Chapter 9: The Past Catches the Present

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The lush smell of baking bread drifting from the direction of the Lells sent Lapis’s stomach into a breathless roar. It definitely wanted the tantalizing food, and she told it to stop. She had other business that morning than filling her gullet. She had not chased in several days, and she needed to pad her savings before she purchased such luscious fare.

Her brain, which wanted the food as much as her stomach, reminded her that Patch sternly told her to use his funds, since she had gone so long without a stake. Her stubbornness was not going to feed her. True enough, though she had a hard time accepting the generosity.

He had cared for her in Coriy, provided food, shelter, training, and she added little other than company to their relationship. She refused to depend on him for much of anything once they reached Jiy and to swallow her pride and take a few bits depressed her.

He reminded her, they were partners, in more ways than one.

Her shoulders sagged. Perhaps.

Varr breathed deeply, satisfied. “Crackle bread,” he commented. “Never tasted much better.”

“I love crackle bread,” Gabby told him. She loved it so much, she even paid Rin to steal some for her once. A tit for a tat, he told Lapis. She still wondered what the girl did for him in return, but suspected she had accompanied Maci and Drow on one of their outcity rock expeditions and collected fresh berries for him. “I’ve been talking to Sir Armarandos about being a knight, and he said he’d feed me if I listened. He bought me crackle bread once!” She beamed brightly.

“Why a knight?” Varr asked.

Lapis blinked at her. She spoke with Sir Armarandos? Then she remembered the volumes of Arturo’s dreck that he told the girl to read, and how the reading circle decided to join her in the pain.

Her memory was returning! Little bits and pieces, but the relief streaked through her, and the prospect of confronting Baldur became slightly less repugnant. She would suffer worse, to recall the events of the last several days.

“Because knights help people,” she said officiously. “And that’s what I’m going to do!”

“I’ve rarely seen that determination in a kid,” he said, his voice rolling through the air like soft honey. “Lanth here, she changed what she wanted to do twice a week!”

She sighed at the teasing and pursed her lips at the laughing rats. At least they spoke with Varr without fear; some of the people who scurried out of their way when they noticed him irritated her no end. He was not the monster they assumed. No, those types wore black uniforms and put poison on their blades.

She eyed the bored Dentherion guard positioned with the agitated city ones at the entrance to the Lells; after Ruddy’s, soldiers accompanied the locals in patrols, whether the locals wanted them to or not. No one was happy with the arrangement, and Patch said that Sir Armarandos had made a pest of himself getting the skyshroud and palace to reverse course. The knight pointed out, rightly, that Jiy did not trust the Dentherions to protect them, and a populace expecting slaughter did not go out and about like they used to. Business suffered, and merchants griped. Hopefully the Dentherion ones complained loud enough the Lord’s Council heard them, and something changed.

The entire city, from the opulent noble sitting in his garden, to the poorest beggar hobbling about and asking for coin, realized that something bad happened outside Blossom and off Crandleberry, and the hush-hush from the skyshroud and palace, combined with the soldiers’ presence on the streets, made them suspicious. The tales from that night startled Lapis; not many reflected reality, but terror inspired odd things. What had the farmers said, to instigate the wild fantasies of ghosts and monsters and syndicate attack?

Rin loved telling the story of their escape to anyone who would listen, and she wondered how much embellishment he provided when not in her company. He set them up on a chase, which, she supposed, bent the truth a little but did not break it, and then whirled into descriptions of blue and green lights and the horse jumping the Swift . . . she normally zoned out for the rest of it. She did not want anyone to realize she had nightmares about the escape, about something going wrong, about Rin morphing into Endre and ending up dead and her crying over him as the aircraft burst into flames that tore across the grass and swallowed her. She would get over it, but the rawness had not begun to heal.

Lykas was jealous of his adventures. Stupid rat.

Nerik trotted up, annoyed. He did a double-take when he noticed Varr, but that was the extent of his adverse reaction. He skiddled up to her and leaned close.

“Lady, Whitley’s at Phialla and Ness’s stall,” he told her. “We thought that’d be an easy place to find. That Baldur’s on the other side, botherin’ somma the older rats.”

“He bothered Rin a bit too much.”

“Yeah,” he admitted with a lopsided grin. “He’s realized his coin’s gone, but no one wants to help him, and he doesn’t want to talk to the guard.”

Of course not. “Thank you, Nerik. How are you doing?”

He shrugged. “Like always,” he said. “Not much has happened, what with everyone hidin’. They don’t like the Dentherions much.”

“Yeah. If you can’t buy food, tell Rin. We’ll get something to you.”

He grinned. “You’re always takin’ care of us, Lady,” he said. “Even those of us who don’t deserve it.”

Lars, perhaps? “I don’t do much.”

“You do what you can,” he immediately replied. “And that’s more than those with money fallin’ out of their pockets manage.”

“Good hearts are rare,” Varr murmured, his voice a deep rumble swimming around them. “It’s the reason they don’t have much. They care enough, they aren’t willing to crush others to get ahead.”

“That’s part of being a true knight,” Gabby piped up. “Sir Armarandos told me that. People won’t understand why you’re helping, and they’ll be angry at you for it. They’ll make excuses because they know they’re failing in their duties to other people, and the easiest way to salve their guilt is to tear down someone who isn’t so selfish.”

Varr chuckled. “Mandi always did have a way with words,” he said. “He’s experienced enough of it. Being noble, but turning the city guard into an entity that helps people? Even his dad thinks it’s a waste of time.”

Gabby nodded solemnly. “Lord Adrastos even told me that,” she said. “But Sir Armarandos reminded him how much he donates to charities. Not in Jiy, but in rural communities that have even less.”

They reached Phialla and Ness’s pottery rug. Ness waved, boredom turned to excitement. Whitley sat next to Phialla, listening to something she said. He looked rough, his clothing wrinkled, his hair unbrushed. He was sixteen, sure, but he kept better care of himself than that. What happened to him? He rose, unsteady, and stretched to hide the fact.

“You want to talk here?” she asked quietly. He shook his head and managed a smile for the rats.

“Phialla and Ness are good company, though.”

“It is kinda boring, sitting and selling pottery,” Phialla admitted. “Especially when no one’s buying.”

Ness looked sad at that. “I painted special ones, too,” he said, touching the top of a bowl with bright colors swirled together that looked far more artistic than his previous attempts.

“The crowds’ll be back,” Lapis promised. “Give them a few more days.”

“I hope Sir Armarandos can get them to leave,” he grumbled. He obviously meant the Dentherions, even if he refused to name them, and Lapis agreed. “They’re causin’ nothin’ but trouble.”

True enough. She jerked her chin at Gabby and Scand. “Go find Baldur and keep an eye on him,” she told them. Whitley looked faintly surprised as the two grinned and scampered off. Varr hunkered down and studied the pottery, nodding to himself.

“You’ve spoken to Mairin?” he asked.

“Yes!” Phialla said brightly. “She helped us make stuff that’s targeted to the Dentherion tourists!”

He chuckled. “Could tell,” he said, tapping the top of one of the cups. “That’s good. Learn what the ones with spending money need and ply them. You have the makings of a fine little shop, here.”

“Thank you!”

He circled his finger about the tops of the cups. “Wrap those up for me, give them to Lapis if I’m not at the Eaves later.” He tossed a few bits—and far more than they were worth—into their ceramic money jar. “I know someone who’ll love these for their tea.” She raised an eyebrow, and he grinned. “You need to meet Midir’s scamp of a daughter,” he reminded her.

Presents. That did not surprise her; he had a soft spot for those he loved. Much like her brother. She touched her bracelet, embracing the fuzzy warmth that coursed through her at the memory of him giving it to her. She had anticipated hating him for eternity, and her relief that he attempted to reach her after the slaughter, buoyed her. He failed, but that was not as important for her as his fight to slip his bonds and find any Nicodem survivors. Perhaps her desperation to regain the brother she adored drove her, but she accepted that. She wanted a small bit of that love to return to her life.

Several empty wooden tables and benches sat outside Jory’s Pastries, and Varr sternly told her and Whitley to find a seat while he retrieved something to eat. He clearly thought the lad needed it, and Lapis could not argue. She settled them far away from other customers, and he sank into the chair, weary and unable to hide it.

“How did you know to ask the rats for me?”

“The kids you rescued, they all talked about you being Lady Lanth, and they described what your reading circle looked like.”

“What happened, that you needed to find me?” she asked softly.

“Have you kept up with anything at the House?” he asked, as quietly.

“No. I was avoiding it, then I got poisoned.” His eyes bulged at that. “Yeah, Dentherion blades are coated.”

He nodded and sucked in a breath. “I know.” Stressed tears filled his voice. “They got my dad.”

Oh no. “Whitley!” she said, reaching over to place a comforting hand on his arm, concern, shocked.

“He was acting as a bodyguard for Vivina,” he told her, and swallowed hard. “Baldur was paying good money. Someone told the Dentherions she was with a bunch of kids on the day you escaped, and they’ve been searching for her. Baldur’s been trying to keep her safe, and he hired rebels to accompany her when she left the House.” His breath quivered and tears raced down his cheeks. “They caught her two days ago. Killed her guards and took her.”

Lapis closed her eyes. “I’m so sorry, Whitley. He didn’t deserve that.”

“No,” he agreed. “The House didn’t want to keep me on. I was too old, just another lazy mouth to feed. So I . . . decided to leave.” Anger ripped through his eyes before sorrow smashed it.

She firmed her grip on his bicep. Lazy? Whitley did far more for the House than most of the rebels, even if he did not go on missions. So many at the Jiy House completed one or two a month, and spent the rest of their time lounging about, spouting anti-palace rhetoric but doing little more to help the rebellion come to fruition. Whitley ran errands, and always helped when things around the House needed fixing. He acted as server for Baldur and completed a myriad of small tasks that added up. They would miss him, likely without even realizing it. “It’s up to you,” she asked in a low tone, “but do you want to stay with the rebels?”

He nodded. “Yeah. My dad wanted to make things better in Jilvayna. So do I. My dad thought sticking with Baldur was how to do it, but I don’t. I think Faelan did the right thing.” He sighed and rubbed at his eyes. “So many are pissed at him,” he said. “Some want a new Leader, someone they say who takes them seriously.”

“He did take them seriously,” she reminded him. “And they did such a good job at proving their worth, they ended up leaving their children to a raid.”

“Yeah. They all know, why he broke it. They don’t want to admit it. Too many relied on the rebellion for their work, and now they have to find something else, and no one’s really happy about it. Despite the danger, it wasn’t back-breaking money, so it had advantages. And some of them, they defined themselves as saviors of the country. Now they don’t even know who they are. They never expected their bad choices hit them so hard. And choosing to support Baldur was a bad choice.” He rammed his palms into his cheeks, to smear away the tears. “That’s why they don’t want me around. I was Faelan’s errand runner. I wasn’t like them, anymore.”

Those fucks. “Anyone else upset and leaving?”

“Selda,” he admitted. “She’s righteous in her fury. But she disappeared and everyone thinks either Brander or Sherridan took her to the new House. I don’t know.”

“Neither do I.” She paused, feeling a weight grind down on her. “No one looked for her?”

His sarcastic expression made her sigh. No, of course not.

“And Relaine?”

“She’s split the remaining people in two,” he said, his voice barely audible. “Some want her as dead as the Jiy House. Some think she’s their salvation. They still think Teivel is an important person in the rebellion. They shouldn’t, but they do. Everyone knows he survived the raid, and that he’s as out of touch with Faelan as Rambart and Meinrad.”

If anyone other than she had told them his transgressions, they would have believed in his sin. But her words never mattered. Most put up with her for Patch’s sake and having the option of tearing her down for their offenses gave them a convenient excuse to ignore their misdeeds.

Varr settled a tray of bread, pastries, and tea before them. He barely motioned at the food before she and Whitley tore into it; Lapis belatedly realized the bodyguard had only partaken of a few slices when they were mopping up the crumbs. He seemed pleased enough, so she decided not to worry on it. Unlike an unlucky rat, Varr could feed himself when he needed to.

She leaned over, intent and serious. “The Dentherions killed his dad,” she whispered. “The House kicked him out. Faelan’ll take him in.”

Varr regarded him, his grey eyes sparking. “Sorry, lad,” he told him. “That’s a burden you shouldn’t have to bear. Lapis trusts you, though, or she wouldn’t speak for you. While it’s your decision, heartache runs with us.”

Whitley rubbed his fingertips across his pant leg and shook his head. “I grew up with it,” he said. “I know. And Baldur wasn’t so interested in running the House, as he was in making money. People died over it. My dad complained about it a lot.” He took a huge breath. “We should have left with Sherridan.  I told him that, but he wasn’t sure the change was a good one. Now he’s dead.”

“His father was guarding Baldur’s daughter,” she said. “They killed the guards and took her. I’m betting that’s why he’s looking for me.”

Varr smashed his lips unhappily together and wobbled his head about, grimly annoyed. “Figures,” he grumbled. “Well, before that happens, let’s get you settled, eh, lad?”

“Do you have any things with you?” Lapis asked.

“Yeah. Rin has them. I was pretty concerned, about leaving them with him, but the other kids here told me I can trust him, especially if I knew you.”

“That’s true,” she agreed. “Rin’s one of my reading rats. He’s been with me since I arrived in Jiy. He’s annoying and brash, but there’s a good person inside.” She looked askance at the rat, who managed to sneak up on their little conversation. “I think. Might have to dig a bit deeper to uncover it, though.”

“Now, Lady,” he said, placing his hand over his heart. “You knows, I’s the Lady’s man.”

Varr huffed in laughter. “Good for you! She needs to be reminded she isn’t immortal, every so often.”

Rin plopped down in the seat next to the teen and grinned wide. “Don’t I knows it! But seein’ where she’s got it from, it probably won’t do any good.”

Lapis slammed her hands over her mouth and Whitley laughed at Varr’s exasperation. “Do tell,” he muttered.

“Rin, I need you to show Whitley to the House.”

“Thought as much. We stashed his stuff. It’ll be easy to get, ‘n I c’n take ‘m.”

She looked at the lad. “Tell Faelan about your dad and Vivina, as soon as you arrive,” she said. “He’ll need to act on this.”

“Before I left this morning, people were talking about Baldur wanting to talk to Patch. They’re afraid that Vivina’s going to break. No one wants to suffer through another raid when there’s nowhere else to go.”

Of course he wanted her partner. “Patch may be the only person Baldur can turn to right now, who has a chance of getting Vivina back,” she agreed. “Rin can show you the Eaves, too. If you need anything, that’s where Patch and I are at. Come and get us.”

He hunched his shoulders. “Lapis, thank you,” he began. She raised a hand.

“Whitley, you don’t deserve any of this,” she reminded him. “You’re a good person, a friend, and I’m happy to help you.” His startlement nearly made her laugh. “I know what it’s like, to lose your family. It hurts. You wonder why, and how you could have changed what happened. You should be with people who want to help you heal. The Jiy House certainly doesn’t.” She smacked her hands on her hips and rose. “And now, I need to go talk to a certain unlovable roly-poly.”

“Be careful, Lapis,” he warned.

“She’s with me,” Varr assured him, slapping her on the back as he gained his feet. “I kept her out of trouble as a kid. It’s not so different, now.”

“Uh-huh,” she said sourly.

“I did!” he said, puffing out his chest. “I even outraced you, and that took skill.”

Rin looked far too excited to hear about those aspects of her childhood; she effectively dropped the subject by leaving. Both his and Varr’s expressions made her want to smack them; it was as if they shared intimate details about her through osmosis. She mentally grumbled at their anticipated delight in her idiotic adventures.

She wandered to Brone’s square, keeping an eye open for Gabby and Scand. She did not see them, and paused by the rat’s rug. Only a few bits rested within his bowl; he, by far, made the most legally of any reading circle rat, and for him to have a dull day, meant the rest suffered worse. He stopped drumming and stretched, resigned.

“Pretty sparse,” she told him.

“Yeah. No one’s in a generous mood. Rin and Scand haven’t even managed more than a few bits. We heard they told tourists to stick to the eastern shore for now, so no one with money’s around.”

Figured.

Gabby caught her eye, though Lapis did not see Baldur anywhere. The sober girl held the hand of a well-dressed, puffy-faced boy approximately her age, and her stomach fell. Another child thrown into the street after their parents died. Brone looked over his shoulder and sighed.

“Lady,” Gabby said as she squeezed the hand of the lad with her. He looked up, snuffling; his bright brown eyes were red, his nose swollen. His dark blond tresses were tangled, and smears of dust crossed his forehead. “This is Jerin. He was at a boarding school, and when they found out his mother died, they kicked him out. He doesn’t have anywhere to go.”

She smiled warmly at him, her heart racing too fast. Jerin. Jerin was a name that appeared often in Danaea’s notes. She met Jerin here, she met him there . . . Lapis thought he was a shank love interest, perhaps associate. Instead, he was her child. Guilt smashed her, and tears pricked her eyes. Dammit.

“Do you have anything with you, Jerin?” she asked.

He shook his head. “They didn’t let me take anything with me,” he whispered. “They said I had to pay the remaining boarding fee.”

That would change. Patch and Rin could retrieve the items for him. “Alright. When did this happen?”

“Yesterday,” he said. “They took me from class and told me. They said I couldn’t stay. I . . . I don’t know why. They escorted me off the grounds and closed the gate. They wouldn’t let me talk to any of my friends. I don’t know what to do. Some street sellers told me to come here, so I did.”

“He was wandering around the Lells, and none of us knew him, so we inquired as to why he’s here,” Gabby told her. She saluted sharply. “Knight Gabrielda is helping a man in need.”

“Thank you, Gabby. Well, Jerin, we’re here to help. Do you have any other relations in the city?” She assumed the answer was no.

He shook his head. “It was always me and Mama. I can’t . . . I can’t believe she’s dead. She . . . she . . .”

Lapis drew him close, and he buried his head in her chest and sobbed. Gabby settled her hand on his back, tears in her eyes. She had been tossed into the street by an unfeeling landlord after her mother’s death, so she understood his struggles on an intimate level.

“Which boarding school?” Lapis asked, though she had a good idea. Danaea mentioned it once or twice, and while she wondered why the woman referenced a high-end academy in the Meadows, she assumed it had something to do with a stake. “Willington’s.”

“On it.”

She glanced at Lykas, who stood with Brone, a queer and angry light in his eyes, and nodded. “It would be a shame, to go a little overboard.”

They grinned at that. She never explicitly asked them to complete dangerous retaliatory thefts, but she wanted the unfeeling asses at the school to feel a slight bite. “I’ll get to the Lells Guardhouse and fill out the stake. Grab Rin, preferably Patch, before you do anything, understand?”

“Oh oh let me go to the guardhouse!” Gabby said, brightening as she jumped up and down. “I can do it! Sir Armarandos showed me how to fill out the papers!”

Lapis blinked. He had? “Alright. Take Brone with you. And make sure they know I’m the one with the funds.” She did not think Patch would mind, dishing out a few bits for this one.

Brone brightened, too.

Jerin turned and watched the rats vacate, snuffling and rubbing at his face with his fist. Lapis kept a comforting hand on his back. She knew how difficult the transition was, from sheltered kid to street rat, and smoothing his way would help keep him from falling into the bitterness and pain that led to drink and drugs.

His stomach rumbled, loudly, as Varr wandered up, drumming his thick fingers on his belt. Jerin froze, but Lapis did not give him time to bolt.

“Varr, this is Jerin. The boarding school he attended found out his mother died and kicked him out.”

Varr raised a lip as Nerik and Jandra came to stand with them, both sympathetic. “It never ceases, the cruelty of the human creature,” he said, his voice a deep rumble. “Do you have a place to go, lad?”

He shook his head. “I don’t have any family other than Mama, and I wasn’t able to tell any of my friends.”

“Do you know any of their families?”

“I’ve only met their parents once or twice. Fallora’s father is a goldsmith, and Novin’s family owns a winery. They . . . well, they don’t like their children very much, and I don’t think they like their children’s friends, either.”

He understood, that wealthier merchant types would not take in an orphan, but it would be a nice thing, to be proven wrong. “Well, I’ll see what I can do on that end. In the meantime, the reading circle will help get you settled.”

He snuffled. “Reading circle?” he asked with a frown. “I’ve heard of that. Are you Lady Lanth?”

“I am,” she told him. “Gabby’s part of it, so is Brone. Nerik and Jandra are members by extension.” She wanted to laugh at Nerik’s squinty rebuke of the claim. He had shown up more frequently since Patch made his Eaves’ debut, and she doubted he would miss an opportunity to be in the presence of his idol because she mentioned it.

“I always thought that was nice,” Jerin told her. “To help others to read.”

“Since you went to Willington’s, you probably read well.”

“I do.”

“So if you want to drop by some night, you’re welcome to do so. The older kids are slogging through some Arturo knight books.”

He looked skeptical. That was fine. He would learn.

“When was the last time you ate?”

“Yesterday, at lunch.”

She had not brought bits with her and glanced at Varr. “Pay you back.”

He huffed. “No need.”

No need, perhaps, but she would do so. He sprinkled enough for food and supplies into her palm, and she marveled at the brightness, the rainbow gleam, of the money. Most of the bits that made it to the Grey and Stone Streets had seen far better, cleaner days. “Jerin, I have to meet with someone right now.” She nodded towards Nerik and Jandra. “Nerik and Jandra are going to help. Since you don’t have anything with you, they’re going to get you some food, then help you decide what you need for the first few nights.” She hugged him. “It isn’t easy, and I’m so sorry you have to go through this. I’m sorry I’m not going to be there for a little while.”

“You’re helping me.” He did not look as if he knew what to do about that.

“Yeah. I want to help mitigate the hardship. And it’s hard, going from nice home to dirty street. You have no idea what to do, where to go, who to even ask for help. Everyone’s a stranger, as apt to harm you as aid you. It’s why the Lells rats, when they see another kid who’s in need, they offer to help. Most of them have been through the same thing, so they know what it’s like.”

“But . . . I’m not a street rat.”

“I said the same thing, when my family died in a fire and I ended up on the street.” His startlement made her wonder what the school told their students about kids and the street. The underlying snobbiness in his tone hinted at an unfavorable view, one that would end up harming him, if he continued to hold it. “And while I hope we can find someone to take you in, it might take a few days. Settle in, and I’ll do what I can after my meeting.” She patted his arm. He looked lost, and her hate at the boarding school for their cruelty solidified. Considering the wealth flowing into the institution, they could have offered him funding to complete his schooling. They chose not to. She gave the funds to Jandra, who radiated a sympathetic warmth that put him at ease, squeezed Nerik on the shoulder, and firmed her resolve.

If meeting Baldur proceeded in the same vein, she was in serious trouble.

Varr studied the ground absently as they stood against a dirty stone wall shaded by a short awning, watching as a furious Baldur ranted and raved at one of the poor Lells sellers. She looked to bap him on the head with one of her pots, but Lapis decided she withheld because it was obvious something had devastated the man, and she did not want to add to the trouble.

“Danaea, huh?” He shook his head. “Jetta’s going to take that hard.”

“She was a terrible person,” Lapis said. “Just because she had a child, doesn’t mean she wasn’t. I’ve read her notes and papers. She gloated about her casual cruelty and the pain she caused. That isn’t outweighed by loving her son. And she did love him. She mentioned him often enough, I thought he was a love interest, or maybe a partner. In any case, she cared about him because she bought him an education at a reputable place.”

“Reputable?”

“Willington’s has a reputation of only accepting the brightest. If he was there, he’s smart. I need to ask him what exams he passed. It won’t surprise me, if he’s far in advance of his age.”

“It’s a kindness, to help him, Lapis.”

“I’ve lived it,” she reminded him. “If Patch hadn’t found me when he did, I’d be dead. If I can save even one kid from the dangers of the streets until they can better handle them, I’ll put myself in a pauper’s hut to do it.”

“Dachs will never stand for that.”

“You know him well?”

“Pretty well. He was a valuable member of Rilsen’s team, the one Jetta inherited. He always planned to retire and open the Eaves once he had the money, which he did. His sympathy’s always been with us, and that won’t change.” He eyed her. “And do you really think, Patch would let you do something like that?”

“ . . . No.”

“Or Faelan?”

“ . . . . . . No.”

She refused to imagine their chagrin if she ever tried.

“Midir’s quietly looking into the orphanages in Jiy.” He was? “He’s shocked at the number of street kids, and wants to know why they’ve been abandoned. Gall and greed, is the reason. He’s implemented some regulations that keep the poorer kids from ever receiving help in Jilvayna.”

“Orphanages in Jiy don’t accept kids unless someone’s paying their room and board.”

Varr sighed. “Yes, but there’s more to it. A child must have a guardian, and that guardian must be a relative. That relative must pay their room and board because it’s illegal for anyone else to support the child, including the state. That regulation allows them to eliminate funding to institutions that house children. Not a bit goes to their upkeep. If an orphanage wants to stay in business, it needs the guardians to pay the living expenses, on top of whatever extraneous donations it can muster for building repair and staff salary. Even if people with money wanted to help, they’d have to do it under the table or experience hefty fines. It’s enough of a disincentive, nobles and merchants don’t bother.”

“I haven’t heard of this. I always thought it was purposeful cruelty and greed on the owner’s part.”

“It’s been implemented slowly and quietly over the last twenty years or so. The kids with relations live in something resembling a home, and those without are put into the streets to fend for themselves because Gall doesn’t want to pay for childcare. He’s siphoning a lot of country resources into something else, and the monies once reserved to help children are part of that. What he’s using the funds for, we don’t know yet.”

“So none of the rats could ever get into an orphanage.”

“Not unless they have a relative who’s willing to pay for them to live there. It means Jerin, even if one of his friend’s family takes him in, wouldn’t be able to return to Willington’s. He’d need a relative to pay for the room and board, and he doesn’t have one.”

Fury slammed into her. The palace made certain, the downtrodden stayed there. She tried to tamp it down; she needed calm when facing the Jiy House headman.

Baldur finally noticed them. He huffled over, faster than she anticipated he could move, and almost bowled into her. His flunkies proved more hesitant, their attention on Varr. It annoyed her, they did not think her dangerous, considering how she nearly cut Perben’s life away in front of them.

“Lapis,” he gritted, his fingers clenching, hard.

“Talked to Whitley earlier,” she said. He flinched and she smiled. How odd, to be the one in charge of their conversation. She imagined that he realized it, too, and despised it.  “How many people died protecting Vivina?”

“I need to talk to Patch.”

No answer, eh? Too many, then. “And she couldn’t be bothered to go into hiding? Did one of those balls she bragged about prove too alluring to miss?”

“Lapis,” he warned, in the tone he typically took with her.

Varr growled. Baldur backed up, into one of his guards, raising a hand to his chest, eyes bulging, breathing harshly.

“You don’t talk to Lapis like that,” he said. “Ever.”

Their nervousness made her smile. As a child, she never appreciated his sternness, but now, she enjoyed the unease it instilled. “I’ll tell Patch what’s going on. He’ll decide what he wants to do. Stay at the House until he shows up to talk to you. It’s probably not going to be that long, and he’s probably going to help because Vivina knows enough about the rebellion, she’s a liability. And you know it, too.” She popped from the wall. “Let’s get one thing clear, Baldur. You’re used to intimidating the rebels, but these are the Grey Streets. You harass the rats again, you won’t like the results.” She shoved her face into his, nearly choking on the stench of his perfume combined with rancid body sweat. He reared back, lips pulled down in disgust. “Losing a purse at the Lells will pale in comparison.” She dangled the pouch from its string, swinging it back and forth. “And yes, the rats have long memories. They won’t forget you being an ass.” She stepped back. “Neither will I.”

“Dentherions, to the left,” Varr said.

Wonderful.

Baldur paled as two soldiers, dressed in black uniforms with rank insignia and no helmet, hustled up, intent on their little party. Grunts, without authority, and she did not notice tech weapons, but she doubted they had visited the Lells unarmed.

“You, there, what are you doing?” one called, pointing an imperious finger at her.

She weighed the silver in her palm and regarded them with as much aplomb as she could muster. She was not Varr, and if the two made him angry, they would not leave the market on their own two feet. “Serving a stake,” she said.

The two eyed them suspiciously as they came to a stop, too near Baldur for his peace of mind. He began to sweat profusely; no better way than to scream your guilt than that. “That’s done at a guardhouse.”

Lapis laughed. “Sometimes,” she agreed. “Sometimes there’s extra pay that needs sorting out. Unexpected costs crop up.”

“And you are?” the second asked, hostile and angry.

“Lady Lanth.”

They reared back. Oh, good. She had no illusions her reputation preceded her, but Patch’s certainly did. Had it made an impression on the skyshroud, his five metgal stake? Their eyes flicked to Varr, and he grinned, wide and evilly.

Did he really wish to pretend to be Patch?

“You’re Patch.” A man who swallowed a poisoned snake whole sounded more confident.

He laughed, jolliness filled with malice. “No. He’s my apprentice.”

That attracted a lot more stares from merchants busily pretending they were not listening.

Baldur inched away as the Dentherions focused on the larger, stronger man. Their skepticism mingled with anger made her wary; she trusted them less than a shank with a knife. Of course, if they concentrated on someone other than the headman, and he wisely retreated, all the better. She had no illusions how quickly he would give up the rebel cause under the minutest amount of threat.

“I decided to join the Lady, as the Lells is unsafe,” he continued. He flicked his gaze up and down, making certain they understood who, exactly, made it so, and how unimpressed he was with their bravado. “And now that our business is complete, we’ll be on our way.”

The first one straightened and opened his mouth; she knew the words that tumbled forth would provoke Varr, because he possessed that idiot-will-speak-his-mind, puffed-up anger. She has seen it directed at the bodyguard before, and it always came from younger, stupider men searching for a way to prove themselves to someone or other. He would take them out in one hit and wander off, annoyed and grumbly.

“Ah, Varr. I had not thought you’d be here.”

The two soldiers stiffened and whirled. Midir approached, carrying a young girl of six or seven dressed in a purple frock, accompanied by a lovely woman in flowing skirts who carried a bright and beautiful baby, Jarosa, the Dentherion contact Imaralis, and a scattering of guards. Sir Armarandos, Lord Adrastos and an older woman of kind countenance brought up the rear. The look the knight gifted the Dentherions did not bode well for their future as Lells annoyances. They hastened away when he jerked his chin, resentment thinning their lips and widening their nostrils.

“Varr, Varr!” the little girl said. She leaped from Midir’s embrace and ran to the bodyguard, wrapping her skinny arms about his thick leg.

“Hey sweetie,” he said, warmth filling his tone. He patted her on the back, beaming.

“She was worried about you,” the woman said with a smile, then her gaze traveled to Lapis. She sucked in a breath, and the sheen of tears brightened her sky-blue eyes. “You must be Lanth,” she said. “You do look so like Iolanthe.”

Lapis bowed; she suspected the woman to be Midir’s wife, but she did not recall her from her childhood. She must not have visited Nicodem, at least after she became old enough to recognize and understand party guests. “I am,” she said quietly.

“Melanthe, this is Elysia, my love.” Midir smiled at the woman, not with the typical noble look of luke-warm tolerance, but true joy. Lapis was happy, he had found someone he adored. “Our daughter, Iole, and our son, Phaeton.”

Named after her parents. She had no want for kids, and Faelan never showed an interest, so it was a wonderful gesture, for him to honor them so.

“Hello,” Iole said politely. Lapis smiled and bowed her head; it felt awkward, to give much more respect to a young child so openly in the Lells. Varr laughed and smoothed her hair.

“She’s usually a bit more outspoken,” he said. She squinted up at him while both her parents agreed. “Aren’t you, sweetie?”

“She’s shy with those she doesn’t know,” Jarosa said. “But once she does, she will talk until the sun sets. I think she even talks in her sleep.”

“I do not!” the little girl protested. “But I do like to talk when I’m awake.”

“What brings you to the Lells?” Lapis asked. With the Dentherions on patrol, she did not trust Midir’s safety—but perhaps that was why Sir Armarandos and Lord Adrastos accompanied them.

“We’re on our way to The Cottage,” Elysia replied. “Lord Adrastos claims they make the best meal found in all of Jiy.”

The Cottage was an intimate dining experience, with food from Ramira and the countries north of it, to Navellas. It had exceptional meals, though she doubted it exceeded some of the decadent establishments that catered to the nobility. “I’ve eaten there once. It’s very good. The cake is extraordinary.”

Sir Armarandos laughed at that. “It is what draws my parents,” he said.

The older woman raised an eyebrow. “I do like the cake,” she admitted. She smiled warmly. “I’m Nerine, since my thoughtless husband did not introduce us.”

Adrastos blinked, then ran a hand through his white hair, sheepish. “I guess you haven’t met her, have you?”

“No,” she said, smiling with amused acceptance at his forgetfulness. “Elysia is correct. You look like your mother. She was such a beautiful woman, with an elegance and charm difficult to match.”

“I’m afraid I haven’t inherited those parts of her.”

“You do yourself a disservice,” Varr said.

Not really.

“You should join us,” Nerine said. “I’d love to know you better!”

Lapis smiled. “Thank you, but I—” She trailed off, then hopped past the group. “What happened?”

Miyomon rarely sought her out, but he hustled to her with a frantic purpose, the ratty bag with his merchandise banging hard against his hip. She had gifted him his first threads four years ago, to knot into wondrous ornaments that caught many a tourist’s eye. He made enough to enhance his art with bright beads and sparkly gems, and she had no doubt, when he aged out of being a rat, he would have enough saved to put up a nice little stall that attracted tourists.

His grey eyes flicked through the group, landed on Sir Armarandos, and stuttered to a halt. “Lady, Sir Armarandos!” he gasped. “There’s trouble. There’re some guys wearing black berets askin’ questions. They’re wantin’ Hoyt’s people, and they’re tryin’ to drag some of the rats into the back alleys to have a talk.” He looked pleadingly at her. “The Dentherions cleared the city guard away before they arrived, so there’s no one else who’s around to help. Lady, no one wants to end up like Miki.”

“Black hats?” Jarosa asked, her eyes lighting. “Did you see any badges or rank symbols?”

He paused, and Lapis realized he trembled. “Yeah. Somethin’ stitched in black thread on their berets. A V.”

“Well, it looks like a meal at the Cottage must wait,” Sir Armarandos said, as serious as she had seen him. He bowed to Midir, who nodded—and who also looked very serious.

“I’m coming with you,” Jarosa said.

“With all due respect—”

Jarosa raised an eyebrow. He took a very large, clearing breath and turned to Miyomon. A wise man knew, never to verbally tussel with the Ramiran rebel. “Which square?”

“Mimstone.”

The one with Phialla and Ness. “Is everyone vacating?” she asked.

“They’re trying. Rin’s not around, but some of the other, older rats are helping.”

“Stay with us, lad,” Lord Adrastos offered. “Let my son handle things.”

Miyomon looked at her, stressed; she smiled. “You can trust them,” she told him. “I promise. They’re going to the Cottage for a bite. Don’t miss that opportunity.” She hugged his shoulders before racing to the square. If Jarosa reacted to the mention of black hats, something was terribly wrong, and she needed to help the rats. If anything happened to Phialla and Ness . . .

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