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.
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.