Chapter 7: Unlikely Allies

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Lapis pressed herself against the cold, damp dirt of the tunnel, wishing she could sink into the shadows until whoever entered the shed left. While Brander had closed the ground-level door, it remained unlocked, and the trapdoor stood open—obvious signs someone had snuck into the room below.

The rebel glanced at her again, silently willing her to calm. She sucked in a quiet but large breath. She had accompanied Patch on several expeditions, some far more dangerous than this excursion. If Orinder’s bodyguards were any indication, he did not have the funds or the clout to hire skilled men, and she possessed more than enough training to take out mediocre fighters. Preparing eight years for revenge had its uses.

The quiet echo of voices, higher-pitched than she expected, drifted down the stairs. Did Dandi notice something odd and decide to investigate? Their luck, the spoiled grandson would bumble down into the cellar. Who accompanied him? A guard with a voice as high and whiny as his own? Coward that he was, he would not bravely enter the shed by himself if he thought someone had broken in.

How many guards did Orinder employ? At least two, and she assumed a third remained at his home, protecting the valuable tech. No one made the rounds, but the combination of rain and Mama likely kept them inside, preferring light and warmth to a foggy, wet patrol during a time few braved the streets. Just their luck, that, after enjoying a decent rest, a guilty sentry decided to take a peek around.

Almost silent feet carefully descended the stairs.

She recognized those grubby, soggy laced shoes. She stilled. Stared.

Brander bit his lips together and bowed his head, relaxing. Lapis wanted to stick him, for his laughter. Dammit, she was going to KILL her some rat. She raised her right arm, blade still ready, deciding exactly how she was going to scare two idiots badly enough they would never, ever, think of following her again.

Brander touched her shoulder; she glared back. His grin, wide enough his teeth shone in the darkness, did not help matters. He motioned for her to precede him, as if he realized she should speak with them first. She kept to the side of the tunnel while two dripping heads bent over the crate full of eggs, though they touched nothing inside. Smart of them. It would have been smarter, to remain at the Eaves. The girls had. Because girls were smart.

She did not want to make a loud sound to startle them or scare them to the point they yelled, because that would bring someone to investigate. She quietly sheathed the long blades and crept to them, arms out. Brander leaned against the wall, nonchalant, still far too amused.

She jumped and slapped her hands around their heads, aiming for their mouths.

“You stupid fucking rats!” she seethed as they screamed, in unison, into her palms.

“Lady!” Scand gasped, clutching at his chest and staggering about.

“You need to be more alert than this,” she told them. A bright and immediate blush spread across Rin’s face. He picked pockets, rather than breaking and entering, and he just proved excelling in one did not mean he was good at the other. “If I’d been a guard, you two’d be dead.”

She spat the words, furious. How dare they endanger themselves like this? How dare they leave the Eaves and its safety? Men who dealt in weapons tech never appreciated interference in their underhanded transactions, and rats, whom most assumed had no friends or family or anyone who might miss them, would be prime targets for casual disposal in the Pit. She dropped her hands, which trembled in time with her fury.

“No guards,” Rin said quietly, though his voice shook. “Watched fer a while.”

“Not long enough.”

“We heard the door open,” Brander told them, his voice soft. “Did you close it?”

They both nodded.

“Why are you even here?” she asked, her arms vibrating harder as she made two small, over-tight fists.

“Orinder came back,” Rin whispered. “Wantin’ his purse. Said he’s gonna bring in them guards t’ arrest everyone. He made lotsa threats. Didn’t impress thems you know, Lady, and he left empty. Thought he’d come back here, ‘n we guessed you’d be snoopin’.” He jerked his thumb towards the stairs. “Lykas’s on watch.”

Three of them. “And what did Jandra say to that?”

“Um, he didn’t tell ‘er.”

Lapis rubbed at her eyes, uncertain whether Brander’s smile could get any wider before it cracked his face in half. He, too, should be furious at their unexpected visitors. If he were, they would take this breach far more seriously. While she doubted Orinder was truly dangerous, that hardly meant others in his employ lacked his awkward cowardice.

Scand glanced at the crate. “What’re those?” he asked, pointing at the eggs.

“Explosives,” Lapis replied as she grabbed the lid. Rin helped her replace it while Scand backed up, nervous.

“Explosives?”

“They’re duds, don’t worry, but that red square thing in Orinder’s purse? That normally triggers eggs like these to explode. Someone miswired these, though, and they don’t sound like they have the shrapnel and powder in them they need to do damage.”

“So he’s sellin’ bad tech?” Rin asked. “He’s thinkin’ he’s sly, but he ain’t. He’s gonna get bit, hard, rippin’ thems with money off.”

“Yeah, he is.”

Lapis heard it, faint; the warble of a nighthawk. The rats perked up as she grabbed their arms and pushed them towards the tunnel. Brander raced for the trapdoor and closed it before he followed them. They shuffled to the back, crouching against the dirt on the other side of the sewer grate. She peered down, but the lantern light did not penetrate that far, and she could not tell how high the water might be, or if the raised walkways remained a viable escape.

“I know she came here!” Orinder shouted. His muffled voice indicated he was still outside the shed. “They took my purse. They did! And she’s going to turn me in to the guard!”

“Old man,” the bodyguard who failed to protect Dandi yelled back, irritated. “Do you really think everyone would have been so chatty and relaxed if they’d discovered your tech? You ran away into the Night Market and you think no one there picked you?”

“No one came close enough.”

“No one came close enough at the Eaves,” the bodyguard gritted. “And there were far fewer people there. You left us behind at the Market. When we found you, you were in a crowd. Someone took advantage and picked our shit there.”

Brander knelt and stuck his fingers in the grate; he easily pulled it up with a minimum of noise. The thief looked down into the hole, then at the three of them.

“If they get nosy, we’re going down,” he whispered. “Luckily, it hasn’t rained enough to cover the walkways. When we get down there, you’ll put your right hand on the wall, your left hand on the person in front of you, and follow me.” He glanced into the room. “I doubt they’ll brave the sewer at night while it’s raining.”

She could not imagine the neatly suited Orinder chasing them into the dank, watery rot below, and she doubted he paid his guards enough to chance it.

“See! Look! The lock!” The outer door banged open, alerting everyone in the neighborhood to his presence. Lapis slowly slid the blades back out of the sheath; she trained to confront a battle-ready rebel traitor. Lackluster guards and an elderly man she could knock down with a half-hearted shove should prove easy enemies. She slipped her hands behind her, to hide any glint of steel.

Scand’s eyes bulged enough she noted it; Rin stared briefly before looking into the room. “Did you bring weapons?” she asked, barely whispering.

“I’s did,” Rin said. “Jes’ a knife, though.”

“Knives are enough,” Brander assured them.

They were for Rin. She knew, when pushed, he slashed and stabbed without mercy. He went berserk, became senseless. It still awed her, he had trusted her enough that long-ago night that, when she gently took the knife from him, he let her. He had stood, head bowed, staring at his feet as the blood formed rivulets and ran into the grout. She folded his limp fingers about her hand and led him from the slaughter, from the pain and fear and helplessness, to a bathhouse that never asked questions, and then to her room. He cocooned himself in her warmest blanket and slept for three days rather than face his new reality, and she never pushed him to remember. She still experienced the trauma of rescuing him. She often wondered how far he buried the memories, for he never spoke of it.

He should not. Those guttershanks did not deserve his guilt.

The trapdoor slammed against the wall with enough force it rattled the shed logs. Orinder heavily stomped down the stairs, which groaned in protest, then to the desks, where he shuffled through the pages left there, dripping water all over and dampening the paper.

“They’re all here,” he said in agitated disbelief.

“I told you, she didn’t take your purse,” the bodyguard stated firmly. He stuck his hands on his hips and glared at his employer. “Some unknown Night Market thief lifted your tech and our money. He’s probably going to sell it as soon as he realizes what he has. And if he gets overly chatty, then you might have a few guttershanks coming down here on a raid, trying to steal what you got. We should scour in the underground markets if you want to find it before that happens.”

Orinder waved his hand, as if brushing away the thought. “One of those sneaky rats took it.”

“Which one?” the bodyguard asked. “The red-haired kid didn’t get close enough to you to grab anything. He’s the only one you needed to worry about.”

Lapis pursed her lips and shook her head. Idiots flocked together, did they not.

“Now come on. Either we’re going to the underground markets or we’re staying here. No reason to chance anything else, with Mama up and about.”

Orinder glanced into the tunnel, but the darkness, coupled with the solid, dark earth behind them, hid them from casual view. He perused the crates, his frown deepening. “We’ll stay here,” he grumbled. “But I want Norden and Kintz on patrol.”

“Mama—”

“I don’t care if she’s walking the streets! People like that bit take advantage of these opportunities!”

“The Lady isn’t a street rat, boss.”

“She was one,” he snapped. “Has all the uncouth and mouthy behavior that goes with it.”

Scand nudged Rin, who, she assumed, glared back.

“You should be careful about her. I’ve heard her partner isn’t one to mess with.”

“She doesn’t have a partner.”

“She does,” the bodyguard insisted. “And he’s brutal.”

What, exactly, did the general populace assume about her partner?

“It’s all fairy tales, probably made up by her to keep herself alive. She isn’t gracious and accommodating, and she’s upset too many wrong people.”

Had she, now?

The bodyguard laughed. “Are you still pissed she didn’t apologize profusely and fall to her knees and beg your forgiveness? She might have, if people knew you’d hooked up with Hoyt. But they don’t. They just see a greedy ass picking on others because he can.”

“Why do I even put up with you,” Orinder grumbled.

“Because I’m cheap,” he said drily. “And you don’t have any choice.”

Orinder said something under his breath Lapis did not catch, but by the immediate blaze of fury in the bodyguard, it had not flattered him.

“Say what you want. But if Norden and Kintz aren’t here, I’m not going to find them. You want them, you go out in the rain and chance Mama by yourself.” He spun on his heel and stormed to the stairs, stomping as hard as possible up them. They shuddered under the abuse, bits of dust puffing into the air. Lapis sighed in relief; if Orinder nosed about the tunnel, he would fall quickly, without his help the wiser. The man glanced at the desk again, making a mocking face and moving his head about as if talking to someone he disliked, then shuffled after the bodyguard. The trapdoor fell shut, and heavy footfalls crossed the ceiling and proceeded out the upper door, which slammed closed.

“They probably locked the door,” she whispered.

“Yes. We just need to move a few crates so I can climb out the window,” Brander said. “Then I’ll pop the lock. If we don’t have to go down into the sewers, the better.”

Lapis crept out of the tunnel, listening intently, but silence met her ears. She hunched down by the desk while Brander softly padded to the trapdoor, and slowly, lifted it up. It took a few moments, but he settled it back against the wall and motioned for them to follow. She shuffled the pages together and rolled them up into a tight, damp cylinder as Rin and Scand hastened past without making a sound.

At least they realized the need for stealth. Idiots.

She hurried up the stairs, and she and Rin carefully put the door back down. She could barely see her hand before her face in the inky darkness. Air caressed her shoulder before Brander gently touched it, and he guided her to the crates beneath the window. They were heavy and stacked, but whoever placed them, while they settled them more or less on top of one another, still left small corners sticking out, enough for hand- and footholds.

The lock clicked.

Before they could react, the door swung open; Lapis unsheathed her blade before the identity of the lockpicker slammed into her.

“Hurry!” Lykas hissed.

They scurried out of the door. Brander made certain to lock it before they followed Lykas to the back gate and rushed through. The rebel closed it with a soft click, and they streaked across the street and into the darkness between properties without Orinder or his guard the wiser. They cozied up to a wet stone wall and waited, peering about, to make certain no one noticed their smooth escape. Brander trotted to the far corner and looked about while she studied the street in front of the merchant’s home, feeling antsy.

She distrusted, when things went so well. She distrusted, what the heavy fog hid.

The rats kept to the shadows, blending in with the wall as they chaffed at their arms. They had changed into their mottled, worn clothing, the kind they wore when they traversed the streets at night. Dark grey blended better with the soft darkness of night, though she doubted its true effectiveness, considering they had not ashed their exposed skin. It likely did not matter; the rain would have washed it away.

Brander returned and glanced at her, and she almost nodded, but hesitated. “Something isn’t right,” she whispered. She eyed the darkness. “Something feels . . . off.”

He sank back next to the rats, his cloak practically becoming one with the wall. “Feels off, how.”

Before she could answer, three guttershanks wandered into the alley from the far side, muttering to themselves. One noticed them and snapped his hand in the general direction of away. “Git, you rats,” he snarled.

Good thing Brander was slim, and they just assumed him a rat. They turned and scurried out onto Brownleaf Street then scampered down the way. She looked back and noted one of the men standing on the walk, watching as the fog hid them, making certain they vacated their spot.

They ran a few more steps before Brander pulled them to a stop and behind a stretch of badly trimmed bushes whose bare twigs pricked and poked as they brushed them. They squatted down and waited, listening, but no one approached.

“Did you recognize them?” the rebel asked.

“No,” Lapis whispered. “They looked like guttershanks, from what I could tell.”

“I knows one,” Rin said, his voice barely audible over the rain. “He’s a vile one. Goes by Seft. Tried t’ get Chinder t’ join up with Hoyt and did some blackmail. Chinder broke in n’ stole all the stuff at his place, gave the guard the interestin’ bits.”

“Seft?” Brander nodded. “I helped Chinder on that one. His dealings were dark. We had enough on him, he should still be in a Dentherion jail cell. Hoyt must’ve wanted him back out badly enough he paid the bribes.”

“What does a guttershank have that Hoyt wants that desperately?” Lapis asked.

“Contacts,” he told her. “I’m not certain how he came by them, though I’m betting he inherited them. Looking through his papers, he didn’t strike me as all that intelligent, and you would need to be, to navigate who he had listed. He had Dark Hat contacts in Ramira, Maiçon contacts in Dentheria and Taangis, and a few black-market tech merchants said he bragged about bargaining with an underboss from Meergevenis.”

“Meergevenis?” Rin asked, confused.

“The empire that originally gave Taangis its tech,” Lapis told him. “They’re supposed to be more advanced than Taangis and Dentheria. There are always rumors about them invading, but no one ever takes them seriously. Meergevenis is on a continent far across the ocean, and it won’t be easy to transport troops here.” She tapped her arm with her fingers. “If Hoyt is making his way up the underground chain, having a contact with the Dark Hats and Meergevenis would be a definite advantage. I wonder if that’s why Lord Armarandos is concerned.”

“If there’s a hint of Meergevenis tech in Jiy, he would be,” Brander agreed. “And so would Gall.”

The creak of poorly bolted wooden wheels gave them pause. A large, empty wagon with brown-stained wood pulled by a strong ox, made its way down the street. A lantern dangled from a thick stick at the driver’s seat, though its weak light illuminated little through the fog. The man driving hunched down under his cloak, his identity shielded. He waved the crop about listlessly, in time to the bovine’s plodding. His companion sagged forward, asleep.

“Want to bet they’re going to be hauling unmarked crates when he comes back?” Lapis asked after the wagon disappeared into the foggy darkness.

“I’d take you up on it, if I didn’t think you were right,” Brander told her. “Why don’t you get the kids back to the Eaves. I’ll go take a look.”

She did not like the squirrely in her tummy at the declaration. “Raban—”

He patted her shoulder. “I know my way about the sewers here better than most. That open grate is going to make listening easy.”

“You need a partner.”

“The rats are drowning.”

She smashed her lips together; the three could handle a bit of rain and cold and fog, considering they weathered it to get to Brownleaf Street in the first place. She firmed her resolve. “You need a partner.”

“Do you really want them going back to the Eaves alone while Hoyt’s men are prowling about?”

“Hey,” Rin protested resentfully. “I’s good at takin’ care of m’self. No needs t’ have a ‘sitter.”

That was true. He had bargained Dachs for the suite and put his own funds in the pot. He planned to help the reading circle rats, even if it was just providing a bath. He manned the table during her absences. He no longer needed her watchful eye or her advice.

Lapis wondered about the twinge in her chest at the declaration.

“You need to get those papers to the nearest guardhouse,” Brander reminded her. “That can’t wait.”

She unhappily nodded, depression sinking down fast and overwhelming. He gripped her shoulder before slipping away, disappearing into the fog before she gathered her thoughts. She rose and hurried on her way, knowing the rats would catch her quickly enough. Their burdens would not weigh their feet down.

Rin caught her first, jogging into a walk next to her. “Lady—” he began.

She waved her hand at him. “The nearest guardhouse is the Tree Streets, I believe.”

“Lady,” he said, his voice low and concerned.

“You three should get back to the Eaves. With this fog, it’s not going to be easy to tell if you’re about to meet Mama unless the wind is blowing your way and you can smell her.”

“Lady,” he said, too firmly. “You knows it. I’s the Lady’s man.”

She looked at him, and she had no idea what he noticed in her expression because his stress was strong and immediate. “You KNOWS that,” he reiterated.

“Why else do you think we’re here?” Lykas asked.

“Because you’re idiots,” Lapis supplied. She did not even have to think hard to answer that question.

“Bein’ concerned ain’t idiotic,” Rin informed her. “You’s puttin’ yourself in danger, fer us. And we’s wantin’ t’ get Orinder off these streets, too.”

She did not see sneaking into Orinder’s shed as all that dangerous for an experienced chaser, since his hired help paid more attention to the hired rather than the help part. Now, Brander eavesdropping on Hoyt’s men . . . that had more chance of ending poorly.

“Raban’s helping us,” Lykas said as he fell in step with Rinan. His awe made her inwardly sigh. “How do you know him, Lady?”

“Through my partner,” she told him softly. “I see him a little differently, though. He isn’t a master thief to me. He’s a teacher, a trainer.”

“Your partner gets around,” Rin said, resentment under the words.

“He does,” she agreed sharply. She was not in the mood to deal with his antagonism for a man he did not know—and, if he did know him, would worship the ground he walked on for a chance to train with him. Maybe go on a stake.

“Why is he helping? This isn’t a stake,” Scand said, walking close to her side. The unconscious need for protection struck her, since the rat had a rebelliously brave streak he regularly indulged in. Why else accompany Rin on his ill-thought adventure?

“Friends help friends,” she replied. “But this trouble isn’t just ours. He knows well, what will happen if common guttershanks have access to weapons tech. That one we took at the Eaves is a good example. Think about Hoyt, being backed by a bunch of shanks like him, waving about weapons they don’t know how to properly use, but who will try to kill you with them anyway. The Grey and Stone Streets don’t need an underboss with power like that.”

The three shuddered at the thought.

The Tree Streets Guardhouse was a tidy sandstone building with plenty of lighting, white window frames, a shed for wagons, and a stable to house horses. It expected a wealthier clientele than others around the Grey Streets, and the guards who worked there behaved that way. She had met its Guard Superior once, a snobby man who thought the position far beneath his dignity—and who thought the same of women. She had no idea why Sir Armarandos placed him there, other than as punishment. Chasers avoided it, but considering what she carried, she preferred to off-load the documents as soon as possible.

Would the Guard Superior’s dislike get the better of him? Would he decide to keep them from Sir Armarandos because she gave them to him? She wished she had thought of that before she walked into the yard. It would look odd if she turned about and sauntered away.

A smattering of guards braved the weather, hunched over in raincoats with wide hoods. She could tell from their jerky movements they resented being forced into the rain. She looked at the man they faced, who stood tall, hands behind his back, and almost laughed. Almost.

“Lady Lanth,” he said, surprised.

“Why, Sir Armarandos, this is a poor night to be out and about.”

“It is an odd night,” he agreed. “It’s quite the rough time for a stake.”

“Especially when you have rats who decided to help,” she managed with a straight face.

“Lady!” Rin protested. His outrage, and the immediate humor from Sir Armarandos, played the other guards. Good.

“Well, I’d like to get out of the rain,” the knight said, nodding to the interior. She hastened down the short, tiled walk and inside the warm, flower-scented house, aware of the glares deposited on her back. The rats scurried to keep up, uninterested in standing outside being silently yelled at by disgruntled guards.

“You have your orders,” Sir Armarandos reminded them with cool authority before striding purposefully into the guardhouse. “They’re supposed to be tracking Mama,” he told her, annoyed. He held out his hand, and she gave him the pages, which he glanced at as he moved into the lead. “It’s too foggy for the bell ringers to easily find her, and when it is, the local guards patrol the streets until they find her, then march with the ringers until she returns to the Pit. Every guard in every house knows this, and Tree Streets has been lagging in their participation.” He motioned to a short hallway and headed for the room clear at the end. All the other ones appeared vacant, which made her wonder. There should be a couple of night guards hanging about, drinking hot liquids and griping about the weather. “Have you seen her?”

“She went past the Eaves around dinnertime,” Lapis told him as she and the rats chose well-padded, light brown chairs that quickly soaked up the rainwater and dribbled it onto the floor. “I don’t know where she went after that.”

“Hmm.” He closed the door, then eyed her speculatively. “Metgals?” he asked, raising the pages.

“Orinder stupidly confronted me at the Eaves for staking his pottery booth,” she told him. “His grandson Dandi broke Phialla and Ness’s pots, and then he dropped on by to frighten them into not selling at the Lells anymore. Well, the idiot left his purse, and guess what was inside.”

He raised an eyebrow as he sank into one of the nicely padded chairs. She slipped the trigger from her pouch and slid it across the table to him. He immediately sat up, flabbergasted.

“So I went to investigate. He has crates of eggs, all miswired, and a bunch of stuff that looks like tech, but I have no idea what it’s used for.” She pointed at the papers. “Those are his merchandise records.”

“Orinder.” He grabbed the trigger and rolled it about his fingers, his face darkening. “I never would have thought him involved in weapons smuggling. He’s too . . .”

“He’s small-time wantin’ it big,” Rin said. “He’s braggin’ hard ‘bout gettin’ ‘way with stuff. He’s tryin’ t’ scare others outta the Lells, sayin’ they’s at his mercy.”

“Metgals don’t just disappear,” Sir Armarandos murmured, staring at the tech. “If Orinder had that much income, he would move to a wealthier district. Have you any idea where the money has gone?”

“No, but I’m guessing to Hoyt. His men were pulling up with a wagon when we left.” She jerked her chin at Rin, who sat a tad straighter.

“Onna them’s Seft.”

“Seft?” She rarely heard the man utter anything in so dark a tone. “A raid freed him. We lost a lot of good men, and their side lost even more.”

“He’s supposed to have premium contact with the empire, Taangis and Meergevenis undergrounds,” Lapis said.

He nodded. “He does. It makes him an invaluable asset, one Hoyt would risk other men for.” He studied her, as if he knew more about her past than she suspected. “And how do you know they were miswired?”

She cleared her throat. “I accidentally picked one up when I was three. My father experienced enough angst to fill the sea twice over. Afterwards, he showed the neighborhood kids, my sibs and me how to disarm them. I thought it was a game, and I was pretty good at it.”

Lapis would have said more, but she noticed that a couple of guards had taken undue interest in their little meeting, peeking in through the door glass before retreating. “How safe is it here?”

“It’s not,” he told her. “I wear a marching shirt when I visit because I don’t trust Nevid.”

The three rats’ eyes popped, and Lapis had to control her own shock. Dentherion scientists designed marching shirts for front-line soldiers who might encounter fire from tech weapons. Had he modified his uniform, or did he wear one under it?

“As long as they believe you are turning in a stake, you should be fine. Do not return anytime soon, though, not until I officially terminate Nevid and can hire replacements for all the men here.”

“He’ll revenge that.”

Sir Armarandos half-smiled in angry agreement. “He will try. But his family has unwittingly annoyed my father.”

Lapis winced. “I see.”

“While old, he is still a fierce man when openly confronted. They will wail, but ultimately they will flee to Avida or Tavyk rather than face him and a court they deeply upset. King Gall doesn’t have the clout to overcome my father’s resentment or noble hatred to keep them safe.”

What had Nevid’s family done to earn such a rebuke? Curiosity wormed through her, accompanied by relief that she no longer had to deal with the ass.

The knight retrieved a form and slid it across the table to her. “I’m amused at how many chasers enter a guardhouse without the faintest idea how to fill one of these out.”

Lapis accepted a pen from him. “It’s that common?” Filling out the mundane had been Patch’s first lesson, one she resented at the time, and the only one she used after every stake.

The rats poked their noses over the form, so she slowly filled it out, showing them what needed attention, what did not, scratching ‘special circumstances’ where required, and neatly writing her explanation. Sir Armarandos regarded them with a small but warmly amused smile.

“Being a chaser, like the Lady, isn’t such a bad profession,” he told them after she signed his name to the form. “She is careful with her selections, careful with her planning, and brings many more to justice than one would expect. Her smaller stakes end up paying more than the larger ones that are complicated and easily screwed up.”

Rin smiled, large enough to brighten the fog-hidden night. “You’s thinkin’, we’d be chasers?”

“I think rats are uniquely suited to it,” he said. Lapis almost protested—almost—but a sudden chill ran up her neck and prickled her head. One of the men that chased them from the alley peeked into the room, accompanied by a nosy guard, eyes narrowed to black slits, his mouth an ornery grimace.

“That’s Seft,” Rinan murmured, under his breath. He leaned over the table, dripping onto the surface. Lapis rescued the form and slid it to the knight.

Sir Armarandos did not turn about, but lounged back in his chair as he took the paper and scanned the contents. “So I see,” he said. “Lady, it pains me that Nevid is dirtier than I thought. You need to leave.”

“Sir Armarandos, I’m not leaving you to face them alone.”

He raised an eyebrow at her. “This is not your fight.”

“You’ve always been good to me, and you’re practically the only guard my partner has even a glimmering of admiration for. I’m not leaving you to face Hoyt’s thugs by yourself.”

“I’m well protected, Lady,” he told her, though the mention of her partner surprised him. “You and the rats aren’t.”

“We’s squirrely,” Rin told him.

“I run faster than you think,” Lykas said.

“We have lots of practice, tripping those who are trying to run down another rat,” Scand piped up.

“No. You three need to run to the Eaves and tell Raban I need help.” She doubted Hoyt’s thugs knew the streets well enough to track them if they took their special routes. Hopefully Brander had gone back to the tavern after his eavesdropping session. If not, the Blue Council members would have an exciting night after all.

“Raban?” Sir Armarandos asked, blinking in surprise. “He’s the man you didn’t list a name for on the form.”

“Yeah. He’s a good friend. He’s also no slouch in a fight.” She leaned over the table, pressing her bosom into the edge, letting her cloak fall around her. She adjusted her gauntlets and slid a throwing knife into her palm. “Rin, you and Lykas leave first. Talk about how boring filling out forms is. Something like that. Scand, trail them. If things get out of hand, Rin can keep them busy while the two of you run for it. When we get outside, you do exactly as I tell you. No questions, no insubordination.” She studied Sir Armarandos. “You think Nevid’s here?”

“Yes. I will be very surprised, if Seft and those shanks are inside the house without his approval.”

“It’s going to take a while, to get to the Eaves and back,” Scand said, his voice trembling.

“Run as fast as you can,” she told him. “It may be, we won’t have to worry about it. Sir Armarandos and I can have a nice chat while walking back to the Eaves.”

“Lady, if you thought that would happen, you wouldn’t be sending us ahead,” Lykas said, folding his hands over his upper arms.

“I need one of you to alert Superior Fyor,” Sir Armarandos said. “We’ve been cautiously planning for this, and he’ll be ready. Due to Mama’s presence, he’ll be at the Lells Guardhouse.”

“All right. Let’s go,” she said.

Lapis rose and stretched, attempting casual. Her body had stiffened from cold and fear, but she needed her muscles to work properly. The rats hopped up, as breezy as if they had just spent the day at the Lells. She knew their acting skills—a necessity, to worm out of being caught with their hands in a purse.

Rin opened the door and Lykas walked out, rubbing at his eyes. “Who’d’a thought being a chaser would be so dull?” he grumbled.

“Lady spends a long time plannin’,” Rin told him. “Ain’t the most excitin’ thing, I ‘spect.”

“The Lady?” someone asked in a mocking voice. Merchant accent flavored the words, reminding her of Grey Streets residents who spent too much time around wealthier compatriots and picked up their speech patterns.

“Yeah, the Lady,” Rin said defensively. “She’s a good chaser.”

“Good?” They all forced their laughter.

Scand followed, looking annoyed. Lapis had weathered sentiment before and shrugged. Let them chuckle over her presence; she made more bits than most of them doing the small, odd jobs that did not pay enough to attract much chaser attention. Unbidden, she thought of the alchemist’s unexpected visit to the farm and hoped she had seared the end of that string of fate, or the night would prove painful, indeed.

The rats did not even pause, but scooted past the guttershanks, glaring. Five men stood in the hallway, the three who drove them from the alley and two of their buddies, leaning against the wall opposite each other, arms crossed, looking lazy and mean. She did not notice a guard, even the ones that peeked in earlier. Cowards.

The one Rin called Seft took her measure. He wore soaked brown pants with ragged bottoms and a sodden brown shirt that looked threadbare in places. His clothing and hair dribbled rivulets to the tiled floor, making a shiny puddle about him. He scratched at his scraggles, drawing attention to a thick scar that ran from his temple to his lip, and leered. “Lady, huh?” he asked. “What you a lady of?”

“Many things,” she replied as she turned sideways to slide past.

It did not take a genius to know, one would grab her.

Idiots.

She whacked him in the privates; the closed area made certain he could not react in time to protect himself. He howled and bent over while she dodged the manic punch of his companion and rolled to the far side. She flipped to her feet and readied the throwing knife; Seft went down like a bar of lead as Sir Armarandos took advantage of his distraction and decked him in the temple with a nightstick. The top, made from some sort of milky glass, glowed a soft yellow. Tech. Did knights use them as official weapons? She had never noticed him with it, but her previous experiences with him had taken place at guardhouses he felt comfortable visiting.

She nailed the puncher in the head with the blunt end of her knife, and he wobbled about and lost his footing, sliding to the floor. The knight made certain he stayed there.

The last two guttershanks did not do more than turn before Sir Armarandos slammed the top of his weapon into their backs; they arched and jerked around before falling, twitching. He tapped the one she had hit, a precaution, and straightened.

“Nice stick,” she murmured. She noted the rats stood in the doorway, which meant more men waited for them outside.

“My father insisted on it, when he realized Nevid planned revenge,” the man told her, a smile playing on his lips. “He bought it in Dentheria before I was born and used it on his share of rivals and guttershanks before my grandfather sternly told him to stop. I, at least, have a lawful reason to wield it.”

She chuckled.

The rain drummed harder against the roof as she halted next to Scand and peered into the fog-filled yard; Superior Nevid stood there, backed by a dozen guards, a maniacal, gleeful smile lighting his face. Far too much stubble coated his chin for it to be uniform-compliant, and by the heavy glaze to his eyes, he took an excessive amount of drug before gaining the gall to confront the knight. His men kept glancing about, nervous rather than expectant, as if they thought this a very, very terrible idea but supported their superior anyway.

It would earn them a jail cell. Sir Armarandos would not fall so easily.

She smiled and stepped forward, just far enough to stand before the tense rats but still be under the awning. “Well, now, don’t tell me those guttershanks drove you from the house.”

Nevid grinned, his lips pulled too tightly over his teeth. “And why did you pay a little visit to the house tonight?” he asked. “Word is, you’re a snitch.”

“A snitch.” She raised an eyebrow. “I’m not a guttershank scrounging for a few bits, Superior. I’m a chaser, and chasers earn their stakes.”

He blinked at her, as if he expected her to admit his proclamation. “We all know, your partner does all the work.”

“You all know, huh?” She cocked her head at the man as he flexed his fingers and gripped the hilt of his short sword; his hand trembled, and the skin turned white at the pressure. He had definitely taken something before the confrontation. Hopefully it impaired him into the dirt. “He’ll be quite surprised to hear that.”

“And what stake brought you out tonight?”

“One that Mama’s presence made possible.” She shrugged. “Or would have, if a couple of rats hadn’t interrupted. I got location info, that’s all.” She hopped down the stairs, Sir Armarandos behind her, his step slow and steady.

“I sent for you hours ago,” the knight told the man in a calm voice as he strode down the walk. Lapis fought for that much control over her fear. “And now you arrive to do what, exactly?”

Nevid laughed, a high, fast sound, a contrast to his normal deep, mocking rumble. “I’m moving up,” he told him. “Over you. I’m going to be a knight.”

Well, at least he did not bother to hide his intent. The short walk was slick, so she stepped off it, to the left. The grass squeaked under her boots, and the blades squished down into the soft mud. She would need to fight on the graveled turnaround, where she would have less chance of losing her footing or stepping into a deep puddle. Sir Armarandos confidently stopped at the edge of the walk, the stick held loosely at his side, and she moved to stand at his back; a few guards snickered.

“Think your daddy’s going to pay for a proper burial?” Nevid asked, a hint of his nastiness in his tone.

“If you do down me, my burial will not be your most pressing concern,” he said, as if Nevid should already know. “My father has sent his share of wounded nobles over the bridge and into the Pit. He isn’t a pleasant or forgiving man, and there’s nothing about your family that will make him change his revengeful streak.”

Lapis expected it, but the tech shot to the chest still frightened her. Her heart beat fast enough she fought for breath, but nothing happened other than a dance of red lightning across his chest. Sir Armarandos stood, resolute, and planted his hand on his hip, as if being hit by the attack a normal, everyday occurrence. Nevid immediately stopped smiling as his men babbled in aghast disbelief. A few fled while voices rose from the fog, protesting and making excuses. How many more surrounded them?

She gave the finger sign to run.

The rats raced past, into the fog, following the fleeing guards. Rin looked back, worried but not afraid. He should be. He should use that to propel his feet faster as he sped to the Eaves. A couple of guards turned as if to follow; knives to the arms kept them in place and howling. She dropped her cloak and slid her blades from the gauntlets; Nevid eyed them with a deep grimace while his men shuffled backwards, then they all looked wildly about. The wind shifted, and the unmistakable scent of berry-scented carrion lizard filled the air.

Lapis knew, from experience, that the stench of incense and rotting flesh could reach blocks away from its origin. Mama might be nowhere near the guardhouse, or she might be munching on one of the fleeing guards; the rats had enough mobility to outmaneuver the large animal.

She stepped onto the gravel and adjusted her stance. “Guess those marching shirts are worth the metgals they charge for them.”

Sir Armarandos chuckled. “Random tech in unskilled hands is never the winning throw they expect.”

Even so, this would not be fun.


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