelan already told me I needed company.”

“He’s right. Perben’s hidden his involvement with Gall for years—and finding Ailis’s evidence wasn’t easy. He’s devious, so treat him as such.”

She knew that, from painful experience.

“What else is going on? You mentioned there’s more, at the apartment.”

“Other than my life falling apart before my eyes?”

“You’d never let that happen.” He squeezed tighter and pressed his lips against her ear. “You’re stronger than that. You escaped Nicodem at twelve, without a plan, without help, with terror running at your heels. Renewal of past bonds is hard, but not running-for-your-life hard.” He raised his head. “You see anyone?”

The rats wandered up, each pair holding the cloaks over their heads. Lapis had witnessed shock in them before, but the complete and utter, dropped-jaw, flummoxed expressions annoyed her. Especially Rin’s, because he looked like a confused fish who leapt out of the water, landed on shore, and could not fathom where the water went. She could feel Patch trying desperately not to laugh, and she pulled away, sullen.

Lykas recovered first. Of course he did; he had experience with Patch and his kindness towards street rats. “Rin and Lyet didn’t, but we saw a couple of men near Ruddy’s. They’re standing outside, have drinks they aren’t drinking, and are studying every person walking by. They’re wearing Dentherion clothing. No one around Ruddy’s wears Dentherion clothing.”

Ruddy’s was the dive bar of dive bars. Dentherion anything was far beyond the means of its patrons.

“Show me.” Patch looked down at Lapis while Lykas brightened and Jandra wobbled. “Go drink some tea. You’re freezing.”

She made a face; he ran the backs of his fingers across her cheek before falling into his typical ‘don’t mess with me’ sternness that no one ever transgressed—except for her.

Rin was jealous, Lykas and Jandra got to go with Patch. Lyet just stared as he walked by.

“Are you coming?” Lapis crankily opened the door, knowing that hot tea would not solve her irritation, her concern, her growing terror that Perben knew she survived Nicodem and wanted to finish the job he started eight years ago. She sucked in a huge breath of warm air and touched her gauntlets, attempting to bury her fear.

What was wrong with her? She was no longer the scared twelve-year-old fleeing the ashen remains of her family, her home, her life. She had trained to take the traitor out, vowed to wipe him off the earth and salt his memory. And she would keep that promise, even if it meant acting before Lady Ailis arrived with the evidence.


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