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In the world of Lapis of Nicodem

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Chapter 1: A Typical Day

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Lapis swore the pitted wooden table bowed under the weight of the head-sized container Patch dumped onto it. Brander chuckled and gulped what remained in his glass before sliding it to the chaser for his share of the wake juice.

Patch’s grin near cracked his face, and she glared back. Yes, she asked for wake juice. No, she did not want to drink the stuff without cream or sweet. Gagging on the bitterness held no appeal, and might draw unwanted attention to them from other, obnoxious diners invested enough in their beer to boldly mock their neighbors.

Her partner sat, and with a twinkle in his sky-blue eye, withdrew his hand from behind his back. He proffered one of the pink glass mini-jugs that the proprietors of the Wine and Brandy outfit lent to their best customers, with the stipulation that they return the vessels to their stall. The Night Market crowd considered it an honor to bear one of them, so few who earned the right misused it.

She suspiciously accepted the offered drink. She popped the top, which consisted of a cork held in place by two square metal wires that attached to the neck. She sniffed with caution, then took a small sip. Wake juice, but with berry-flavored milk.

“Surprised you can smell it, with all the smoke in the air,” Patch commented as he flipped his blond bangs from his eyes and leaned over for a kiss. She savored his soft lips, wishing they lounged in another, more sensual setting. He grinned as if trailing her thoughts and straightened to pour Brander enough juice to keep his gold eyes bugged out for the remainder of the night.

“I concentrate on the better smells,” she told him. Yes, the market reeked of smoke; the night breezes had conscripted the chill of End Year, so doors remained closed, locking in the haze and stench produced by fire-warmed ovens and stoves and cigarettes, but the aroma of cooked food often overshadowed the less pleasant odors. That night, Larkey’s sold a special lovebird meal, and the soft, delicious scent of the spicy cheese they used to drown the steak filled the entire bottom level of the market, like delectable incense.

She loved steak slathered in cheese. She wanted one, to eat with Patch as they snuggled in a corner table under the dim yellow fruit oil lamps, forgetting about the outer world while indulging in tasty food and drink, but this trip to the Night Market held no pleasure.

“That cheese does smell good,” Brander said as he tipped back the wake juice and downed it in one humongous gulp.

“They have a line wrapped around half the place,” Patch laughed as he hefted the container and poured the bitter stuff into his dented glass. “The Wine and Brandy server said someone is standing at the side and only taking orders for the steak, and there’s still an hour wait just to speak to them.”

Considering the envious looks other vendors granted Larkey’s, they likely aspired to develop a meal equal in popularity, bringing excited custom to their stalls.

Raucous laughter erupted from the table next to them; four shanks, all in various states of absent teeth, scraggles and knotted hair, clanked their beer steins together, spilling a good bit of rich amber across the table. Lapis raised her lip; they could afford better swill because they returned from Ambercaast laden with stolen aquatheerdaal. The undermarket’s High Low shop had snatched the proffered mineral for an undisclosed but huge sum of metgal, then lured the Minq into purchasing it with a feint towards the palace.

Patch said High Low was now under new management, one far friendlier to the underground. The previous proprietor’s clout concerning advanced tech did not spare him the syndicate’s wrath at the threat, and he scurried out of Jiy before ill befell him. He should have known that ending. In the two weeks since her return from Ambercaast, the Minq had dealt with plenty of obnoxious shanks trying to gain a metgal or two from stolen aquatheerdaal. They threatened the syndicates with palace involvement if they did not capitulate to their price gouging, and the extortions did not sit well with the most powerful underground organization in Jilvayna.

And these four shanks had the pleasure of being targets, not only for their aquatheerdaal shenanigans, but for their bragged association with Hoyt.

In truth, Lapis had expected more to make it from the secluded mine ruins and into Jiy’s undermarket, but the khentauree and the terrons confiscated what they could from the shanks they caught. Neither wanted treasure hunters swarming the remnants of Ambercaast in search of the elusive mineral, hoping to secure a fortune.

She smelled the luscious cheese before a plate of steak swimming in the goodness appeared under her nose. The accompanying huge grin from Rin did not improve her sullenness, and Lyet’s giggle did not help.

“Is too bad you’s on a stake, Lady,” he said congenially, green eyes twinkling.

She hoped the heat she put in her purple glare equaled her irritation. Ashy rat burnt to cinders under her wrath would not tease her so again.

“We waited two hours,” Lyet told her, her reddish-brown eyes flaring for effect.

Two hours? She grimaced. No food was worth that amount of time—or so she believed, a woman who did not cook. Selda often created dishes that took that long to prepare, and the rebels’ tongues and tummies appreciated her dedication.

“We’ll tells you, iffen it’s worth it.” Rin pulled the plate away and sauntered in a random direction with Lyet, leaving behind a scattering of wrinkled, brown pages.

Their dampness produced an immediate scowl, but she unfolded them anyway. She had warned the rat away from the Night Market that night, though eliciting a promise from him proved impossible. She doubted he and Lyet visited just for a taste of the lovebird’s dish, especially since he knew the three of them planned to watch their stakes drink themselves into a stupor and then cart them to a Minq unpadded cell.

The scrawl, made in thick charcoal that smeared across the page, misspelled so many words she puzzled through the intent, while the two men snagged the remaining pages.

“I think this is a list of meetings,” Brander said softly as he slid his glass to Patch for more wake juice. “A couple are with the Beryl.”

The Beryl? “Dagby mentioned them, didn’t he?”

“Yeah,” Patch said, “because Klow went into hiding with them. He’s nasty, they’re nasty, so if they’re involved in aquatheerdaal smuggling, this business will become nasty in turn.”

“He might be.” Brander frowned at the pages. “Sherridan discovered a few references to him in Danaea’s things.”

“Klow trained nearly all the current hunters in Jiy, so that’s not surprising,” Patch said. “Only a few, like Dagby, ply the trade as it was originally intended, and they keep far away from anything and anyone touched by him.” He hmphed. “I wonder if she used his name in vain like she did everyone else’s. Threatening shopkeeps with an assassin’s retaliation rather than a chaser’s probably got her lots of free stuff.” He flicked the page with his middle finger. “I’m pretty certain this is a code. Lanth?”

She shook her head. “When I was reading Hoyt’s papers at Ambercaast, I saw the same thing,” she murmured. “Misspelled words, some so obvious I thought it might be a code. Hoyt ended his own name with a ‘d’, so it seemed a decent guess.” She retrieved a notebook from her chasing bag, and listed the erroneous words, then wrote the wrong letters in another column.

Patch folded his and snagged hers. “We need to have Wrethe look at it before he goes back home,” he said. “It’ll put a little extra in his pocket for him and Fawn.”

“I suppose I should ask Rin which shank he picked them from,” Lapis muttered, turning in her seat and searching for his red head above the general crowd of deep black and brown ones.

He and Lyet sat at a secluded table near the front, and she sucked in a breath as she recognized the third member of their party; Jerin. Her suspicion immediately roused. Rin had not worked through his resentment of the other teen for his previous good luck in living in a boarding school, and his current easy living at the rebel House. Since Hoyt remained at large, he needed to stay hidden, far more than the streets allowed, and that kept him in a cozy bed in a warm, dry room.

Jerin did not appreciate Caitria abandoning him to travel to Ambercaast, and while he had no idea what she did there, he resented being left behind. His antagonism irritated the rats no end, and even the kinder lot, like Lyet, disliked speaking with him. Lapis understood his lashing out; he lost everything when his mother died, and the people he latched onto had other things that occupied their time. Comforting him while he cried was sometimes not possible.

So why did he join Rin and Lyet at the Night Market of all places? If any shank realized his worth, they would kidnap him while concerned but timid customers looked on.

She finished the thought as dread shot through her; a man with stringy grey hair and a malicious, lop-sided grin wormed his way through the crowd, focused on the three rats. Rin noticed him, and she noticed the louts he brought with him.

She snatched the pages and shoved them inside her bag, then rammed her arms through the loops as both Patch and Brander rose; the good-time shanks had lucked out.

She wove through the crowded tables, holding onto her thick black braid so it did not smack anyone. Stopping and reassuring a smarmy drunkard that she had not hit him on purpose would cost her time. A shank stepped in her way; she reared back and punched. He flailed, careening into a table and upending the two cheesy meals across his stomach. The diners shrieked and lunged at him; two of those bearing down on the rats turned their attention to the commotion and their buddy, rushing to help.

Good.

Lyet rushed towards her as Rin tried to pull Jerin after him, but the stubborn lad dug his heels into the dirt floor and refused to budge. Idiot. Who let him out of the House? He rebuffed them when they told him his mother’s business had come back to haunt him. Would he see the light, after a shank shoved a knife between his ribs?

Rin jerked Jerin away from the stringy shank, and the lad stumbled near into another’s belly. The man arched away and said something before snagging his arm. His wail rose above the general talk and speech died as the custom turned towards the commotion.

Stringy hair pulled a knife, a mean blade the length of his lower arm. He casually raised it, pointing at Rin. She did not hear what he said, but from the rat’s fiery, rebellious look, she suspected he was their target, and Jerin stupidly planted himself in the way.

She popped a throwing knife and heaved it at the shank before she consciously made the decision. It nailed his knuckles, slicing the skin and drawing blood. He dropped the weapon and screamed as he grabbed his hand; Rin kicked it away, tumbled under the table, and scurried to the other side, avoiding his opponent’s late fist.

Was this who he lifted the pages from?

Stringy hair whipped around as she arrived at the cleared space, and he clenched his teeth together, the dark yellow color hinting at long hours smoking. He snatched a steak knife from the plate Rin had purchased and threw; she dodged before it left his hand and rolled towards him. He must not have a backup if he snagged an eating utensil rather than drawing another weapon.

Too slow; he reached into his shirt as she laid her blade across his throat.

“My my,” she said. “Who might you be?”

He attempted to grab the edge, an idiotic thing to do with a bare palm, but a swift kick to the tummy knocked him into a table and he fell, wincing as his back landed poorly on the edge of the wood. She glanced about; no one stood near, though security hustled to them. Where had the shank and Jerin gone?

Rin pointed frantically towards the eastern exit.

“They took one of the rats!” she yelled at the two burly men before running after the shanks.

Brander caught her step, and they raced through the cleared path. “There’s five of them,” he told her as they reached the door.

“Hopefully he’s putting up a fight,” she said, slamming her hands into the wood and shoving it open.

The blast of cold night air struck hard, and she shuddered. Damn, she should have worn a thicker jacket. But no, she anticipated watching guttershanks drink themselves under the table, then carting their worthless asses to the Minq. So much for a warm night drinking wake juice with pleasant co-chasers.

The few diners sitting at the outdoor tables all stared in the same direction, cigarettes ignored.

“Did they drag the rat that way?” she asked loudly.

“Aye, Lady,” one called, pointing to southern Slate Street.

“Thank you!” She and Brander ran.

Either Jerin had put up a fight, or his fear obliterated sane thought and he lashed out, but his kidnappers had not made it far from the Night Market. He sat in the middle of the road, shirt and jacket torn, shrieking loud enough to ring the dead. The shanks tried to drag him up, but he kicked and punched out, awkwardly and without strength, but with enough thrashing they avoided his strikes, which kept them far enough away that manhandling him became impossible.

“Shit!” one called as soon as they spotted her and the thief.

Two pulled knives, and while they appeared better prepared to use them than the common guttershank, Lapis doubted they possessed the training she had with hers. She triggered her gauntlet, the blade sliding out with a shing, and briefly mourned the lack of its matching brother. Patch had not bought her a replacement, and she vowed to needle him about it. She worked better with both.

The knife shanks nervously waved their weapons about, but by their interest in her weapon and their antsy feet, they wanted to flee rather than face her.

One backup turned to run and halted half-a-step into flight. Patch stood behind them, nonchalantly walking their way, the blue lights of his patch whirling in a race around the edges. The dim street lighting did not grant her a clear view, but she guessed, by his stride, he held his crossbow, pointed down, but pulled and ready.

“This’s Hoyt’s stake,” one called, desperately. “Hand over Red, ‘n we’ll let ‘m go.”

“You expect that to stay our hand?” she asked, annoyance overrunning her immediate fretfulness. “I don’t recall Hoyt being a noteworthy enemy. Or one who paid enough to face chasers of our caliber.” If they knew anything about Lady Lanth’s relationship with the street rat Rinan, they would know the threat would force her to take them out faster. And then she could interrogate them about Hoyt; if they came at the underboss’s bidding, they probably knew where he holed up after Ambercaast. Star’s luck, these five would take the place of the four drunken stakes.

The idiots took that to heart. Dangle a few bits before them, they switched loyalties quickly enough, and if those bits did not equal the danger, fleeing became a perfectly acceptable option. “We’s ain’t just Hoyt’s shanks,” one called.

“So you know where Hoyt’s at.”

Patch’s cheerful deadliness caused the shanks to tremble. Jerin curled up in a ball and cried.

“N-no,” one said, holding up his empty hands. “Came through S-Siward.”

Ah. Before the Black Hats kidnapped her and Patch from Underville, her partner mentioned that unknown roughs looking for Dagby had dragged the unlucky Siward away, thinking him their target. Too bad they had not kept him. Life without a simpering Hoyt peon was always a better life.

“So you know where Siward’s at.” Patch had a one-track mind. The back-of-the-hand smacks his buddies delivered to the chatty one proved they thought his tactic ludicrous.

Brander laughed, an ugly growl of breath. “Lanth, I think we can take it from here. It looks like Jerin needs help.”

The shanks tried to scatter. The warning shots from the crossbow turned their heels, and they huddled together, unwilling to take a bolt for their employer. “I think you’re right,” she sighed.

Lapis sheathed her blade and knelt at Jerin’s side. Brander strode past, intent on the enemy. They jumped as they realized how near she and the thief had come, but shuffling backwards would put them within distance of Patch, someone they feared more. Choices, choices.

“Jerin,” she breathed. He looked wildly up, and her heart broke on the desperate fear and agony marring his face. “Come on.” She settled her hand on his shoulder, gently enough not to trigger a reaction, and helped him sit. It took a bit to coax him into standing, and he immediately shoved himself into her side. She wrapped her arm around him; the dirt from the street coated him and getting him back to the House and to a bath would help his physical and mental state. “There are cartmen at the front of the Night Market. They can drive us to the Eaves fast.”

“I-I . . .” He gulped. “You knew my mother,” he said in a rush.

She frowned as she subtly urged him away from the confrontation—one Patch and Brander had already won, from the looks of the shanks. “I didn’t. I knew her reputation.”

“Rin . . . Rin said—”

He trailed off and Lapis vowed to have a conversation with the idiot rat about his purposeful big mouth. “What did Rin say?”

She attempted to keep her fury buried, but some must have leaked into her tone, because he silenced and refused to speak during the hiring of a sympathetic cartman and the trip to the Eaves.

Lapis guided Jerin to the back door of the tavern, pushed him up the dim stairs, and into her room. She hastily lit the candles on the table in the center of the floor and waved at the chairs set next to it. He shivered uncontrollably as he dumped himself into a seat, and she opened her closet to snag a warmer item for him.

“What did Rin say?” she asked quietly as she tugged the jacket from the hanger.

Jerin sniffled. “He said she worked for the underground,” he said. “He said that’s where all this trouble is coming from.”

“She did,” Lapis replied gently as she shook the jacket out. “The shanks who grabbed you tonight work for one of the underbosses she took jobs from. Hoyt’s looking to grow his influence in the underground, and while not powerful yet, he has a nasty reputation that can scare guttershanks into doing what he wants.”

“She was a guttershank?”

“No. No guttershank could afford to put you through Willington’s. She had specialized skills rings and syndicates relied on, and they paid her well for it.”

He began to rock back and forth, his face in a deep, disbelieving frown. She handed him the jacket; he stared at it before ripping his attire off and burying himself into it. His lower lip trembled. “He said . . . he said she did terrible things,” he whispered.

“Did he elaborate?”

“No.”

“It’s true, she did. That’s what got her the better jobs.” Lapis sucked in a breath. “Jerin, you’re not ready for this talk.”

He cast her a dirty look. Good. He still had fight in him.

“Your mother died without fulfilling a contract with Hoyt. They think you must know something about it, or you wouldn’t be a target.” She held up her hand. “But tonight, that was about Rin. That doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have turned you over to him if they realized who you were. You would have been a surprise bonus.”

He shook his head, slow and wobbly. “I thought she was a jeweler. Besides that, she never talked about anything to do with work.”

“Because she thought to keep you safe. Whatever your mother did for a living, know that she loved you so much, to keep you away from the bad, she paid to have you schooled at Willington’s. Your mother hurt a lot of people for pay. It comes with working for the underground. But never doubt, she loved you and wanted the best for you. Her actions prove that.”

He nodded as tears fell. “How much more is there, to it?” he whispered.

“A bit. I wish I had a better answer for you, but I don’t.”

“Why won’t you tell me the truth?”

She made certain to meet his eyes. “Because you don’t trust me enough to accept it.”

He blinked rapidly, swallowed hard, and looked at his feet.

“I’m assuming that’s why you asked Rin? You thought he’d tell you.”

He nodded. “He doesn’t like me,” he admitted. “I . . . don’t know why. But I figured, if he doesn’t like me, he’d have no reason to not tell me.” He huffed. “He still didn’t.”

“Because he’s smarter than you give him credit for,” she replied, then glared at the shadow peeking under her door. “Isn’t he?” she asked, raising her voice.

“Lady—”

She recognized that flavor of deep sigh, the one rats used before trying to weasel out of comeuppance for whatever stupidity they indulged in. “Get in here.”

Rin opened the door, appearing contrite rather than combative, while Lyet slipped in behind, serious, and closed it with a soft click.

“Are you two alright?” she asked.

“’Course,” Rin muttered, annoyed. “Take more’n a bit shank t’ gets me.”

“I want to know one thing. Did you set up this meeting with Jerin?”

“Me? No. Twas him. Got me aside in the House, ‘n was askin’ ‘bout it. Told ‘m t’ come t’ the Night Market.”

“So it was partly your idiocy.”

“Now Lady—Lanth . . .”

She folded her arms, and he trailed off, worming his mouth to the side. Lyet leaned against the door, resigned.

“Well, those shanks were after you, Rin, and took Jerin tonight because he happened to be with you,” she said. He frowned, then pursed his lips, as if realizing that Ambercaast played a role in that. “So tonight’s not a complete waste, because we know he’s staked you. Jerin, I know it’s hard, but you need to stay in the House until we can clear the stake on you.”

“Nobody wants me there,” he snapped.

“Yes, they do,” she denied and held up a finger. “But, just as your life has drastically changed, so has theirs. A lot of things happened right before you arrived, and the repercussions are still being felt. Both you and the House members need to adjust. It’s hard, to give someone a chance, especially when you hurt and need help, but please, do.”

“I thought you’n Fawn’er gettin’ ‘long,” Rin said drily.

Jerin frowned. “Well, yes. And her grandfather is nice. He showed me some things with codes.” The soft but present spark of interest in his tone caught Lapis’s attention.

“Which reminds me, I need to speak with Wrethe. Let’s head to the House.” She eyed Rin. “Who’d you pick the papers from?”

“He didn’t,” Lyet sighed. “Stupid shank, left them on the counter.”

“Was he with the men who attacked you?”

“Nah,” Rin said. “He’d just stopped in, got a paper bag meal from Red’s. Hurried right out, jittery. Not seen him ‘round. Dressed in a shiny Dentherion shirt, but onna them cheap ones, more’n like an undermarket or a Vale shank. Not Stone ‘r Grey Streets. Had blond hair, slicked back, ‘n no tan.”

“I suppose he’s going to get even more jittery, when he realizes what he left behind. Rin, we need to use your room’s exit.”

“Thought so. Is why we came back.”

“Don’t think I’m not furious.”

“Nah, you’s waitin’ fer the time t’ spring it,” he admitted glumly.

She smiled and patted his arm. At least they understood one another.

When Lapis thought about Wrethe, she thought of a grumpy old man growling about visitors. His quieter nature with his granddaughter, and the fact he took every opportunity to disappear with a book in hand, reset her assumptions.

When he vacated the crashed skyshroud he called home, red marred his grey eyes from lack of sleep, and he shuffled stiffly about. The break at the House rejuvenated him, though whether the absence of immediate stress, or the fact the rebels paid him well for the decoding he provided, she could not say. But his delight when he presented his excited granddaughter with a wondrous, blue-flowered dress he purchased with the extra funds meant he appreciated the work.

She searched about, the rats in tow, until she discovered him in a nook in one of the secluded reading rooms, plowing through a volume that would make her uncle proud. Rodas and Wrethe shared a similar interest in history, and she hoped, when she aged, she did not find small print, squinting, and ranting about the stupidity of long-dead idiots rewarding.

He blinked and looked up, surprised, not expecting visitors. “I thought you were out on a chase,” he said, lowering a book fatter than his torso.

“I was,” she said. “And things took an odd turn.”

“As they are wont to do, with you young people.”

Rin laughed, the ass. “Y’ mean the Lady,” he said. “Us here ain’t as trouble-oriented as Lanth.”

He cleared his throat as even Lyet observed him with dry incredulity.

“If you want a bit more silver in your pouch, we’ve some papers we’d like you to look at,” Lapis said.

“Sure,” he said. “Your brother’s very generous with the stipends. I told him, if he keeps paying me this way, there’d be no reason to work for the underground anymore. He said it’s in the budget.”

She grinned. “Good. We’ll be happy to have you. And, if you’re willing, perhaps you can show Jerin a thing or two about how you decode things.”

Jerin squeaked in shock, and Wrethe laughed heartily. “He picks up things quick. Like Fawn.”

“Is she going to follow in your footsteps?”

“Probably,” he admitted with a sigh. “She sure doesn’t want to farm berries.”

She hardly blamed the girl for that. Fawn, having experience with the countryside farms and little else, must want to expand her experiences. “Yeah, but those tekker berries are tasty.”

Wrethe chuckled as she sat and dug in her bag for the pages. “You and those berries,” he said. “Muwrie’s proud of her fields and brags on you and Patch buying her fruit to promote it. There’s some who come all the way from the Kells to buy berries from her, ‘cause she feeds Patch.” He accepted them, winced at touching the still-damp sheets, and glanced over them.

“Someone left them on a Night Market counter, and Rin snicked them. I don’t know how they got wet.”

“Hmm.” He tapped at the top. “These are like the papers you brought me from Ambercaast.”

“Yeah.”

“I’m pretty certain it’s a code, and I’m pretty certain it’s in a different language,” he stated. “One I’m not familiar with. I sent what I had to the workstation, thinking that it might be Meergeven, considering the circumstances. Cassa was going to look it over, but I haven’t heard back. Not that she isn’t busy, but . . .”

Lapis nodded. “She wasn’t expecting to become ambassador central.” Cassa had converted into the unwitting center of Ambercaast, brokering agreements between the khentauree, the terrons and the workstation, while translating for the scientists and mercs left behind. She did not envy the woman the work.

He closed his book. “I spoke with her over the radio. Her sincerity is plain, and I think that’s what’s playing out. As naïve as it is, she wants what’s best for everyone involved. Who knows, she might get close.”

“She’s stouter ‘n you think,” Rin said. “Tovi talked ‘bout it. Her family, they hated she adopted ‘m. Cut ‘er off, sayin’ she needed to rethink. She took the job at the workstation instead.”

“That’s a shame,” Lapis said. “Tovi’s smart, talented, capable, caring. He’d make a wonderful grandson. Yeah, he makes dumb decisions every once in a while, but what teen doesn’t?”

Wrethe roared over that one, while said teens glared.

“You’s not that much older ‘n us,” Rin grumbled.

She caught Jerin’s skeptical look. The tales told by the rebels returning from Ambercaast rammed against extreme doubt. She would have fumed, but she already had a plan to introduce the Grey Streets to a few very interesting beings—and in turn, show those interesting beings that their current existence was not the dead-end they assumed.

“This is where you all hide?”

Lapis jumped up and rushed to hug Faelan.

Just as she had as a little girl, giddy that her older brother had come home. Some things never changed, she supposed. She might have blushed, if he had not returned the embrace with a wide smile.

“You caught your stake?” he asked.

She shook her head and pulled back. “No, something else popped up. Hoyt sent shanks after Rin.”

Faelan sighed and glanced at the rat. “I suppose that’s not surprising, considering he seems to hold grudges tight.”

“I’s not worried.” Rin puffed out his chest, smug. “He’d need more’n what he’s bought t’ take me.”

“Still, you should get some training here at the House,” her brother said. “The shanks won’t be ready for that, and it’ll give you an advantage.”

“Especially since they’re targeting people you’re with,” Lapis reminded him. “It’s one thing to protect yourself. It’s another, to protect a friend.” She nudged Faelan. “Someone left more of those coded pages, like the ones we recovered from Hoyt, on a counter at the Night Market. Rin picked them up, and I just gave them to Wrethe.”

“Our luck, huh? Well, Cassa’s busy, but we have someone else who can help discover what she can in the codes.”

Lapis almost—almost asked who, but she saw the shadow behind her brother.

“Path!”

“Lanth!”

The khentauree pranced through the door, bending to fit, then buzzed at the frame with annoyance.

“Doors are very low,” she complained.

“We’ll see what we can do about that,” Faelan said.

Lapis wanted to laugh. Lyet stared the briefest, before dropping her eyes, regaining her composure, and jerking her head up with a wide grin. Wrethe and Jerin fared much worse, with round eyes, dropped jaws, and clenched hands. A mechanical being shimmering with a silver sheen that transitioned to a dappled pink at her withers, possessing a horse’s lower half and a human’s upper, made for quite the beauteous—and shocking—sight.

“But I am here to help with the Meergeven,” she said happily, clapping her hands together. “And in return, I get to see Jiy! It is a real city, not like Ambercaast.”

“So the code is in Meergeven?” Lapis asked.

“Jhor thinks so. Sanna studied them. She made connections, but we must look at more, to see if that was a fluke.”

“Jhor?” Wrethe asked, surprised. Then he put a hand to his chest and laughed. “Don’t think this ol’ thing can take any more surprises, lad.”

“You aren’t that old,” Jhor said, leaning against the jamb, arms folded. “I’m here to get Path settled, then I’m back to Ambercaast. You should visit. I think you’d find some interest in Gedaavik’s code.”

Wrethe raised a wispy brow. “You found what you were looking for?”

“Yes and no. Markweza Eldekaarsen of Meergevenis and his people interfered in most of it. Now that they’re gone, I can reassess.”

“Sils contacted me, worried,” the older man said. “He was afraid that workstation turned you in to the Lord’s Council after you went silent.”

While it did not shock Lapis that Wrethe knew Sils, that he had also met Jhor did. When? Where?

“Kathandra Duwein isn’t who you might expect. It's a good thing, she's in charge at the workstation.” The modder clapped his neck and rolled his head about. “Well, Path isn’t, but I’m beat.”

“You are human,” Path said, as if the fact hardly bore repeating. “I will work at night, when it is boring and you are asleep.”

He raised a skeptical brow, and Lapis grinned. “This is Jiy,” she said. “Some humans stay up all night.”

“Don’t tell her that,” Jhor cautioned. “She’ll make certain they do.”

Wrethe hefted himself out of his seat and delicately settled the book on the stand next to it. “Well, Lanth just gave me more papers,” he said, raising them up. “Let’s go pay Sherridan a visit and see what we can discover.” He clapped Jerin on the shoulder, knocking the stunned lad out of his stupor. “This is Jerin. He’s interested in decoding.”

“Hello, Jerin!” Path thrummed happily. He raised a timid hand and dropped it, uncertain what to do.

“And this’s Lyet,” Rin said, settling his hand on her back.

“Lyet!” Path’s head swiveled to the teen. “Rin told us about you! He is very happy, to know you.”

Rin blushed redder than Lyet, and Lapis hoped nothing she said came back to embarrass her. Jhor cast them a knowing look and settled his palm on the khentauree’s arm to catch her attention.

“Faelan needs to get us settled,” he said. “You can ask your questions about the rats later.”

“I have many,” she stated proudly, hands on hips, head raised.

“Lanth, I need someone to inform the House we have important guests,” Faelan said. “Then we’ll talk.”

“We c’n help!” Rin volunteered with a lopsided grin. Lyet nodded with vigor.

“Good.” She could not wait, to see the stupor on faces as they met Path and experienced her exuberance for themselves.

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