Chapter 4: Not-so-Hidden Darkness

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Heat wafted up off the broken paving stones, adding warmth to an already miserable day. The scent and heaviness of rain filled the air, making it a muggy mess to endure. Lapis, while she loved cool, soft rain, hated the build-up to a late Mid Year Storm.

Hopefully the drops waited until she was inside somewhere, since she had not brought her hood. Her hood indicated to the street rats she was on a stake, and she did not want to navigate the trouble it might bring if they saw her with five strangers and assumed the worst. She spent much of her time alone, and she doubted they realized she had friends outside the Eaves. Once they noticed her, their curiosity would turn into concern, if they thought her in danger.

Did people she had not seen in eight years still count as friends?

She glanced out of the corner of her eye at the rest of the group; the four Blue Council members and Brander. No one seemed talkative, and Lapis had no idea what to say, what to do. She knew Tearlach’s pain at the revealed secret, though something else bothered him. Brander knew something had occurred between her and the new arrivals, and she could tell curiosity ate at him. Ciaran had withdrawn into himself, and the two women were lost in thought.

That would change.

The crowds noticeably thinned as the buildings became greyer and more dilapidated. Several had half-collapsed, with open walls showing people huddled together on crumbling floors, ratty tarps hung to block prying eyes from seeing too much. The poorest of the poor in Jiy resided in the shattered neighborhoods, having nowhere else to go, no coin to leap from the Stone Streets and into a life of richer poverty in the Grey Streets.

The Stone Streets had once housed the royal summer palace, grand estates, elegant temples, rich abodes, but the Dentherions shattered them and left them to rot. They had killed the king, killed the nobles, killed the servants, sowed death and destruction, and promised more if Jilvayna did not capitulate to their whims. Terrified nobles abandoned their family homes and watched as the Dentherions smashed them, smashed antiques, smashed ancestors, smashed inheritances, smashed history, smashed everything.

Then gloated. And desecrated.

Lapis had no idea why the four wished to see the Pit. It was not a place for casual visits. It was not a place for anyone or anything with empathy or a soul.

She shuddered as the sickeningly sweet stench of berry incense floated to them on the strengthening storm wind. She had smelled it on the rare occasion she chased a stake too far into the Stone Streets. Some guttershanks had special hiding places near the old temple, thinking themselves smart, thinking themselves safe, because the average chaser never entered those streets. They underestimated her drive, as she underestimated their cowardice. She always fought not to puke when the scent of berries mingled with decay and rot reached her nose and turned her stomach, and she could not fathom how anyone could live within smelling distance of it.

During those excursions, she gratefully thanked whatever deity she did not believe in, that she did not live anywhere near the Pit.

The priests of the Fifth God lit the incense, claiming it a pious duty, a just duty. They claimed it helped those living in the Stone Streets, though Lapis could think of several other ways they could aide people that did not involve tacit acceptance of the unacceptable. They made a parade of it, wearing matching black robes and carrying small, sacrificial lamps and bags of incense which they dumped into the human-sized burners that hung from several nooks and crannies throughout the streets. They made certain to inundate the area with the berry scent before they circled back and slowly marched to the Gilded Lane and their large, well-kempt temple, congratulating themselves on completing a good work while doing absolutely nothing about what caused the foulness underlying it.

Some of the religiously motivated, along with a smattering of guilt-ridden commoners, attempted a shallow penance. They rescued the screaming and crying children left at the edges of the Pit by parents, extended family or wealthier religious institutions who refused to care for a desperately poor child. The kids usually ended up on the Stone or Grey Streets, fighting for their meager share, hoping to survive long enough to reach an age they could justify dreaming of a better existence.

Rin had been one of them. Rin had been four.

She knew tears pricked her eyes as they neared the large, ornate bridge that once led over the defunct temple and to the royal palace grounds. The stone decorations had cracked and fallen, the mosaics of archaic gods had chipped and broken, their once-bright color faded into muddy greys. It was wide enough to carry four carriages, side by side, with room to spare. Few traversed it now, unless they planned to dump a body over the edge. A convenient place to hide a murder, and no one would ever investigate.

The rebel traitor would rot there, if she had a say.

The wind picked up, driving the smell directly to them. Caitria covered her nose with her hands; Brander had already pulled his large buff over his mouth and nose. Lapis knew from experience, attempting to blot out the smell did no good. And it lingered, on the clothing, on the skin, a horrid reminder of Dentherion cruelty. She would suggest a bath afterwards, at one of the bathhouses that asked no questions, and request everyone purchase new clothing. She could never re-wear items after visiting anywhere near the Pit. At least her normal rebel gear was typical, cheap, and easily found, and she would not miss the ratty shoes she had donned, when she realized where the four wished to visit.

“How is everyone in the city not dead?” Tearlach asked quietly as he watched a flock of carrion birds rush by and dive down to the ground below.

“The palace sprays some sort of chemical over the area,” Lapis said. “It adds to the nastiness of the water, but supposedly it keeps disease at bay. And . . . carrion eaters help.”

“The chemical doesn’t affect them?”

“It’s meant to attract them, so they ingest it,” Brander snarled. “The spray coats the bodies and it’s supposed to make the animals want to eat them. I doubt the palace even knows what it’s really supposed to do. They say it prevents disease from spreading, but a scratch or bite from one of the eaters will kill you quick.” He waved a hand at their destination. “Between the spray and the vermin catchers, the palace keeps disease under control and people can live here. Even when it rains, there’s no increase in sickness and death, and it seems like there should be, since the run-off seeps into the land and gets into the water.”

“So people live here,” Caitria said, her voice trembling. “Because they can’t afford to live anywhere else?”

“Yeah. They don’t live long, though. Residents who spend their entire lives in the Stone Streets rarely reach fifty. Many are born with deformities or medical conditions not seen in other places in Jiy, and it makes living hard enough most just give up. It’s better to die than suffer.”

Mairin’s breath hitched as they reached the bridge and looked over the edge of the railing.

The bridge spanned a space where the cracks and cackles of carrion birds melded with the deeper, menacing growls of the carrion lizards, large, squat animals that waddled about and ate the dead thrown to them. Smaller canines hustled about, avoiding the larger lizards but driving the birds from meals when able. They sometimes roamed the streets, and the city guards had a terrible time cornering them to exterminate them.

The Pit had once been a temple courtyard. Now bones covered the tiles and piled up against worn statues and the colonnade, with fresher bodies dumped on top. Gall continued his predecessors' practice and rarely allowed city dwellers a burial; instead, he ordered the bodies thrown over the side of the bridge, where they rotted in the sun before they became food for the carrion eaters. So many bodies, over two centuries, first seeded by the nobles who fought Dentheria’s invasion, then by everyone else. So many forgotten people, so much pain and misery.

Some religious institutions snuck in a cremation or two, but the Jiy palace punished those they caught. They wanted the bodies to rot in the open while being consumed by the carrion eaters. They wanted to remind the residents that they lived and died by Dentheria's pleasure, and unless they wished to join the corpses sooner rather than later, they would abide by that rule.

The Pit was the warning. No one forgot.

“Some of the leaders don’t think this exists,” Caitria whispered, her voice sick. “They think it’s a tale to scare the countryside into obedience, because no one wants bodies in the open, contaminating everything. Patch told them, but they refused to believe. They say, that even Dentheria is not so evil. It’s why we’re here. As witnesses.”

“Dentheria is the definition of evil,” Lapis told her. “Two hundred years ago, they threw the bodies of the king and his family, the nobles, their servants, their guards, their loved ones, in first. They lit those on fire. Then they piled on the common folk. They didn’t light those. They let them rot and contaminate and attract vermin. Every so often, someone will light a match and burn the bodies. More take their place. There are no burials in the city unless you’re a rich Gall supporter. You get thrown here.”

Mairin shuddered.

“If you can afford it, you pay the underground to sneak you to a burial site out-city. It’s supposed to be in some abandoned caverns originally used by the ancient Taangis Empire as catacombs for their government ministers, but I’ve seen no proof they actually exist. I think the underground just takes advantage of anyone with bits to burn. They probably strip the bodies of valuables and dump them here once they have their pay, because that’s a lot more lucrative than getting caught with a body and ending up executed.”

“Do they check, to make certain you’re actually dead before tossing you down there?” Caitria asked.

Brander laughed, a sharp, dark and disgusted sound. “Not necessarily. People bring the unwanted here.” He pointed to the wide, once-pristine marble staircase opposite the bridge, that flowed down into the Pit, a staircase Lapis dreaded to look at.

She peeked. It was empty.

She almost cried, that no one was there, ready for the canines or lizards to kill them.

“Kids, the elderly, the injured are brought and left here by people who don’t want to take care of them anymore,” he continued. “Gall uses that to claim Jilvayna’s too corrupt, too savage, to manage on its own. He says Dentheria will bring light to the darkness, as long as you forget she caused that darkness in the first place, and does everything in her power to maintain it.”

“People leave others to die here?” Mairin asked, aghast.

“The palace posts guards to stop the abuses, but they’re pathetically easy to bribe. That’s probably on purpose. Sometimes those brought here escape or are rescued. They end up on the Stone Streets. They usually die soon afterwards.”

“Not all of them,” Lapis said. “Some make it.”

Brander raised an eyebrow. “Really.”

“I’ll introduce you to one.” If he were in the markets when they passed through.

“What sickness of the mind, of the soul, makes Gall continues this?”

Fury and ugly hate marred Ciaran’s tone.

“Greed for power, greed for wealth, and the belief that those are only obtainable through the pain of others,” Lapis replied, unable to put emotion into her voice. “And desperate hate, towards those too common, too poor, to buy influence. This is why the city is so broken, spiritually, physically. It’s why the puppet’s palace and the noble homes are practically another city away from the Stone Streets. It’s why so few have hope. We have a constant reminder about what happens when one defies Gall and his Dentherion masters.”

“That will change,” Tearlach said, staring at the pile of blackened, rotting corpses.

Wishful thinking. The rebels had promised that for two-hundred years, without success.

Almost on cue, a flying tech machine that looked like a bulky bird, consisting of an oval black body and two tanks, floated down to the temple and began to spray the area with the astringent-smelling chemical. A pile of black flesh moved and one of the lizards rose from it, bits of sharp red flashing among the muddy brown of its scales. It wagged its head back and forth and moved towards the gaping hole that once held pristine stone doors. More piles dislodged as, one by one, the lizards sought shelter from the spray.

“I need a bath,” Lapis said abruptly, turning on her heel and hastening away.

Caitria and Mairin sat in the pool, staring at nothing. Lapis would have worried, if they had somehow managed cheerful, or even neutral, after visiting the Pit. She leaned against the far wall of the bath and attempted to think of nothing. She hated the Pit, hated the gut-sick depths of worry that one of the street rats would end up there after pissing off a guttershank, hated the families that left their vulnerable members for monsters because they did not want to be held responsible for abandoning them. Not that many in the Grey or Stone Streets cared—they had their own problems—but she did. And she could do nothing about it, as a singular voice rising against the callous indifference, no matter how loud she screamed.

“You said you know someone who survived the Pit,” Caitria said, her voice soft, desperate.

“Yeah. I do. He was four, when he was dumped there. He wailed loud enough a Stone Streets thief took pity on him and rescued him.”

“So he didn’t leave on his own.”

“No. Most of the kids left there are too young to know what’s going on. Once they’re seven or eight, they run to the streets when they think their parents are going to cart them to the Pit.”

“There are a lot of street kids.”

“Yeah. It’s another reminder, that the Grey and Stone Streets will never be important enough for the throne to pay attention to. If you are willing to harm the young and innocent, no one is safe from you. It’s not just here, though. Most of the city is a temper tantrum away from Gall obliterating it with his special tech. The Streets of Trees and the Upper Hills think they’re safe enough because they’re rich enough. I think they’re delusional.”

Caitria’s breath hitched, then she forced her shoulders to relax. “That may have been true, a decade ago. But . . .” She licked her lips. “Gall isn’t in favor like he once was. The Lord’s Council has been choking the flow of tech to Jilvayna. We don’t know why, but it’s caused enough of a panic Gall now hordes what he has. He wouldn’t waste it on something as minor as a temper tantrum.”

“If you promote something like the Pit, that can scare enough people without the use of tech,” Mairin reminded her. “And Gall has always been sadistic.”

Lapis knew that, too acutely.

Caitria studied her. “Patch was very insistent, about who to trust at the Jiy House,” she said. “You, of course.”

Lapis raised an eyebrow. “Of course?”

Mairin smiled. “I don’t think you realize how often he speaks of you, when he’s around us. He trusts Faelan, and a few others like Ciaran, and us, I guess. But you—he has complete and utter faith in you.”

She had no idea how to respond to that. He was her light and her rock, and to hear he might reciprocate that . . .

“He is fond of Brander and Sherridan, and said they know how to keep their mouths shut when necessary. He said not to trust Selda because she’s too gossipy, but that she’s a good soul and can be counted on for things that don’t require secrecy.”

Lapis sighed at the truth to that. “Selda’s a wonderful cook and a kind person, but he’s right—she will gossip about anything and everything, even if she shouldn’t.” Before Sherridan retrieved her for this little expedition, she and Whitley practiced serving at elite tables while listening to the woman speculate about the Blue Council’s arrival and what it meant for Baldur—and she did not pause once to ponder whether she should prattle on about it with them.

“And that’s it. The Jiy House has thousands of rebels that look to it for protection, missions and support, but he only named three we could trust completely. He mentioned a few others that could provide limited assistance, depending on what we required, but for most matters he told us to only trust you three. And . . .” She glanced at Caitria. “You know Faelan, don’t you.”

Lapis felt her heart stop.

For years she had dreaded that question, had quivered at the thought of a Jiy rebel meeting Faelan through chance and brightly relating to him that the Jiy House had a woman with black hair and purple eyes, just like his—what a coincidence! And that they would return to the capital and happily tell her that the Leader of the rebels looked just like her—what a coincidence!

And the traitor would hear about the conversation and know that a Nicodem survived the slaughter. He would search for her, to erase the one who could bring him to justice.

Giggles and the shuffling of feet accompanied a group of women as they entered the bathing area. Typical Jiy merchant types, and no one she knew, but they effectively broke the tense aura that had fallen around the three of them. Lapis managed a small smile before rising to retrieve her towel and give herself some time to think of a response.

Ciaran and Tearlach knew her secret. Caitria and Mairin, as with Sherridan, realized something odd had occurred between them. Brander had no reason to out her, if he found out about her past during this excursion. She would not take Mairin’s word for it, but knew, through her own experience, that Patch trusted him, and with far more intimate rebel information than Baldur ever realized. And considering how the day had already gone . . . she did not trust her luck, in holding her secret dear.

Ciaran knew the traitor. Lady Thyra must have told him. But she doubted Tearlach did. What could she say to him? How could she explain the depths of her fear, that the man who led Kale's men into Nicodem would discover her and hunt her down? How could she explain the depths of pain that Faelan’s betrayal brought?

Her older brother never bothered, to find out if anyone survived the attack. The family he claimed to care so deeply for, the family who brought him joy in the darkest of times . . .

She firmed her lips and fought not to shed tears. Over the last eight years, she had spent too much time crying her soul into her pillow because the brother she adored had forsaken her. Because the uncle she loved had abandoned her. Lady Thyra had sent her as quickly out the back door as she had rushed in, though Lapis knew Neola’s death had struck her to her core and she had not been thinking of anything but to get her best friend’s little girl away from the soldiers already banging at the front. But she had needed help, too, and she had received nothing. She had stood in the dark, staring at the mansion she had considered her second home, shuddering, the chill night breeze ripping through her torn dress, the cold of the packed earth creeping through her thin slippers, without food, without water, without knowing how to get to Coriy, terrified if she spoke to anyone, they would hand her over to the traitor and he would kill her, like he had her little brother. If he had no hesitation in beheading a six-year-old, what chance had she?

They reformed into a small, sober group in the lobby, all clothed in different outfits bought at the bath’s expansive shop. Lapis found a small relief and comfort in that. No one said a word as they exited into the cloud-covered day, a far too-bright existence for the dark despair the Pit instilled. Caitria glanced up, then over at Mairin.

“I would like to wander around a bit, maybe see the markets, before it rains,” she said.

“We’re near the Lells,” Brander told them. “There’s enough there to distract you, for a little while.”

True enough. The Lells was the largest market in Jiy, which meant it was the largest market on the Grey Streets, which meant it attracted her street rats. Rin and Scand managed a decent pickpocket day there, and Phialla sold her wares with other poorer merchants trying to attract attention for their merchandise. Brone tended to do the best, since he normally had an audience—especially those visiting Jiy from other countries. They liked his dance music.

And each one of them would grant her an accusatory look, when they realized she was not somewhere else, planning a chase. And they would nose about, trying to find out who her companions were, and her city identity would become very, very clear.

All her secrets were crashing to the ground about her, and she had no idea how to even begin to salvage them and piece them back together. She never should have agreed to accompany them into the city. She should have stayed at the House and dealt with Tearlach’s suspicion and Ciaran’s uncertainty when they returned, no matter how that would hurt them.

But she hated hurting people she cared for. It was why she agreed to join the small group. She had good intentions, thought to pull Tearlach aside, speak to him . . . about what, she did not know. Her brother, she supposed. Maybe the traitor.

She shook herself. The day would turn out as it turned out. If a Jiy rebel had to know her street guise, at least it was not Relaine or Baldur. Brander, unlike Selda, kept secrets close and hidden.

The crowd somewhat surprised her, considering the threat of rain. A goodly number of foreign tourists prowled the wares, looking for some bit to take home and declare that they had purchased the item in the largest market in Jiy. They usually had more to spend, and if the rats plied them right, they made a nice few bits off of them.

Caitria looked around, eyes wide, as if she had no idea where to start. Tarps and canopies held up by wooden poles ringed the streets between shop doorways, covering open crates and racks containing food, clothing, knick-knacks, every-day and special items. The stores housed inside the buildings had brightly decorated signs that attempted to draw attention with their odd pictures. The squares had the poorer merchants, who sold their wares from bright blankets spread across the fine dirt. Some had short, curved tarps to protect from the sun, but most wore large hoods and wide-brimmed hats. All were dyed with bright and cheerful patterns to attract attention. Gaudily-dressed entertainers busked up and down the streets, while some, like Brone, had a small space in the squares where they performed, attempting, through music, to gather an audience. The array of color and noise dazzled as it confused, and Lapis often wondered if that were not the point.

Mairin and Ciaran looked faintly amused at Caitria’s reaction, though Tearlach, who had quietly kept to himself, showed no emotions. That worried Lapis, and she knew she would have to speak with him, sooner rather than later.

“You can find almost anything here, though it’s not the finest quality,” Brander told them as he glanced about the crowd, likely spying pickpockets. Her group should be safe enough—the guttershanks found out, too late, what happened when they tried to pick her—and then the street rats drove home the message, even when she told them to stay clear. “Clothes, food, drink, wares, jewelry. There’s street musicians and entertainers, too. There’s plenty of local talent selling stuff, you don’t have to buy Dentherion if you don’t want to.”

Caitria granted him a quick smile at that. “Patch said to buy from the kids, if possible. Kids sell stuff here?”

“The rats do, yeah,” Lapis said. “Not every day, but Phialla, Lyet and Ness sell pottery,” —and she did not miss Mairin’s sudden interest— “Miyomon sells knotted cords, Jandra has small beaded items, and she’s gotten good at making those long necklaces you can loop about your neck. Maci and Drow go on rock expeditions outside the city and sell the unpolished rocks here. Radi sells little bags, and I’m pretty certain those little bags once had a home in the Chestnut Shops, but those merchants could lose half the store and still turn a profit.”

She hated the Chestnut Shops and their prickly little men owners who threw fits every way to End Year about undignified her walking their streets in front of their stores.

They got really bent when she knocked her flailing merchant stake out and dragged him to the nearest guardhouse, getting his end-week best clothing absolutely filthy with dust in the process. Served him right, for being a little prick.

She wondered at her tone, considering the amusement that leaked from Brander.

A key appeared in front of her face.

She snagged it and looked at the small number etched into the top.

And stopped.

“This is the suite.”

“Yep!” Rinan said proudly.

She stared at him. “You bargained Dachs for the suite?” She had no idea whether to be outraged or impressed.

Scand huffed up, out of breath, grinning so widely she thought his face would crack. “They even took bets, on who’d win!” he crowed.

She stared at the key. “Bets?” She admitted it—she was jealous. “I want a bathroom,” she said, sounding as put out as she felt. After dealing with Dachs, she felt as if she had bargained her life away for her little room—and Rin got the suite?

“I’ll even let you use it,” Rin said. Then he smashed his lips shut and grabbed the key before disappearing into the crowd.

He had better run, after that statement.

“You did tell him to not get the closet room,” Scand reminded her.

“That doesn’t mean I told him to get the suite, either,” she grumbled.

“He did beat Dachs, though,” Scand said. “You should have been there, Lady! There was this Dentherion who thought a street rat couldn’t be smart enough to bargain for anything important and put a whole bunch of money on Dachs. Rik cleaned her out. We even got some.”

“You bet on Rin.” It did not surprise her.

“Of course I did! We all did.” His eyes lit. “We pooled together. Got a silver out of it! Can you believe it?”

Her group, who had politely stopped to wait for her, all expressed surprise, which Scand greatly enjoyed. It surprsied her; what fool bet silver on such an event? A Dentherion one, she supposed.

“Shouldn’t you be picking?” she asked.

“Nah.” He waved his hand towards the crowd—a very clean hand, which meant the kids had used their money for a bath. Good. Clean street rat did not attract the attention dusty street rat did from potential targets. “There’s so many here, and a lot of them have guards. We got enough this morning, so we thought we’d just skim.” He inched closer and dropped his voice. “We already had to take Brone’s bits and hide them in your room.”

“He’s made that much?”

“From some Abastion group. They went on and on about authentic folk music. Brone just smiled and played dumb. Rin cleaned one of them out, for being pricks.” He looked up at her and whispered, “We had to hide that in your room, too. Three silver!”

She sighed. What idiot walked around the Lells with three silver in their pouch? Well, if her companions wanted an intimate view of rat life, Scand would eagerly provide.

“I see why you’re playing least in sight.”

“Rin’s going to add that to the bath fund.”

“Bath fund?”

“Yeah. Every street rat that puts in can get a bath in the suite. But only those in the reading circle, and maybe some like Lykas and Jandra.”

Rin had a good heart. She expected no less from him.

“But the temple has good soap, so I think I’ll still go there.”

She smiled at that.

Then he looked askance at her. “Aren’t you supposed to be on a stake?” he asked. The group also looked at her after the question, though she assumed they all knew that she had not quite made it to the House before Patch went out.

“Timetables change,” she told him. “Old friends sometimes show up unexpectedly.” She nodded at her companions. “Very old friends, from before I left Coriy. So be nice.”

His eyes widened at that, and his interest sharpened. She never related much to the rats about her life before she moved to Jiy and became a chaser, and their curiosity burned brighter for it.

“This is Scand,” she told them, nodding at the lad. “The one who bargained for the suite is Rinan.”

“Rinan.” Brander nodded, as she just confirmed his suspicion. “I’ve heard of him.”

Scand was beyond impressed. “You have?”

“He’s one of the best out here, and Chinder taught him. He taught you, too?”

Scand rubbed at the back of his neck. “Yes, but not for as long as Rin.”

“He taught me. I was one of his first students.”

“Really?” His excitement ricocheted around them.

Fast friends, she assumed. Of course, if the rats tried to pick Brander, they’d find out quickly enough they would be the ones cleaned out. Rin was exceptional; Brander was elite. He had once picked an important note from one of Gall’s ministers directly from his hand as he waved it about during a tirade against a poor merchant who had done something he disliked. Brander made a quick exit before his target realized something was amiss and gloated for days over his bravery.

“You know these interesting people, and you didn’t tell us?” Scand asked, spreading his arms wide.

Brander laughed as she tried to think of an appropriate response that did not include glaring him into the ground for the boldness. The rest of the group looked far too amused at the exchange, and Tearlach even smiled.

“Where did Phialla decide to set up?” she asked, more as a distraction for herself.

“She and Ness were at the Banks and Seven corner, but they had to move. Dandi was hassling them.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Why.”

“They were selling more than he was, and he got pissy.” Scand’s sudden seriousness made her worry. “It’s not like they have as much as his store. He tried to kick the pots and break them.”

Dandi had said nasty things before, but had never attempted to damage the items for sale. “Where’s his grand-da?”

“Not in the market.”

So he had full rein to be an ass.

“They moved near Brone, and Lyet’s with them. Dandi usually doesn’t do anything when she’s there.”

Dandi was afraid of Lyet. Lapis had no idea why, but he often shook in her presence. She thought it an odd reaction, that a twenty-something, merchant’s spoiled grandson trembled when a sixteen-year-old runaway stepped near. She dreaded the day when that fear turned violent.

“My mother likes to create pots,” Mairin said. “I’d love to see what the kids have.”

A great excuse to immediately visit. Lapis led them through the crowds, in more of a hurry than Caitria probably wished, but she had a bad feeling about Dandi. Scand fell back to Brander and she had a moment of queasiness before the question popped out of his mouth.

“So which one are you?”

“You can be nice, and ask his name,” Lapis reminded him.

“So what’s your name?” Scand immediately rephrased.

Brander glanced at her before looking at the lad. “Raban.”

Scand’s mouth fell open and he choked as Lapis . . . did not feel the shock she thought she should. It did not surprise her in the least, Brander’s city identity was infamous thief. It also indicated that, whatever secrets she possessed, he expected to learn them, since he trusted her with his.

“STOP IT!”

Phialla? She ran.

She broke through the crowd, uncaring who snapped at her for pushing them. Dandi had a knife and swung it at Lyet while he kicked yet another pot into small pieces. He flailed about, which likely explained why no one had attempted to interfere. Too dangerous, a rando with a knife. Lyet avoided the erratic slashes and steadied herself, ready to lunge at him. Lapis did not give her the chance, because if Dandi harmed her, she doubted she could keep the rats from mobbing him—or staking him. She knew one chaser who would happily send the snobby snit over the side of the Pit, and while Patch was not there, he would return sooner rather than later.

“What are you doing?” she yelled, interrupting his malicious delight. He looked over at her, pudgy face blank in surprise, as she kicked the knife from his hand. It spun and smacked a nearby canopy pole before dropping into the dirt; Lyet retrieved it before he even realized she had attacked. Lapis slammed her foot into his stomach and sent him careening into the startled, curious crowd, where he landed heavily, in an undignified lump. Dust puffed up and coated his green uniform and his greasy brown hair.

“Lyet, did he hurt you?”

“No. I’m fine, Lady,” she replied, though her voice trembled slightly. “He couldn’t hit the side of a building with this, if he tried.” She raised the knife slightly at the words. “All he did was swing his arm around.” She tugged her black bangs from her reddish-brown eyes, then looked at the idiot in the dirt, distrustful.

A man broke from the crowd, intent on Lapis, looking as if he had expected her arrival. From the look of him, he might well be one of the guards the guild recently released. He had scruffy hair and beard, something out of character for one of them, but the heavy leather gear and prominent sword was hard to miss.

“And you are?” she asked, in no mood for nice.

He grinned, showing unnaturally white teeth. “Master Orinder likes his grandson hale and whole,” he said, without a hint of a Grey or Stone Streets accent.

“Yeah? Then Dandi should have stayed at his booth. What’s he doing over here, hassling kids?”

He sneered. “They’re not kids.” His smile faded.

Ciaran stopped just behind and to her left and folded his arms, a typical stance of support and back-up in the rebel community. He did not have the Patch-cold that infused him when something pissed him off, but his own ice worked very well. He had an aura about him, of confidence tinged with annoyance and a hint of rage, that could make the heaviest bully pause.

“Who are you?” the guard demanded, reaching for his sword. A thrill of uncertainty raced through her; no one with her had brought a weapon large enough to counter a sword.

“A friend,” he said.

“Her partner?” the man asked, wary. Since she did not know this man, she wondered what Grey Streets gossip had informed his uncertainty. True, Patch’s reputation certainly proceeded him—but no one, as far as she knew, realized they knew each other, let alone had a closer relationship.

“No.”

The guard’s sudden agitation pricked her curiosity, especially when he glanced at the lump of a man he needed to protect, then turned on his heel and walked away.

So. He would try to harm her when he thought her by herself, but refused to fight when a man supported her. That pissed her off far more than his initial threat in the first place.

Ciaran looked at her, and she shrugged; she had no idea how to answer the question in his eyes. She patted his arm before turning to the dirt-covered blanket and the shattered shards of pottery. Mairin had knelt and smiled at a silently crying Phialla and a very distraught Ness, who had buried his face in Lyet’s chest and wept.

Phialla was thirteen. She made pots because she could do so without needing to see. Ness was nine. He worked extremely hard to paint the pots Phialla made. It broke something in her, to see them mourning their efforts. They normally made enough to eat and buy more supplies. That was it. How in the nonexistent gods’ names did Dandi believe them a threat to his grand-da’s prosperous booth?

“These are so pretty, it would be a shame just to throw them away. They’re the perfect size for stepping-stone decoration,” Mairin said, holding up one small bit. “Those are pretty easy to make, too. I can show you how.”

“Are you listening to her?” Brone asked as he dumped himself next to Phialla before prodding Ness’s arm. He set the drum and his take—his bit bowl practically overflowed—in front of them and placed a comforting hand on Phialla’s back.

They fought like siblings most of the time, but her rats took care of each other, too. That was good, because she had a stake to prepare.

She raised her hand. “If anything gets broken, you’ll get nothing!” she yelled. “He’s staked. Lells Guardhouse. Ask for Fyor.”

“Lady!” Lykas said, absolutely outraged, hands on hips, his eyes bright brown fire as he glared through is dusty blonde bangs. Rin stood next to him, almost in the same pose, as put-out as his companion.

“You heard me, Lykas,” she snapped. “Don’t break anything. Don’t tell me you can’t manage a few pots and vases without busting them.”

“That’s better than he deserves,” Lykas growled.

“Those aren’t his wares,” she reminded him. “They’re Orinder’s wares. And if you think Orinder approved of his grandson busting up Phialla and Ness’s things out in the open, in front of how many witnesses, you’re wrong. Now hurry, before Scand takes it all.”

Both snapped their heads around, looking for the absent Scand, and ran for the stall so they could get their share of the stake.

“You’ve done this before.”

She glanced at Tearlach and nodded. “Yeah. It keeps the merchants from messing with the kids. They have to pay to get their stuff back, and that goes into the rats’ pockets. It’s never enough to cause them harm, but enough to make them rethink attacking them. I need to get to the guardhouse before they do, to write out the stake.”

“I want to go with you.”

She grabbed his hand and ran.

Tearlach kept step with her as they wove through the crowd. Good. She could not pause to wait for him to catch up. She knew, from experience, that the rats had several escape routes they used throughout the Grey Streets, and they could arrive at distant places far quicker than she ever believed. She did not want Fyor to stare at the inexplicable pile of pottery without a reason as to why the kids brought him the items—or who needed to collect them. Someone would attempt to steal it all, they always did.

The Lells Guardhouse was a three-story wooden building that leaned slightly, painted a desolate brown to emphasize its serious nature compared to the bright and festive shops that surrounded it. The guards spent their time taking complaints about small-time thievery that became small-time stakes and rooting out illegal merchandise. They had a more laid-back attitude than most other guardhouses, though Lapis could not quite pin-point why.

Fyor was waiting outside, pen and stake form in hand. Word traveled fast, did it not. “Another rat brought word,” he told her as they huffed up. “I just sent a man to take a look, but I figured you’d be around.”

She nodded and accepted the pen and form. She set it against the wall so Tearlach could read what she wrote. She never had long-winded explanations; she noted that Dandi had destroyed Phialla and Ness’s merchandise, that she had halted further attack by disarming him, and that as recompense, Orinder needed to pay one silver for the return of his stock. She knew it worth far more than that, and that Dandi should be held accountable for his assault, but she also did not want them to retaliate against the kids, citing her unfair stake. If she asked for recompense that Orinder could not write off as a business expense, he would make life in the Lells a bit more difficult for the rats, just to be an ass.

“Dandi was armed?” Fyor asked, narrowing his eyes.

“Lyet grabbed the knife. She should give it to the guard you sent, if he asks.”

“It was an odd knife,” Tearlach told them. “It had a very jagged edge, like a prop for a play where the person holding it is supposed to be a monster from Underearth and their weapon has teeth, too.”

“Some theater company had a few boxes stolen last night,” Fyor said. “It would hardly surprise me, if Dandi thought he was buying some new kind of knife and decided to show off.” He shook his head.

Lapis privately admitted, she had not noticed the edge, just that Dandi waved it at Lyet. She saw Lyet’s danger and acted. She had no idea how to change her observations in dramatic situations, but perhaps Patch could provide a few bits of advice.

“Which rat?” She was curious.

“Not sure, though I’ve seen him around. He wanted to make certain he’d get his share, which he didn’t think would happen if we didn’t know. Brown hair, a bit longer than the shoulder, kept his eyes hidden with a hat. Maybe twelve or thirteen.”

She nodded. Nerik. He distrusted adults, and while he had a slightly better attitude toward the other rats, he distrusted most of them, too. He had an open invitation to the reading circle, though he had never joined. She had the impression at times that he wanted to, especially when Rinan badgered him about it, but something held him back. So she fed him every once in a while, when he had not managed enough bits for a good meal, and tried to be as unthreatening as possible. “Nerik’s a good kid, but he doesn’t trust adults.”

“You tend to know most of the rats around here,” Fyor said.

“The reading circle introduces me to a lot of them,” she said as she handed him the paper and pen. “They all want to meet Rin, and if they have to put up with me to do it, they will.”

Fyor laughed. “I was at the Eaves last night. After that performance, he probably does have a few starry-eyed kids looking up to him.”

She raised an eyebrow. “That dramatic?”

“I think it would have been a normal, everyday thing, but that Dentherion tourist got under everyone’s skin,” he said. “Including Dachs’s. Now, don’t get me wrong, when they realized they had an audience they played it up, and Rin did corner him, but I think he wanted Rin to ‘win’ so to speak, just to shut her up. Her companions kept wondering, aloud, why all the regulars bet on a scruffy street kid.”

She snarled at that. “You’re the Superior they got to look at that tech?”

He nodded, very serious. “Lady, it chills me to the bone, to think a guttershank like that has access to working tech. But we might know more, thanks to you and your unexpected stake.”

Word DID spread quick.

“Sir Armarandos is very impressed at your audacity. We both arrived at headquarters with our respective cargo at the same time, and Linden was with me, so we talked. He has a proposition for you, Lady, and for your partner, if you’re interested.”

“My partner?” She was faintly surprised.

“That, if another stake has tech, to inform him. If you hear something about tech on the streets, to please inform him. That’s it. He’s concerned, moreso than I would have suspected.”

“So he knows something we don’t.”

“Yes.”

She nodded. “Alright.” She glanced at Tearlach and realized Fyor mistook him. That was fine. She never turned down a chance to muddy the waters. “Let’s get back to the kids.”

She heard loud clanks—but no shatters—behind her. She turned to watch as Rinan, Scand, Lykas, Nerik and the five girls collectively known as the Wings settled what she thought were the nicest pieces Orinder sold on the ground behind her. Fyor sighed as Jesi held up a small lockbox, the laughter in her eyes destroying the solemness she tried to portray.

“Dandi’s still in the dirt,” she explained. “You kick hard, Lady.”

“Nicer than they deserve,” Lykas muttered under his breath.

“Maybe, but you probably wouldn’t get a single bit if the lockbox disappeared and Orinder couldn’t pay,” Lapis reminded him. “Thank you, Jesi.” Of course, she knew the man made far more than what lived in the lockbox, and most Grey Streets people thought he sold in the underground markets with the pottery as a thin cover, but she also knew he would have argued incessantly about the need to pay the stake if it had disappeared. He would have whined about how the rats had obviously stolen it, and why should he reward them for their theft?

Jesi grinned and settled the box carefully on the dirt. Then, almost as one, they all turned and raced away, back to the booth to retrieve the remainder of the items, if others had not carted them away. She smiled. The nine 'keepers and Phialla, Ness and Lyet would each receive around 166 bits, a nice windfall for any rat. And she could make certain they all had a good meal that day, so they could spend those bits on something they needed, like a shirt or soap, rather than food.

Fyor chuckled. “Lady, I think your influence is infectious. It lets the kids shine even in the oddest circumstance.”

She had no idea how to take that. “Thank you,” she said. “But the kids have good hearts and sharp minds, all on their own. I don’t have anything to do with that.”

She knew Fyor did not agree, but he also had rare experiences with the malicious kids. She knew, from hard experience, that the streets created hard hearts and evil far more easily than it created those willing to help others. Poverty and hardship had a way of turning people selfish and dark, because that was the only way they knew how to keep themselves alive. Kindness became a liability, and goodness a death sentence. She tried to shine a light for the rats to follow, to show them that they could succeed away from the streets, that they did not have to fall to the bleakness, but she was a single light flickering and guttering against dread despair. The more often rats like Phialla and Ness lost their wares, the more often rats like Rinan failed to land a job, the less likely the rest would believe that her light held anything but empty promises and a quick trip to the Pit.

“Let’s go,” she told Tearlach, fighting against the sudden pull of the mental poison called helplessness. The walk back to the Lells would give them time to talk—and she would discover, what he planned to do with his new-found knowledge.


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