Ugly sludge and darkness filled her.
Her nightmares burst into life, her shock a platform for the crushing memories of Perben the traitor slicing her little brother’s neck with his giant sword, of the soldier smashing Neola’s face in with his mace. She gasped, swallowed air, fought not to puke. Not in front of the rats. Weakness in the Grey Streets was met with disgust and meant death.
She clutched the glass she held, something ceramic; it shattered, and she stared at the minute cuts and blood running with water before someone wrapped a towel about her hand. A clean towel.
A soothing smoothness laced Faelan’s tone, with an underlying fury he could not quite quell. She squeezed the towel and the envelope still clutched in her left hand. She slammed it down onto the bench next to her and mentally screamed her rage and sick pain.
The memories shattered her peace. She needed to concentrate on something else, like what terrible thing must have happened the night before, because why else would Sir Armarandos demanded she meet with Fyor? That trouble would keep her occupied, until she could find a secluded place to hide.
“We need to get to the guardhouse.”
“Not lookin’ like that you ain’t,” Rinan told her.
“GO AWAY YOU STUPID RAT,” she screamed. Heat filled her face, her neck, exploded behind her eyes and she could barely see through the tears. He pursed his lips at her, exceedingly unimpressed, his stubborn streak rising, defiant, as his green eyes flashed.
“You knows I won’t. I’s the Lady’s man, even when you don’t think it,” he reminded her.”
She heard running footsteps and Lyet and Scand skidded to a stop; she had not realized they had left. What was wrong with her?
Lyet imperiously held out a damp cloth. She accepted it; cool, soaked with water. She wiped at her face, then swiped the remaining blood on her palm away, uncertain which way her emotions would now fall. She had not had a break like that since leaving Coriy, and she despised she succumbed to one in front of a brother she no longer knew and the rats. What must they think of her?
She finally raised her head and glanced about. They had squeezed into a small half-circle set in the old city wall, which had once housed a gazebo. Broken columns stood sentry to the cracked benches, the once-white stone a dingy, muddy grey, like everything else in the Grey Streets. Few bothered with the wall sections of the district unless they had some illegal business to conduct, so the average resident would never know her soul reflected the condition of the stone on which she sat.
“We may wish to postpone this meeting.”
She glanced at Faelan, then shook her head. “No. It must be important, if Fyor’s sending the rats to find me. More important than . . . this.”
At least they kept their outrage to themselves.
She scrubbed her lower arm across her face to erase the tingling clean left behind and rose, handing the wet cloth to Lyet before she snagged the crinkled envelope. She doubted a lengthy stop would help her state, and the quicker she met with the guard, the quicker she could sequester herself in some small, secluded place and truly vent. Or die of shame; she had yet to decide.
She led, which suited her. No one spoke, which also suited her, though she anticipated Faelan and the rats cast each other looks as she hastened across the roads and proceeded to the guardhouse with far more speed than necessary. The quicker she met with Fyor, the quicker she could leave and . . . and do what? Ponder her mistakes?
She never anticipated renewing her relationship with her older brother, never thought he would ever encounter the street rats, and she had no plan how to handle that, the questions from both sides, or the shattering of her carefully constructed city life. She did not want to see the distrust in the rats’ eyes because she had not been completely truthful about her past with them—at least, the little peek of the past she let them see. She did not want to see the same in Faelan’s, because while she had known he lived, he had spent at least part of the last eight years believing her dead. He knew she had not even attempted to search him out, and while he hid it, her distrust had to hurt.
Lapis pulled her hood further down, keeping her wretched state hidden from the casual viewer as the five of them walked into the Lells Guardhouse yard. More guards than usual bustled about, and she noted very few traders. Not a good sign. Dread twisted her stomach as she headed into the brown-stained interior. She did not immediately see Fyor, but one of the other guards she often returned stakes to noticed them and waved down the right hallway. She whispered her thanks, which he accepted with a smile while he watched a ‘keeper fill out a form with a slow, methodical hand, and headed down the way.
Maybe she should make Rin do ‘keeping for her. A random thought, but she welcomed the distraction. Her stakes rarely held trouble, and if she could make him fill out the completed stake forms while she returned to the Eaves, had a late meal, and listened to kids read, she should. He’d earn a few bits without pickpocketing, so a win, all around.
Fyor sat in an office to the very back, door open, listening with an overly-polite expression to a merchant who had very loud opinions about the guttershank who stole his moneybox early that morning. His dark brown hair was slicked back instead of styled, and grey tinged the skin under his soft brown eyes; had he managed to get any sleep the night before? He glanced at them and nodded before leaning over the table and sliding a stake sheet to the excited man.
“Fill this out and return it to Guardsman Wrainven at the front.”
“But—” the merchant protested, surprised at the abrupt end of their talk.
“I have other business, I’m afraid.” Fyor rose and motioned to them; he led them back through the foyer and to a small, dark hallway that led straight back from the front door. At the end was a stout, hardwood door with a single sconce lighting its dark brown paint. He opened and held it while they all slipped inside. “Thank you for coming at such short notice.”
“You were lucky,” Lapis told him. “Rin caught me out and about. What’s up?” Her voice sounded a little raw, but not far off normal. Fyor flicked his gaze to Faelan, the single person he did not know, and she withheld a little sigh. “Guard Superior Fyor, please meet my brother. He's a partner with my other unexpected visitors.” He looked surprised and she took advantage. “Yeah, it was a shock for me, too.”
He nodded then looked pointedly at the rats. “I appreciate your quick action, but this is between myself and the Lady.”
Scand sighed mightily. Rin glared and looked to protest, glanced at Lyet, then smashed his lips together and retreated out the door, casting Lapis a worried look before he moved beyond the jamb. Lyet ushered Scand out, and both reflected Rin’s concern. Before Fyor managed to do more than stare at her brother, suspicious, the man she had met the night before, Sir Armarandos’ father, bustled in. He wore a sleek grey raincoat and a fine black jacket and pant beneath, common business meeting attire among the gentry, though his snowy hair waved softly about his head, an attempt to undermine the stern look. He glanced at her, his crisp grey intent, no-nonsense, before he stopped in shock.
“Faelan, my boy!” he cried.
He knew Faelan. He knew Faelan?
“Lord Adrastos,” Faelan said, shaking his hand, smiling his charming half-smile. While she had not spoken to her brother in eight years, she knew when he trusted someone, and his movement, his tone, indicated he held the man in deep respect and confidence.
Fyor closed the door, not bothering to hide his own surprise.
“Figured you’d be around, when I saw your sister,” Lord Adrastos told him.
“I didn’t know she had survived,” Faelan told him.
“Shock for you, too, then.” He nodded and helped himself to one of the chairs. Lapis took that as an invitation to sit. “But seeing Iolanthe in her eyes, I knew.”
“Do I look that much like my mother?” She had to ask.
“Yes,” came the chorus.
“You’re the one who wanted to speak to Lanth?” Faelan asked as he, too, found a seat. Fyor chose the one behind the single desk in the room.
“Yes,” Lord Adrastos admitted. “Though the guard’s interested as well. It’s good, that you’re here. Saves me a trip.”
A trip? Was she correct, then, in assuming Sir Armarandos’ father had a rebel name? Who might he be?
“When I got back from the hullabaloo last night, a contact had left a message with my wife. It made the obvious connection between Hoyt and Nevid. Nevid’s the guard who started all this,” he said, waving his hand and looking at Faelan. Fyor appeared to want to interrupt but thought better of it. She had the impression that Lord Adrastos was not a man to contradict, but the guard obviously squirmed in curiosity over the stranger the elder immediately welcomed and took into confidence. “But he had another bit. He said that a chaser named Aethon had upset Hoyt by interfering in some stake or other that another chaser, Predi, was supposed to complete. It was an important stake, something to do with tech, and they wanted payback. After some digging, someone supplied them a name, and told them his partner was Lady Lanth. So they decided to go after Lanth, here,” and he indicated her.
Lapis blinked. “But . . . I don’t know anyone named Aethon.” She had never encountered another chaser named Aethon, though plenty of out-city ones came and went on stakes without her meeting them. One of them had likely followed his stake, succeeded in acquiring it, upset Predi, and left. She wondered if he was part of the last incident that forced the confrontation between him and Patch. But why did they assume she was this Aethon’s partner?
Fyor raised an eyebrow. “Not your partner?”
She shook her head, the dread growing. Someone had targeted her for the actions of another, someone she did not know, had never met, and may end up dying for. “No,” she whispered. “My partner did have a couple of not-good-for-Predi encounters, but he’s not called Aethon. I don’t know any chaser named Aethon. A lot of chasers don’t really like hunters, so it could be, that someone from out-city came in and they had a spat. I don’t know why they’d link us, though.”
Fyor nodded and sighed. “I don’t recall any chaser named Aethon working in the city, though I don’t know all the out-city ones.” He leaned on his elbows, pressed his fingertips together, and tapped his index fingers against his lips. “It may be, someone decided to try their hand at chasing, had a terrible experience, and dropped out of it. But that doesn’t explain how you got linked to him.”
She shook her head again. “I don’t know. I’ve never worked with someone named Aethon. I’m either on my own or in the company of my partner. I usually only see other chasers when I’m turning in a stake, and they ignore me. I’ve never competed with anyone for a stake, either. I choose the ones others don’t seem interested in completing.”
“I know,” the guard told her. “You do important work for little reward. Many of us respect that. It’s why we’re puzzled, why Hoyt wants to make you a target. Lady, you may not think so, but the Grey Streets respects you, not just for bringing justice to those of little means, but because you do what you can to help the street rats. How you managed to shift Rin from sullen and angry to productive teen is extraordinary.”
“I didn’t have much to do with that, Superior Fyor. Rin managed it on his own.”
“Perhaps so, but he watched a woman he respected walk a different path from the normal Grey Streets way,” Fyor replied. “You are a beacon to others because you’ve shown that one can succeed without falling into the underground trap, and that kindness and charity aren’t liabilities. Hoyt’s misunderstood your support, if he thinks he can target you and reap no repercussions. And maybe he, personally, will not, but his men certainly will. It won’t just be your rats seeking revenge on bit shanks, either. This has the potential to backfire and target anyone who works for Hoyt. That, in turn, would harm his ability to hire men and make him vulnerable against other underbosses. He normally doesn’t take chances like that. What’s prompted him to do so in this case is unclear and worrisome.”
He could say that.
She sank back. She rarely took the stakes of well-known criminals because of the potential backlash against her reading circle if she screwed it up. While she had helped Patch on a few more dangerous rebel-related outings, when on her own, she kept to the small-time, safer stakes that paid a few bits, and which rarely attracted attention from the underground. If Hoyt had staked her, then the chaser would probably go after the rats as a way to demoralize her, make her susceptible to attack. How was she going to keep them safe?
If she told the rats, they would shrug. All of them, at one point, had entertained the bad graces of a guttershank, and they turned fleeing into an artform. They would consider themselves up to the task of outwitting and outrunning Hoyt’s people, and while they avoided the common shank, Hoyt had access to far more dangerous individuals who would not care about their tender years, only about completing their stake.
“I know you’re worried,” Lord Adrastos said. “So’s my son. But,” and he held up his index finger, “this gives me the opportunity to go chat with some of the underbosses I know. It’s not well-known, but the syndicates hate Hoyt. They feel he draws unwanted attention to their activities by being loud, obnoxious, and stupid. If something happened to you, they’ll have to do some unpalatable hiding because it gives the guard a reason to hunt down and clean out the villains. The knight superiors will promote it because they’ll see it as a way to regain lost influence and respect, and my son is certainly a law-oriented man. It’s in their interest to remind Hoyt that they don’t appreciate this kind of revenge. It may not scare Hoyt, but it will scare anyone he sends after you, hunters included.”
“How would it scare a hunter?” she whispered.
“Most rely on more than one syndicate for income,” he replied. “If the only underboss hiring them is Hoyt, they won’t be making much money because he doesn’t have the funds to pay for the really big stakes—and hunters enjoy the silvers. They’re not going to want to lose their comfy homes in the Orchards or the Kells, and if the syndicates tell them they won’t pay out to anyone who touches you, the hunters will stay clear. Never underestimate what greed will accomplish.”
That did not make her feel safer.
“When are you going to have these chats?” Faelan asked, settling his chin in his palm.
“Today, some tomorrow. The underbosses are curious as to why I want a formal meeting. I’ll spin it as me showing them good will, which they will understand and accept. I’ll expect something in return for the info, but I always call in what’s owed at later dates, and nothing that ever inconveniences them. Last time, I had the Minq get me Rulen apple seeds. Underboss just shook his head as he handed over the packets.”
“Apple seeds?” Faelan asked, amused. “Don’t you have enough apples in your orchard?”
He laughed. “Never,” he denied. “Some of my citrus died, so I had space. They contracted that fungus that took out several of the groves southeast of Jiy. I got the fungus under control, but not before it killed a few of the trees.” He pursed his lips. “That was another favor, asking for Dentherion chemicals to kill it. Persistent and deadly, that fungus. We had a light winter, and it seems it wasn’t eradicated by the deep cold, like normal. It wasn’t pretty.”
Lapis inwardly fumed. Why not chit-chat about apples and citrus while her life was a target? Even if Lord Adrastos met with the underbosses, between now and whenever they decided to issue decrees, she and the rats remained in danger. She could hide at the rebel house, but the urchins did not have that option.
“Sir Armarandos’s urchin ban is still in place,” Fyor reminded them. “No chaser will receive another payment for a stake from the guard if they target the street rats. They’ll either have to give up the profession or look to the underground for work—and if Lord Adrastos convinces the underbosses that targeting you is not in their best interest, they won’t find stakes there, either.”
Money. The world did revolve around recompense.
“I need to get the word spread to the rats,” Lapis said. “I’m not certain I can convince them it’s more than a game.”
“They band together in times of need.” Fyor sat back and settled his hands, palms down, on the desk. “It should only be for a few days.”
Lapis stared at Fyor, a sudden dread prickling her shoulder blades. “Do you think that guttershank and his partner, the ones from the Eaves we took down a couple of days ago, had anything to do with this stake?”
“I . . . don’t know. I don’t think so, but we haven’t gotten an answer from either about why they were chasing street rats in the first place.”
Dammit. “Superior Fyor, is there anything else?”
He shook his head. “No. How may I contact you, if more information comes to light?”
“Leave it with the rats, like you did this time. I have a reason to check with them instead of just focusing on my stake.” She glanced at the old man as she rose, then bowed, a small, perfunctory action that indicated respect but not overwhelming awe. The envelope in her hand crinkled loudly, reminding her that it existed, and she needed to give it to Fyor. “Thank you, Lord Adrastos, for taking the time to help someone you don’t know. You’re doing me a favor.”
He waved his hand, as he, too, rose. “A favor, eh? Well, I’m certain I can find some way for you to return it.”
She smiled at that. She had doubted, he would understand the Grey and Stone Streets way of bartering for services, but he obviously had some familiarity with it. She held the envelope to Fyor, who took it with raised eyebrows.
“This is a copy of the papers Predi had,” she told him. “They’re addresses and don’t seem to have anything in common.”
He opened the envelope and scanned the contents as Faelan gained his feet. The elder patted him on the arm, a warmly affectionate touch. “Now that you’re here, I expect you’ll accept a dinner invitation. Nerine will love to see you.”
“I’ll be in touch. It may not be within the next few days, but soon.”
He nodded. “Of course. Might pull Krios out of his shell, too. He’s been far too secluded, these past few years.”
Fyor raised an eyebrow and Lapis had a nervous twinge. If Faelan knew she survived, Midir would find out sooner rather than later, and would want to see her again. Varr would be on his heels. Varr, more than Faelan, would be incredibly hurt by her secrecy, and she anxiously anticipated his anger.
Lapis half-expected the rats to be waiting for them in the yard, but the three had vacated. Good. She had yet to take the time to think about explanations and assumptions, or how she might keep her eyes dry and her heart steady when she spoke of Faelan’s survival—and how the rest of her family was truly dead. No miracle would return them to the living.
Neither spoke until they had left the yard and wandered down a sparsely populated street that led to the Lells. “You know Sir Armarandos’ father.” She could not tell whether she sounded resentful or curious.
He laughed under his breath. “He’s Grumpy Garden Man.”
Lapis stopped. “What?”
Her mother had loved telling that story. She had loved describing how she and Lady Thyra had donned mottled clothing and snuck into the sweet-smelling mini-orchard of the grumpiest man at court, clambering over the rather short stone wall and walking among the fresh-smelling fruit and wet soil. They helped themselves to the best pieces, then clambered back over the wall. Grumpy Garden Man had not found the theft amusing, and stormed about court, looking for the culprits. So she and Lady Thyra had continued to sneak in, take their fill of fruit, and sneak back out, just to tweak his irritation.
In response, he laid a trap. A well-implemented one, with a large net hidden by soft soil, meant to capture anyone who walked on it and keep them hanging from a tree until the morn. He had eagerly hidden behind some bushes, beyond ready to catch the thieves, but her mother noted something odd about the displaced soil on that path and they avoided it. Furious, Grumpy Garden Man took off after them—and caught himself in his net. He had hung upside down throughout the night, shrieking into the wind. No one in his mansion heard him, and it was not until morning, when his concerned wife went looking for him, that she discovered what had happened. She had laughed so hard at her disheveled husband, she could barely tell the mansion staff that he needed help.
Lapis had always had the image of a middle-aged, greying man flailing about upside down and screaming like a ghost with a grudge. She tried to reconcile the two impressions and floundered.
“Mother would take me and Anthea to visit every once in a while. He might have been furious at the time, but he also claimed that she and Lady Thyra would liven up the dullest day. He enjoyed their company. He was heartbroken when she died.” He glanced at her. “Don’t underestimate his want for revenge, either. His hatred for Gall has had eight years of growth in very fertile soil.”
She nodded. “What’s his rebel name?”
“Riaghan. He doesn’t use it much, though. I almost think, he’s daring Gall to come after him.”
She had not heard of Riaghan, and she wondered how many in the Jiy House even knew he existed. Belatedly, she pushed her feet into motion, and paid more attention to her surroundings. Faelan kept her step, glancing about at the people hustling on their own errands. All seemed typical Grey Streets residents, and no one struck her as a guttershank or a chaser.
“How fast will the word spread among the urchins?” Faelan asked.
“Fast. It always does, if they’re in danger.”
He nodded. “Patch has mentioned Hoyt a few times. He finds him an ugly stain on Jiy but hasn’t yet had the opportunity to dispatch him. He will now.”
“Will he?” she whispered.
Faelan regarded her steadily, then studied the street about them. “Since you're involved, yes. We must speak of Aethon, but not here.”
He knew who this Aethon was, then, which meant he was a rebel. Whose city name was Aethon? Rebels kept their identities secret for a reason, and she never pushed for revelations on what they preferred to keep hidden, and she expected the same in return. She supposed that explained her surprise that Brander so readily broke his silence, especially since he would prove an exceptionally valuable stake.
If Faelan knew them, it had to be someone who did missions outside the city, which discounted Sherridan and several other ranking members of the House. That narrowed the pool, but she still knew too many rebel men who fell into it. “I’ll alert who I can at the Lells, then we can go to the Eaves and my room. It should be safe enough to talk there.”
The first drops of rain pelted her nose as they reached the Lells, and a crisper wind ruffled through the bright awnings and tarps. The busy streets quickly thinned, though a few intrepid souls with umbrellas and hoods still meandered the ways, looking at merchandise tucked under wide protections. The rats never had much in the way of cover, so they likely would be in the process of packing before vacating.
She glanced at one of the keeps, a chubby woman of short stature who had the voice of a roaring wildcat when she wanted potential customers to hear her over the general market noise. “You all right?” she asked. “We heard about you gettin’ caught up with guttershanks last night while helpin’ Sir Armarandos!”
She smiled, as brightly as she could manage. “Thank you for your concern, Stelli. I’m fine. It was a surprise encounter, but I managed without a scratch.”
“Surprise encounter?” another keep asked as he began to tie cloth over his produce. “That’s a bit understatin’ it, ain’t it? I heard that the Trees superior hired a bunch ‘a Stone Streets shanks to go after Sir Armarandos and you’d just happened t’ be there. Heard Orinder had somethin’ t’ do with it, too. He’s been wantin’ t’ take you down, Lady, ‘cause you speak for the rats.”
“Whether Orinder’s part of the plot, I don’t know. There were a lot of Stone Streets bit shanks there, though, and not one knew how to use a knife. I may not go after the large stakes, but I chase enough I can handle a shank who keeps dropping their weapon.”
More than one keep laughed at that. Lapis waved and moved on, hiding her startlement at the concern. She knew some of the Lells sellers, greeted them when she walked by their stalls or their stores, but she hardly counted them as friends. Perhaps they were fishing for gossip, and she, having been there, could give them some juicy bits no one else had heard.
Faelan’s small smile as more keeps hailed her meant he thought their worry justified and their relief real.
Brone, Phialla and Ness were hurriedly stuffing the pottery items into the small wagon they used to move them back and forth from the Eaves. Ness noticed her first, and unabashedly stared at her brother. She desperately wished he had a hood, and briefly pondered handing hers to him and demanding he wear it.
“It’s rude to stare,” she told the rat, trying to keep as much grumpy out of her tone as possible.
“But—” he began, pointing at an amused Faelan.
“Apparently my brother survived the fire,” she told them, very serious. “We’ve spent eight years thinking the other died.” She motioned at him. “This is my older brother, Faelan. So be NICE.” Their wide, delighted smiles made her nervous. “Faelan, this is Brone, Phialla and Ness. Brone’s a busker and Phialla and Ness make and sell the pottery.” She hunkered down next to them and dropped her voice, motioning them nearer. They squeezed close, their heads pressed firmly together. “Listen. Don’t come to the Lells for the next few days. I have enough for you to eat on until I give the clear. Hoyt’s looking for revenge on me for something someone else did, and they’re claiming he’s my partner, which he isn’t. Hoyt’s in for a rude awakening, but that’s not going to happen for a couple of days. I need you to spread the word. You street rats are a target, and you need to be careful.”
“No different than normal,” Brone told her, not shocked by the words. She wondered what gossip the rats had already heard to make him so blasé about it.
“It is different than normal, because they have tech and will use it,” she insisted.
Ness’s uncertainty tweaked her heart, but he needed to know the danger. Phialla looked at the younger boy and nudged him with her shoulder.
“It gives us time to make more stuff,” she said. “Especially those tiles Mairin told us how to make.” He nodded, looking miserable. Brone grinned and patted his shoulder.
“Stay with Rin. He’s got a big place now. He won’t let anything happen to you.”
“Don’t go anywhere alone,” Lapis warned them.
“Well, I’m going to find Lykas and we’ll tell as many others as we see,” Brone said. “Most have already cleared out, so we’ll visit their cubbies. Are you going to the Eaves?”
Brone produced a quick smirk and smacked her arm. “You worry too much, Lady. We’ve all had some guttershank after us at one time or another. Besides, it’ll give everyone an excuse to get to the reading circle.”
“Have you seen Rin, Lyet and Scand?”
He shook his head. “Not since they went after you. We were all real worried, Lady, when Fyor went to the trouble to leave messages with us. You’re not one of those flamboyant chasers that attracts underground attention by bragging, and then gets in trouble. We knew something was wrong, if he was concerned enough to track you down about it.” He hopped to his feet. “What happened with Sir Armarandos and the guttershanks last night is already spreading like wildfire with the gossips. Everyone’s on edge and suspicious. I don’t think the shanks are going to have as much opportunity as they think, to get to us.” He waved and trotted away.
“We’ve got this, Lady,” Phialla said. “You can head on to the Eaves.”
“It will go faster, if we help,” Faelan said, grabbing a stack of plates. Lapis’s surprise lasted as long as it took her to glance at him; his seriousness as he returned the look sparked a shiver up her spine. He had noticed someone, then. She moved about as she helped the rats stack the rest of the pottery and shove the ratty blankets between the pieces, scanning the area out of the corner of her eye.
She saw him. She should have noticed him far earlier; he wore an expensive Dentherion shirt, the gold cloth shining in the dull light, and stood beneath an awning with a couple other tourists, who bemoaned the weather and hastily made other plans. He had folded his arms, leaned against the side of the building, and stared at the four of them as if memorizing their features.
While she trusted Brone to worm his way out of trouble, Phialla was not much of a fighter and Ness was nine. Accompanying them assured their safety, since she and Faelan would care for any shank problem.
What other shanks plied the Lells, looking for rats? What about Rin, Lyet and Scand? Hopefully Rin had his knife on him.