Junperrijer Street bustled with activity despite the later hour; finely-dressed people eager for a night out 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 without a second glance. 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. It had the look of structures erected by the Dentherions after their successful invasion, ones designed for the temporary housing of loyal elite before they managed to secure 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 wide front doors, because security for the place would immediately and suspiciously ask questions. Having no other option, she firmed her backbone and opened the pinkish-white door.
The foyer was tall, reaching up to the third story. Four pinkish-white doors with numbers etched into gold plaques above them spanned the 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. The stairwell was clearly marked by bright fruit-scented lamps, so she took that way, Ciaran behind her.
“Interesting security,” he murmured as they proceeded up.
“Are you going to complain?”
At least they knew they had to climb to the top.
White sconces brightly lit the stairway, a contrast to the dim interiors Lapis was familiar with. The stairs were darkly stained wood, the banister elegantly carved with flower designs and gold caps atop the posts. The air felt cool, crisp, much like the sharp sound of their footsteps on the treads. A large gold plaque marked each landing, and a cabinet with gold nametags stood in the corner, awaiting mail. At the top, a single door leading from the landing was propped open, and a bored guard stood in a short blue hallway in front of double doors, staring blankly at the wall opposite him. He wore a simple brown shirt and pant, which Lapis thought odd; normally sentries in richer abodes wore stuffy uniforms to differential themselves from the riff-raff. He slowly studied them as they halted just inside.
“We’re here to see Varr,” Lapis said.
He straightened. “Are y’ now?”
He sounded like a Stone Streets guttershank who had managed to worm his way into a decent job. Good for him. “Yes, thank you.”
He shuffled to the doors and knocked. “Summun t’ see Varr,” he shouted. Lapis 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 better dressed man wearing a brown guard uniform with blue trim rose from a desk placed just to the side of the entry. Pages littered it, and the scattering of pens indicated that 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 to 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? If she looked enough like her mother, he would also realize her identity, that the name Melanthe did not belong to someone else, and he would be upset. 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 huge fist. He intimidated most with his height and build, and his no-nonsense air, coupled with black hair and beard and intense brownish-grey eyes, proved too menacing for most.
For most, but not her. Calanthe and Tiege had feared him, but Lapis had always considered him gentle and kind, an uncle who read her stories when he visited. She had 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, had influenced her decision to become a chaser, however unintentional.
She tipped her hood back and fluffed at her hair, the nervousness riding her, hard. Ciaran simply looked as bored as the guard. 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?
She heard the familiar gait, the sound of heavy boots striking a wooden floor whose carpet could not muffle the sound. 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 held a thick longsword, and a long brown leather vest with several pockets and held together with one stout button. As a child, she had investigated those pockets thoroughly, and had delighted in the strange devices she discovered. He had laughed at her inquisitiveness, and even shown her how some of the items worked. Some were common things, but her interest had always focused on the small bits of wondrous tech that flashed, or beeped, or grew warm at her touch.
He had an odd expression on his bearded face, one that 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 hugged her too tight, and she had to gasp 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 slightly 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 settled his hands on her shoulders. “Does your brother know?”
She nodded. “He found out a couple of days ago.”
“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 managed to regain 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 blue furniture, deep blue carpets, elaborately carved wooden tables, end tables and chairs stained a dark brown. Gold flakes and blue flowers that matched the furniture marched down the dark brown wallpaper. The fireplace was built from brown marble with gold flecks, matching some of the animal-themed statuary and the floor vases holding long-stemmed, blue and purple flowers. Landscapes in outrageously brilliant hues, especially compared to the rest of the room, filled the upper walls.
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 had told her that 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.
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 caught her as Ciaran began to laugh.
Patch let her go and staggered up, heading towards a hallway brightly lit with sconces. Standing just to the side, eyes only for her, was Midir.
She remembered his extravagant clothing the most, and it startled her that he wore a simple but soft, long-sleeved cobalt shirt with plain black cuffs, black pants and soft shoes. No elaborately embroidered designs in gold thread, no tooled boots, no jeweled coat, no rings and necklaces. His black hair was pulled back in a simple tail instead of styled with lots of product, his green eyes sharp and intense in a thinner face.
“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 know?”
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.”
Varr 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 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.
“I met him 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 stared. “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 stared at 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 needed to steady her legs and her feelings. She clung to him because he never turned from her when she needed him, and while it might embarrass him to have her so needy before Varr and Midir, before whatever 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—”
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, but she never would have guessed that. That he knew 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 your family was killed, and while Faelan had me take a note or two 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 and went back out to the room, her partner trailing her, his hand settled against her waist, an oddly comforting touch. Had he realized how much she needed it?
The men had found seats, and held short, fat glasses with ice and drink. A woman had joined them; she had a soft smile, full cheeks and twinkling eyes, one light blue, one light brown. Her dark hair was pulled back into a loose bun, with wisps falling gently before her ears. She wore a traditional seneschal robe with Midir’s family colors, dark red 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 Midir had told her. Even before her family fell to Kale’s men, he had kept his movements and his friendly contact secret, and she must wonder at the woman who he immediately trusted.
She shrugged out of the pack and sat on the couch with Varr, and Patch plopped down next to her. It felt odd, seated between the two and feeling safe. She had precious little of that 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 the 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 Faelan.”
“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 start rebuilding 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. She thought she had sounded truthful but reserved. Apparently more emotion leaked into her tone than she wanted. “Not well?”
“I’m hiding as best I can from Perben,” she whispered. “It’s not enough. Relaine’s snuggled up to him because she thinks he’s important enough to raise her status. She decided to show 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 were concerned about security.”
Patch blew his breath out between his teeth.
“The ones Baldur uses were nailed shut when we tried to leave,” 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 ones,” 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 it’s important enough to support her. You know as well as I do, that her evidence against Perben is not going to play well with Meinrad or Rambart or 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 Faelan and his Leadership would please far too many who assumed they held the answers to the rebellion’s success.
“I had 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 had 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 had 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 own wrists, the tanned skin, smooth, unblemished, mostly hidden by gauntlet. “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.” She knew the tears would come, 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 had thought, that if anyone survived, 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.”
Patch, attempting to dispel the mood? She could help with that.
“Well, he had 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. He likes to sell snake oil, and his last attempt killed a lot of people. He was staked, but he was known to have a tech weapon, so chasers didn’t bother with him because they might get killed.” Lapis glanced at the bodyguard. “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 weapon 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 get 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 and were trying to beat some poor farmer. I was annoyed, 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 began to laugh. “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 that 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 a lot of it to Rinan so he could bargain for a room from Dachs.”
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 get into 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 grabbed his flask, and she raised hers with him.
“To Lapis and a renewal of ties. May luck favor us further,” Midir said before they drank.
Lapis had heard the ancient phrase, but she never used it. She had 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 in 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 slightly. 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. Patch 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, the uniforms worn by Lord Adrastos’ people. Midir rose, 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. Lord Adrastos doubts it’s a local Kells effort, because the enemy isn’t careful about what buildings they hit.”
Everyone leveled 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, 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.”
Lapis knew Patch had contingency plans for nearly everything, something he shared with Varr. She scooted over to Ciaran and they patiently waited while orders were given, 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.
She heard a hard crack and crash 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 had 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 stairs that went down further than five stories. It ended in a small earthen room once used as a cellar, but the rotting wooden shelves held no items, and the thick, musty smell would have made anything inedible anyway. Lapis felt rather than heard another explosion, and bits of dust and dirt erupted from the walls. The dirt hit the ground in a shower, the dust dirtied the air and hung there, bright sparkles in the lamplight. Her partner hurried them to a rough tunnel that led from it, 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 more brightly 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, though I don’t think anyone replaces the tiles. Since they’re left-over tech from before the invasion, I doubt anyone even knows how.”
What were they made of, that they still produced light after two-hundred years? Her curiosity about tech rarely elicited answers to her questions because no one knew. She supposed there might be an old book somewhere in an old, 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. Old, rusting metal tech casings lined the walls, with buttons, levers, cracked screens. Some had cabinets below them, the doors asunder, wires tangled about the interior. A few spaces had cracked, dented lockers with thick cobwebs and small mounds of debris with a trail through; the rest 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. Lapis doubted the atmosphere helped.
She had vague awareness of tunnels throughout eastern Jiy, but, as with the western sewers, since she did not need to use them, she had never bothered with them. She had no doubt the Stone Streets had several underground escape routes, 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, she would never attempt 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 huge, 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 near 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 dim and dull atmosphere. Stairways led up to a brighter lit second story that wrapped about the walls, and more sound came from the area.
Lapis had not realized they fled to Underville.
“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 have enough clout to make enough money to live 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 everyone 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 she knew Patch had caught many a shank 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 had 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 had 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 slightly spicy and sweet. He noted them and did nothing as they passed through; Patch poured a few coins onto the box next to him, which he accepted, and which caused him to gape in shock when he realized the price paid for his silence.
The corridor led to a wide set of heavily chipped concrete stairs with a mangled metal rail down the middle. The walls had faint square grout lines, 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, anticipating his return, 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 lose another close to her in a violent manner.
She almost laughed. She had 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 patiently waited while Neassa paced, her small fists under her armpits. He did not seem particularly distraught, considering the situation. “Are you alright?” She had to ask.
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 tech.” He laughed without humor. “It is no secret, he keeps that apartment. I think this Hoyt tried to catch him and his people unaware, hoping for revenge. My being there was 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 have the opportunity to find out—I doubt you realize, but the Minq’s third-ranked underboss lives on the fourth floor. Attacking anywhere near the building is going to get the syndicate involved, 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 Lapis almost did not hear the words. “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 was not quite 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 take seriously 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 the warmth that filled her chest, that he believed her competent enough to keep the heir to the Jilvayna throne safe. “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, good memories of him, and that he had 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, one leg up, arm on the knee, loosely holding Megan’s reins. The horse looked as bored as her owner, perhaps a tad more annoyed. The way she eyed the park’s grass, she obviously wanted dinner. His cart sat in line, among others whose drivers shrieked at each other and waved their arms at the guards who hastily finished a blockade. Good thing so many horses and oxen had blinkers, to keep them visually ignorant of the alarm.
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 she heard more than one grumbled threat 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, grimly 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.”
The guard checking papers, and ignoring the shrill shrieks of sidelined drivers, eyed the pass, then regarded them suspiciously until she raised her arms and triggered her daggers. “Lord Daros likes to keep his merchandise safe and on time,” she said. The guard nodded, making a disgusted-but-agreeing expression, and waved them on. Rik’s tense smugness, and 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.
“How did you know this is Lord Daros’s stuff?” Rik asked, glancing at her after they had a lengthy distance between them and the guard.
She just smiled.
They chatted on idle topics of no serious 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 decided to graciously accept 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 had struck her, she felt it. Her body moved stiffly to the door, and Midir stretched before following. She glanced about, 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 anyone skulking around would grab his attention.
The interior was warm, cozy, slightly hazy with lamp oil. The numbers 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 had thought Dachs’ reaction to Faelan surprising if amusing. Upon beholding Midir, he looked as if a heavenly being had floated down to him, shining brightly and 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 Midir?
“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 Dachs raised an eyebrow. “Explosions and everything.”
“That’s odd.” Dachs frowned. “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. I’ll get the drinks. Take a seat, if you can find one.”
Lapis smiled and glanced at the corner. She had 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 to get to 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?”
“That’s ill-conceived, on their part, if they think to get to Patch through you,” 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 had 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. She had 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.” She forced her face to match her sternness; every rat paused, serious to match. 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 were almost unnoticeable, matching the clear thin glass. 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. Understood?”
Four heads nodded.
“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 the tea. Eight years ago, he would have said nothing polite and simply waved his hand, dismissing the innkeep as if he were a servant. A small thing, but it emphasized his changes. How much did her family’s death weigh on him, that it initiated this shift in behavior? “Where’s Varr?” the barkeep 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. Midir smashed his lips together, as he realized the unwanted attention, and took a long drink.
Lapis felt the color rise in her checks and decided to breathe in the warmth 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 were 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, 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 had to help rescue an important noble who got caught in between the fight and I need 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,” Rin reminded her, puffing up with importance. Lyet grabbed her cloak from a bar nailed to the wall, placed far too neatly for Rin to have managed it on his own, and handed another to Jandra. The lads chose to do 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. These undershanks had tech, and there were explosions, so who knows what they have to attack you with.”
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, and she knew it would become a downpour soon. “Dark beard, grey eyes. You can’t miss him. Believe me. He’s Midir’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, intense curiosity lighting his eyes.
“Aren’t you lucky, you get to meet him.” She pointed down the alley, uncertainty squirreling about her tummy. She had no doubt, Rin would see Patch as an idol, someone to imitate. She had passing thoughts about employing him as a ‘keeper, but Patch dealt with the dangerous stakes she wanted to keep him 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 I and Jandra are 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, the night-light crowds escaping to whatever shelter they could manage. Hopefully Mama Poison had decided to stay 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 had the sensation often, when on a job and she sensed something wrong. She normally left the situation or hid, avoiding harm. 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 get 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.”
“Tievel’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.”
Lapis 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 worry about them that night.
The rats had not returned to the back door when she arrived, and a prickle of worry spread through her chest. She knew 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 one of them suffered injury because she needed help.
She heard the soft crunch of boots, the gait so familiar, 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 happened to be near, getting ready for an assault. She was very, very happy Neassa made it out of the zone without mishap. Neassa mentioned it, that Shara 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 was 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 hate she rarely heard expressed. Patch hated many things, but he tended to keep it bottled in her company, and it peeked out only at stressful times. “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 to keep someone company.”
“He’s right. Perben’s hidden his involvement with Gall for years—and finding Ailis’s evidence wasn’t easy. He’s devious and underhanded, 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 is 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 had returned, 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 had leapt out of the water, landed on shore, and could not fathom where the water had gone. 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 get some tea. You’re really cold.”
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 had 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.