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 entered the room below.
Brander 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 had more than enough training to take out mediocre fighters. Preparing eight years for revenge had its uses.
She heard the quiet echo of voices, higher-pitched than she expected. Had Dandi noticed something odd and decided 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? He certainly would not bravely enter the shed by himself, if he thought someone had broken in.
How many guards had Orinder hired? At least two, and she assumed at least one had remained at his home, protecting the shed and its valuable tech. No one had made the rounds, but the combination of rain and Mama had likely kept them inside, preferring light and warmth to a foggy, wet patrol during a time few braved the streets.
Almost-silent feet carefully descended the stairs.
She knew 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 did not touch anything inside. Smart of them. It would have been smarter, had they remained at the Eaves. The girls had. Because girls were smart.
She did not want to make a loud sound to startle them, because that might unintentionally alert someone in the house. If she did scare them, they would yell, and that would definitely bring someone to investigate. She quietly sheathed the long blades and crept to them, arms out. Brander leaned against the wall, arms folded, 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 had just proven 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, 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 had a difficult time believing Orinder 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.
“They’re duds, don’t worry, but that red square thing Orinder had in his purse? That normally triggers eggs like these to explode. These though, aren’t wired correctly, 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 thinks 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. Rin and Scand 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 heard the rush of water below and peered down. 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’d going to turn me in to the guard!”
“Old man,” the bodyguard who had failed to protect Dandi yelled, greatly irritated. “Do you really think everyone would have been so chatty and relaxed if they’d found 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 you left us behind at the Market. When we found you, you were in a crowd. Someone there took our shit.”
Brander knelt and stuck his fingers in the grate; he easily pulled it up with a minimum of noise. Lapis doubted Orinder and his guards had heard. 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 image 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!” Lapis could not distinguish anything else as the outer door banged open. If Orinder thought them still in the shed, he made certain they would know someone came for them. Lapis slowly slid the blades back out of the sheath; she had 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 bugled 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, when she gently took the knife from him that long-ago night, he let her. He had stood, head bowed, staring at his feet and the blood forming rivulets and running into the grout. She had folded his limp fingers about her hand and led him from the slaughter, from the pain and fear and helplessness, to the bathhouse that never asked questions, and then to her room. He had wrapped himself tightly in her warmest blanket and slept for three days rather than face his new reality, and she had 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 that night.
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 has 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 be looking in the underground markets if you want to get it back 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 had 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.”
“I don’t care if she’s walking the streets! People like that bit take advantage of things like that!”
“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 exactly gracious and accommodating to any, and she’s upset too many wrong people.”
Had she, now?
The bodyguard laughed. “Are you still pissed she didn’t apologize profusely and get on 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 turned sharply on his heel and stormed to the stairs, making certain to stomp as hard as possible up them. They shuddered under the abuse, bits of dust puffing into the air. Lapis sighed in relief; if Orinder did decide to nose 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 across the ceiling and out the upper door, which slammed shut, indicated they had left.
“They probably locked the door,” she said quietly.
“Yes. We just need to move a few crates to get me out the window,” Brander said. “Then I can 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 she heard nothing to indicate that one of the men had stayed upstairs. She hunched down by the desk while Brander softly padded to the trapdoor, and quietly, 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. Brander gently touched her shoulder—she felt the air move before he did, rather than see him—and he guided her to the crates beneath the window. They were heavy and stacked, a terrible combination. Whoever had placed them, while they settled them more or less on top of one another, still left small corners sticking out, enough for hand and foot holds.
They heard the lock click.
Before they could react, the door swung open; Lapis unsheathed her blade before the identity of the lockpick slammed into her.
“Hurry!” Lykas hissed.
They scurried out of the door, Brander making certain to close and lock it, before they followed Lykas to the back gate and rushed through. The rebel closed it with a soft click, and they made it across the street and into the darkness between properties without anyone associated with Orinder 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 near Orinder’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 shadows, though she had her doubts about 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 it. “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 heard no one approach.
“Did you recognize them?” Brander asked.
“No,” Lapis whispered. “They looked like guttershanks, from what I could tell.”
“I knows one,” Rin said, his voice so quiet she almost could not hear him. “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 badly?” Lapis asked.
“Contacts,” he told her. “I’m not certain how he originally came by them, though he probably inherited them. Looking through is 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 Dentheria and Taangis, and a few black-market tech merchants said he even had one from Meergevenis.”
“Meergevenis?” Rin asked, confused.
“The empire that originally gave Taangis its tech,” Lapis told him. “They’re supposed to be far more advanced than anything Taangis or Dentheria have. There’s 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 get troops here.” Lapis tapped her arm with her fingers. “If Hoyt is making his way up the underground chain, having a contact with 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. It had a lantern dangling from a thick stick at the driver’s seat, though its weak light did not illuminate much 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 rats 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. Lapis wondered about the twinge in her chest at the declaration. He had bargained Dachs for the suite and put his own funds in the pot. He planned to care for the reading circle rats, even if it was just in the form of a bath. He manned the table during her absences. He no longer needed her watchful eye or her advice.
“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 to 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 offa the 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, would practically 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 the common guttershanks have access to weapons tech. That one we took in at the Eaves is a good example. Think about Hoyt, being backed by a bunch of shanks 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.