Lapis stared at the undecorated wall of her room, rocking her left leg back and forth over the edge of the unmade bed, and attempted to dare herself into a chase. She wanted to leave the confines of the Eaves, but prudent caution kept her there. A few days longer, and Heran’s stake should be a distant memory for any guttershank chaser who thought to take it. Copper and the guard had made certain the chasers above ground knew the payout was fake, and she had the impression a very unhappy Sewri did the same in the underground.
No one knew who copied the stake and spread it so wide; guardhouses outside the Grey Streets received a copy of it, and Fyor had to send an official withdrawal. Oddly, the acknowledgments of compliance stated that no one remembered receiving the stake, that it was not on the acceptance lists, but somehow it had made its way into their stake books. When Patch spoke to Fyor about the trouble, he confided that several guard superiors had initiated internal investigations because the obviously fake stake never should have entered the books. They did not want to deal with the potential career-ending cost of an unapproved stake against a wealthier, more influential person being slipped into the books and filled. If their self-preservation caught the culprit, so be it.
Lapis still had a hard time believing disgruntled rebels had nothing to do with it. What if the investigations led the guard to the House?
A sharp knock on the door made her suck in a depressed sigh. Rin constantly checked on her, and his worry aggravated her. She had no plans to expose herself to more danger than necessary, but he seemed to think her normal risk aversion had died when she attacked Perben. Not so; only the murderous rebel traitor could have prompted her to forsake her typical carefulness, and Heran’s stake did not elicit the same hunger for vengeance.
She heaved herself off the bed, paused, and cocked her head. Rin normally called out, so she knew who to expect. She narrowed her eyes and took a few steps back, wary.
“Who is it?”
“Lady,” someone said. A younger man, someone she did not recognize. A chill raced up her spine and she quickly slid one of her gauntlet blades from its sheath and set her feet. How lucky, she had chosen to wear them, even in the relative safety of her room. “I have a message for you.”
Sure he did. “Could you please leave it with Dachs at the bar? He’ll tip for a courier,” she said.
She heard muffled footsteps, and she thought they trotted down the stairs. She crept to the door and pressed her ear against it, listening intently. She heard nothing. She grabbed the knob, debating whether to open the door and expose herself to a potential attack, or wait until someone came to check on her.
The sharp knock made her screech, and she fell back, heart pounding so hard she could barely hear.
“Lady, there’s a message for you.”
She quickly opened the door. He stared at the envelope with a small frown, then looked at her, his dark eyes sober and serious, before handing her the letter. Someone had washed the paper in a yellow dye to make it look old, and the wax keeping it closed held a half-skull, the seal of the Ramiran Skulls. She blinked at it, then looked at a perturbed barkeep.
“The courier’s one of Mindi’s,” he told her. “And he had Midir’s crest, so this’s legit.”
“Why are the Skulls sending me a letter?” Lapis bit her lip and retreated inside, sliding her blade back into its sheath. Dachs followed, pressed hard by his curiosity. She settled on the bed while he locked the door, popped out a small throwing knife from the bottom of the gauntlet, and carefully opened the envelope with the tip of the blade. “If this is official rebel correspondence, this should be going to Midir or Faelan.”
“You’re easier to find,” Dachs told her.
“Hmm.” She should be impossible to find, if no one knew her city identity. She opened the page and scanned the short timetable. “Midir’s serious about this change he wants,” she murmured. “Jarosa’s coming.”
Dachs closed his eyes, raised his eyebrows, and made a huge production of blinking. “Jarosa.”
“She accepted the invitation to meet Lady Lanth at the Eaves upon arrival in Jiy.” Lapis stared at Dachs, a strangely calm anger descending as she sheathed her little blade with a shing. “And when, do you think, I was going to be informed that I was made the contact for foreign rebellion leaders?”
He had no answer, and she expected none. She carefully folded the page regarded the barkeep with stern heat. “She will be here this evening.”
“Lady, I’m hardly prepared to entertain a Meint Veritiate Deathknell.”
“Believe it or not, she isn’t religious,” Lapis muttered. “She’s a Meint because that allows her to be the Commander of the Skulls. I don’t think they’ve had anyone in charge who hasn’t had some official ranking within the religion.”
“You know her?”
Lapis pressed her lips firmly together, then nodded. “She often visited my father,” she said. “Unlike some of the leaders, she always had a kind word to say to us kids. I admired her fire and determination, and I loved listening to her rebel stories.”
“I need better food,” Dachs mumbled.
“Don’t.” She raised her hand and shook her head. “When I say Jarosa cares less about pomp and circumstance than a street rat, I mean it. She’ll be fine with what’s served, food or drink.” She smoothed her shirt, a wrinkled affair with ragged edges and a very worn feel. “I think I should bathe, though. Rin around? I want to use his tub.”
He offered, after all. He did it because he could gloat about out-bargaining Dachs for the suite, but she had determinedly promised herself to accept so generous a suggestion. Dachs laughed, his belly jiggling, the forced humor covering his nervousness.
Jarosa had that effect on people. Lapis puzzled over the reactions because she had never seen the confident woman as anything but a typical rebel intent on bringing the Dentherion Empire to its knees.
The sound of a key in the door caught their attention. Patch entered, distracted, and paused when he noticed Dachs. She held up the page and pointed imperiously at it.
“Jarosa’s coming here?” she asked, though her unamused question sounded more like a demand for information. He studied her, unblinking. Did that mean neither Faelan nor Midir had mentioned it to him? Better and better.
The street rat presence had dried up with the rain. Only the regular readers sat about the table, each with a huge volume, slogging intrepidly through the small text. Lapis had no idea why they had decided to read the set dedicated to ancient knightly practices along with Gabby, but they had. She idly watched as even Rin had to pause and slowly sound out a word or two; the scholar who wrote the thing loved long, uncommon vocabulary, proving his intellect and, in her opinion, his self-adoration.
At least the tattered dictionary finally proved its worth.
Patch handed her a page from several he perused, and she took it, smoothing the edges as she read through the neat script. The stake seemed typical enough—retrieve a stolen item from the guttershank who took it—but something about the careful wording bothered her. She squinted at it, before Patch retrieved it, tugging on the top before she released it.
“That’s what I thought,” he murmured. “You don’t trust it, either. This was at the back of the book, among the ones you usually take.”
“You were getting me a stake?” she asked, a small, glowing warmth expanding through her chest because he had thoughtfully looked. He must anticipate her returning to chasing soon.
“Yeah. Something about this one’s bothering me, though, and I don’t know what it is.”
She took it back and reread it. “Maybe it’s too scripted. Everything reads nice and not Grey Streets.” She tapped at the name. “Usually the poorer stakers attach their names because the only way a chaser will take their stake is through sympathy, and their identity adds to that. This says Lells merchant. Most Lells merchants aren’t going to write this kind of stake. There’d be a lot more emotion and misspelled words.”
Patch grinned at that. “True.”
“You have read some of the gossips’ stakes, right?” Lapis eyed him; the Lells merchants leaned to melodramatic when they staked a guttershank for theft, waxing long about the terrible burden it placed on them and their business. She had slogged through a couple that might as well have begun a saga, with enough awkward flourishes it embarrassed her to read them.
“A few,” he admitted. “The guard tends to laugh over them.”
Not nice, but expected.
Rin tugged at the sheet and she released it; he scanned the stake and scooted near, serious. “How comes you think it’s a bad stake?”
“It’s something you learn quickly as a chaser,” Lapis told him. “There are a lot of strange stakes that seem as if the person who took it out has other motives than those listed. Many chasers ignore that, but I don’t. You can avoid a lot of difficult situations if you pay attention to the odd. Ask questions if you need to. And research your stake. Don’t take the paper at face value if something bothers you about it.”
“You’ve given up on stakes, ‘cause o’ that?”
“Careful keeps her alive,” Patch said quietly. “It’s a good habit to get into.” He kissed the side of her head. “You and Lykas need to pay attention to this kind of thing. It’s easy for inexperienced chasers to get in the middle of a lover’s spat or a family feud and end up on the injured end of things.”
Rin placed the page on the table and pointed at the item listed as stolen. “Y’know, that sounds like the knife Dandi had, the one he was thinkin’ was real but wasn’t, just an actor’s prop.”
It did. Lapis frowned and reread the description. “You’re right.” Patch eyed her, his light blue eye intent, and she made a face. “Dandi tried to break Phialla and Ness’s pottery and took a swing at Lyet with this weird knife. It had a jagged edge, like teeth. Fyor said a theater company had their props stolen, and it was probably one of their knives, but he used it as if it were real.”
Patch studied the page, sucking on his lower lip. “And you said Orinder hooked up with Hoyt.”
“So, a chaser-targeted stake.” He jerked his chin at Rin. “This is something else you need to watch for. Chasers get staked, like anyone else. It doesn’t happen often, but it happens. Sometimes it’s because a person they brought to justice is pissed about it. Sometimes it’s revenge for something going on in their personal life. Chasers tend not to take those, because they don’t want to be on the receiving end of one. But sometimes the person taking out the stake gets tricky. They target the stake towards a specific chaser as best they can, and lure them into a trap.”
“So this’s a stake on the Lady, hid in a reg stake?” Rin’s eyes widened. “Never thunk, such’s a problem.”
“People suck,” Patch told him as he sipped from his beer. He normally hated the watery swill, but Dachs had started to buy kegs from the Sweetness Brewers, ones that were light on alcohol and did not rely on hops for bitter over descent taste. Lapis wondered how many customers ate at the Eaves just to have a non-Dentherion, flavorful drink with their meal.
“I wonder who took it out, grandfather or grandson.” She ran a hand slowly through her black tresses as she remembered the guard who had walked away during the Dandi confrontation and his reluctance to get further involved in Orinder’s revenge scheme. “Their bodyguards might agree to take out a chaser, but the one I confronted didn’t strike me as involved enough in Orinder’s dirt to risk his life like that.”
“Orinder’s in heaps o’ trouble, Lady.” Rin’s green eyes twinkled. He, nor the rats who plied the Lells, liked the man, and he returned their antipathy with gusto. “After you’s helpin’ Sir Armarandos at the Trees Street Guardhouse, the guard came down on ‘m, hard, ‘cause the guttershanks planned the attack at his place ‘n when they went t’ arrest ‘m, they found them tech eggs. The guard ain’t decided, who else they’s gonna arrest fer all them crates of tech. Orinder, sure, but his kin? ‘Parently Dandi ‘n his daddy ‘r sayin’ they’s just storin’ merchant stuff fer them guttershanks, getting’ good pay fer it, ‘n that they didn’t know what’s inside them crates.”
“They had to know about the stash,” Lapis muttered. “If for nothing else, what to do if they exploded.”
“I wonder why they even agreed to traffic tech. It’s not like they have noble backing protecting them from the consequences.” Patch leaned back, crossed his arms and tapped his fingers on his biceps. He had such nice arms, and they felt wonderful wrapped about her. She immediately pulled her thoughts back to the table; she had time enough later for indulging in his embrace. “Maybe I should ask Jetta to look into it. She’s bored enough to accept.”
“Bored?” Rin asked.
“Jetta . . . is a problem solver.” A nice way to put it, Lapis supposed. “But she normally solves problems outside of Jiy, not within. This will give her a chance to do something other than stand at Lady Ailis’s back and listen to the dreck.”
She noticed the three people first; they entered the Eaves and looked around, something tourists normally did to acclimate themselves to the interior environment. Two had grey hoods despite the lack of rain, and Jarosa stood before them.
Her brown curls hung free to her shoulders and bounced about joyously, a contrast to her dark, sober stare. She wore comfortable leather, something a successful chaser would sport, rather than the rich attire one would expect a ranking member of the Meint religion to don. She had short, scruffy boots, the laces wrapped about the tops a couple of times. Her fashion had not changed much in eight years.
Lapis heard the stomach-churning clunk of an ink bottle spilling.
She hissed and reached over Rin to grab the small vial before too much leaked onto the table; Scand grabbed the much-stained towel the rats used to clean up unfortunate messes and plopped it onto the ink, his cheeks hot with a blush.
“Scand!” Gabby protested, rescuing her thick volume from the runny liquid. She hugged it briefly then reared back and smacked him in the arm with it.
“NICE!” Lapis hissed as Scand stumbled back against the bench, sat down, then popped up, revenge in his eyes. Brone whacked his stomach with the back of his hand, a warning he desperately wished to ignore, but Lyet, who rose to finish staunching the flow, glared him into his seat. He folded his arms and grumbled. Both Phialla and Ness looked back and forth, then returned to their books, unconcerned.
Lapis looked at the half-empty glass and fought not to groan. Ink was expensive, even the cheap kind apprentices and novices used. Why had she decided ink-messy was better than charcoal-messy? She was tempted to force the older rats to use the slate and chalk, like the younger ones did when learning letters and their first words, but immediately thought better of it. Phialla would wipe her white fingers on anyone close enough to touch because she refused to soil her dusty gear with chalky smears, and the younger ones would follow her example.
She took the edge of the towel and wiped down the vial, keenly aware Jarosa and her guards had wandered over to the table and watched the proceedings. Half of her did not wish to meet her stern gaze, but she had no excuse. She doubted Jarosa had enough of a link to any of Alaric and Iolanthe’s children to care that she had lied about her death.
Or . . . perhaps she did.
Jarosa had teared, though she showed no other reaction. Her people studied her, concerned, and had no idea how to react. Lapis remembered her as a strong woman not prone to much emotion, though she had a heavy slant towards sarcasm in her conversations. That she almost cried, in public, startled all of them.
She waved her stained fingers at the chairs carefully placed at the table, towards the edge where Patch sat. “Please, there’s plenty of room to sit.” So much for a bath with flower-scented soap meant to impress; inky digits negated the cleanliness.
Jarosa smiled through her tearing joy. “Thank you.” She carefully sank to the nearest chair, then licked her lips and stared at the tabletop while she fought through her emotions. “I was told that I would know my contact once I saw them,” she said quietly. “I thought it too odd but came anyway.” She shook her head and rubbed at her eyes with the tips of her fingers. “I’m certain everyone tells you that you look like your mother.”
“And your brother.”
“We did inherit her black hair and purple eyes.”
“I’m happy you survived, Melanthe,” she whispered. Lapis’s heart froze. She remembered her name? “Dearest stars, I don’t know what to even say.” She dropped her hands and half-laughed. “Faelan is fond of his surprises.”
“Would you like to eat? The menu’s not bad, and the beer’s not bitter.”
One of the guards snickered, which earned him a rebuke from his partner, but his amusement flowed from him and flavored the air about them. She remembered, the first thing she had learned about Jarosa, was that the woman hated bitter and sour things and did not mind telling all within hearing about her dislike.
“I’d like that.” The rebel glanced at the street rats, studied a curious Rin, and eyed the large volume Gabby now clutched closely to her chest with a small frown. “Is that Arturo’s screed on knights?”
Gabby brightened perceptibly. “Yes! I asked Sir Armarandos about being a knight, and he told me his first exposure to knighthood was reading this set. He said it’s boring, and that he’d discuss what I thought was wrong with it with me.” She made a face, as if she smelled something extremely skunky. “I don’t think knights really followed what he wrote, do you?”
Jarosa laughed. “No,” she agreed. “I think knights were a bit smarter than that.”
“Chivalry’s not a bad thing,” Lyet opined as she folded the towel so the fresh ink stained the inside of it. “Treating others with respect and being generous are good traits to have.”
“It depends on the stories you read.” Jarosa leaned back, her gaze flitting around the table. “A lot of ancient tales focus on men rescuing helpless women. Helping isn’t a bad thing, but when society oppresses people to the point they don’t have any choice but to accept aid from an over-confident knight who expects a lavish reward, it doesn’t lead to liberation, but simply another form of oppression.”
The rats had opinions on that.
Dachs’s exasperated, embarrassed reactions to their impertinence almost equaled the glee the Skull guards expressed. Lapis knew, from experience, Jarosa rarely turned away from answering a child’s questions, though she never sugar-coated them for the young. She ate, conversed, and even laughed at a few things Rin said. While she had to work around a couple of slyer rat replies, Gabby left her speechless.
“Well, I’m going to be like Maritym, Knight of Kadenz, and Jarosa of the Skulls, when I grow up!”
All three Skulls stared at her. She grinned gleefully at the attention.
“Are you?” Jarosa asked carefully.
“Yep! They help lots of people, and I want to do that, too. Even when it’s hard, they do it.” Gabby nodded to herself, her black curls dancing about with her excitement, planted her hands on the table edge, and leaned over them, intent. “I’ve read about the Forest Knights and the Ramiran Skulls. And the Lady has stories, too! That’s why I get my face painted like a Skull during Ghouls and Fools.” She pointed at the right side of her face.
“The Lady has stories?”
“Yes!” Lapis could feel her own blush descend; Patch laid a comforting hand on her back, and while he did not look amused, his eye twinkled merrily. She had told those tales, never dreaming Jarosa would ever hear about them. They put the Skulls commander in a far different light than she normally stood beneath, and she may not enjoy the insight given to strangers. “I like the one about how Jarosa waded into a stream and rescued a little kitty from a log and how it tore her all up but she didn’t drop it. I want to be like that! I want to help, even if it tears me all up, because it’s worth it, in the end.”
Something passed over Jarosa’s face, quick there, quick gone, but Gabby’s words meant something to her, and far more than amusement that a young girl from another country knew about her and her exploits. The female guard regarded her with soft understanding; she needed to hear those words, for whatever reason.
Rin’s seriousness caused her to look at him, then the door.
Meinrad, dressed to impress, with four younger rebels accompanying him.
“Dammit,” Patch muttered through clenched teeth. The three Skulls glanced through the crowd, and the guards became far more attentive to their surroundings. Jarosa narrowed her eyes at the oblivious rebels, who glanced about to center themselves, then returned to the rest of her meal.
“Has your brother or Midir spoken to you of their plans?” the Skulls commander asked.
She shook her head. “I’ve been told, there is something going on, but not what.”
Dachs looked ready to ‘keep the bodies, if Patch had a mind to show his displeasure at their arrival. Patch looked as if he might follow through. She cast her partner a warning look, which he ignored, but Jarosa did not.
“Now, now,” the woman said, focusing on the chaser. “His days as an advisor are past. Just because he doesn’t recognize it hardly means he hasn’t lost his voice.” Her eyes narrowed. “I’ve been asked, very politely, to refrain from visiting the House. Some believe that if I accidentally happen upon a certain someone, I may leave blood and entrails in my wake, and that would be a terrible look.” She huffed and finished her plate. “I’m not in that generous a mood.”
Meinrad stomped over, his seething directed at Lapis and Patch. Rin returned his anger, but she kicked his leg, a not-so-subtle hint to keep quiet. The rat understood the Grey Streets, but tangling with a noble rebel leader intent on protecting his legacy would not end well for him. The others quieted and stared, sober and distrustful, gathering the books and holding them close to their chests, protecting them from danger. Meinrad ignored them, but the four accompanying him noted the reaction and spanned behind him as if they considered kids and teens a threat.
They needed to watch Jarosa more, but since she presented her back to them, they neglected her.
“I made it explicitly clear that you were to attend the meetings we had today,” Meinrad said, deciding to focus on Lapis. She clutched her hands in her lap, digging her nails into her skin to prevent her from saying something to out all of them as members of the rebel cause. Most of the Eaves regulars held indifferent views towards the rebellion, but that did not mean the casual customer did.
“And I made it explicitly clear that, until a certain matter was resolved, I wasn’t going anywhere.”
The man sniffed derisively. “You mean that stake?”
“The one you know nothing about?”
He snarled. “You accuse me—”
“You’re asking me to endanger myself so you can yell at me in front of a select few others. You obviously have no care about what happens to me.”
He straightened, a mean light brightening his face. “Then we have no recourse but to release him.”
Lapis felt her stomach drop as Jarosa looked up at the round man with a wide, expectant, malevolent grin. “Oh, please do,” she said in a low, throaty hum. “I haven’t had the pleasure, and I’ve so been looking forward to expressing my sincere belief in his evilness in person.”
Meinrad finally looked at her, froze, and fumbled.
She rose. Her confident fury filled the atmosphere, spilling across rebel and rat. Meinrad shrank from her, nearly colliding with those behind him. His support, uncertain how to interpret the reaction, nervously confronted her guards, who did not look averse to sticking them a time or two.
Hopefully it came to naught. Lapis would hate to have the floor stained red so near the reading table.
“I’ve little patience for your games,” Jarosa told him. “I’ve even less for the pain you continue to cause.” Her smile bordered on insane. “Lady Ailis asked me for help in her endeavor,” she whispered, a dark, alluring sound that sent shivers up the spines of her targets. “I want nothing more than Alaric’s murderer brought to justice, so I agreed. If you continue to interfere with that, I will be hard-pressed to think of you as an innocent bystander.”
“I’m certain he’s grateful for the warning.” Faelan leaned against the doorway leading to the stairs, arms folded, observing the confrontation with mild amusement. Tearlach and Mairin accompanied him, but Lapis noted no one else with him. Meinrad, flustered, mumbled something Lapis did not understand and Jarosa chose to ignore. The commander folded her arms back and tipped her head down, eyeing him with exasperated consternation.
“Your surprises are becoming far more elaborate,” she told him.
He grinned back. “I thought you might appreciate this one.”
She laughed and nodded in acquiesce. “Certainly.” She gazed at Lapis, a sheen of tears blurring her eyes. “Joy enters at odd times, and in strange ways.”
“Are you ready?” he asked.
“Yes.” She regarded the rats, who took everything in with wide eyes and no understanding—except for Rin, and Lapis wondered if he had already guessed the identity of their guest. “You know, I still have that kitty,” she said. “His name’s Water.”
“Damn cat,” her male guard muttered. “I can’t wait ‘til he dies.”
“You don’t think it’s fun, being a scratching post?” his partner asked.
Gabby stared in disbelief as they followed Faelan out the back, and Lapis found herself the center of intense attention. “Lady?”
“Meet Jarosa, Veritiate Deathknell of the Meint,” she said softly.
Meinrad, who had remained a small and insignificant presence until the Skulls left, popped back into outraged and aggravated Jilvaynian rebel. How many encounters had it taken between him and Jarosa, before he realized she won her confrontations and rarely needed a weapon to back her up? Patch laughed, a sharply amused sound that rubbed their opponent the wrong way. He firmed his lips into a tight ‘o’, a look Lapis recognized from several youthful experiences with wealthy noble kids who felt life owed them everything they desired due to their parents’ social position.
“How dare you keep this hidden?”
“I didn’t. It was a surprise to me, too.”
“This . . . this . . .” Meinrad stared absently and frantically about him, his eyes widening, his lips curling, his long beard jiggling about.
“I’m sure she’ll love to discuss it with you,” Patch said wryly. “If she doesn’t decide you’re an enemy first.”
“What’s she doing here?”
Lapis and Patch shrugged together.
“You’re going to be there tomorrow afternoon,” he said suddenly, pointing imperiously at her, and whirled, storming away in a flutter of rich gold and blue robes. Had he lost his appetite for confrontation? Lapis looked at Patch, who glared at the retreating rebel with hate, and Dachs, who followed him with a guarded expression. The men with him trailed after, confused. What, exactly, had they expected as an outcome?
“That’s Jarosa?” Rin asked, intent on her. Lapis nodded carefully; he did not need more violent idols to look up to. “But . . . she was arguin’ with us, even when we said something’ she didn’t like.”
“She doesn’t mind speaking with kids, but some people think she’s too harsh with them.” Lapis sat back, attempting to put the muddle of her remembrances and emotions in order. “My siblings thought she was scary. I never did. She was always willing to talk to me, so I asked her many questions, and I really hated some of her answers. I still do.”
“But she looked normal,” Scand said, rubbing his fingers together as if that would alleviate the ink stains.
“She’s a veritiate deathknell?” Lyet asked, a slight tremble in her voice.
“Yes, so she can be commander of a certain skeletal operation,” Lapis whispered. “She isn’t religious, and you’ll never see her in any official robe of rank.”
“Not religious?” Brone asked, frowning.
“The Meint are odd that way,” Lapis agreed. “But they respect her greatly, and she’s done so much to get medical access to the commoners in Ramira. There’s a reason she’s a hero to them, and it has nothing to do with godly standing.”
“She stared him down,” Gabby said suddenly.
“She has a presence about her.” Lapis smiled softly. “I always wanted to be like her, to fill a room with strength and cunning by simply standing within it. Faelan once told me I’d need a firmer handle on my emotions to accomplish it, and, well, I threw a fit, which, I suppose, proved his point.” She sagged down, the past walking before her gaze in shadowy splotches. “She introduced my parents,” she said absently. “At a private party being thrown for Midir. It was one of those you-must-attend-if-you’re-somebody social events, and Lady Ailis and my mother wanted to attend. Lady Ailis just happened to know Jarosa and asked her to help them sneak in. So she did, and then made certain they met Midir and my father, just in case antsy guards wanted to throw them out.” She laughed. “My mother thought them too conceited, but she made a far different impression on my father.”
And Midir. They never kept it secret, that the true heir to the Jilvaynian throne had desired to wed Iolanthe. Her father out-wooed him by gifting her a lapis lazuli ring, her favorite stone, a rare and exceptional piece of jewelry that she had spoken of only once, and that Alaric took to heart because he heard the longing in her voice when she mentioned it. Her mother said she had never had a beau who paid attention to her words, and she fell in love with the man who respected her voice.
“She was that close with your parents?” Patch asked.
“Yeah. You’d be surprised, the people they knew.” And every one of them would think ‘Iolanthe’ when they beheld her. How inconvenient, might that prove?
“You gonna go?” Rin’s soberness washed over her memories and drowned them in the present.
“I don’t think I have a choice. He came to the Eaves to confront me, stepping out of his comfort zone in far too many ways.”
“I’ll be there,” Patch said, regarding the unhappy rat. “We’ll make certain the traitor stays where he belongs.”
Rin accepted the words, but his narrowed eyes and his quiet thoughtfulness indicated he planned something concerning the inevitable conflict. Did he appreciate the danger rebels presented to him? To the other rats? He should, considering Perben killed Miki. Lyet’s unhappiness reflected her worries, and she hoped the teen could keep him tethered while the unwanted meeting progressed. She knew, if given the proper motivation, he would storm the House in his own sneaky way and plant himself in the middle of the shit, claiming himself ‘the Lady’s man’ while getting ready to help her. She wanted him safe, not exposed.
Patch thought a secret entry appropriate, and Lapis agreed. She did not want to encounter any rebel she did not have to; she had no illusions about her reception. She imagined Relaine had spent her absence spreading trash about her, an easy way to destroy her reputation while siding with rebel elites. It did not change the fact she chose the wrong side, and eventually, it would haunt her, but probably not that day.
The short tunnel, accessed by a nondescript cellar door attached to a shoddy mansion-turned-apartments across the street to the east, already had the torches lit, providing a warm and inviting entry. She had expected a far chillier initial reception. Patch closed the access, and they made their way through a once-tiled hallway, one that, before the Dentherion invasion, servants had used to scurry between estate buildings. Lapis had not realized how many such repurposed tunnels existed until Patch began his renovations of the mansion, and she wondered how many thieves used them to stealthily enter wealthier Jiy premises.
Dread wormed through her with every step. She did not anticipate many believing her story, and she knew her tears and heartache would be used as a punch to discredit her. Meinrad, Rambart, the rebels who threw their lot in with them, needed to explain away their support for a traitor, and making her the bad guy, the true liar and conspirator, suited their want.
They had not watched their little brother beheaded. They had not watched their best friend smashed by a mace. They had not watched the silent bodies of their family in coffins, had not smelled decomposing flesh mingling with the heavy smoke wafting from smoldering wood. They had not experienced the certainty that they, as a twelve-year-old, were not important enough to the rebellion for its members to care whether they lived or died. They had not fought the mind-breaking fear that they had no idea how to escape, how to live, beyond the confines of the smoking remains of their childhood home.
They had not dug their fingers into the rough, slicing bark of the tree they sat in for three days, the only way they could feel something other than panic, while Kale’s men laughed over the remains of her family, her life.
“You don’t have to do this.”
“How many rats will remain safe, if I don’t?”
“All of them.”
She sucked in a trembling breath before shoving her fist against her forehead and digging her knuckles in. No. She could mourn later. She could cry and scream and stomp in some secluded back alley, with no one other than Patch to hear. She could release hate and rage and the seething certainty that her family’s memory deserved sweetness and melancholy, not indifferent abuse.
Patch grabbed her and held her; she buried her face in his chest and fought the ghosts that snagged her, forcing her back into the darkest despair. She relived the terror of her realization that Faelan had abandoned her, and that she had to somehow reach safety wearing a tattered dress, ripped slippers, carrying no weapon or food, alone.
“Why do you think your tears will change their mind?” he asked softly. “Ripping your chest open for all to see won’t make them reasonable. It won’t make them stop supporting Perben.”
“My family deserves representation.”
“They’re dead. Representation won’t make a difference in that.”
She wanted to strike him in protest, and he knew it, too, because his arms tightened about her.
“Nothing you do will convince them of your sincerity or pain. Their concern is with their wealth and social standing and how much you being alive will inhibit their Blue Council abuses. Otherwise, Ailis’s evidence would have already swayed them.” He pulled back and cupped her face before she could yank away. “I need to talk to Brander first. Come with me, think about it.”
So serious, intent, with icy anger sliding about beneath. “You don’t think I should give them the satisfaction.”
“No. The only reason for them to call you is to gloat over your pain.”
But . . . she needed her family’s deaths, Neola’s death, to mean something. Their final agony stood as testament to Perben’s treachery. It had shaped her life over the last eight years and demanded redress.
Patch clasped her hand, and she forced her reluctant feet to move. She should have expected his words; he rarely allowed her to wallow in her delusions for long, even when she despised him for destroying her small bits of fantasy. Sometimes she wondered, if he ever felt pleasure in anything, a silly ponderance because she knew he did. Small, insignificant things, like when she gave him a hand-made chalice for his birthday the previous year, brightened him in a way larger happinesses, like rebel recognition, did not. She wanted to experience those larger happinesses with him, but he recoiled from them, as if they burned.
They slipped from the hidden doorway near the House room they occupied, into a dead-silent hallway.
Lapis head the muffled laughter of children.
“No one’s here!” a rough, older man’s voice called, echoed by the stomp of metal on wooden floorboards. It sounded as if it came from the front door, muted but brash.
Patch touched his patch and the circular ornaments about the edges blazed to life, bright blue light chasing itself around the leather. “Dammit.” Rage and disbelief. “The only heat I see is from the kids and from the front—and there are enough people there, it’s a palace raid.”
The rebels left the children? How—
“Lapis, get them out of here.”
“If the guards get near enough, I’ll distract them.”
“We don’t have time.” He kissed her roughly and streaked down the hallway.
She raced towards the large, brightly lit, sparse room that held one large, rush-padded mat and a collection of small objects Vivina dragged along with her to each section of the house the daycare landed. They moved about often, alighting in various spaces until the residents became irritated enough that they moved on, spreading the noise and the annoyance around. Patch said the movement ensured that anyone targeting the young ones would have a more difficult time finding them; Lapis thought it a way to aggravate each rebel living in the House by turn.
Her heart pounded so hard in her throat, she could barely breathe, let alone make sound. She streaked into the room, saw the small bodies racing about in play, caught the nearest child at the stomach, and pushed herself into the center of the room.
The five-year-old squirmed and she set her down before clapping her hands four times—four times to signal that danger approached and that the children needed to be quiet and listen.
The older kids stumbled to a halt, while the younger followed their lead. Vivina rushed up, angry, and Lapis stared at her.
“The palace is here. We need to go.”
Vivina curled her lip. “The alarm—”
“They left you,” she said shortly. They had no time to argue. “The rest of the House is empty. Grab the babies.”
The children crowded around her, the oldest, Bren, only twelve. Twelve. Franziska was younger, at eleven, and the rest . . . She lined them up according to age, then paired off the younger children with older ones. Vivina firmed her shoulders and drew a huge breath, ready to yell.
“Lapis. There’s a designated rebel who—”
“Search the ground floor first.”
The amplified shout crackled, distorted, sounded as if it began blocks away, but the intent was clear. Vivina’s instant, dumbfounded fear washed over her; Lapis grabbed her arm, turned her about, and shoved her toward the babies. She shuffled to them, too slow; Bren and Franziska rushed over, scooping up the two youngest—one nearly a year old, the other not quite able to walk—and scurried back to their charges, leaving the baby bags for the woman to carry.
Lapis put her finger to her lips and placed a hand on Franziska’s thin shoulder. “We’re going to the lower level hiding place. You’ve all been there, right?” Most nodded. One five-year-old put his finger in his mouth and simply stared. How was she going to get fifteen children and Vivina out of there if someone had used that escape route and locked the door on the way out? No. She possessed more luck than that. “Bren, lead the way. If we do it really quietly, I’ll give you all candy.”
The younger children perked up and she trotted over to grabbed Vivina’s sweet bag before planting herself at the far door. Bren led them past, firmly resolute. The older children kept glancing at her, anxiety in their wide eyes, a few with trembling lips. She patted each one on the shoulder, smiled softly, and tried not to wince at the array of shuffling noise erupting from tiny feet. Fortunately, that remained the only noise. Vivina had insisted that the children train for such an occasion, despite Baldur’s hmphing disapproval, and the familiarity of escape did not instill the terror that she expected. Not a single child had cried out—yet. Once they left the familiar confines of the House and entered the darker tunnels, she anticipated fear and tears.
Vivina hurried past and Lapis took the rear, wracking her brain, trying to think of a haven for them as they methodically trooped to the small, secluded niche at the end of a short hall, and its rickety stair leading to a once-cellar-turned-storage-area. The designated escape House was too far for them to reach as a group. The size would alert authorities, who would immediately investigate the odd. And if that odd occurred within the area of the House?
The palace did not care who died, in their lust to eradicate rebels.
The door was unlocked, and Lapis thanked the non-existent gods for that boon--no one else had escaped that way. She brushed past the line as Bren hopped down into darkness. She snagged a glass lantern from the pile lying to the side of the cellar door and lit it with the provided lighter; at least she did not have to worry about holding the object while trying to strike flint to steel. She gave it to the ten-year-old who walked after Franziska, another to a nine-year-old, and one to Vivina, whose stern anxiety bothered her. She lit one for herself as the children moved past, one by one, the old wood creaking and groaning, but holding under small feet. A couple looked up at her; she provided a warm smile and soft encouragement, and firmly set her fear into the back of her head. If she lost her calm, they all died.
Vivina began to rock back and forth, clutching the bag to her chest as a few whimpers from the kids below echoed up. Her breathing hitched, and her bottomless brown eyes quavered with tears. She likely fought the gut-punch of incredulous terror that no one had alerted her to the raid, and the helplessness that instilled. She, as child caretaker, did not wield weapons, so had no way of protecting herself or her charges from the pressing danger—and the numbing, fantastic scenarios of pain and death had a way of hindering action.
She still could not believe, no one had thought of the kids. Patch said that the rest of the House had fled, meaning they knew beforehand about the raid and evacuated. Had they not rung the emergency bell? That was what it was installed for. Had Vivina just missed it? Why had no one double-checked on the young ones?
As a safety measure, designated rebels were tasked with making certain each House section had been evacuated, and if the children were in their section, to help them escape. While not many lived near the room she and Patch used, except for Relaine and a few single people who did not mind smaller abodes, they still had someone to double-check on them. Who had been on duty? Someone screwed up and fled, rather than do their job.
Vivina scurried down the stair after a quick glance at her, and sympathy at her desperation roared up and filled her.
Why had Baldur left his beloved daughter behind?
Lapis pulled the door shut and grabbed the lock; she hesitated, because if Patch followed them, he might need the escape route. But no. She needed to protect the kids, and he would assume she locked the exit. She clicked it in place, fighting reactionary tears, and turned to the group.
Vivina had lined them against the far wall, holding hands. They stood in a small space that once had shelving; the rotting wooden walls contained large nail holes as proof. The dirt floor led to a dark, musty tunnel blocked by another door; taking that route would lead them too near the front door, and she could not take the chance the children would remain unnoticed.
Lapis walked to the right-hand wall, holding the light up to the wood and carefully searching for the small crack Patch had so carefully covered with thin paint, her mind focusing on the escape routes. Had Perben anticipated this raid? That might explain why he boarded up so many of them after Relaine showed them to him. Had Brander and Sherridan managed to unblock them all? Or had someone else continued the traitor’s duplicitous work?
She smiled slightly and set the candy and lantern down. Her fingers probed the long crack, breaking through the paint, but her tips were too wide to touch the hidden button. She withdrew one of her small throwing blades and rammed it through the narrow hole. She pressed down, hard, and heard a quiet click from her left. She yanked the knife out and put it in her gauntlet before retrieving the candy and lantern and heading to the door that had opened behind the kids. They turned, surprised, as she pushed the wooden barrier open with her shoulder. Bren gave her a fathomless look; she handed the child with him her lantern and shooed them inside. They stepped into the darkness beyond, followed by the others, and she counted them to make certain no one remained behind before she slunk through and closed the wall.
The lamps lit the narrow tunnel well, but shadows still hung about them. She heard the beginning gulps of children ready to cry and the sniffles of one who already shed tears. “Are you holding hands?” she asked in as calm a conversational voice as she could muster. She heard a scattering of affirmative answers. “Alright. Everyone, follow Bren. Bren, the tunnel ends in a room. Walk straight ahead until you see the next set of stairs. OK?”
“Alright,” he called.
She heard one of the younger children begin to cry and Franziska shushed her.
Doll. Lapis gritted her teeth to keep herself from yelling at the distraught child as she heard Franziska’s cooing. The child began to wail, and she fought the urge to grab her and slap her hand over her mouth. She needed to be quiet! Lapis doubted the enemy searched near enough to hear, but houses had strange ways of carrying sound.
The older children did more shushing, which did not appease the little girl. Lapis looked at the bag of candy in her hand—she could not give that to the child to hold.
“Vivina.” The woman produced a small, squeaky sound, and she felt oddly sad for instigating it. “Is there a toy in the baby bags?”
She stared at her, trying to collect her thoughts. Dammit. Lapis snagged the top of one; yes, a small soft toy sat in there with the diaper things. She grabbed it and handed it to the kid in front of her.
“Pass this up.”
The little girl, surprisingly, stopped crying once she held it. Lapis breathed a sigh of relief as the straggling line moved on. Vivina ran-scooted at the end, clutching the bags shut again. Lapis fell into step behind her, withholding a sigh because she understood the instinctual need to run. That would only panic the kids, and the last thing she needed was to calm down a handful of screaming, terrified young ones while attempting to lead them to safety. Her chest tightened as she thought of Patch confronting the palace men, one against armed foes.
She could not lose him in that way. She could not go through the pain of her dearest ones being butchered again.
The walk to the next room took a lifetime, though Lapis knew it only crossed under the street. By the time she exited the tunnel, the kids had lined up against the wall, and Vivina stood awkwardly with them, her attention on a flat trap door reached by a short set of stairs. Lapis went to the opposite wall and stuck her fingertips into the large cracks between the appropriate grey bricks. Only a few days had passed since she had shown Faelan how Patch hid keys behind loose stones. Had he used the route she had shown him or had he escaped with other Jiy rebels? Had he even been in the House? Jarosa had mentioned that she needed to avoid the place, so he might have had other accommodations to coincide with hers. She hoped so; she did not want him to fall to the palace, either.
She got the brick out with effort, grabbed the key, and replaced it back in the wall. She hustled to the door and unlocked it, then slowly pushed the heavy slab of wood up and against the back wall. A very short tunnel ended in a ladder that led up. She motioned to Bren, who hurried up the stairs.
“Bren. There’s a stick poking out from the wall at the top. Pull it. It’s going to lead into a narrow room that has two large windows. Go ahead and line the kids up against the wall when they get up there.” She took the baby from him and looked at his partner. “Can you handle the light and the ladder?”
“Yes,” he said confidently. Good for him. She squeezed his shoulder and smiled. They scampered to the ladder and made their way up far faster than she anticipated. Bren opened the door and light showered down, illuminating the ladder. At least the kids did not have to worry about finding the next tread.
“The rest of you.” Everyone looked at her. “Bren’s opened a door above the ladder. There’s a lot of light, so you should be able to see really well while you climb up the ladder. If you have a lantern, you can leave it down here so you can use both hands to climb up. OK?”
The kids did as she asked. The younger ones had to stretch to reach the treads, and Lapis felt terrible for taxing them so—but they had no choice. The pace was excruciating at times, with older kids helping the littler ones. Lapis purposefully spoke using low, calm tones to urge them on, more to keep herself centered than them quiet. After Vivina shuffled to the ladder, she hopped down the stairs, blew out the lanterns, returned up, closed the door, and locked it from their side.
She clambered up the ladder quickly, holding the babe tight against her chest. She pulled the scraggly, broken-twig lever at the top, and the door creaked shut. She returned the baby to Bren before handing out candy to the antsy children, who calmed as they popped the sweet into their mouths. She settled the bag below one of the windows and raised her hand.
“Alright, everyone. We’re on a roof. How many of you have ever been on a roof?”
Only Bren raised his hand.
“Alright. The windows lead to a really nice flat patio.” She held up her index finger. “The flat patio may be nice, but we need to get to the next roof over. Before we do that, I’m going to need to take a look around. You can sit down if you want. And if you ask nicely, Vivina might give you more candy.”
“OK,” came the chorus.
The woman jerked, startled. How fortunate, Lapis led them; she had the feeling Vivina could never have managed an escape with fifteen children by herself. She had trained for this, too, right along with the kids. If the rebels continued to employ her as a babysitter, they needed to assign another person who did not fall apart during emergency situations to help her.
“Lapis,” Bren asked, worried, as he glanced over at Vivina. The woman’s whitened fingers clutched the bags so tightly, Lapis did not think she could uncurl them.
She leaned closer to whisper. “Try to keep everyone quiet. I know this is hard, but you’re doing great, Bren. You’ve kept the baby quiet and led everyone up here. Patch will be so proud, when he hears about this.”
He perked up. “Really?”
“You’re afraid but still working hard to save the other kids. Of course he’ll be proud.”
The kids loved Patch. He visited their classroom every so often to help conduct escape practice, and they crowded about him and asked him questions and he sometimes told them stories. It meant something, for them to have his approval, though she spoke nothing but the truth. Bren’s courage had made her task easier.
Lapis opened one of the squeaky windows and stepped onto the flat, grungy area large enough for two to dine in comfort while watching the sun set. She looked to the slanted grubby-brown tiles on her left; up and in the center of the roof was the long, wide board large enough to span the distance between the patio and the building next door. Who had moved it? Patch had constructed a kind of draw bridge from it, where hinges attached to the bottom allowed it to be carefully lowered to the other side by means of a long rope. She noted the torn wood where the hinges had once been and winced. Sabotaged.
She scanned her surroundings, but no one else stood on any of the nearby structures. She hunched down and crept to the crumpled gutter; while the alley held no one, she noted a lot of movement to her right, in the direction of the House. Palace guards, dressed in brown and maroon, mingled with dark blue soldier uniforms; a crowd had begun to form, the residents of the Grey Streets standing on tip-toe along the walkway, trying to see what was happening up the street.
She bit her lower lip and toured the edges; all streets had some sort of palace presence on them. She had to get the kids across the roof, and quickly, so they could continue their flight before more soldiers and guards arrived.
She ran a hand through her bangs, studying the gap in front of her. The board was thick and heavy, and she could not move it into place without help. Vivina needed to stay with the kids, and Bren and Franziska were too weak. The twang of uncertainty threatened to explode into helplessness. How was she going to manage to get fifteen young children safely across?