Chapter 6: An Odd Opportunity

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When Lapis and Brander returned downstairs, Dachs hailed her.

“You know Ciaran?” he asked, slapping the man on the shoulder, heavy enough he staggered slightly.

“Yeah,” she said. “My entire life.”

“Really?” Phialla asked, perking up.

“Literally. He was there when I was born. About dropped me on my head when he held me.”

“You were heavy,” Ciaran said with fake disgust, though his cobalt eyes twinkled at the reminder. He flipped his blond bangs from them with a shake of his head. “And I was four.” Dachs’s eyes widened at the proclamation.

“His mother scared him enough that, when his sister was born, he refused to touch her because he didn’t want to drop her.”

“She was fatter than you were.”

“Babies are supposed to be chubby.”

Dachs laughed, which echoed in the strangely sparse room. Normally multiple people rushed in to get out of the rain and ended up spending more than intended on warmer drinks. Perhaps it was still too early in the day for it. Just because Lapis felt as if years had passed in only a few hours, that did not make it so.

“I sent the rats to Fished Out,” she said. “You and Dani and Dalia can have some.”

“They better get me some of that white fish,” Dalia called from the kitchen.

“You can chew out Rin if he doesn’t,” Lapis told her before sitting next to Phialla while Brander joined Tearlach. She turned her soberest gaze onto Dachs. “The suite?”

His gales of laughter indicated he very much enjoyed putting the Dentherion in their place. “Ah, Lady, you shoulda seen it. Rin’s sharp, when it comes to bargainin’.”

“He should be.” Most streets rats had to be, to weasel the most out of their bits.

“I admit, the Dentherion irritated me no end. Couldn’t keep her nose to her own business. We didn’t ask her to participate. She just decided she should. Rik really cleaned her out. Used that windfall from those guttershank stakes to bet on Rin. Her eyes popped when she realized all she’d lost. No one let her renege on it, either.”

“How much was the stake?”

Dachs shook his head in wonder. “Together, three silver.”

Her eyebrows shot into her hair. “Three silver? How does a guttershank get that kind of stake?” The recent boon of silver would not last, and she hoped an extended lean time did not follow. True, the silver would have been divided up among all the ‘keepers, which basically counted all the help that ringed the grubby shank as well as those who chased the second one, so no single person collected three silver, but they all would have come out of it a couple hundred bits richer.

“Rik said they’d been part of that crowd that ripped up the Jank Temple and sold all those gold plaques. Wonder where that money went, ‘cause the grubby one sure didn’t get any of it.” He sighed. “Rin added it to his pile. So weren’t all your bits he bartered with.”

“Good.”

“The woman pissed Rin off,” Lyet said. She rolled her head over to look at Lapis. “He was going to bargain for the room next to yours, but you know how he gets when he gets angry.”

“He gets suites,” she grumbled. She did not appreciate all the smiles that accompanied her half-jesting resentment. She really did want a bath attached to her room. The washstand did not make up for having a tub; a paltry hand towel scrub did not equal sinking up to her neck in warm water and breathing in the damp air.

“There’s a lot of Dentherion tourists right now,” Ness piped up. “We sold a lot of stuff to them earlier.”

“That’s because you and Phialla do good work,” Lapis told him. He grinned, his earlier, desperate crying forgotten.

“Mairin showed us what to buy to make clay steppingstones,” Phialla told her, holding up the plaque. It had shards of pottery, fine glitter, and a twirl of bright yarn held to the ceramic with a clear coat. “And she said we should really play up the folk art aspect! Use buttons and everyday items in unique ways. Ness has a painting style, even if he doesn’t practice it like he should—”

“Hey!” Ness protested.

“—and we can incorporate our own stamp on our stuff.”

“Good idea. Tourists tend to eat that kind of stuff up.” She smoothed her damp hair back from her face. “Is there a festival or something going on? I mean, Jiy isn’t that popular of a vacation destination.” She did not recall anything that might attract monied people from Dentheria, but she normally did not pay attention to such things, either. She did not have the funds to participate in holidays, and even if she did, celebrating without the rats would only emphasize their low status. She would never purposefully let them believe themselves less than the rich kids whose parents showered them with clothing and knick-knacks in an attempt to buy luke-warm affection. She did purchase sweets for everyone on significant holidays, but the majority of those were religious, and since the religious ones always pushed the ‘if one is holy, they will be wealthy and hale’ crap, she refused to honor them in any significant way.

“The prince visited Dentheria recently,” Ciaran said quietly. His voice, however soft, reverberated through the room. “Apparently its citizens are curious about Jilvayna now, and the wealthy have chosen to vacation here. Coriy’s gotten their fair share of tourists who want to walk around the ‘Rebel City’.”

She rolled her eyes. Wonderful.

“How privileged we are,” Caitria said. She had her chin buried in her arms as she watched Phialla. Mairin rubbed circles on her back, an attempt to comfort her. The Pit had that effect on people.

“Aye,” Dachs said heavily. “They do spend a lot, though.”

“Of course,” Lapis said. “Reminds us about the rewards for abdication of morality and justice.”

Brander smiled at that, though she could tell the Blue Council members were a bit surprised at her sarcasm.

“I’ve made more than usual selling necklaces, too,” Jandra said, leaning away from the wall to look over at the back table. “There’s been a slow increase in tourists, but these last few days at the Lells have been strange. Lykas says there’s a lot of rich people wandering about without much care to their purse. Do they really have so much money, they can lose silvers to pickpockets?”

“They probably don’t realize it’s a threat,” Tearlach told her. “Dentheria is very different from us vassal states. She doesn’t have the overt and rampant poverty, which means there aren’t as many street thieves in the large cities. She has far more services that help the disadvantaged, and even the poorest tend to make silvers more than some of the richer commoners here. That’s not to say they don’t have incredibly poor people living there, but in general, they get far more help than the disadvantaged here in Jilvayna.”

“The rich also tend to sequester themselves,” Brander said. “They have no idea what’s going on in the poorer streets of Dentherion cities, let alone Jiy.” He half-smiled. “They want some folk art pieces they can hang on a wall and brag to their acquaintances about, and a few shocking stories about walking about scary streets that mortify their fellows. I suppose getting cleaned out will provide the shock factor.”

She heard the stomping before the bedraggled, furious man loomed in the doorway. All talk ceased as he stormed into the tavern, fists tightly clenched at his side, teeth tightly clenched behind snarling lips. The dribbling of his thinning hair and dripping of his finely tailored suit mitigated much of the furious impression he wished to make. Could he not have paused to retrieve an umbrella before marching to the Eaves?

“Why hello, Orinder,” she said, as two bodyguards followed him inside. One was the man tasked with protecting Dandi, and he looked as happy as a crying clown about being dragged to the Eaves for this confrontation. Perhaps he would decide to sell his services to another merchant after this. The other simply appeared embarrassed; red spread across his cheeks and nose and did not fade away. “What a pleasant surprise. How’s Dandi? I’ve been told, I kick hard. I hope he wasn’t still in the dirt when it began to rain.”

His breath whistled through his teeth as she sucked in a breath. “How dare you touch my grandson?” he snarled.

“How dare your grandson destroy Phialla and Ness’s work,” Lapis said coolly. “If Dandi doesn’t sell enough during a shift, he still gets fed. Phialla and Ness don’t. It’s pathetic and cruel, to consign them to days without food because he wasn’t charming enough to attract custom.”

“They’ve been told, to keep away from my stall,” he growled pointing to the two urchins. Phialla’s lip trembled, and a tear slid down Ness’s cheek.

That ass, coming to the Eaves to scare them away from selling at the Lells, one of a handful of safe spaces in Jiy the less fortunate could hawk their wares. He thought her rats easy to intimidate? He might scream and shout loud enough non-circle rats avoided him and his precious stall, but her group had her to speak for them. And speak she would.

“They have every right to set up where they want to, just as you do,” Lapis reminded him. “The Lells doesn’t designate space for the blanket traders and you know it. As long as they’ve paid their selling fee, Maydie and Movique don’t care where they sit.” She lounged back and folded her arms across her chest. “If you’re so infuriated by their presence, I’m certain Candycakes will welcome such an upstanding merchant as yourself.”

He shook, hard. Lapis tried to put as much condescension into her smile as she could; Candycakes, the second largest market in Jiy, a place a tad more expensive than the Lells but with a far better reputation, had rejected Orinder’s applications to sell there. He begged for admittance so often, it had become a joke in the Grey Streets. His assumed association with the underground did not impress the Candycakes Collective, and the merchants refused to vote in his favor. Unless he started selling far more product than he normally did, Candycakes had no incentive to let him set up shop there.

Maybe that explained his reaction to the rats selling pottery.

“They wouldn’t even be there, without you,” he snarled.

“Hmm. I think you underestimate the drive in the rats,” Lapis told him. “There are several who sell at the Lells, who have no association with the reading circle.”

“Do they really take that much business away from you?” Caitria asked, her cheek planted firmly in her palm as she regarded the older man with narrowed eyes.

“They have a wheel and paint,” Mairin said, setting her knee against the table and rocking her chair back. “Just the two of them make product, and they said they have to take their wares to a kiln and pay to have them fired, which limits what they can produce. I doubt very much they manage to sell more than you.”

“And just who are you?” Orinder demanded, glaring at the two women.

“Friends,” Caitria said.

“Friends with the rats?” he asked, then laughed, ugly and dark. “You’re friends with the rats.”

“Why not?” Tearlach asked quietly.

 Lapis almost groaned; Rin and his timing. He and a mischief of rats swarmed the Eaves, carrying a variety of bags that held cooling food. The group, nearly in unison, glared at the merchant, who returned the favor, and dumped their burdens on the table. The fresh smell of recently-cooked food wafted from them, and she hoped her stomach did not rumble loud enough for anyone to hear. She planned, as she normally did, to allow others to eat their fill, and if enough remained, she would partake. The rats deserved a nice meal every so often, even the ones who did not participate in her reading circle. She noted several of them eagerly eyeing the bags, ready to indulge. Good. A warm meal went a long way on a rainy day.

Dalia bustled out of the kitchen, plate in hand, and looked expectantly at Rin. The rat raised an eyebrow and she sternly glared back, one eye narrowed, her lips pursed. When it came to food, she was nothing if not serious. Sighing heavily, he made a production of reluctantly opening one of the bags, and took out what Lapis thought an excessive amount of skewered food—and all white fish threaded between thick slices of spicy peppers, onions, and buttered bread pieces. Dalia’s delight brightened the storm-darkened interior, and she hummed as she settled herself behind the bar and began to eat.

Dachs eyed her and she squinted at him. “What?” she asked. “There’s no one here to cook for.” She set her hand above her eyes and scanned the crowd, as a sailor scanned the ocean for a bit of land.

He made a face as Ciaran chuckled.

Most of the rats grabbed what they could and carted themselves after Scand and Brone, up the stairs to Rin’s new abode—and she had to smile as she heard the exclamations of surprise and delight, with a bit of jealousy thrown in, when they beheld his prize. Even Dachs grinned. Had he anticipated how Rin planned to use the room, and letting him win became tacit approval for an urchin safe space? Lapis appreciated his kindness, for the Grey Streets did not have so many with a similar heart.

It all took place around Orinder and his bodyguards, who stood like dead tree stumps in the middle of everything, as much in the way and stubbornly rooted. She wanted them to leave—the rats hardly deserved his presence—but she had no idea how to force him without eliciting revenge against the kids.

Ness crawled under the table and stuffed himself between her and Phialla, desperately trying to quell tears while he ate as many skewers as his tummy could handle. Lapis hugged him close; there were times when the rats needed comfort and she was their chosen pillow to cry on. She wished upon Orinder the pain he had brought to every urchin he harmed, because they hardly deserved his animosity and bullishness.

Caitria pulled a bag open and looked inside. “What kinds of skewers are there?” she asked.

“We cleaned ‘m out,” Lykas said as he popped open another bag. “So there’s ones with white fish, shrimp, those funny little lobsters, freshwater fish, bread. There’s a few that are just spicy peppers and bacon.” He smiled at that. “Some are just vegetables.”

Jesi and the Wings scrambled into the Eaves, dripping but laughing. Their humor died as they skidded around Orinder, but returned as they slid a very large, soggy teal box onto the table. They went to Traus’s?

“Oooohhh,” Lyet and Jandra said together.

“You have guests, Lady,” Jesi said. “So we thought we should have dessert, too.”

She popped the lid. The cake inside had not drowned. It remained pristine, with white and blue frosting, dozens of small candy flowers, and sugary decoration. It smelled so sweet and chocolaty, Lapis almost forgot about the skewers. The kids would love it.

Gabby shoved her face into the box and breathed in with pure glee, and Jesi pulled it right back out. “You have to eat your dinner, first,” she scolded. Gabby made a face but retrieved a few skewers while her Blue Council guests looked through the bags and found enough food to stuff themselves, even before the cake.

Gabby remained near Lyet and Jandra, watching the unfamiliar people with a hint of suspicion. “Don’t you want to see the suite?” Lapis asked the girl.

Gabby raised one eyebrow nearly to her hairline. “I’ve already seen it,” she said, pushing out her chest. “Me and Scand and Brone were the first ones in there! Even before Rin, cause he had to open the door.” She waved her hand like a fish swimming. “And we all snuck around him!” She flung her arm wide, nearly decking one of the Wings in the face. “It’s huge!”

Compared to Gabby’s cubby, that was an understatement.

“These are really good,” Caitria said, studying the skewer and covering her mouth as she spoke.

“Spicy,” Mairin choked as she coughed on peppers. Brander smiled and ate far too many of the spicy skewers. He did not look at all adversely effected, by the heat or a tender tummy. He and Patch definitely shared an iron stomach.

“Are you still here?” Ciaran asked Orinder as he, Dachs and Dani wandered over and began to look through the bags.

“You . . . this is what you bought with that money you stole from me?”

Lapis glared at the burgundy-red man, who trembled with something other than cold. “Stole? I staked your stall, Orinder. There was no theft involved. I watched the rats take your best pieces to the guardhouse without breaking one. I watched Jesi give your lockbox to Fyor, so I KNOW you still have the money Dandi made today. And since I bought all this, I definitely know it wasn’t stolen money that purchased it.”

“Really. And where’d you get the money for all this?”

“I am a chaser,” she replied drily.

“And what stake pays this well?” he asked, swinging his arm towards the table, his mouth pulled down into an ugly frown.

“A high stake,” she told him. “And I have guests, so I’m splurging. That’s the Jiy way, isn’t it? Drive yourself into the Stone Streets to show visitors a good time?”

Rin plopped down next to her on the bench, eyeing the older man with undisguised hate. She had no illusions about his resentment, and hoped he proceeded with care the next time he had the opportunity to pick the man. Orinder and kindness did not hold hands. “What’s you doin’ here?” he asked. “Don’t you have someone else t’ bother?”

“You filthy rat.”

“Say what you like, I’s not goin’ t’ stop you,” Rin muttered. “But this here’s a celebration fer us ‘n the Lady’s guests. Don’t recall YOU bein’ invited.”

“That mouth of yours is going to be your end one day,” Orinder promised.

“And yers won’t?” Rin shot back. “Braggin’ up n’ down the streets, ‘bout this here illegal thing and that there showin’ up the guard. You ain’t no sweet yourself. You trapped yerself, and it ain’t gonna end pretty.”

Lapis cast Rin a warning look, and he subsided, unhappy, but willing to play nice. She doubted he would have held his tongue if she did not have guests; she would thank his good will later. He grabbed several skewers, then set them before her. She glared and he smiled before shoving an entire stick’s worth into his mouth.

“It would be very embarrassing, for you to choke to death the day after you so impressively bargained for the suite,” she told him. He bent over and cupped his hands over his mouth as Lyet, Jandra and Dani began to laugh. Lykas grinned widely and made a show of eating one bite-sized morsel after another. Gabby daintily ate two pepper bits, then shoved the rest into her mouth.

“That goes for you, too, Gabby,” Lyet told her. The girl made a face, the chunks of food poking oddly against her cheeks.

“You’ll regret provoking me,” Orinder snarled, desperately drawing attention back to him.

Ciaran looked at him. All three men stepped back, uncomfortable. Lapis knew, from experience, how intimidating Ciaran could be when irritated. She and Neola had experienced it far too often, being young girls and knowing what buttons to push when it came to annoying older brother. He had felt bad enough afterwards he became ‘preoccupied’ while they snuck sweets from his plate without him noticing. She thought of him as gentle and kind, but he had a darker side few transgressed, including his mother.

“And what, exactly, do you plan?” Ciaran asked calmly. No one spoke as Orinder glanced around, as if he just recognized that the man who confronted him might prove a far deadlier opponent than he expected at the Eaves. Few others sat at tables, and those that did happened to be regulars who had no issues with the rats and thought they deserved a nice meal, too. Each one turned back to their drink, uninterested in his silent pleas for help.

She would offer them some of the skewers, once Orinder vacated.

“Well, um . . .”

“Are you such a coward as to target a street urchin for your grandson’s behavior? He was the one waving the knife around.”

“Dandi doesn’t have a knife like you described,” Orinder seethed, pointing at Lapis.

“Fyor said an acting troop had items stolen last night. Looks like Dandi thought that one of their prop daggers was the real deal. Thought he’d look cool, waving it about. Nothing cool, about ending up in the dirt.”

“And you put him there.”

“Yep. And if he attacks Lyet, Ness or Phialla again, he’ll be eating even more dirt. They’re in good standing at the Lells. They haven’t cheated a customer, they haven’t sold shoddy material, and they haven’t destroyed another merchant’s merchandise because they don’t think they can make money otherwise.”

“You’re not going to be hovering over them every moment,” he snapped.

Lapis felt Rin tense at the threat. She nudged his leg with her foot and lounged back, pondering how to proceed and feeling low. She had told the rats that Dandi had not acted with Orinder’s approval, but he had just proven her assumptions false. They trusted so few, and she did not want to lose their faith because she stupidly thought a greedy adult had a conscience. Dachs solved the problem by grabbing the worthless ass by the collar and hauling him about, while his guards remained rooted and watched. The barkeep threw him into the rain; he did not keep his feet and landed in a puddle that had formed in front of the door.

“You threaten people in my place?” he bellowed. “Don’t come back.” He turned sharply on his heel and jerked his thumb; the guards hastened outside and helped the struggling man to his feet. Lapis assumed he glared imaginary daggers at them all, but she hardly cared. If he did attempt a revenge stake against the rats, few would take it seriously; unless murder or grand theft or an heirloom was involved, chasers refused to harm the poorest of the poor because their reputation would fall, headfirst, into the toilet, and the guard would refuse to pay out the stakes to them. Sir Armarandos was very insistent on that, and while he could not stop the revengeful and malicious from staking a rat or a Stone Streets beggar, he could make life miserable for the chaser who took those stakes. It was surprisingly effective. Chasers needed to pay rent and eat, too, and once they were denied a stake because they targeted the paupers, they had a terrible time rebuilding their status to the point the guard would pay them fairly again. Most just quit and found other work.

That did not mean, Orinder had no other options in seeking revenge.

Three money pouches landed in the center of the table. Two, made of typical brown leather, sagged over. The third, a colorful affair of bright stitching and stiff cloth, had so many bits within it, it stood straight.

Lapis stared, blinked, then looked at Brander, who calmly returned to his meal. She had not even realized he had moved from his seat! Yes, he had a typical Grey Streets look of black hair and tanned skin, so he blended well in crowds, but the Eaves was not the Lells! Rin’s mouth dropped open as he beheld them, and Lykas looked faint.

She reached for the heaviest one and upended the contents onto the table; bits poured everywhere, far more than what Orinder needed to prance about the Grey Streets, and of the deep, shimmery colors some merchants collected. Among the very colorful bits a small, square red item with a curved silver button thunked softly onto the tabletop.

The kids had no idea, but every rebel stopped, shocked and appalled—and so did Dachs. How would he know what a trigger looked like?

“What’s that?” Rin asked, reaching for it.

Of course, Rin would reach for it. Caitria snagged it before he managed to touch it.

“It’s something known as a trigger,” she told him. She held the square between her thumb and her index finger. “It was used a hundred years or so ago by the Dentherion army to remotely trigger explosive devices. They didn’t exactly work as expected, either not detonating their target, or doing so too late. The Dentherions gave up on the tech when an army unit in Ramira blew themselves up after the devices didn’t detonate on time and they charged their enemy. They started researching other ways to trigger remote explosions, and the underworld lapped up what they could of the remainder.” She shook her head. “Orinder has dealings with the underground here in Jiy? Where else could he have found this?”

“He has no business, havin’ somethin’ like that,” Dachs said darkly. “Who’s he plannin’ to blow up?”

Not the rats. Explosive tech cost metgals, and if he managed to get one device, he would never waste it on so petty a reason.

Lapis glanced at a troubled Tearlach, then at the barkeep. “Fyor said Sir Armarandos is looking for any information about tech in the streets. Something’s going on, and he’s concerned. I mean, that guttershank last night having a tech weapon, and now this?”

“If Sir Armarandos is concerned, we best be keepin’ our eyes open,” Dachs declared, his large fingers drumming against his waist. “He isn’t one to lead others astray, especially us here in the Grey and Stone Streets.”

“If Orinder is a pottery merchant, how did he get the metgal to buy explosives?” Tearlach asked.

“He sells in the underground,” Rin said. “Always braggin’ ‘bout it, too. He’s richer ‘n he says, we all knows it. That’s why it’s petty n’ cruel, him raggin’ on Phialla n’ Ness n’ Lyet.”

“Are you going to turn him in?” Caitria asked, cocking her head at Lapis.

“Yep. But after I pay a visit to his storage.” She did plan on telling Fyor about the trigger—but if Orinder had access to explosives, she knew an organization that would benefit more from them than the little man.

Brander just smiled, his golden eyes twinkling.

Several people came scurrying in from the rain, and from their fearful expressions, they did not seek shelter in the bar to obtain a warm drink. The locals quieted and looked out the door, then expectantly at the new arrivals.

“Mama’s up and about,” one of them said, his voice squeaking high.

“Mama?” Mairin asked.

“One of them carrion lizards,” Dachs said in a heavy voice. “She’s old. Mothered most of the other ones. My grandda talked about her being around when he was a kid, and he said HIS grandda had tales about her from when he was a kid. When it rains, she gets antsy. If the Pit floods a little, she goes for a walk. She’s too big, and the guards just let her go. She wanders around a bit and gets into garbage here and there. Unless you decide to attack her, she lets you be, and when she decides she’s ready, she goes back to the Pit.” He observed the rain. "Kids musta been too loud, and we missed the warnin' bell."

“Yeah. Jus’ stay inside,” Rin advised. “She don’t care ‘bout humans, but you annoys ‘er, she runs faster n’ you think. She bowls you over, kills you, ‘n eats you in the street. If she just scratches you, you can die pretty quick after.”

“Some call her Mama Poison,” Brander told them. “But most just refer to her as Mama. The bacteria she carries on her claws is very potent and proves deadly in a few hours if left untreated.”

“We’ve heard about a large lizard in Jiy, but it seemed fantastical,” Mairin said. “Like an urban fairy tale. I mean, a house-sized animal roaming the streets and eating people?”

“No, Mama’s real, but not the deadly, oversized menace some want her to be.” Lapis sank into the seating. “Make yourselves comfortable; it’s best, just to wait her out. She’s normally placid, but no one wants to encounter her if something upsets her and she decides to be more aggressive.”

A few more people scurried inside just before the acrid smell of carrion lizard filtered through the air.

The animal slowly waddled past the tavern, giving the Blue Council members a good look at the largest carrion lizard who lived in Jiy. Mama was squat, like the other lizards, but her shoulders topped a wagon’s side. From the tip of her dull green nose to the end of her muddy brown tail, she took up half a block. Her finger-length claws sank into the mud, leaving behind large enough footprints to create puddles. She paused and slowly turned her flat head to stare inside the bar, flicking her long, forked blue tongue; Dachs huffed over and slammed it shut. No doubt she had smelled the food, and hopefully she did not decide she needed to eat it. Lapis had heard tales of her breaking walls down to get to food, but they all were second-hand accounts that turned too gory too quickly for her to take seriously.

Brander looked at Lapis. She raised an eyebrow; she did not think Orinder had made it home before he realized Mama walked about, and Lapis could not picture him bravely storming past her to reach it. He likely hid in some eatery or tavern—which gave them a chance to visit his abode and nose about without him being present. They nodded slightly at each other, in agreement.

“Scand says he’s Raban,” Rin said under his breath, and she heard the resentment in his voice.

“Yes. One of Chinder’s first apprentices.”

Rin squinted at her. “You know him.”

“I do. And he isn’t exactly forthcoming with is identity,” she told him. “It’s an honor for him to have told Scand.”

Rin did not like the thought, but he did not pursue it, either. It made her suspicious, but she still wrestled with how to explain Brander to the street rats without revealing his—and her—association with the rebels.

The rats knew, she hated the rebellion. They had formed their own conclusions based upon her negative assessments when one of them pondered joining for a little too long. In truth, she did not want them involved with an organization under Baldur’s control, because his concern only included bits and silvers, not people. Brander and Sherridan could only mitigate so much damage, and considering an urchin’s origins, Baldur would never find them of enough interest to care whether they lived or died in rebel service. If they thought that hate, fine. It kept them focused on a future, rather than becoming a carrion lizard’s snack.

Fear permeated the air, which annoyed Lapis. While the Grey and Stone Streets needed to show caution around Mama, those who lived there knew very well she was not a monster hunting her next meal. She was an old woman who enjoyed going for walks because she disliked wading about in knee-deep water during rainstorms. To quell unease and get their attention on something else, Lapis swung her arm at the bags.

“Whoever’s hungry can have some skewers.”

The new arrivals glanced at one another as the regulars grinned and accepted. Hesitant, a few joined, and when the remainder realized her offer was sincere, they also indulged in skewers. The majority then ordered warm drinks from Dachs, a way to comfort themselves while they washed down the food. Dani hurried into the kitchen to complete the orders while Dalia remained at the bar, chatting gaily at whoever wanted to talk. Her upbeat take soothed the fright in many.

The mischief returned downstairs for cake, shocking more than a couple of customers, and Jesi busily supplied them with the sweet on a square napkin. She made certain Lapis’s guests had pieces, then slid a small slice of cake and a very big candy flower to her. “Lady, I don’t think there’s going to be any cake left.”

“That’s all right.” She jerked her chin at the rats. “Mama’s up and about,” she told them. “Keep in Rin’s room for a while, at least until it stops raining and she heads back to the Pit.”

“Thanks fer invitin’ ‘em in,” Rin grumbled. She bumped his shoulder with her own, grinning at his exasperation.

“Like you’re going to be there,” she reminded him. “You’re going to snuggle up in my bed because my blanket’s warm, and no amount of rolling you onto the floor is going to make you let go of it.”

Rin blushed at the teasing while the rats grinned widely. Gabby licked her plate clean before running into the pottery room and returning with a large book. The knight book. Ciaran took one look and began to laugh.

“What?” she asked defensively, holding it tightly to her chest.

“That’s probably Lanth’s favorite story of all time,” he told her.

Gabby’s eyes bulged. “Really?”

“Her older brother read it to her for three years straight. He . . . lost it, unfortunately.”

“You lost it, too,” Lapis reminded him.

“Yeah, I was smarter than he was and lost it before I started having dreams about reading it to Neola.”

Everyone laughed at her expression before Gabby scooted past Lyet and plopped herself next to Rin, grinning widely.

“I ain’t your older brother,” he told her grumpily.

“Nope, but you’re the closest thing we have,” she told him. Lyet and Jandra almost choked laughing, as she opened the book and nearly plopped it in his cake. Rin rescued it with exaggerated care as she stuck her finger under the first word of the chapter and began to read.

Lapis sloshed with Brander through the dark, drenched and empty streets, wrapped tightly in her cloak and armed with the special gauntlets that Patch had given her. They were gold-washed black leather, whose prettiness concealed weapons. Throwing knives rested along the bottom and she could pop them into her palm by pressing a hidden button on the flat side of her hand. On the top a gold-coated, thin metal plate sheathed two larger blades, each released by a flat lever on the side. She had specific chaser gauntlets that held light, thin throwing knives, but that night, she felt safer wearing the better constructed, deadlier ones.

Brander tugged his cloak’s hood down lower. He wore one of hers, though his primary motivation for borrowing it was to hide his face rather than as protection from the rain. She did not have appropriate attire for the Blue Council members, so they reluctantly sat out this mission. She knew the rats would keep them entertained, and since Ciaran knew Dachs, that added another level of trust for them to ponder when it came to the unfamiliar four.

Where had Ciaran met Dachs? How long had they known one another? She did not think Ciaran had visited Jiy since she had moved there, and Dachs had been a staple presence that whole time. She worried at her puzzlement, but knew any answer lay with the two men.

Brander led her towards the nicest neighborhood in the Grey Streets, the Gardens. The Gardens housed the wealthiest of the Grey Streets and had a few down-on-their-luck Orchards merchants. Her rats considered it a high-class area, which she privately laughed about; she knew what wealthy city neighborhoods looked and felt like, and the Gardens did not qualify. The homes were nice but not large mansions with pillars and gardens and fountains, cared for but not hidden behind tall bars of unwelcoming wrought iron. They had wooden plaques dangling from short wooden poles that had the resident’s name burned into the surface rather than coats-of-arms draped over stone walls that loudly proclaimed the lineage of the family that lived there. The streets were not cobbled, nor did they have a light at every corner and a scattering of poles in between. They lacked well-maintained flower bushes that attempted to drown the nastier smells that came with city living.

They also did not have very bored guards standing near the entry gates to the estates, tasked with screaming at passers-by and demanding to know why a chaser walked their pristine ways.

She did not know their destination, but Brander walked straight to Brownleaf Street and five doors down on the left, as if he had visited previously. Their target was a double-story home with a brick base and dark brown wood crisscrossing white walls on the upper story. The roof tiles were thin sheets of ceramic, an upgrade from the wood most of its neighbors sported. A large, night-shrouded log shed sat to the right side, with a walkway leading to it from the street. Only one lantern illuminated the exterior, and it sat above the front door, desperately trying to cast its rays wide but failing to breach the rain past the awning. The interior blazed bright, leaking soft yellow around the curtains, but even that did not reach beyond the glass windows.

“Sherridan’s been watching Orinder for a while,” Brander told her in a voice barely above a whisper. “His name kept coming up in conjunction with the alchemist Hoyt hired.”

“The alchemist?” Lapis asked in disbelief.

“Not in relation to the poisonings, but his weapon,” Brander said. “No one knew where he got it, or even what it looked like, so Sherridan got curious. None of the typical tech sellers knew anything about it, and they had decided the alchemist lied about the weapon to keep people from exacting revenge on him. Common citizens are frightened by the mere mention of tech, so that, on the surface, seemed like a decent strategy. Something scratched Sherridan wrong about it, though, and he nosed about the less reputable merchants. They were really reluctant to speak of it, but a couple said Orinder was the contact who found it for him.”

“I never would have guessed.” True, rumor had it that Orinder dealt with the underground, and Rin had even mentioned it during the confrontation without pushback, but being a tech merchant? The man had always seemed too soft and self-important to place himself in danger that way. If law enforcement officials found out about his dealings, he did not have enough good will or money to buy his way out of punishment. He would be executed, like so many idiots before him.

“It’s hush-hush because he has some sort of deal with Hoyt that Hoyt wants kept secret. If he has tech like triggers, he probably is the one who got the alchemist his weapon.”

Lapis snarled to herself. No wonder he decided to confront the rats. He thought himself untouchable because of Hoyt. “Well, the alchemist’s weapon was a dud.”

Brander glanced at her. “And how do you know that?”

“I turned in his stake.”

It took a moment for him to digest the news. “You caught Hoyt’s alchemist?”

“Yep. Through stupid luck. He went out-city to stay with one of Hoyt’s men, who happened to be my stake. They got into an argument, and the alchemist used his tech weapon on him. It didn’t work after that, and he couldn’t figure out how to fix it. I stayed hidden, he went to sleep, and I knocked him out with sleeping oil to the nose and mouth. I carted both of them to the nearest guard station and got a bag of silver for the effort.”

She could tell, he was impressed. “So the threat of tech might not be such a threat?”

“It depends. The guttershank last night was a threat.”

The thief snarled. “What a waste,” he muttered. “So drugged up he couldn’t see straight. It’s odd, though. Someone like him having working tech, while the alchemist, someone who Hoyt likes and exploits, doesn’t.” He jerked his chin to the shed. “Come on.”

He led the way to the back of the house. While light blazed in the front, the back only had a single room with a fluttering candle on the second story. Not even a lantern hung above the door to illuminate the ample yard. Good. The lack of light, coupled with a rain-darkened night, would keep their movement hidden. Brander popped the back-gate’s lock before Lapis even realized he had decided to pick it, and cautiously swung it open. He closed it behind her, and they padded to the storage shed—the obvious first place to look.

“For what I anticipate is a lot of hidden tech, his defenses are worthless,” he grumbled.

“Especially since the punishment for having forbidden tech is so harsh.”

“Maybe he thinks Hoyt’s reputation keeps him safe. Hoyt’s been making a power grab, and once-independent underground merchants are now under his wing. It’s made getting stuff for the rebellion a lot harder.”

“What about the Minq Syndicate?”

“They haven’t done anything—yet. They might just have a turf battle on their hands they aren’t anticipating, by underestimating Hoyt. They think he’s a two-time bumpkin. He is, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been dabbling here and there in more dangerous smuggling ventures.”

“Just what Jiy needs.”

“Yeah.”

They carefully crept about the shed. It had a window, high up and out of easy reach for both of them, and only one door at the front. Brander slipped his special gloves that had tiny spikes in the tips from his pouch, unfolded and put them on, then climbed the walls, surprisingly easy to do with help from the curve of the logs. He peered inside but jumped back down quick enough.

“Too dark,” he said. “The lack of light means there’s no one in there, though.”

“Good for us,” Lapis replied.

“I’ll get the lock and go in first.”

Watching him brush the lock, have it pop immediately, and then slip inside, Lapis admitted her jealousy. He was clean and efficient, on a job with no planning. She carefully outlined her stakes, did recon on them for days, formed plans based on her observations, and carried them out. It took her far longer to complete a stake than typical, though she thought she had fewer failures because of it. Still, to decide to invade a shed and just do it . . .

She scurried after him and made it inside without anyone the wiser. She silently thanked Mama Poison for taking a walk, since the streets remained conveniently empty due to her presence.

Crates filled the space, stacked to the ceiling, which made inspecting them difficult. A rain-darkened night did not have enough ambient light to illuminate anything inside without aid. A dull, musty odor fille the air, but she did not have the sense of heavy dust that would accompany it. Brander closed the door, and it took long moments before her sight adjusted. She noticed a square glow of light in the floor at the end of the walkway; a trapdoor. Since the shed sheltered the place where older habitations normally had cellar entrances, a large storage room likely sat below.

Brander set his ear against the door. Lapis waited, and he shook his head before digging his fingers into the edges of it and pulling up. She grabbed the other side after it peeked up and they lifted it, paused, heard nothing, and settled the door back against the wall.

Two lanterns were nailed to beams and held short candles, which dimly illuminated the room. It contained more crates neatly lined against the earthen walls, all without a merchant’s mark. None had collected dust, so Lapis assumed them recent acquisitions. Two desks sat in one corner, one with paperwork, the other clean. She shuffled through the pages while Brander inspected the crates. They held records of transaction, but the merchandise was coded. The monetary amounts made her eyes pop; metgals of product, which, she guessed, meant whatever Orinder sold, it was illegal weapons tech. Even medical supplies did not bring those kinds of numbers.

“Lapis,” Brander called softly, in an anxious voice.

He held open the top of a crate. Inside lay dozens of tarnished egg-shaped explosive devices, the kind designed to link to triggers. Lapis reached for one; Brander hissed, but she ignored him. She clicked the top, which did not look like a button but behaved as one, and it opened like a book. One side contained a metal sheet screwed into place over it, the other a series of colored wires that started in neat rows lining the curved side and ended in small metal squares that covered the bottom.

She smiled and pointed at the jumbled mess. “This is inert,” she told him. “The arming wires are gone.”

He stared at her intently, and she cleared her throat. “I picked up my first egg at three,” she told him. “It was an accident. My father had a fit from the earth to the sun and back. He took my siblings and I aside, gathered the neighbors’ kids, and showed us how to disarm them.” She laughed softly. “You see, Dentherion generals have always thought their soldiers were stupid. They decided that for the common fighter to properly employ something like this, the tech had to be dumbed down and very simple.” She counted the squares, starting at the top, moving to the arming ones and then pausing on the three that no longer had wires. “These three squares are the arming squares. The wires that go into them look like the others but they contain a special metal. The special metal sparks the explosion when the trigger is activated. If they don’t have all the special wires in the correct places, they won’t explode. To make it simple to place them and then disarm them, the count of metal squares inside the eggs is exactly the same for each one. Down three, arm, over one to the right, down five, arm, over two to the left, and up four, arm. Simple, easy to remember.”

“They made them that easy to disarm.”

“Yeah. They wanted to recycle them if they weren’t used, and once linked to a trigger, the only way to disarm an egg was to unplug the wires to reset them. There's a device used to link the wires to a specific trigger, but apparently it didn't unlink them.” She shrugged. “Like Caitria said, they stopped making these one hundred years ago because they didn’t work as expected. Truthfully, I always thought it was a stupid way to use tech. I'm betting so many didn't explode because having all that extra wiring was confusing and people placed the wrong wires in the right places. I’m hardly an expert like Dentherion engineers, though, to know what's best.”

She thought Brander found a bit too much amusement in her statement.

She swept her arm about. “While I suppose these could have survived the century, I doubt it. And it seems odd, to have so many in Jilvayna when they were primarily used in Ramira, Hestora and Tavyk.” She lifted an egg. “I’m betting these are modern fakes. Whether Orinder knows that or not, I couldn’t say.” She shook the object but the weight on the closed side did not seem right, and she did not hear anything rattling about. “Usually these have metal bits with exploding powder in the closed side. It doesn’t feel or sound like they do.”

“If he’s selling duds to Hoyt, he’s going to regret that. If he’s selling duds to others with Hoyt’s blessing, I wonder who their buyer is. I know it’s not the Jiy rebels.”

“It’s someone who thinks all tech is viable and has metgal to burn. The ledgers list metgal payments.”

“So probably some bored noble.”

“That would be my guess. If Caitria’s right, and Gall’s not in favor with Dentheria like he once was and they’ve cut off his tech supply, some of his people might be getting a bit antsy. It would make sense for them to look elsewhere for devices.” She studied the crate and its contents. “You know, it wouldn’t matter if they are modern fakes. As long as they scare enough people, they’ll be effective. They don’t have to detonate; they just have to be seen by others who consider them a threat.”

“Like what happened at the Eaves.”

“Yeah. The average Jilvaynian won’t have enough experience with tech to tell how dangerous something is. It wasn’t that long ago that Gall executed citizens by lobing explosives at them or shooting them with Dentherion weapons. It was gruesome and terrifying, and that’s what everyone expects of it.”

She popped a few more eggs open, and each one had missing arming wires. One had a wire in a single arming square, but she decided whoever wired it chose that square by random chance. Eventually, given enough eggs, one would randomly place the wires in the correct place, but even then, those wires had to be the special ones, because those were the ones that linked to a trigger. She did not see a single linking device, which had a long handle with red buttons and a circular, dark green screen that displayed bright green numbers. Did Orinder realize his customers needed one?

The thief nosed about the back while she inspected the crates whose lids she could easily lift. Odd knicks and knacks filled some of the others, things that looked like they might be some sort of tech, but which she could not identify as such. Round balls with obvious color layers, a few discs with a heavy bottom and blank faces held in place by a raised metal lip, several square and rectangular glass objects framed by a thin shiny black substance and containing tiny switches on the back. Other than the eggs, she would not consider any of it weapons tech. She found nothing that resembled the weapons the alchemist or the guttershank had possessed either, but that might simply mean she had not looked through the right boxes.

Brander returned, his hands stuffed in his pockets. “There’s a short tunnel that leads to a sewer grate,” he told her.

She stared, unamused. “You mean, he really has an escape route into the sewers?”

“The Garden’s sewers aren’t near as contaminated as the Grey or Stone Streets. If it’s not raining, they’re safe enough.”

“It’s raining,” she reminded him.

“That’s probably how he got so many unmarked crates in here without the guard any wiser. There are several hidden grates around the Gardens, where the city tried to hide evidence of such unseemly things. Use them during the right time of day, and no one would be the wiser about your activities.”

They heard a soft bang from the door on the upper floor. Lapis whirled around but did not see a ready hiding place. Brander caught her hand and pulled her to the tunnel, far enough inside the light did not readily penetrate. Feeling exposed and frightened, she pushed the levers on the sides her gauntlets; the two long blades slid from their leather nest on the backs. Brander eyed them, then returned to the room expectantly. He had to have a weapon on him, but she would fight to protect both of them if she had to. A thrown dagger, then a follow-up with the blades. Hopefully it was a guard they could bribe to look the other way as they escaped, and neither act would be necessary.

Hopefully.


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