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.
“You’re antsy, I know, but you should be restin’.”
“I’m to host guests.”
“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.
“Aye. Gots lotsa people’s wantin’ t’ talk t’ him.”
“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.
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?”
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?”
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.
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.”
“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.
“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?”