Chapter 8: The Three Fakes

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No rats sat at the back corner table; Lapis had kicked the rowdy lot upstairs into Rin’s room. His displeasure at the invasion lasted as long as it took for him to study her expression—then he pestered her with questions. Gabby must have told him about her helping the escape from Jiy—and he had guessed Lars tucked his tail and ran. She would corner him later, about what he heard in the streets about the lad, his buddies, and the Dentherions targeting Hoyt.

He continued to pester her to explain why she thought the reading rats needed to bother him that night.

If he disliked their presence, she told him, he could go get her brother.

That made him more suspicious.

She lounged back, one heel on the edge of the bench, knee up, arm propped on it, idly swinging a glass between her fingers. She purchased a small feast from Dalia for Brander, raising Dachs’ suspicion as she asked the cook about the food, and her innocent smile did not placate him.

Innocent, indeed. Dachs told her she looked like a cat ready to pounce on a poor, unsuspecting bird. Perhaps she was.

A sparse, darkly quiet crowd patronized the Eaves that evening; even Rik was absent, and she wondered if the raid on Ruddy’s kept people at home and afraid. The Grey Streets had no reason to trust Dentherions, and killing the down-and-out poor would leave a sour taste in the average resident’s mouth. It emphasized how little the empire and the Jilvaynian throne cared about them and their struggles, seeing them as expendable when their presence proved even a tad inconvenient.

She tugged at her hood, pulling it further over her face. No need to startle Beltin before she had the chance to subdue him. She normally avoided getting close enough to stakes for them to stab her, but in this case, she would make an exception. Driving his face into the table should abuse him of any goodwill on her part.

She closed her eyes on the memories, the screams, the blood, the pain. The burned bodies, the ash. She did not have much to offer the ghosts of Nicodem but vengeance, and hopefully that proved enough to salve the phantom cries ringing through her skull. She glanced down at the bangle on her left wrist, hoping she did not mar its significance with hate.

“Lady.” Dachs loomed over her, hands on hips, suspicious and concerned.

“What?”

“You’re antsy, I know, but you should be restin’.”

“I’m to host guests.”

“Who’s comin’?”

“Brander. And . . . an old acquaintance.”

Dachs’s nostrils flared as he set his shoulders, over-stern. “Old acquaintance or enemy?”

She smashed her lips together, hard. She did not want his paternal hand to weigh upon her; she had enough problems. “I’m going to find out.”

A group of excited people scampered into the front door, wringing hands and smelling of fear. Dachs grumbled something under his breath and moved back behind the counter, watching them with unimpressed resignation. Behind them came a couple of shanks, odd visitors since the Eaves had a cleaner reputation than most preferred—and Brander and Beltin walked at the rear.

She squeezed the glass hard enough a hairline fracture raced up the side.

Brander meandered in, breezy, while Beltin nervously stared around, his shoulders hunched. He had not aged well; his face contained so many wrinkles he looked to have rubbed sour fruit over it, and despite his bath, his greying black hair looked stringy and unkempt. His too-thin body juxtaposed against his large knuckles hinted at sparse meals. Had the palace and Hoyt cut him off? Served him right, if so.

She set the glass down before she shattered it between her tense fingers. She wanted to slug him, kick him, scream at him for the injustice of it all, but he had answers to questions both she and Faelan needed. That would prove difficult to elicit, if he no longer had teeth.

Brander did not lose his smile, though she noted it did not reach his eyes. He guided Beltin to the table, under Dachs’s suspicious glare, and the man sat heavily, rubbing his hands together and looking over the meal in distrust.

Before she managed to utter a word, Rin hopped into the room from the door leading to the stairs and slid next to her, a fierce delight radiating from him. Mairin followed, and Lapis firmed her emotions and her expression.

He really had gone after Faelan. Dammit, she could take care of this herself.

Mairin plopped down on his other side and eyed the meal with genuine interest before helping herself to a stuffed roll. “Glad you made it back,” she told Brander as she tore it apart and popped some in her mouth. “Was beginning to worry.”

The thief laughed and helped himself to a roll as well. “The baths were busy,” he replied.

“What did you hear about the raid?” she asked, taking another bite.

“Not much,” he said with a half-shrug and tilt of his head. “The Dentherions were looking for someone. Shanks thought they probably killed whoever it was. He was lucky to die quick, if so; the wounded aren’t going to receive the help they need, and they’re going to die from infection.”

Mairin paused, sadness flicking across her face, before snagging her black bangs behind her ears and resuming eating. Beltin’s watery brown gaze snicked back and forth between them, then he hesitantly retrieved a fatter roll. Rin grabbed one and sank back, pleased. She leaned over, hoping he realized her annoyance; he planted his mischievous grin on his face and refused to say a word.

“Who in the seven were they lookin’ for?” one of the Eaves patrons asked. “Those who drink there, they’re poor lots who aren’t goin’ to ever get out of the Stone Streets. Even the shanks aren’t worth bits.”

“Onna Hoyt’s men?” another guessed.

“Doubt it,” a third growled. “They want us to know, we aren’t safe with them in the city. They want us hunched over and afraid. They targeted the poor so the rich don’t feel threatened, and killed and wounded enough people we know they mean business. It’s easier to control us that way.”

“It’ll backfire,” Dachs promised as he wiped down the counter. “They’re not trusted already. This’ll make it worse.”

“Were them city guards involved?” the second asked. “I just can’t see Sir Armarandos bein’ in on it.”

“No,” Brander said, raising his voice so all heard. “Just soldiers from the skyshroud. They wore official uniforms and had tech weapons. Not a city  guardsman in sight—probably because they expected them to interfere.”

Nearly everyone shuddered. The Grey Streets inhabitants might evade a man with a sword. Not a chance of that, against tech. Beltin swallowed convulsively and stroked his stubbled throat.

Did they search for him? If so, he would prove a far more valuable prize to the rebellion than she initially thought. What did he know about the skyshroud and its docking that those aboard it wanted to keep hush-hush?

Mairin eyed Beltin idly as she slowly chewed. “And who’s your friend?”

“This is Windel,” Brander said, gesturing to the nervous man. “He’s a Blossom fellow.”

That was a nice way to put it. How many undermarket individuals promoted that with a fake smile and their hand on their customer’s purse?

“Windel,” Mairin said, nodding. “Well, have some food, have a drink. You look like you need it.”

“Um, yes, thank you,” he said, his voice shaky.

Lapis’s stomach rolled. She did not want to feed him, she wanted to throw him across the room then drag him to a secluded spot for a chat. Rin stuck his mouth against her hood, as if he anticipated her reaction.

“Yer brother’s sayin’ t’ keep ‘m occupied,” he whispered, barely audible.

“Really.”

“Aye. Gots lotsa people’s wantin’ t’ talk t’ him.”

“Uh-huh.”

“And I gets t’ keep you calm. So’s you don’t want me makin’ a ruckus, now, does you, Lady?”

“We’re going to have a long, long chat after this.”

“Yeah, maybe when we’s on a stake ‘er somethin’. Gets borin’, jes’ watchin’.”

Cheeky rat. She bowed her head and fought the unwarranted rush of anger at him; Rin was not the one she needed to focus her rage upon. The low simmer coursing through her that night would not be appeased by yelling at him, though she wanted to. He knew it, too, because his brashness shined across his face as he made certain to set a roll in front of her, a silent demand she eat.

“When’s your partner getting back?” Mairin asked, casting her a curious look. Beltin did not react, so he must assume she referred to a romantic interest, which, in a sense, was true. Sweet kisses snuck at odd times did not count as much as she wished, though. Someday she would have a genuine reason to call him that.

“Not sure. He was going outcity, and considering what’s going on, he might not make it back for a while.”

Lars had best thank her into eternity for his smooth escape. She easily could have left him to rot in the stinking sewage of the life he tried to destroy. She did not think Dandi would have a better deal for him, but she did not care. His life, his loss. She meant it, when she told him to grab his second chance, but she doubted he took her advice seriously.

Someone yelped.

Two Dentherion soldiers entered the Eaves, long-barreled tech weapons held in both hands, helmets with blackened shields hiding their faces. They wore typical black uniforms, a long-sleeved, thigh-length jacket over poofy pants stuffed into thick-soled boots, but something about them struck Lapis as off. Her immediate rush to fear dissolved as she puzzled over their get-up, and why only two instead of a unit stormed the tavern.

“Hands where we can see them,” one barked, waving the tip of his weapon at the crowd. Cries and whimpers and trembling and terror met the words as everyone complied. Some began to sob as fear swallowed them. Dachs gave them a look to sear the bottom off Mama Poison, but even he did as they ordered.

Lapis’s suspicion rose. They sounded like Jiy guttershanks with a Docks burr, not Dentherions. If they plotted to take advantage of current events and steal money and valuables in the guise of soldiers on a raid, she would make certain they paid for their idiocy.

One kept his weapon trained on the customers while the other busily herded Dalia and Dani from the kitchen, then peered into the blackness of the back room. He moved to the pottery room and slammed his foot into the door; it broke open and he whisked inside, whipping his tech about.

Phialla and Ness would have died of fright, had they been working inside.

She expected to hear the shattering of ceramics, but the man returned to the outer room without damaging an item. She found that odder. “What’s upstairs?” he asked, staring pointedly at Dachs.

“I rent rooms, long term,” he said. “They’re nothin’ fancy.”

The man paused, then pointed the tip of his weapon at the barkeep. “You have keys to everything?”

“Yeah.”

Lapis felt her stomach flop. She did not want some jackass guttershank rooting through her things, perhaps finding a stash. She had little enough as was, due to illness preventing her from working. Patch reminded her he made plenty for both of them, but she did not wish to rely on him for money.

He inexplicably stopped at the end of the reading table, turned and pointed his killing machine at her. “Take off the hood,” he snapped.

Her night was not improving. She slowly slid the hood away, fighting to keep her expression neutral rather than seething. The look on Beltin’s face when he beheld her . . . she doubted a true ghost could cause the shock he experienced. That he recognized her disappointed her, because she guessed he would run given the opportunity. She had no want to hunt down a frightened old turntail shank after being the focus of fake Dentherion attention.

“Why are you wearing that?”

“I’m a chaser,” she said calmly. Rin stared at the unsteady barrel, serious and edgy. Hopefully he never experienced one pointed at his face. Depending on how twitchy the person holding the weapon was, their target might walk away without half their head.

“A chaser?” His mockery irritated her. “That’s men’s work.”

“Women are chasers, too,” she denied, allowing her outrage to peek through. “I have a male partner, but I complete chases on my own.”

“Do you really?” he sneered. “And who do you chase?”

“The ones that help the Grey and Stone Streets, even if there’s little payment in return,” she told him.

He snorted. “So you’re not really a chaser.”

“I am a chaser,” she emphasized.

“And who’s your partner?”

“Patch.”

He visibly stiffened. If he were a Dentherion, the five metgal stake had an impact on morale. If he were fake, he knew the chaser’s reputation and realized his peril.

“Where is he?”

“He’s on a stake. He should be back any time now.”

He glanced at his buddy, then they both looked at their weapons. “I think we’ll wait.”

“By all means, make yourself at home,” she said, sweeping her hand at a nearby, empty table. “But don’t expect that to last much beyond Patch’s return. He doesn’t play nice with threats.”

That was an understatement. His reputation had not developed on empty air, though he rarely spoke about the outcomes of the more dangerous chases. The average Grey Streets resident would not believe her if she told them the majority of his stakes resolved without death, because that was not as exciting a tale to whisper to mates around a midnight fire.

He jerked his weapon at her. “You’re pretty mouthy,” he snarled.

“I’m simply stating fact.” Had she seen the flash of red under the black on the barrel? Red was the color of the crap the underground sold to guttershanks who hoped to score a deal on a deadly illegal tech, which meant these men were not Dentherion soldiers.

What, exactly, did they want? They acted more like chasers on a trail than guttershanks looking to score a hit through trickery. Had the skyshroud the bad sense to stake Patch, and these two idiots took it? Perhaps that was why they only wore a general Dentherion flag on their shoulder, rather than any identifying mark like name or rank. That also explained their covered faces, because Jiy residents from the poorer districts hated those who sold themselves to the empire.

He jerked his chin up. “Get up. Slowly.”

She set her hands on the table and pushed herself up, slow and steady. Her heart began to patter against her ribcage, and her brain screamed through scenarios, searching for a way to get out of the situation without dying. She sternly reined them in; since Mairin was there, her brother had probably sent more people to the Eaves, and they would not let her fall to two oh-so-brave fakes who thought threats with tech made them invincible.

Such a typical shank thing, to make them look menacing and in charge.

Rin stared at her, stressed, and she wanted to pat his hand and tell him it was OK, but she did not want that weapon pointed at him. The soldier jerked the tip to the side and she slowly walked around the table, brushing Brander’s side, and into an open space between him and the nearest, vacant table. He did not look concerned either, just mildly irritated at the interruption. He also must have realized they dealt with fakes.

The man raised his weapon to his shoulder, pointed it at her head and sighted.

And that was enough of that.

She dropped, triggering her right blade, and rolled, using the momentum to drive the metal through the barrel, cutting it in two. As she thought, cheaper tech; red paint covered by black did not improve its efficacy.

The end spun away and the man staggered back, raising the gun to the ceiling as his other arm shot out for balance. She barreled into his stomach, sending him against a bar stool. He dropped his weapon as he arched back, and Brander grabbed it before Mairin snagged his hand and broke his arm.

He shrieked like a man thrown from the bridge into the Pit, alive.

The other fared worse; Dachs held his gun by the barrel and smashed him into the wall, cracking his helmet. He slid to the ground, unconscious.

Beltin popped up and ran out the back.

Dammit to the Pit. She knew it!

She and Rin sprinted after him, but Beltin’s fear and adrenaline pushed him faster. He blindly raced through the few Grey Streets residents hastening along the streets, heading towards the night market. He thought he might be safe there? Not likely. Turntails rarely garnered warm welcomes in places better-off guttershanks frequented, and the laborers who ate there would not interfere in underground business.

Rin took a side alley; he must have guessed the man’s destination and decided a shortcut would work in cutting him off. She kept on her stake, nearing slightly, astonished he ran so fast. He must have lots of practice in fleeing enemies, to still be so fleet of foot.

He jerked to the side, but Rin leaped out from the side of a building and snagged his arm. He spun him around; he fell and skidded on his knees before stopping. She slowed and halted next to them as Beltin looked up, raising his free hand, trembling.

“I . . . haven’t done anything,” he whimpered. “Don’t hurt me.”

She snarled. “You know who I am,” she told him in a scathing tone. She wanted to scorch him into cinders with her voice. “I saw your face when I took my hood down.” She leaned down, barring teeth. “Shocked, are you? You’ll have plenty of time to wonder about it, while you’re talking to Faelan.”

His eyes bulged out, large as a fish’s. “Faelan?” A man vomiting his guts out after drink did not sound as sick.

“Or Varr. I thought I should nab you before he got ahold of you.”

He did look ready to puke at that.

“Get up.”

A flash of resentment, there and gone, irritated her no end. He did not enjoy being ordered about? Too bad. She raised her right hand and her blade shot out from her gauntlet. He nearly took Rin down trying to scurry away from her; the few people in the streets hastened on, ignoring the confrontation but for a quick glance. Hopefully they assumed her a chaser rather than a shank, because she did not want to have to explain to the guards why she needed to cart his sorry ass to somewhere else other than a guardhouse.

Rin firmed his grip and yanked him up. The man wobbled about and barely kept his feet; he obviously did not want to walk anywhere with them. She anticipated another escape attempt, though by the look on the rat’s face, he would have a difficult time outracing him. That, and the ground had scraped through his pants, leaving his knees torn and bloody, not exactly a good thing if one had to run.

Rin glanced at her, resolute, his green eyes narrowed so only a pinprick of light burned in the center. How much had Faelan told him about Beltin?

“We’re going back to the Eaves,” she told them in a low voice.

“I’m not going anywhere. I haven’t done anything wrong,” the shank reiterated.

“No?” She desperately wanted to run him through for the sentiment. “If not, why did you run?” Her emotions fell into numbness, her chest stilled. No sympathy, no rage or sorrow. An emptiness coated her, but whether to soothe her or prepare her for causing harm, she could not say. “You helped Kale kill everyone at Nicodem. You knew them, you pretended to care about them, you lied to them.”

“I . . .”  He stuttered something incomprehensible, but it did not matter. Nothing he could say would prevent her from carting him to her brother and whatever punishment he felt justified.

Pain for pain, she hoped it hurt a lot. Of course, Faelan did not have a vindictive streak, but Varr certainly did.

His eyes widened and he began to tremble as he looked past her. She did not look behind; she felt the presence of several bodies, and since Rin said nothing, they were likely rebels. She heard footsteps, which paused next to her.

“We’ll take it from here, Lanth.”

Faelan. So he personally wanted to oversee Beltin’s capture, badly enough he dared streets infested by Dentherion soldiers to apprehend him. She straightened and almost sheathed her blade. Almost.

Another group exited an alley further up the street. Not guttershanks or Grey Streets people, they dressed far too nicely for that. They wore thigh-length tunics and fitted pants, softer shoes, items donned by the Kells merchant class because mimicking noble attire made them feel important. Faelan sighed as Ciaran and Tearlach took possession of Beltin; Rin cast the new arrivals a suspicious look and made his way to her side.

She did not recognize any of them, but they knew her brother. The one in front, a tall, muscular woman with blond hair and narrow eyes, bowed perfunctorily. “It’s odd, to see you out tonight,” she said, her voice raspy, as if she smoked.

“Not so odd,” he disagreed. “Do you know what happened at Ruddy’s?”

Hmm. Right to the point, and asking about a current, upsetting event. They likely represented a syndicate, if her assumption about their dress proved true. “Not really. Some of the skyshroud shanks interfered with one of our operations, but that wasn’t their target. Some guttershank or other slipped their leash, and they wanted him back.” She paused, too serious. “I’ve never seen Varr in that mood.”

Ah. A Minq.

Faelan raised an eyebrow and glanced at her. She produced a small, weak smile.

“I told him.”

She bit her lip and looked at her feet, feeling his exasperation drifting over her. “You told him.” She knew that annoyed, resigned tone, the one he used when something greatly aggravated him, but he could not yell about it until later. As a child, she attempted to hide from him for a couple of days afterwards, for all the good it did.

“Yeah. It’s . . . um . . . a bit of a tale.”

“We’re all ears,” the woman said.

“So are the Dentherions,” she replied. She was not about to tell anyone anything about Beltin, Lars, the escape, while they stood in the middle of the street and smiled in shallow distrust at each other.

Faelan laughed at that. “I suppose that’s true, to a small extent.” He settled his hand on her back and stared directly at the woman. “Layne, this is my sister, Lanth.”

“Lanth?” She studied her with interest. “The one who teaches the street rats to read.”

“Yeah.”

“We need more charity like that on the streets.”

She tipped her head for the truth of it. “Yes.”

“I’ve a place we can meet,” he said, his eyes filtering to the non-involved people rushing past. “Stop by the Eaves. We’ll take it from there.”

“Have you been there yet?” Lapis asked suspiciously.

“No.”

“Two fake Dentherion soldiers showed up, threatened everyone with tech.”

“Whatcha mean, Lady?” Rin asked, confused. “They’s dressed in them blacks, had tech weapons.”

“They didn’t have Dentherion accents, they didn’t wear identification, and when I cut the barrel in half, it had red below the black. So it was cheap undermarket tech that they modified to make it look more like official Dentherion issue.”

“Wait, you cut through a tech barrel?” Layne asked, eyeing her blade.

She raised her arm as she triggered it; it slid into her gauntlet with a slicing shing. “Patch made certain of it. He doesn’t skimp on that sort of thing.” She shrugged. “The fake Dentherions didn’t get a shot off, further evidence they didn’t know how to use their weapons effectively. They also seemed interested in Patch after I said his name. I think the skyshroud might have staked him in retaliation, and they’re the chasers who took the stake.”

“Idiots, if so,” Layne muttered.

Faelan jerked his chin at Ciaran and Tearlach. “Secure him. We’ll be at the Eaves.” He smiled pleasantly at the other group. “Coming?”

Eithne, Keril and Klyo had the second man bound and slumped against a wall, tables pushed aside to give them room. He drooled down his stubble; how hard had the barkeep slammed him into the wood, that he remained that unconscious? She thought she recognized him as a rat-turned-shank who entered the gutter around the time she moved to Jiy. His look remained the same; mussed, oily brown hair that fell past his shoulder, unkempt presentation, thick dirt under his nails.

She stepped around the group with distaste. Klyo. Why did her brother deem her fit to survive the rebellion break? Was it solely based on Keril’s romantic interest in her?

He glanced at her, and she realized she needed to talk to him, soon, about Anthea. And that day. And why her sister had even been at Nicodem and not with him, on a cute little picnic she had happily mooned over for days.

She doubted, he and Klyo’s relationship would survive the revelation.

Dachs ushered the final customers from the Eaves, assuring them in calm tones that the two were not, in fact, Dentherion soldiers, and pointing out that soldiers did not have long hair, stubble, and a terrible grasp of using their tech. He told them he sent for the guard, but Lapis bet the help he wanted came in a more rebellious form.

Mairin and Brander had the one who threatened her tied, gagged, and in pain, sitting on a barstool with his feet strapped to the legs. Fury and tears marred his face. She regarded him and snarled. She knew that puckered, deeply tanned face and those muddy hazel eyes, and she wished she had recognized his voice because she would have taken him sooner. The rank amateur chaser went by The Gods’ Hands. Patch’s disgusted disbelief when he related the tale of how the man waltzed up to him in a guardhouse and proudly declared the title had amused her. He muttered about the idiot taking childhood stories of heroic jackasses too seriously. After Lapis suffered through her own run-in with him a short time later, she completely agreed. Pretentious scum, chest pushed out in unwarranted pride, accompanied by weak insults he thought clever enough to harm her confidence.

It made his comments about women not being chasers, about pretending he did not know who she was, more infuriating. The sexist little ass.

Rin flopped onto a chair at the reading table, his eyes for the once-rat. “Is that Viddy?” she asked, pointing at the unconscious one.

“Looks like ‘m,” he said. “Saw ‘m some at the Lells, but he weren’t Chinder’s lot. Chinder thought he’d get kilt soon ‘nough, too stupid to make a shank.”

“He’s Viddy,” Brander agreed. “I thought he looked familiar. He was part of that tech scam with the guards, but only on the peripheral. They thought him too bit to justify punishment; Armarandos was after bigger fish. He gave up what he knew, and they let him go. The undermarket thought he became a turntail, to manage it.”

“I can’t believe they’re not Dentherions,” Dalia said. Dani had her arm about her, but she still trembled and tears wet her cheeks.

“That one’s a guttershank, and this one’s a chaser called The Gods’ Hands,” she said.

The Gods’ Hands began to shake in fury. She smiled pleasantly back. Everyone else expressed sour disdain.

“They’re not Dentherion soldiers?” one of the remaining customers asked.

“Nope. They might be hired help, but they aren’t soldiers. And it seems they were looking for Patch. If the skyshroud staked him and they took it, they better hope they have enough info to sell, because it’ll take more than whining to placate him.”

Everyone without a close relationship with her partner shuddered. Let their imaginations fill in the details; it was more effective that way. Worry clouded The Gods’ Hands’ anger.

“You knew they weren’t soldiers, didn’t you,” Dani accused as Faelan halted before the chaser, arms folded. The group with Layne took themselves out of the way, but remained alert.

“They had Jilvaynian accents and they sounded like they were from Jiy, so I guessed they were local. They also didn’t have identification on their uniforms. Dentherions always have it. It makes them seem more professional.” The memory of the soldier who poisoned her popped into her mind; professional was a relative term.

“So what about that other guy?” the customer asked, pointing towards the back door.

“A turntail.”

That should keep any questions at bay. Hopefully the gossip that spread did not ding Dachs’s reputation, because she did not want him to lose money because residents thought Dentheria targeted the Eaves.

“Gettin’ t’ be, they’s ain’t a dull moment ‘round you,” Rin said, satisfied laughter lighting his face.

“The next time a shank runs—”

“I’ll run faster,” he promised. “They won’ts make it as far.”

Too many snickered in response to that.

He wanted to be a chaser. Both he and Lykas entertained ambitions beyond begging, picking, and the reading table. It was not the safest occupation, but she could train them to think before they acted. “We’ll talk about assessing a dangerous situation later,” she promised. Rin squinted skeptically at her while Layne’s group and the rebels nodded in agreement.

“What in the Pit did I miss?”

Lapis looked over her shoulder at a confused Patch, who stood in the Eave’s front door, staring at the interior, and grinned.

Varr fumed. Varr ranted. Varr raged. But Varr was not going to lay a finger on Beltin he answered Faelan’s myriad of questions.

The large man paced the length of the bar, hands behind his back, darkness surrounding him. He intimidated Dalia and Dani into the kitchen, though Dachs took his reaction in stride—and apparently agreed with him. He even offered to ‘keep for him.

Lapis yawned and rubbed at her temple. Perhaps she could convince him that breakfast was in order, and get him to concentrate on something other than betrayal, pain, death. She needed wake juice, considering her late-night tale-telling, and the very early crash of a knock that woke her from deep slumber.

And only her; a deadly furious Patch went with Faelan, the other rebels, and their Minq buddies to an undisclosed location for interrogation purposes. She did not care, that The Gods’ Hands and his help would only leave after being thrown into a cart on its way to the Pit, and she wished them a better non-afterlife. Her partner hinted they both had large underground stakes he planned to collect, and no amount of begging would save them.

“Why haven’t they told you where they are?” Varr snapped.

“I’ve been sick, and it hasn’t been the top priority.”

He paused at that. “Sick.” He radiated heated rage. “Good thing, Patch took care of things.”

“Because you prancing onto the skyshroud demanding recompense would be a good look for Midir,” Lapis muttered.

“You underestimate how furious Midir was,” he replied. “I held him back.”

She squelched the image of thin, pleasant Midir turned maniacal cat, scratching at mid-air while Varr had his giant hand planted against his head, keeping him in place.

Perhaps his fury resided with the memory of her parents and a want to do right by them. Truthfully, he held Faelan in far greater esteem than she. She pictured him acting if her brother came to harm, but he had thought her dead for the past eight years. If she had not recalibrated her emotions concerning those she knew in her childhood, neither had he.

“He hasn’t forgotten, or forgiven,” Varr continued. “And now he has someone else to fight for.” His eyes narrowed to burning slits, the wrinkles between his eyes so deep a bear would be proud. “Don’t think Perben’s luck will hold. He’s playing least in sight, but it’s just a matter of time.”

She wanted vengeance by her own hand, not through Midir.

Gabby skipped in, followed by Scand, beaming. What made her so happy, her cheeks burned a bright cherry? She skidded to a stop and looked up and up at Varr; he paused and blinked down at the rat. She barely reached his waist, but the intimidation Lapis expected did not materialize.

“You’re so tall!” she squealed. “I want to be that tall, because I bet, when I become a knight, people will listen to me then. No back talk!” She waved her index finger back and forth.

Lapis met Scand’s mortified gaze and began to laugh.

Varr cocked his head and chuckled, desperately trying to regain a semblance of decent emotion. “I think genes have a bit to do with it,” he told her.

“Hmm. Are you sure it’s not some kind of vegetable? Even if it’s nasty, I’ll eat it!”

Dachs barked in laughter and Dalia and Dani timidly peeked out of the kitchen, to see what caused the humor.

“No you won’t,” Scand told her officiously. “You never eat anything that’s supposed to be good for you.”

“That’s not true!”

“What about that green drink stuff?”

She made a gagging face and slapped both her hands across her neck. “That isn’t a vegetable,” she reminded him. “That’s sewage or something.”

“Kriscrout isn’t sewage,” Lapis told them, though she hated it herself. A few of the Grey Streets kitchens served it as a remedy for the sniffles and light coughs, and claimed it kept one healthy through the cold months. She supposed it tasted nasty enough to drive something away, but it wasn’t sickness.

Varr’s disgust reflected Gabby’s.

“What’s up, Gabby?” she asked, attempting to distract from the thought of the foul brew.

“Well, there’re two things,” she admitted. “One’s good, the other’s bad. I think.”

Scand blew his breath harshly out between his teeth. “There're a couple of people looking for you, Lady,” he told her.

“Who?” The last time someone searched her out, she unexpectedly encountered Perben and found out someone was targeting her to get to Patch.

Varr flopped into one of the chairs, which groaned ferociously but stayed intact, sank his elbow onto the table, planted his chin in his palm, and waited. Neither rat appeared upset or intimidated; good. Around children, he was a pussy cat.

“The first is someone named Whitley,” Scand said.

“Whitley?” she asked, startled.

“Yeah. He says he knows you, and he says he needs to talk to you.”

“That’s fine. Send him here.” Her curiosity streaked through her. Why did Whitley want to see her? His father remained loyal to the Jiy House so they had not followed Faelan when he broke the rebellion. Why did he wish to speak with her? “Who else?”

“Someone named Baldur?”

Baldur??? What did the headman want with her? Had Whitley wanted to warn her about him?

Gabby rolled her eyes and frowned with disgust. “He obviously isn’t a Baldur, he’s some rich merchant who probably has a snobby name. I asked him why a rich merchant wanted to talk to you, and he wasn’t very nice, and his bodyguards yelled at me.”

Scand snickered. “Rin cleaned them out,” he informed them.

Lapis rubbed at her temple harder. Of course he had. Threatening a street rat linked to him in any way was pure idiocy. “Did he find you in the Lells?”

“Yes. He said someone told him that he could find you through the rats. He was still there, grabbing any kid he saw and trying to shake info from them.”

That pissed her off. She glanced at Varr, who raised an eyebrow. “Come with?”

He nodded. Good. She really did not want to confront Baldur and his men on her own, and Varr’s presence would intimidate them.

She scarcely finished the thought before Rin waltzed through the door, not bothering to hide the full purse he held. He tossed it on the table in front of her; it did not even sag to the side. What was the headman thinking, carting about that much money in the Lells? She opened it and peeked inside; silver.

Maybe the rebellion break had also broken his brain.

Varr peeked inside as well, and his laughter followed her up the stairs and echoed about her room as she quickly threw on something more appropriate for a confrontation with a man who wanted his position and influence with the rebellion back. She could think of no other explanation other than a bribe, for him to openly carry that much money.

He certainly had no idea what drove Faelan. Fighting for country and king never held sway with him; using his status to gouge the underground for profit kept him faithful to the cause. Had the undershanks, realizing he no longer held sway with the rebellion, decided to call in his debts? Served him right, for caring more about money than the people of Jilvayna. She hoped he fell far enough only the Stone Streets would have him.

One way to find out, how much trouble he was in.

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