Chapter 11: Invitations

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**THIS CHAPTER CONTAINS ADULT SITUATIONS AT THE END**

 

Lapis folded her arms, an attempt to emulate Patch and his confident nonchalance. Her tummy twisted nervously, her brain zipping through terrible scenario after terrible scenario in a pathetic bid to weasel away from the Black Hats. She did not think anything she so hastily planned would work, but she did not want to confront them, either.

As if she had a choice.

“I’m Lady Lanth,” she said in a voice that carried through the intersection. “And I don’t speak Ramish. So whatever you have to say to me, you need to say it in Jilvayn or Lyddisian.”

The one who hailed her frowned, concentrating on her, then glanced at his fellows. They muttered among themselves and quickly came to an agreement about something, with much handwaving and excitement.

“Patch?” Nausea pounded against the base of her throat while her tummy made a valiant effort to become a pretzel. 

“Keep alert,” he told her. Helpful. She pursed her lips as the talkative one stepped towards them.

“Me rupte sta Ramin?”

There was a long silence, before he yelled again.

“Rieug seu gran Ramin. In?”

“Who thinks visiting the Grey Streets and yelling Ramish is going to get them anywhere?” Lapis whispered as she heard a few scattered words from the curious onlookers, muffled by closed doors and windows.

“Those guys,” Patch offered. She hoped her glare seared him deep. Humor brightened his eye as he produced a quirky smile, a softer expression than she anticipated. “If they wanted us dead, they already would have attempted to take us out. They want something else.”

“The anticipation’s killing me.”

The man yelled a few more things before a woman, in a low-cut, knee-length slipdress and whose blonde hair came from a Dentherion bleach bottle, timidly stepped out of The Clever Cowl clothing store, clutching her hands, hard, at her chest. She glanced at Lapis and Patch, then focused on the impatient Black Hats. Whatever the man yelled, it convinced her to exit her place of safety, so they must have issued some threat. After a short exchange, she turned to them.

“Lady Lanth?”

“Yes?”

“Mitta here,” and she waved at the grey wooden storefront, “says you’re the one who runs the reading circle for the street rats.”

“Yes, I do. And you are?”

She dipped her chin, an abrupt action that knocked bangs into her dull brown eyes. “Dalle. My grandparents are Ramiran, so I know Ramish. I can help.”

“Thank you, Dalle. I don’t want to place you in danger, though.”

“It’s OK. They were threatening to do damage to the businesses if someone didn’t volunteer.”

“Because it’s obvious someone else who speaks Ramish would be around,” she said sarcastically.

Dalle smiled, her lips pulling tight enough across her teeth to thin them. “I would say, it’s a very Ramiran thing, to believe that.” She cleared her throat. “These . . . gentlemen are looking for someone, and they want you to find him.”

Lapis raised an eyebrow at that. Disbelief filtered through her chest. “They want to stake someone?”

Dalle asked, and the lead man waved a hand in dismissal. Another exchange, and she turned to them again. “I don’t think they understand what a stake is,” she said, underlying frustration coloring her tone. “They say you will find this person for them. I don’t think they mean to pay.”

“Do they expect us to work for free?” Patch asked drolly.

“I’m not certain they even know what they want.”

Figures. “Who are they looking for?” Lapis asked. “And I’m going to charge them for this stake.” The darkness of dread anticipation descended; she did not think this would end well, especially considering how confident the Black Hats were in thinking they could force her to do what they wanted. And why her? Why not another chaser? Did they think they could bully her into doing something for free due to gender?

The Black Hat narrowed his eyes in displeasure and snapped at Dalle. She flinched but did not back away, before translating.

“They are looking for someone named Aethon. They say he’s your partner.” She timidly studied Patch. “But . . . we all know that you’re her partner.”

“I am,” he agreed. “So they’re looking for a guy named Aethon who’s supposed to be Lanth’s partner. Does he look like me?”

Lapis hissed at him; he just grinned wider in return. He had to wonder, who, exactly, spread this rumor using his old name. It placed them both in danger, because if Gall found out one of the rebels he thought executed had survived and prospered, he would not stop until he arrested—and tried to kill—Patch again.

She caught her breath at the thought.

Another exchange, as all the Black Hats focused on Patch and grew increasingly antsy. The lead man barked at them, and they deflated, shoulders slumping, heads bowing, but their distrust swam in the air about them. The guttershanks waited, expectant, as if they anticipated the syndicate men to start a fight at any moment. The Ramirans glanced suspiciously at them, and she wondered if they might decide to rid Jiy of a few nosy shanks.

Dalle licked her lips before translating. “They don’t know what this Aethon looks like. They only know that Lady Lanth’s supposed to be partners with him. They don’t think Patch is this person, so they don’t think he’s your partner.”

“Have they heard of Patch?” Lapis asked drily.

“They have. The man who took a five metgal stake out on a Dentherion soldier. They’re . . . not happy he’s with you. I don’t think they want to upset him, but they also want to know where this Aethon is.”

“I’m not partners with Aethon. I’ve never met anyone by that name. This is a weird misunderstanding.” She thought it odd, when she first learned that Hoyt believed her partner’s name was Aethon. Guard Superior Fyor and Lord Adrastos puzzled over why the underboss assumed that, and she still had no answer as to who targeted Patch using his pre-rebel name. Predi had connected them, but the hunter met his end on that rainy night at Tree Streets Guardhouse. Who else possessed the information?

“I’ll tell them, but I don’t think they’re in the mood to listen.”

They were not. After her words, they drew weapons, and the guttershanks in the alley squealed, enjoying the show.

“They really are this stupid,” Patch grumbled. Did he mean the shanks or the Black Hats?

They waited, unmoving, while Dalle fled. The leader yelled after her, but she whisked into the store before anyone shot at her. Good. No reason for her to suffer their threats while within range. A petulant snarl pulled the enemy’s mouth down, before he sighted on them and waved the tip of the gun towards the street he and his buddies initially walked. Lapis took a step, Patch with her, and the leader barked something, stabbing the weapon at her partner, and then pointing in the opposite direction.

“No,” he said, clear and crisp.

They frowned and looked at each other, at a loss how to proceed when a man they thought to intimidate did not feel the terror they wanted. They should count themselves lucky, that he had yet to take exception to their idiocy. He held no love for any who associated with the empire, no matter how low-level lackey they may be.

The ugliness to the leader’s expression disappeared, leaving behind a confused frown. He waited a moment, then pulled a rectangular, shiny thing from his pants pocket and tapped at the surface before walking to them. Lapis tensed, concerned that the object was some sort of weapon, but he flipped it about and thrust it at her. The screen held a square with a radio wave in the middle that jiggled back and forth, words written in Ramish below it. A man’s voice, speaking Ramish, erupted from the device. Ah, communications tech. The leader shoved it at her again, and she took it, concerned but curious.

“Hello?”

A pause. “Are you Lady Lanth?” the voice asked. He spoke Jilvayn with the Dentherion tourist accent, so she assumed he was from the empire’s country.

“I am.” She pondered, how much boredom to shove into her voice. She did not want the man on the other side to think she feared the tech, or him. That would ruin some of her reputation, though she doubted she would ever attain Patch’s hard edge.

“I am Leadcommander Requet of the Estark Skyshroud. I believe my men have informed you that we are searching for a particular man in your acquaintance.”

Leadcommander? She had moved up in the world, since a Dentherion officer wished to speak with her. She filed the name of the skyshroud for future investigation and focused on the bouncing line. “Ah, yes. Someone named Aethon. Funny, an underboss named Hoyt thought the same thing. Didn’t get him anywhere, either, because I’ve never met anyone named Aethon.”

Patch nudged her. “You’re supposed to be more polite than that,” he said, loud enough to reach the person on the other end.

“I’m a Jilvaynan,” she muttered. “No politeness in me.”

“You are in company.” Requet did not sound happy. Why? Did it interfere with his bullying?

“Yes, I’m with my partner.”

“I see.” His excitement changed his voice higher.

“He goes by Patch.”

Silence.

“As I said, I’ve never met anyone named Aethon. Patch and I have been partners for eight years, quite long enough for me to know his name is Patch and not Aethon.”

He smirked, the ass. She supposed, she needed to thank Faelan for informing her about his past, because she could play with that rather than bumble about, bewildered as to why so many thought her partner was this Aethon.

“Patch is Danaea’s partner. This is common knowledge, and she is forthright about it.”

Patch’s sour disgust at the declaration amused her, though she found it odd Requet spoke as if the hunter were still alive and hinted he worked with her. Why have his men search for Jerin if they thought she lived? What connection did the woman have to the Dentherions, that a skyshroud leadcommander even knew her name?

Lapis smiled at the Black Hat leader. “Danaea told the guard that so they wouldn’t cheat her on stakes. And, as you so nicely put it Leadcommander, this is common knowledge in the Grey and Stone Streets communities.”

He reacted to her words, though his men remained oblivious. How much Jilvayn did he understand? Did he attempt to spy in plain sight? She wished him luck, because by detaining them, he had fallen on Patch’s bad side—and his bad side was quite the dark experience, particularly for idiots who thought themselves clever.

“She uses chasers in this manner.” The leadcommander tried to hide his unhappiness, but it peeked through the formal tone.

“At one point or another, she’s claimed every chaser with a reputation and sizable bank account,” Patch said, his scorn apparent. “Though she rides the names of hunters the most. She brandishes them like a hammer, to get what she wants. Because of it, no one in the Grey and Stone Streets trusts her.”

“Including you.”

“Especially me.”

After a lengthy pause, Requet cleared his throat. “I would like to speak with you in person, Lady Lanth.”

Would he, now. “I’m not averse to a meeting at the night market.”

“Night market?” he asked, confused.

“It’s a large market and dining establishment in the Grey Streets. It’s where I conduct business.” At least, the business she did not trust.

“The skyshroud—”

“No. Your men attacked Sir Armarandos at the Lells today. If you have so little respect for Jilvaynan authority, what might a simple chaser face in your company?”

“That . . . was a regrettable accident.”

Accident.

“The woman with him provoked a response.” He sounded as if he spoke through his teeth.

Patch laughed and Lapis had a nasty internal fight with herself before firming her jaw and keeping her snarly reaction to herself. “I see. Since your men find such provocation in a woman’s words, we shall only speak through this device. I’m afraid my life would be greatly shortened without this precaution.”

“I am certain you are nothing like the woman with Sir Armarandos, Lady Lanth.”

Lapis’s neck hair tickled, overriding her fury over his patronizing comment. She glanced at Patch, who looked like a cat with the thickest cream. His relaxed stance indicated someone with firepower had arrived, though she did not want to bring attention to them by searching for them.

“I am certain you are quite wrong about that, Leadcommander. I have never been known for a smooth disposition or elegant conversation. If you wish to speak with me, come to the night market. Ask the rats to find me. If I’m in a good mood, I’ll join you.” She tossed the device at the startled leader, who fumbled with it before slamming it against his chest, heaving in terror, and walked away.

“Well, that was fun,” her partner snickered as the Black Hats shouted after them.

“I want to make certain Dalle is OK.”

He nodded. “Alright.”

She whisked into the store and realized why Patch possessed so little care for Black Hat moodiness; rebels peered through the cracked, filmy windows, and while they did not have obvious signs of weaponry, they carried them. If the enemy did see fit to follow her, it would be the final mistake they made. She smiled at Tearlach, who nodded, and focused on Dalle, who stood on tiptoe behind the rebels, craning her neck to get a better look.

“Thank you for interpreting, Dalle,” Lapis said. “I’m glad you got out of there when you did.”

“I thought they were going to use their tech,” she said, her voice thinning with concern.

“They still might, but I doubt it,” Patch remarked as he glanced out the window. “I think they’re going to take their bad experience out on those guttershanks.”

“That there shank’s Mollis,” the shopkeep said, hustling from behind the counter. “He’s shook down most of us on Barren Hills, but his protection’s nil. Hope they do light his ass.”

“Mitta,” Dalle sighed.

“Surprised he hasn’t fallen afoul of a smarter shank,” Patch murmured. “Brawn only gets you so far.”

“Those of us with stores here, we don’t make much. It isn’t worth it, to most shanks to bother.” Mitta’s eyes grazed her merchandise. The display pieces were nothing exceptional, simple work attire and a few dresses with a bit of lacy flare for special evenings. Richer undershanks ignored the not-lucrative establishments.

“What are the Black Hats doing here?” Tearlach asked, his eyes glued to whatever transpired outside.

“They were following a tech bird down the street,” Lapis told him. “They were searching for someone. I doubt it was me, but when they saw me, they called me by my name.”

“I wonder who Aethon is.” Dalle ran her fingers through her hair, nervous. “He’s in trouble, falling on the wrong side of Dentheria.”

“There isn’t a chaser named Aethon in Jiy,” Patch said. “And I don’t recall anyone by that name in Coriy or Vraindem, either. They have bad intel, and they’re going to try and make Lanth fix it.” He hmphed. “For all their advanced tech, they can’t even get a stake’s name right.”

Every Grey Streets person within the store murmured assent, their eyes shining with the satisfaction of witnessing a terrible enemy make a mistake and look the fool for it. She did not doubt, the gossip about that would fly far and fast.

“Thank you for keepin’ Dalle safe.” Mitta spread her arms wide. “We sell clothes and a few specialty items here, and you should get somethin’.”

“Thank you,” Lapis said, putting the warmth of gratitude in her words. “But we didn’t do much. Dalle did the talking.”

“Nonsense. If you hadn’t been around—and with Patch—to intimidate them, they would’ve done worse.” She returned to the counter and rustled about in the shelving below before retrieving a medium-sized brown paper bag with the store’s name scrawled in heavy ink across the bottom. She bustled to Lapis, rolling the top to create a handle, and shoved the item into her chest. “On the house,” she stated proudly.

Mitta obviously thought the story would attract custom and bragging that she and Patch obtained clothing from her would entice the curious. Lapis imagined she would retell the tale, exaggerating enough to captivate her customers, then ply them with how much the two chasers loved her wares.

Her partner jerked his chin, and Tearlach, along with a couple of others, slipped out the back way. She weighed the sack, thanked the shopkeep, and followed, curious as to what the bag held but refusing to peek until she had a moment to herself.

Rin lounged in the windowsill, arms tightly crossed, knees up above his head, and glared daggers at the pretty leaves on the shade tree outside the glass. Lapis had no idea what to say to him because she had no idea what set him off. She made circles on the tabletop with her index finger and pondered ways to broach the subject without making the rat more upset.

“Rin,” she began. He sullenly regarded her, then turned back to the exterior view.

Several large shade trees with glossy purple leaves and tiny red fruits grew around the new House. The plants hid most happenings within the place behind thick boughs and stately canopies, purposefully left untrimmed so their growth reflected that of other mansions in the area; overrun by foliage to hide the inhabitants from the goings-on in the streets beyond. It always amused Lapis, that the down-and-out nobles who refused to give up their ancient family estates pretended the greenery hid their shame, or in any way protected them from the creeping desperation contaminating the Grey Streets surrounding them.

Upon viewing the cracked, white-washed facade, with years of dirt staining the sides, muddy windows and loose sills, she assumed the interior also needed work, to become a suitable House. Patch enjoyed her surprise when she traversed the back entry and receiving room. They reminded her of Nicodem and various noble homes she visited as a child, with soft and elegant furniture in warm blues and browns, wallpaper with a generic family crest design, vases holding ornamental flowers and silk-wrapped branches, and watercolors depicting enticing landscapes. Her boots sank into the rugs, and she anticipated walking on them in bare feet. A bar with dozens of liqueurs and glasses spanned half the right wall, a strong indication someone decorated this room for visitors.

The hallway leading to the rest of the House had yet to be remodeled; the dingy bluish-grey wallpaper peeled at the corners, the wooden floor had dulled, and no paintings adorned the walls, but the potential for more screamed at her. She liked the wide, scrolled banister, which led to the second story and several rooms that indicated whoever built the place either raised a large family or entertained many guests for extended periods. She wondered if Patch might answer questions about his forefathers, or if the discussion would spark unwanted memories and hate.

She heard Jerin moving about in the bathroom attached to the room; she needed to talk to Rin before he interrupted.

“So what’s wrong?”

She hated being blunt with the rat, but sometimes, it proved the only way to break through to him.

He heaved himself off the sill and took himself out the door.

Unwarranted guilt slammed into her. Yes, teenager equaled moodiness, but she despised dealing with it. She always assumed she had done something to trigger it, and while sometimes that was the case, most of the time outside influences hounded them.

Of course, if that outside influence was Jerin . . .

She glanced about the room in which Caitria settled the lad, focusing on something other than Rin. Nothing special caught her attention; it contained wooden walls, a dresser, a single-person bed with coarse linens, dusty throw carpets on scuffed boards, and a dinged desk with a drawers and shelves to either side that held paper, pens, and envelops. The room might hold five rats, though, since the table only had two chairs, the bed would need to double as a couch. Hopefully it provided a safe space for the lad; she knew, the fear of being hunted, and the overwhelming insecurity that brought.

Jerin exited the bathroom, worming about in fresh clothing, his hair dripping onto his shoulders. The plain white shirt and brown pants were too large, but she did not think this House had many items fit for a younger person to wear. He glanced at her, looked down, and shuffled to the bed before flopping onto it.

“How are you feeling?” She suspected the answer, and also assumed he would demure.

“OK.”

“Are you hungry?”

He shook his head. “Caitria showed me where the kitchen is, so I know where to go when I am. The cook. She’s nice.”

Lapis nodded. “The people in this House are nice. They’re going to help you figure out what’s going on.”

He sucked in a rapid, unsteady breath. “I don’t understand any of this.” A few tears leaked down his cheeks. “I’m just a student at Willington’s. My mother sells . . . sold jewelry. Why would anyone like the Black Hats want me?”

Lapis had comforted many a new rat; some rejected her sympathy, others clung to it. He snuffled into her chest and vented sorrow, and she held him and pushed her own memories into a dark, deep place, where she could worry at them later.

A soft knock on the door grabbed her attention. “Yes?”

Brander came in, carrying an armful of packs, followed a gaggle of rats as heavily laden. She raised an eyebrow at the amount, but he only smiled as he set his load on top of the dresser. Who had asked the rebel to join their expedition to Willington’s?

“My stuff!” Jerin said, leaping from her and hustling over to his belongings. “How—”

“Willington’s is an easy in and out,” Brander said before settling in a chair at the table. Scand laughed and held out a few sheets of paper to her; she accepted them, glanced at the writing, and frowned.

Ramish.

“I took them off a few Black Hats,” he announced smugly. “After all the trouble they caused at the Lells, it was the least I could do.”

“The least you could have done was leave them be,” she reminded him drily. “I wonder if anyone here knows Ramish.” She did not think Jarosa had returned from her impromptu battle with the Black Hats, but perhaps another rebel spoke it.

Gabby hopped into the room, bouncing about gaily. How many rats followed Brander into the House? Was Faelan OK with that? “We staked Willington’s good!” she crowed. “Superior Fyor didn’t know what to do when I told him about it, and he watched me fill out the paperwork. Then I told him that Sir Armarandos taught me, and he was impressed!”

“I’m certain he was,” she murmured.

“I told him about having lunch with Sir Armarandos and his dad. And he was even more impressed. Copper told me I’d make a fine knight, too.”

Lapis had no doubt.

Deciding the rats and Brander would keep Jerin occupied, Lapis hustled downstairs and nosed about, looking for signs of rebel. She discovered a room that looked to be a small ballroom converted into a comfy space, with dark-stained seating and tables, plush couches, thick carpets, furniture by windows draped in heavy, dappled brown fabric held to the sides by long, golden tassels. Paintings of broad, soft landscapes filled the wall space, along with a couple tapestries she decided Jarosa must have provided, because they held Meint religious scenes.

Faelan and Jetta sat on a couch, nestled together, Lady Ailis in a plump chair near them that made her look child-like, Caitria and Mairin discussing something with them in urgent tones. They all looked at her as she entered, and she had an odd moment of discomfort, like what she experienced as a child when she unwittingly interrupted her father doing rebel things.

She raised her hand containing the pages. “Anyone want to read some Ramish from the Black Hats?” she asked. Lady Ailis clucked her tongue and raised her hand.

“Give them to me. I know Ramish very well.” She squinted at her as she passed the pages to her. “We heard Jarosa killed one of the Black Hats?”

“Nailed their leader in the face after one of his snipers tried to take her out,” Lapis said. “They hit her in the chest, and it pissed her off.”

Everyone sighed at the inevitable conclusion to that insult.

“At least it wasn’t a head shot,” Mairin grumbled as she leaned over to view the pages.

“And you escaped, unscathed,” Faelan said, searching for any hint of injury. “Rin said you encountered some more Black Hats on the way to the House.”

“Yes. They didn’t attack, but they did want to talk to me,” she said. Questions raced through her brother’s eyes as Jetta frowned, concerned.

“Really,” he said.

“They are under the impression I have a partner named Aethon and they want to know where he’s at.”

He cocked his head at her, thinking. “Hoyt thought that as well.”

“Yeah. He used Seft to hook up with the Black Hats, so it must be a common belief throughout their extended ring. They never said why they’re looking for him, either, but they expected me to produce him.”

“But Patch was with you,” Caitria said. “How did they react to his being your partner?”

She clasped her hands behind her back and rocked back and forth on the balls of her feet. “They didn’t believe it, even with him standing next to me and claiming the connection. We were even told Danaea was his partner, not me.” She puffed out her chest, pretending to great importance. “They handed me a communications device and I got to talk to Leadcommander Requet of the Estark Skyshroud himself about Aethon. He wanted a personal meeting with me to discuss my not-partner. I told him to meet me at the night market or I wasn’t bothering.”

“Oh no.”

Her brother’s aghast disbelief annoyed her. Lady Ailis reflected his expression, which annoyed her more. They must realize, she had matured since her childhood.

“I was polite,” she insisted, grumpy.

“Polite is a relative term concerning your conduct,” Lady Ailis reminded her primly, with the same raised eyebrow, narrow-eyed exasperation she remembered from her childhood.

“I’m twenty, not ten.”

“Hmm mmm.”

Patch laughed, and foreboding roared through her as he entered the room, accompanied by a wispy rebel with shaggy sunset-brown hair, round hazel eyes, and wearing a bright yellow sunflower slip dress. He gently brushed her back before wrapping his arms around her shoulders. “I thought she was exceedingly polite,” he stated, his voice thrumming with humor.

“Coming from you, that’s not a comfort,” Lady Ailis said.

“She spoke with him, didn’t say good-bye, threw the communications device at the Black Hat leader, and walked away. Perfect.”

A frog could not look grumpier than Lapis felt. “When you say it that way—” she began.

“It’s in line with the respect Dentheria gives us,” the wispy rebel proclaimed, all grins and chuckles.

Scand rushed through the doorway, his face as red as Rin’s hair. “Lady!” he said, handing her the paper bag the shopkeep had given her. She left it in Jerin’s room, and from the inept rerolling of the top, the rats had peeked. Curiosity was going to bop them on the head one day. “And Jerin found stuff in his things that aren’t his.” He pushed his clenched fist at her; envelopes stuck out between his fingers. She set the bag down and took the mail, glancing at the stamps as Brander wandered in, looking through some other bits.

“These were tucked into his things,” the rebel told them. “And I think it’s on purpose. This is correspondence between the headmaster at Willington’s and Hoyt’s man, Siward.” He settled on a random chair and leaned over his knees as he continued to scan the pages. “From what I’ve read, Siward informed the headmaster of his mother’s death and claimed he was Jerin’s guardian. He said his people would retrieve the boy, they just needed to know who he was. I can’t tell whether the headmaster was suspicious, or if he wanted to quickly wash his hands of a problem.”

“Who’s the head?” Lady Ailis asked, rising. “I can find out the truth of it. I’m certain Lord Adrastos would love to accompany me to a meeting.”

“I’m certain he would,” Faelan murmured.

“Miter Courgaiss. As Willington’s headmaster, he probably lives in the Meadows or across the river in the Bells. Jerin might know.” He sat back and ran his hand through his bangs. “I told him we need to talk to him about his mother. He knows her name, Danella, and that she lived in the Meadows.”

“She didn’t live in the Meadows,” Jetta said. She regarded the floor despondently, the foot on her crossed leg bouncing up and down. “Another lie for her child.”

“He said she was a merchant who sold jewelry. He showed me a pendant. It’s very nice, and something she either stole or took from a stake. Only nobles wear opal items like that.”

“This is going to break his heart,” Lapis said.

“We don’t have to tell him exactly how horrible his mother was,” the wispy rebel pointed out.

“Lapis, meet Linz,” Faelan said with a soft smile. “They ‘keep for Jetta.”

“I can’t replace Dachs,” they said with humorous regret, “but I get the job done. Eventually.”

Patch laughed. “Eventually, eh? Good way to spin it.”

They made a face. “OK, so it took three days to clear out the Dunes. But there was a lot of stuff there!”

“It was a studio apartment. How much stuff could Den possibly have crammed into it?”

“He was a hoarder. We found burned matches, cracked glasses, receipts ten years old, shards of something or other strewn across the kitchen . . .” They took a deep breath. “I cannot wait, until I’m a chaser and get to order some other shlub to pick up after me.”

Jetta laughed, and it did not sound too forced. “Pick up after you? Maybe that’s why you take so long, Linz. You play housekeeper instead of streetkeeper.”

They grumbled something under their breath. “Anyway, I think I found something about our current and very strange situation. It’s . . . weird.” They glanced about the room, then beamed happily. “Time for a meeting!” they said brightly.

Lapis assumed that was a not-subtle hint about rebel secrecy.

The sounds of others entering the House carried to the room. Caitria leapt up, raced out, then returned with several people, Ciaran included. The incident at the Lells must have ended, and in favor of Jiy.

“Well?” Faelan asked drolly.

“I have rarely seen a man so pissed as Sir Armarandos is with Jarosa,” Ciaran said. “I have rarely seen Jarosa meekly agree that what she did was stupid and she’s very sorry for everything.”

Her bodyguards’ surprise reflected Lapis’s own. Jarosa never apologized. It caused some harm to the Wolf Collaborate, but she stubbornly continued the tradition.

“He made me promise to stay put for a few days,” the Ramiran rebel said as she stepped from behind the taller man, guilty and subdued. A huge, black-ringed hole filled the center of her shirt; without a marching shirt beneath, she would have died. “They did shoot at me first,” she reminded the room, pulling down the hem so they could better look at the damage.

“What did you say to them to make them stupid in the first place?” Patch asked.

“I told them that . . . um, the Pit had smarter people. And maybe something about clearing the air of refuse.”

Linz shrieked with laughter and hugged the despondent rebel about the neck. “I’d have done the same thing,” they declared.

“So I don’t suppose you’d like to accompany me to visit Sir Adrastos?” Lady Ailis asked. Jarosa perked up and Ciaran shook his head.

“No.” His voice was rock-hard. “Stay put means stay put!”

“It’s just a little jaunt,” Jarosa said.

“There is no such thing as a little jaunt in Jiy when you’re involved,” he told her.

Lady Ailis raised the Ramish pages before rising and handing them to Jarosa before she took exception to the words. “These are Black Hat correspondence. You should read them.”

The deadening of Jarosa’s expression as she perused them alarmed Lapis. What had Scand found?

“A working dinner meeting, I take it?” Faelan asked drolly.

“Yeah.” She glanced at Lady Ailis. “Why do you need to see Adrastos?”

“I want to ask him about the headmaster of Willington’s. He put correspondence between himself and a guttershank named Siward in with Jerin’s things, which means he expected someone to find and use the information.”

“That probably goes along with this.” Jarosa held up the pages. “It may be an evening meeting, Faelan. I think talking to the headmaster is important enough to delay.”

“How urgent is the info you found, Linz?” he asked.

“Not so very, but notable. This evening will be a good time to meet.”

“It gives you time to talk to Jerin and see if he can recall anything relevant about his mother,” Patch said.

Lapis pulled away, burning with curiosity but not really excited about spending time in a drawn-out meeting. Perhaps she should find the kitchen and see if Selda had moved to the new House. She wanted food, and she refused to wait until Jarosa returned at whatever hour she deemed fit. She handed the envelopes to her brother, who eyed the bag.

“What’s that?” His eyes trailing along the shop’s name.

“The Black Hats were yelling about needing someone to speak Ramish, and someone did help. A shopkeep gave me this as a thank you for keeping the translator safe.” She opened it. “I don’t even know what she gave me.”

“Lady!” Scand called, frantic, before she pulled out a lump of straps and buckles attached together with rivets. She blinked at it, confused, as the rat turned an even more brilliant shade of red.

“What . . .?”

“It’s a harness, sort of,” Brander said, strained, but whether embarrassed or because of strangling laughter, she did not know. “For . . . a good time.”

A good time. No. Oh no.

That a ruby blush spread across Patch’s cheeks did not help.

What kind of clothes did Mitta sell?

Lapis did not consciously leave the room, but Patch bowling into her knocked her out of her daze. He settled his hands on her shoulders and guided her to a plain stairway and down a cross-corridor with stripped walls, which ended at a beautifully shined, red-stained door. She entered, registering a comfortable reddish-brown atmosphere, dark carpets and drapes, scrolled furniture that looked a couple of hundred years old, and a sparseness in décor she associated with her partner.

“Why did she give me this?” she whispered. Patch slipped his arms down and hugged her tightly about the waist.

“She sells clothes for special occasions,” he replied quietly. “Apparently, for occasions a bit more special than I assumed.”

“She’s going to use us to market this stuff.” Lapis buried her face in her hand and embarrassment and hot distress fought for supremacy in her chest.

“Yeah.” He pressed his nose into the back of her head, nuzzled his way to her ear, then slipped his nose across her cheek.

“You blushed, too.”

His face heated against hers. “Maybe.”

“Well, hopefully they’ll get more use out of it.”

He stilled. “You don’t want to wear it?”

“For what purpose?”

“I don’t know. A good time.” Warm heat filtered through his tone.

She met his eye, a shing of hurt anger rushing through her. “As if you’ve ever been interested in that with me.”

“That’s not true.”

She pulled away. “Uh-huh.”

“Lapis—”

She flung the outfit away; it landed on a chair and slid down, to pool on the floor. She failed to adequately explain her emotions, but humiliation tinged with rage did not make for good lustiness.

He touched her back, and before she turned, slid his arms around her, crossed her chest and pressed her against his lean length. His nose tickled her hair until he reached her ear, then his lips brushed the edges. “I’m not the most forthright about this shit,” he admitted. “But never think, I don’t want you. I do, and have for a long while now. But I didn’t want to pressure you into a relationship with someone like me.”

“Someone like you?” What did he mean by that?

“I’m a . . . dead end.”

“You’re an idiot,” she snapped, furious he even voiced it. He opened up to her, as often as she bore her soul to him, but sometimes she wanted to smack him silly for his thoughts. “You’re not a dead end. You’re my rock, my base. Unless you think I’m a dead end, too.”

“No!” She disliked his startlement.

“You’re the one who wanted to hide our relationship.”

“I thought it would keep you safer.” He sagged against her, his weight keeping her in place. “I’ve been wrong about a lot of things. Relationships aren’t my strong point, and bad decisions make it worse. I’m sorry.” He kissed the side of her head. “I did want to make sure we both wanted to be together, that it wasn’t just me making things up because I was desperate.”

“You’ve never been desperate.”

“I have, concerning you. I was afraid you’d disappear into the Grey Streets, find someone else, someone happier, healthier, someone more stable.”

“Why would I want someone else?”

“I don’t know.”

“I’ve had starry eyes for you since you rescued me in Coriy. I thought I was too annoying to be of interest, though.”

“Sometimes you were annoying,” he agreed. She growled and he laughed, his usual sarcastic confidence absent. He wanted her to take his words as seriously as he spoke them. “But after we reached Jiy, I never considered a relationship with anyone else.”

“Not anyone. Not Relaine?”

“No,” he said, confused. “Why would you even think that?”

“You got along with her well.” Why did she bring up another past hurt that scraped against her?

“I thought she was a different kind of rebel. I was wrong.” He molded his body against hers, grew warmer, softer. “Yeah, she hinted at a relationship, and I told her no. You’re the one I’m interested in. You’re the one that’s stayed by my side and put up with me at my worst. There’s no greater love than that, and I’d be the greatest fool to sacrifice it for . . . what, exactly?”

She laughed in disbelief, despondent she appreciated the subtle dig at the woman. She settled her hands on his upper arms and closed her eyes, gathering irritation, embarrassment, extraneous hurts, and shoving them into a dark, forgettable emotional corner where they could rot together. She had other, vastly more important worries, about Rin, Jerin, and why Hoyt and his Black Hat buddies wanted to find Aethon. Why a leadcommander of a skyshroud led the charge.

They remained as they were while her emotions merged and settled into the depths of her chest. Shadows lengthened across the room, the light peeking around the curtains took on the golden hue of the setting sun. The atmosphere comforted, cradled; Patch tended to pay attention to such things, creating small but wonderful shelters for her to enjoy.

“Lapis,” he whispered once she relaxed completely against him. “You have my trust and my heart.”

She did not deserve them, but she wrapped herself around the words and swallowed them. Her mind turned to the sunsets they shared atop the rebel House. He held her close and they basked in the orangish-red brightness that turned to a ruddy crimson, a deep wine, then into a succulent dark purple and blue. When the chill winds tore across the roof, his body warmed her and shielded her from their touch. If she shivered too much, he would prod her inside, bring them warm tea from the kitchen, and they would cuddle together on the sleeping mat, content.

She turned and buried herself in his embrace.

He kissed his way to her lips, and that caress ended her remaining anger. She savored him, though her concentration descended to another part that hardened against her. He slid his hand down to the top of her buttocks and pressed her firmly against him.

She circled his waistband, unbuttoned his pants, then shoved her hands down and around, to grip his butt and pull him closer. He grinned against her lips as he snagged the bottom of her shirt and slipped his hands beneath. His fingers trailed hot streaks across her ribs and up; her lower regions clenched when he lightly touched her breasts and played with her nipples. Heat raced from her cheeks and down her neck, to pool in her chest. He followed it, kissing and nibbling, still smiling.

He pulled her shirt up and over her head, flinging it somewhere, before cupping her chin, stroking her mouth with his thumbs and kissing her again. She shoved his top up, flared her fingers against his muscles, then tugged it off; his hair became static and poofed in all directions. She laughed and he grasped her, picking her up as easily as he did a pack. The blue lights of his patch blinked and chased each other about as he carried her to the next room. She nuzzled his neck, smelling heat and musk, tinged with the lingering spiciness of his soap. He set her down and she turned on her heel.

And stared.

A four-poster bed, with thick, twisty posts. Transparent fabric hung from the beams, the airy brown complimenting the deeper color of the bedspread, which contained an erotic love scene centered in a circle. Fluffy blue pillows filled the top, enough to keep her propped up for eternity.

Patch had a four-poster bed?

“It was my uncle’s,” he told her, humor lacing his tone. “It’s pretty comfy.”

“The bedding, too?”

“It’s what I scrounged up.” His hand slid down her belly and settled lower, his fingers playing with the very sensitive part of her anatomy. “Are you still drinking that brew?”

“Yes,” she gasped as he rubbed, and squirmed. The act of swallowing the bitter stuff held a personal promise that, one day, Patch would make her a woman.

Dammit, she wanted him.

There was no enticing way to remove their footwear. Perhaps someone else had thought of one, but sitting on the edge of the bed, pushing at the heels with their toes and sending them careening away was not it. At least it made it easier for Patch to undress her while she unbuckled her gauntlets. Those landed on the carpeted floor with a soft thump.

He pushed her back, the crisp coolness of the bedspread a delight. His kissing up her thigh aroused her, and she arched against him as he tickled and sucked and ran his fingers through her very wet private places. He made his way to her mouth, tingles streaking away from his lips at every place he caressed.

He finally tossed his pants aside, though she did not think that very sexy, either. Should he not move his hips about and pose or something? Random thoughts died as he hovered over her, and she wrapped her hands about him, shuddering at the heat. He was hard, smooth, ready.

She was beyond ready.

He slid his lower arms under her shoulder, cupped her face, settled his other hand against her hip, and thrust.

She enveloped him, wrapped her legs about him, clasped her arms around his neck, and had no idea what else to do other than wallow in the heat and goodness spreading from her groin. She finally dared to kiss him, suck at his lips, and revel in delightful, addicting pleasure with him.

And she silently thanked Mitta for that harness thing.

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5 Sep, 2021 21:01

Open and end parts are good. The middle in the House is a bit muddled and confusing with all the characters involved and mentioned. Great work!