Chapter 4: Connections

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Cassa taped the last bit of gauze to Lapis’s shoulder, then regarded her handiwork while Patch returned the remaining items to his medical kit. Lady Thais had put it together for him, and she felt terrible that he now needed to visit her to replenish his supplies.

She felt doubly terrible, to expose Cassa to the mess of her single room. Neither she nor her love had tidied up since their return from Ambercaast, so clothes and bags littered the floor, items lay in awkward positions on her table and the dresser, and she had quickly closed the walk-in closet door to hide the mess of half-hung shirts and random clutter. She seemed too neat of a person to approve.

“I would still have Patch’s aunt look at you,” the biologist told her. “But you’re cleaned, sprayed and gauzed.”

“Thank you,” she whispered, embarrassed heat creeping up her neck.

Cassa smiled and patted her arm as she rearranged the baggy shirt around her torso. “It’s no bother. I’m happy to help.” She rose from the mattress and arched her back. “I thought the excitement remained in Ambercaast, but your life is quite the whirlwind.”

“It didn’t use to be,” she muttered glumly. “I used to take small stakes for a few bits and teach rats to read. Not a lot of thrills, there.”

Cassa pursed her lips and tried to keep her chuckles behind them. “I’m certain Rin was a calm and cautious urchin.”

Patch smirked at the description, while Lapis agreed with a morose sigh. “Maybe a bit more than you think.”

A knock on the door and her partner opened it for Dagby. “Dachs’s place is ready,” he said quietly. Cassa brightened and hopped to him, wrapping her arm about his and beaming up at him. He smiled in disbelief and she tugged him into the hall, eager to behold the Taangin shield collection the barkeep casually mentioned.

Lapis bottled her laughter as she remembered Dachs’s reaction when she introduced Cassa. After hearing Rin’s stories, he skeptically bet her four silver that she could not produce a khentauree or a terron. She expected to shock him and collect on Fools and Ghouls Day, but now, after meeting Tovi’s mother, his suspicion that he had already lost the wager bit him and held.

“If you need to rest—” Patch began. She shook her head and rose, a tad stiff, and pressed into him for a hug.

“I’m the one who fought the hunter,” she reminded him. “So I can explain how he used the gauntlet.” His hold tightened.

“I think a few sessions with Varr might do you good.”

Wary at the comment, she squinted at him, but serious concern filled him. “More than openly working with you?”

“He won’t feel bad when he puts you in the dirt.”

No, he would, but guilt never affected his training. “Alright.”

“Faelan’s made a few rooms into combat drill spaces, so you won’t have to bite the dust in public.”

Generous. He smacked a kiss on her forehead, ready to pull away, but she clutched him closer, reluctant to leave his arms. Safety was relative, but his embrace promised protection, and she savored it like cake. He engulfed her, long enough that he softened against her, reminding her that his concern for her well-being was not an idle commodity.

“Are you alright?”

She peeked at an anxious Faelan standing in her doorway and held back a defeated sigh. Would anyone ever ask, ‘How badly did you beat him?’ rather than ‘How badly did he hurt you?’

Jhor patted him on the shoulder as he walked past, towards the far end of the hall and the stairs that led up to Dachs’s apartment. “She’s masterful with her blade,” he said, and a small knot of hope unfurled in her chest at the unexpected support. At least she had impressed someone in Ambercaast!

Dach’s place had a comforting, satin brown and gold atmosphere, a delightful chill permeating the air. Lapis sank into the deep umber couch and wallowed in it while trying not to overhear the huddled meeting Patch, Faelan and Dagby initiated in a corner occupied by a card table. She did not doubt, that the men who attacked her would not live long enough to repeat their ill-thought assault, because the stake would lure even the most reluctant chaser into action. She spared a thought to where her brother got the metgal, but he no longer paid for the Jiy House, and if short, Patch would loan him the funds without a word.

Jhor flumped next to her and stretched out, unconcerned. Both she and Cassa granted him raised eyebrows, which he met with a twitching smile.

“Faelan assured me that no harm will ensue,” he murmured.

“Because of Lord Adrastos?” she asked.

“That, and the fact something much larger than guard corruption is going on. I can be a handy source for Sir Armarandos when it comes to modded tech, and if the worst happens and I get arrested, the goodwill garnered here will carry over.”

She might have believed him over-confident, but Sir Armarandos possessed more of his father’s practicality than he wanted to admit. Of course, a knight who engaged with the legitimate heir to the Jilvayna throne and the Veritiate Deathknell of the Meint and refused to hand them over to Gall did not hold the king in as high regard as one might expect.

“Just tell them you work for the workstation,” Cassa said, pulling herself away from the display of shields. From small wooden discs to large, metal kite shields, the objects had survived millennia and made their way into Dachs’s collection. Despite peeling paint and dents, the noble crests and designs stood prominently, telling a story in a language Lapis wished she understood. “We’re Dentherion-sanctioned, after all.”

“Kathandra said the same thing.” He crossed his arms behind his head, his cotton shirt pulling tight across his muscular chest, an incredibly sexy look. Did he realize his effect on those who found him attractive? His casual movements made her wonder if hanging with khentauree changed his self-perception since the metal beings did not view humans in the same way as humans viewed themselves. “So tell me about this weapon.”

She and Cassa related all they remembered until a polite knock came from the front door. Rin sauntered in, Lord Adrastos and Captain Ryalla, Sir Armarandos and Superior Fyor, with him.

Of course, Lord Adrastos inserted himself into the rebel discussion. Sir Armarandos flicked a glance at them and did not interfere, so whatever they planned for the assassins had his approval. She also suspected he intended more than a meek surrender to Seeza’s request, considering the animated disdain his father expressed over Knight Superior Telden’s abdication of sense, and the urgency in which Fyor pulled aside another guard and the man streaked out of the guardhouse.

Perhaps that explained why the men wore everyday clothing rather than their guard uniforms.

While the three new arrivals showed more than a passing interest in the Taangin shields lined up on the wall, only the captain inspected them. Sir Armarandos and Superior Fyor had other business occupying their attention.

“Thanks, Rin,” Lapis said. He waved a hand and vacated, though curiosity probably drove him crazy. He better not corner her and Patch afterwards, throwing questions at them and hoping one stuck. “Sir Armarandos, Superior Fyor, please, have a seat.” She motioned to the chairs and couches that surrounded a low, tiled table set with three pitchers and glasses. “May I introduce Jhor?”

The man smiled and rose to shake their hands before all sat. “I’m told the shank who attacked Lanth had quite the flashy weapon.” He sounded as breezy and laid-back as he had when he first confronted them in Ambercaast, and she wondered if he hid unease beneath it.

“Just so,” Sir Armarandos said. Fyor unzipped the sack he held and withdrew the gauntlet. Jhor accepted the item, turned it about in his hands, fingering this, prodding that, a divot between his eyebrows. He tapped at the bent wire.

“I’m going to straighten this and activate it. I need a balcony or some other outside place, to do so with less worry.” He glanced at Cassa. “Care to help?”

Lapis had seen enough of its workings to last a lifetime, so remained on the couch as all others followed Jhor and Cassa to the roof. Dagby stayed behind as well, but Patch’s presence surprised her. He typically stuck his nose in strange tech and poked around, in case he had to face something similar in the future.

“How’s your burn?” he asked, filling a glass then flumping down next to her.

“Fine. The gauze is staying put for now.”

“That is not so minute a wound.”

Before she thought of a response that would soothe him, a loud thump from the ceiling caught their attention. Racing footsteps, more banging, crashes that shook the roof, then silence. They looked at each other and remained seated.

“Quite the first date,” Patch said, eyeing Dagby.

The ex-chaser laughed. “I admit, I didn’t think Cassa would continue to be interested after this afternoon. But she is, and her curiosity about chasin’, hunters, and illegal tech has only grown.”

“She’s not someone intimidated by a few shanks,” Patch said. “Ambercaast proved that.”

“No. Granna Cup will appreciate that.”

The two men had enough to idle chit-chat about until the group returned, the gauntlet’s laces dangling near to Jhor’s feet, the innards open to the eye, the bent wire settled back in its nest. Lapis thought he should take far longer to inspect the weapon, but they might have decided caution played better and retreated into the apartment rather than expose the tech to the random curious by remaining outdoors.

“This is quite the shitty implementation,” the modder declared as he returned to his seat on the couch and laid the item on the table. “If I hadn’t worked with the markweza’s people these last few years, I wouldn’t understand the foundation for this. It definitely has Meergeven underpinnings. Bov Caardinva’s people also had a few interesting bits of tech, something similar to this gauntlet.” He pulled the laces completely from the item and slipped the bottom leather covering away, revealing smudged metal. “Are you ready for this?” he asked.

[She focused on Jhor and not the creeping terror worming up her spine. ]

Lord Adrastos just hmphed and sat before leaning forward. Cassa settled next to Dabgy and pressed her nose so near the thing Lapis hoped Jhor did not bump it. The rest of them remained standing, but moved closer.

He tapped a disc the size of a small clam shell at the front of the wire casing. “This round object is something they call a pick-up. I don’t know why, because it doesn’t change input into electronic pulses. Think of it as a mini-generator instead. Aquatheerdaal powers the ones I’ve seen, but the yellow mineral powder here isn’t from that source, even if it has similar properties. For example, the beam gets its color from it, like tech weapons take on a bluish hue due to aquatheerdaal. It may be from the same mineral group, but we’d need to test it for verification.” He wobbled his head and pointed at the poorly wrapped wiring. “The wires are sparking because they aren’t covered as they should be, and those sparks race up the beam, producing the show. I’m surprised this thing hasn’t caught on fire and burnt the shank to a crisp.

“Anyway, the pick-up powers the working wires, so when the button’s pressed, the gauntlet activates. Strangely, a lot of loose ends run from the pick-up but don’t hook into anything. There are grooves and holes in the leather that indicate things were riveted in place at those positions, but whatever they were, they’re gone now. Why the modder removed them but not the wiring is odd, and definitely sloppy.

“The metal bar that goes through the pick-up is the casing for the long, stiff wire. The end sits inside this ball mechanism that holds a liquid. Once the user presses the button to trigger the beam, a small bit of the yellow powder from the pick-up gets dumped into this tiny tube and it slides into the liquid. The reaction triggers these handles, which shoot up the casing and flip these switches. The switches open a small hole between the liquid container and the casing so the reaction can escape. It flows up the casing, coating the wire in liquid and wet powder.”

He flipped the clamp to the pick-up and pointed at the end of the disc nearest the glove part of the gauntlet. Yellow powder coated everything, making identification of bumps and edges concealed underneath difficult. “The reaction’s explosive nature activates this small glass tube, which rotates, scoops up powder from the pick-up using a protrusion, and comes back around to coat the wire as it shoots out of the casing. Since the powder covers the metal for its entire length, the already-triggered reaction consumes it to the end, producing the beam. ” He glanced at Cassa. “I don’t think the pitting in the wire is accidental. I think the pits retain more of the powder, which makes the beam stronger.”

“It might make the beam stronger, but why chance it?” Cassa asked. “It’s horrible to have a gauntlet snag and catch fire while it’s on your arm, which wouldn’t happen with a smooth surface.”

“Weird tech is scary tech to the uninformed, and shanks like it that way. If they don’t think they’re in danger, they’ll abuse it for all it’s worth.” Jhor tapped the metal casing. “This is akin to what I saw inside slashers, a special tech blade Bov Caardinva’s guards use. Press a button on the hilt, and powder pours from the crossguard and coats the blade just before tiny holes open in the metal, leaking the liquid onto the powder. The reaction creates a beam that wraps around it. The scientists were curious about them because they didn’t seem good for much other than show, but Caardinva refused to let anyone examine them. I, um, borrowed one for an afternoon, and this gauntlet has the look of that tech, even if the implementation is shitty. I mean, whoever made this is using the pick-up powder as a generator and as a component for the beam, and the harm it would cause if the process gets screwed up is scary. Why not have a separate pick-up and another container to interact with the liquid, cutting down on the cost of mishap?”

“So it’s not based on link blades?” Cassa asked.

“No, I think you’re right, that the original idea came from link blades, but got warped into something else. I’m betting this gauntlet is several generations removed from what the initial modder created after digging around inside one of the scalpels.” He tapped the disc, returning attention to the gauntlet. “Now neither the generator nor the ball is full, so the shank had to replenish them. These clamps open and close the casings, which means he probably opened the gauntlet at the seams, like I did, and refilled them.”

“So the beam has a limited run,” Lapis said.

“Yes, and likely more limited than we might suspect because the yellow powder acts as both a generator and component. I’d need to test the powder and the liquid to get a good idea of how long it can stay up, though.” He pointed to a bulbous metal button sticking up from the disc. “This bulge aligns with the pressure point in the gauntlet’s palm. Pressing it initiates the reaction, then feeds more liquid into the beam if necessary by repeating the reaction process while the wire remains extended. There must be some way for it to travel up the casing and coat the wire while it’s in the open air, but I don’t see a way for it to reach the tip. I’m wondering if the shank pointed it down and let gravity pull the liquid and powder down the wire to refuel the beam. If you noticed, the powder sticks to the metal even when wet, so once attached to a spot, it stays put.

“The return of the wire into the gauntlet is like that of your blades, Lanth. The handles grip the end of the wire after the user releases the palm pressure plate, and then said user can manually slide it back down. I don’t see a way for the reaction to stop, though. It could be, since it has a short lifespan, once it runs out, the user can put the wire back, no problem. That’s what we did. I don’t have another explanation, especially since the user must release the button before they can slide the handles down.”

“The shank pressed the palm harder, and the beam became more intense, but I don’t remember him pointing the gauntlet down,” Lapis said.

“Hmm. That would fit, with him wanting a show to scare the tech-phobic, but not understanding how the weapon worked. I suppose the act of slashing might pull enough of the wet powder from the gauntlet to keep the reaction going. Very inelegant, considering the modding community knows dozens of ways to implement switchblade type mechanisms that aren’t so clunky.” He worried his lower lip. “The liquid and powder need to be analyzed and tested.”

“You could try the Minq,” Lord Adrastos said, eyeing his son. “Shara just brought in a cousin her grandfather recommended to set up a lab.”

“The workstation has equipment,” Cassa offered. “But considering the last few weeks, I’m uncertain we can get you a readout in a timely fashion.”

Lapis studied the knight. Did the guard not have access to a lab? If they did, Sir Armarandos’s hesitancy meant the taint of bad guards had grown. Not a good sign, for him or Jiy.

“Well, if you’re eager, there is someone here who can scan it,” Jhor commented. “Their sensors are precise enough to give us a good idea about what we’re dealing with.”

Faelan smirked, and Lapis glanced between him and the modder. “Path’s in the tunnels, isn’t she.”

Jhor’s exasperated sigh said all she needed to know about the khentauree’s insistence on joining them. Lord Adrastos perked up, and she hoped his heart withstood the shock. Descriptions from his people about a metal being with a human torso and horse’s body paled in comparison to the size and presence of a real khentauree.

“I would appreciate it,” Sir Armarandos murmured, sharing his father’s curiosity. Fyor could not quite hide his excitement.

Path was not in the tunnels. She was standing outside the door with Rin, whose wide grin told Lapis all she needed to know about how the khentauree ended up on the landing. Cheeky rat, how many urchins had he already introduced her to? His swagger as he closed the door made her grumble after him.

“I told you,” the khentauree informed Jhor with smug primness as she waggled her finger at him. “Of course you needed me.” He just snagged the gauntlet and held it over the back of the couch, unamused.

She ignored the demand. “I am Path!” she declared, settling her hand on her breast and facing those she had yet to meet. “I am the emissary sent by Ghost to Jiy.”

“Adrastos,” the lord said, his voice gravelly. Sir Armarandos and Fyor did not react in quite the same way, but their awe permeated them. All three forwent formal titles in their introductions, too. Because Path named herself Path, and not Ambassador Path?

The khentauree hummed in joyful greeting before daintily prancing to Jhor and accepting the gauntlet. After he explained the workings, she clicked, then stilled. A shiny cyan spot in the middle of her forehead grew, and her eyes, usually a blank silver, darkened to black with a pinprick of turquoise in the middle. Sir Armarandos looked at his father, who pried his eyes from her and regarded him with wonder. Fyor blinked, studying her as if he attempted to figure out how her parts worked as a whole.

Lapis anticipated their shock when they met Ghost and his sprites.

“Jhor,” Path said sternly, her voice near monotone, which Lapis associated with khentauree being serious. “This is very strange. The liquid is flowerburn, and this recipe is old. When the mines changed to new owners after Taangis left, the recipe for this changed, too. The new owners did not have access to dedirisenden. It is a secretion that comes from fern plants only grown in Taangis. So they switched to copol, which is derived from the local five-point flower. This liquid has dedirisenden.”

“What was it used for?”

“To burn waste. Khentauree worked with it, because humans died if they inhaled too much smoke.”

“Wondrous,” he grumbled.

“The powder is morgold flower mixed with the mineral lusic and keltaitheerdaal.”

“Keltaitheerdaal?” Patch asked, a disagreeable, dark snarl marring his face.

“Is that related to aquatheerdaal?” Lapis asked, worried about her partner’s adverse reaction. What pricked his anger over the revelation?

“Yes,” Path said. “It belongs to the same mineral group, theerdaalerides. Humans at the mines did not use it because the impurities were too expensive to melt out. They shipped the rocks somewhere. I do not know where.”

“They’ve fixed that,” Patch growled.

“Dentheria tried to use keltaitheerdaal in place of aquatheerdaal,” Jhor said. “There was quite the brisk trade in it fifteen years ago. When I modded for the army, it became the hot new thing to research, but it destroyed whatever aquatheerdaal-based weapons and armor we put it in. They fizzled and became inoperable. The Commanders poured a lot of money into understanding why, because on paper, there isn’t much difference between the two. No one found an answer, and then the next hot new thing popped up and they dumped that line of research.”

“A group of Jiy nobles invested heavily in it fifteen years ago, like you said,” Patch told them. “They made a lot of money initially, and when Dentheria dropped the imports, they had warehouses full of it with no one to sell to. They started their own research, hired scientists from Dentheria to come in and mess around with it. They claimed to have discovered something and nosed about for investors.”

“I remember that!” Lord Adrastos said, nodding. “That jackass Diros Mayventhel stuck his nose into my affairs, tried to blackmail me into supporting the endeavor. Captain Ryalla convinced him my wrath wasn’t worth his time. There was something to it, though; the nobles that invested got a nice return. They sold the stuff to someone, don’t know who. They’re still selling it, getting a good profit if you believe their bragging.”

Lapis swallowed. How much of Patch’s family wealth came from that investment?

“If they hired scientists to work in a lab here, it’s a good bet that a modder in Jiy is using their findings to produce some interesting tech for shanks,” Jhor said. “Not anyone I’m familiar with, though.” He looked up at Path. “Any guesses about the reaction?”

“Yes. It is complicated chemistry, complicated enough that it must be an accidental discovery. This thing,” and she hefted the gauntlet up and down, “is heavy and unwieldy and not precise. Whoever made it is not complicated enough to understand the reaction, just that it works.” She tapped the button. “This will not dose the liquid with the same amount of powder each time. That is bad.”

“From Lanth’s description, the man wearing it didn’t understand how it worked, either.”

“A button is simple. The reaction is not. The wire is not.” She tapped at the casing. It is jorgsten.”

“Jorgsten?” Cassa asked, surprised.

“I’ve not heard of that,” Lord Adrastos said, frowning.

The biologist straightened, flabbergasted. Dagby settled a comforting hand on her back, and she sagged. “It’s made by mixing iron with a rare limestone found on Taangis’s shores, and the government limits the amount mills can mine, so prices remain high. Some specialized lab tools are made from it, and I’ve purchased them. How ludicrous, something as kludged together as this gauntlet has metal that costs a couple of metgal.”

“They must use it for flexibility, but there are cheaper alternatives, like flim steel or char steel,” Jhor said.

“But cheaper alternatives may not attract the keltaitheerdaal to the surface,” Path stated firmly.

“Any guesses as to how long the reaction lasts?” he asked.

“I estimate twenty minutes for one coat of powder if the correct amount is used,” the khentauree said.

“And to stop the reaction?”

She shook her head. “There is nothing here that would do that. The reaction must run out of fuel on its own.”

“So whoever created that, sort of knows what they’re doing but hasn’t thought things through.”

Path stamped her hoof and buzzed at Jhor. “No. Whoever created this does not know what they are doing. You know what you are doing. You create elegant and refined things that have starts and stops. This does not.”

Jhor’s surprise made Lapis smile.

Lord Adrastos squinted at Jhor. “Captain Ryalla says you mod to help people.”

He nodded, melancholy filtering through him. “Yes. I destroyed too many lives when Dentheria had me remove soldier mods. Those people became shells of themselves, thrown away by the country they fought and modded for. It’s my recompense for being a part of that.”

“He helps khentauree, too,” Path stated proudly. “But that is not all, Jhor. There is residue of other powders. Most are theerdaalerides. Two are unknown to me.”

Jhor glanced at the room. “I added to the khentauree memory banks and updated them with all the info I had access to. Whatever the substance, it’s outside those dumps.”

Sir Armarandos pulled at his lower lip, then nodded. “Ms. Meygh, you say the workstation may not return results in a timely fashion.”

She sadly shook her head. “You’d probably be better off with asking the Minq,” she admitted. “Gredy and crew caused a lot of damage and now that we have to get the markweza’s people back to Meergevenis . . .” She sighed and waved her fingers at him. “Kathandra is requiring them to sign hush statements about the workstation and khentauree if they want to go home. Many are graduate students doing field work for their theses and they don’t care what they have to sign as long as they get home. As a goodwill gesture, I’m signing off on the research already completed, though continuing this line of study seems untenable. I’m furious Eldekaarsen used them in this manner. I’m furious their advisors manipulated them in this manner—and I can’t contact the institutions and complain because I don’t want to endanger the khentauree and terrons.”

“How are you sending them back?” Faelan asked. “I thought Caardinva sabotaged the markweza’s transports.”

“Kathandra’s father is Second Council. He has contacts in Taangis who know Meergeven diplomats. It’s a roundabout way, but they will get home. Eventually.”

“How many other substances are there, Path?” Jhor asked.

“Ten.”

“So someone’s experimenting, trying out different powders.”

Lord Adrastos smacked his hands against his thighs and rose. “I’ll go see Shara,” he offered. “She’ll be curious about this tech, too.”

His son nodded. “And advise discretion,” he said. “We may be exposing a tech smuggling ring associated with Taangis and backed by nobles.”

Lapis regarded the knight, frowning. “Wait. The generator at the Tree Streets Guardhouse Hoyt’s shanks tried to smuggle. That was Taangin, too.”

“Yes. This particular ring ranges far beyond Hoyt and Nevid’s petty ambitions, and, after inquiries, I’ve concluded the palace guards either do not know it exists, or accepted a king’s ransom in bribes. Likely the latter, since so many noble children like Seeza demand guard superior positions without a previous inclination to the guard. It is a convenient way to cover up illicit activity and make certain it remains that way.”

And lucky her, caught in the middle.

A loud knock resounded through the room. “Dinner’s up,” Rin called before the door opened. Dachs hustled in, annoyed, as the rat and Gabby followed, carrying trays. Lapis inwardly squeed; Rin, oh Rin, with his sense of comic revenge.

“Two silver!” she called, holding up her fingers, gloating.

Dachs frowned at her, noted Path, and stopped. The rats scurried past, snickering, and set the meal on the table. Rolls, and they smelled delectable.

“I’ll share with you,” she told Path as the khentauree cocked her head and observed the flabbergasted barkeep. “You see, Dachs bet me two silver I couldn’t introduce him to khentauree or terrons. He thought Rin was telling high tales.”

Jhor laughed. “I see.” He patted Path’s arm. “You can buy that hat you wanted,” he told her.

She buzzed, perking up. “It is a nice hat!” she said. “It is pink and matches my chassis. It is straw and has a ragged edge, and it is cute and floppy.”

“Caitria wears one,” Jhor said. “They looked at a catalog to find something similar.”

Lapis grinned. “And I’ll be getting two more for Tovi,” she told Cassa. The woman returned her glee.

“You mean, I’m goin’ to have to start believin’ Rin’s stories?” Dachs asked, disgruntled, fingers thrumming against his hips, a disagreeable look on his face. Dagby, of them all, appreciated that the most.

Climbing the Green Castle hills at night proved as horrible as Lapis imagined. Patch whisked through back ways and around mansions to avoid patrols and the casual stroller, and she wondered how often he visited his aunt for medical aid. He never related his more harrowing episodes to her, which she appreciated, but considering how he knew about guard routes and concealed trails, her worry grew.

She squeezed her pouch, which contained a cloth soaked in the sleep oil she used on shanks. Patch declared it a precaution in case a random noble came across them sneaking about. It made her wonder about previous, unexpected encounters on his way to visit his aunt. Bloody rebel seeking aid would terrify most.

“My legs are dead,” she told him, grumpy at the burn coursing through them.

“I know you don’t want to, but you’re going to visit my aunt,” he replied.

“But my legs are dead.”

“You’re still walking.”

“I can sit down in the middle of the alley.”

“I can sling you over my shoulder. Should be a fun ride.”

She growled and his lips twitched on a smile before he kissed her.

Lady Thais Mayventhel lived in the River Sister’s Temple, a dedicated healing facility used by nobles and the wealthiest of merchants. The complex sat on the southwestern tip of the district, on a tree-lined overlook granting a scintillating view of the Avranda River. A nice, quiet site of rich gardens, cool fountains, and stately milkstone columns and walls guarding cozy rooms where patients received care; the sisters maintained the look and feel of an ancient Jiy palace brought forward in time.

Lapis knew little about the temple, other than the complex housed a Dentheria-based religious order who charged outrageous prices for treatment. Humble help of the poor, as dictated by the Seven Gods, never crossed their minds, though, as far as she could tell, Lady Thais did not ascribe to their fake devotion.

Patch led her to an overgrown garden gate she initially thought was part of the vine-bedecked hedge. Had he a hand in its concealment? He jerked his chin towards the interior of the place.

“Aunt moved to a room facing this gate,” he told her. “She said she refused to have me drip blood on the tiles because they would lead to her room.”

“Do I want to know?”

“Nope.”

“Are you going to calm down now that you’re living with me?”

“Yep.”

She stepped through the portal, annoyed at the curtness. He might take less dangerous stakes from the public, but she had no illusions about the peril inherent in the ones Faelan gave him. Rebel missions always had risk plastered over them, because if the palace discovered the agent, a quick trip to the noose would follow.

Patch snagged her arm and drew her into the scratchy vines; she almost protested, but his quick hiss kept her silent.

“I don’t care about you and your intrigue.” Lady Thais’s voice rang clear if faint through the nighttime cricket noise. “Threatening the Sisters so you can see me will not change my mind. Get out.”

“You know where he’s at.” The sinister darkness in the man’s voice made Lapis shudder.

Patch sucked in a large breath before stilling, his eyes glittering maliciously in the starlight.

“Yes. In a coffin. In the ground. Beneath his tombstone. Or do you believe in horror stories and think zombies walk the earth?”

“Being Father’s sister won’t save you this time, Auntie.”

“Save me? And what do you plan to do, Gavon? I washed my hands of you lot years ago. Now get out.”

“Oh, we’ve evidence you heal rebels, Auntie. Do you really think His Majesty will look the other way?”

Patch patted Lapis’s cheek and pointed to a window with wide-open shutters on their side of the arch that covered a stone path leading further into the complex. He bent and crept to it; she mimicked him, dread pounding through her veins. She did not have the most intimate details about Patch’s family and his life before they turned him over to the crown for being a rebel, but she knew enough to realize he hated them to the depths of the Star’s Damnation. And now they attacked his aunt, the one who, once she discovered their treachery, disassociated with them.

She peeked into the room. Nearly the size of the entire Eaves’ second floor, it had a blue theme to the furniture and wallpaper, with silver tech lights providing over-bright illumination. Bookshelves lined the entire right-hand wall, a stepladder set against the end. A cozy chair with a side table containing a plate of sweets, a teacup, and a book proved the men interrupted her before she could enjoy her late night.

Lady Thais stood in the center, two guards in dark green and black uniforms pointing tech weapons at her, a younger man with a passing resemblance to Patch between them. He had shorter, darker blond hair and a whiny snarl, the standard look for self-impressed aristocrats who assumed all beneath their bearing.

“If the nobles I treat are rebels, that’s not my concern,” the lady gritted, raising her nose a tad higher. “They pay my fee, I take care of them. Just like any other Sister.”

Gavon’s grin, too much like Patch’s own, meant trouble for Lady Thais. Lapis popped a throwing knife from her gauntlet; if someone had to take him out, she would strike.

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