Chapter 1: A Shocking Stake

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Lapis smoothed the crinkles crossing the sweet and encouraging note with her thumbs, wishing Patch sat with her in her room during Brander’s visit. His words, while a buoy for her, did not equal his presence. She wanted his comforting hugs near, and she wanted his advice, because she did not trust the small boon that kept the rebel traitor imprisoned in the Jiy rebel House.

She did not trust that his myriad of supporters would listen and accept the truth of his treachery. She did not trust in his continued confinement, and once free, he would target her and the street rats and everyone who supported her word against his.

She knew, all too well, he beheaded his enemies.

Brander’s acute golden gaze saw more than she wished in the action. “Patch’ll be back tonight.”

“Will he.”

“He’s as fed up as the rest of us.” He sank back on her single chair, crossed his legs, planted his elbow on the armrest, and settled his chin in the palm of his hand. “If you had told me, before all this happened, that I’d end up questioning my devotion to the rebellion, I would have been offended. I have fought and stole for it for years. I discounted Chinder, when he told me it wasn’t worth my soul.”

She tore her gaze from the page Patch had touched and considered her guest. “The rebellion breaks hearts and minds. I watched my father deal with people who shattered under the trauma. It doesn’t surprise me, that your mentor guessed that.” She remembered one incident, where a younger rebel with a wife and baby cracked upon realizing the throne took a stake out on his adorable family because they had a hint of his involvement in a rebel affair that had happened half a country away, and that he had no knowledge of. The crown had no proof, but that never mattered to Puppet-king Gall or his loyal, bloodthirsty general, Kale, when they chose to kill.

“It’s not that,” he muttered, frustrated. “Faelan and Midir are stout and principled leaders. They want what’s best for the rebellion and for Jilvayna. But they’re in the minority. There’re too many, who think a traitor’s worth more than the cause.”

She nodded. “I’ve known that for eight years.” Perben had shone bright and angelic in too many eyes, the trusted and generous golden son. Even at twelve, she knew her word against his held no strength, so never bothered to contact Coriy rebels or her brother and uncle to tell them she had survived the slaughter. Instead, she hid, planned, trained, intent on completing her vow to all who died after his traitorous ass led the palace guard to Nicodem that soft and balmy afternoon. All she needed to do was figure out his rebel name—and she discovered it too late. Too late to save Miki, whom he killed because he thought he harmed someone close to her. Too late to exact revenge before the full weight of rebel disbelief and displeasure smashed against her.

Brander half-smiled. “I don’t think Teivel’s supporters realize they’ve lost the trust of the two most important people in the rebellion. They think they’re firmly standing on a precipice, strong against the ill wind blowing. They’ve completely missed that they’ve already jumped over the edge and have splatted on the ground. They’re dead voices trying to sing like birds and sounding like the corpses they are.”

Brander had a poet tucked away inside.

“I take it Lady Ailis’s evidence is as ignored as ever?”

“There’s so much there. I don’t understand how they can read through it and declare it a lie, again and again and again.”

The Blue Council and high-ranking Jiy rebels had waded through the material over the past seven days and still had not arrived at the last piece of physical proof of Perben’s treachery. Despite what they viewed, too many leaders disregarded the words and raged about their flawless intuition when it came to choosing rebels for the cause. Had not Teivel, the Rebel’s Devil, proved his worth over countless missions? He carried through despite pain and blood, and how dare Lady Ailis display evidence to the contrary? How dare Lapis’s tale agree with it? Everything proved so inconvenient that Meinrad, with great flourish and ceremony, deemed the evidence and her memories fake. It gave Perben’s defenders an excuse to kick her out of the proceedings, on the pretext she lied.

So she donned her city guise, Lady Lanth, and wished them all to the Pit and its hungry carrion lizards.

They attempted the same with Lady Ailis and Patch, but they refused to go. Lady Ailis stood firm and loudly related the events surrounding Lapis fleeing to Havenknoll and her harrowing escape while the palace guards searched through the mansion hunting for survivors. Aggravated that a woman brow-beat them into listening, Rambart made sarcastic remarks about Neola and how her lack of motherly care had led to her child’s demise. Teivel had nothing to do with it.

Ciaran barely prevented his mother from tearing his throat out with her carefully manicured nails. He knew his danger, too, because Brander had previously told her he kept several bodies between them during meetings.

Patch told them he had known a Nicodem survived the moment he saw her in the Coriy alley, being attacked by street rats who only saw a rich if tattered dress they could sell, rather than the terrified girl wearing it. Her black hair and purple eyes, her facial cast so like Faelan’s, made his identification simple. He had pondered how to proceed, but her nightmares, filled with raging terror and helpless grief, starred the traitor, and he sealed his knowledge away to keep her safe. Even Baldur grumpily admitting that anyone who heard her scream in the middle of the night knew something monstrous haunted her.

“Faelan and Midir have something planned.” The thief absently pondered the air before him. “Sherridan and I know a bit about it, but they aren’t sharing much just yet. There’s going to be a shake-up. I don’t know what that might entail.”

“They’ve been replacing poorly performing House leaders for years,” Lapis reminded him. “The shake-up’s already happening. They’ve just been sneaky about it.”

He absorbed her words. “I never realized, the difficulty of finding people who do the right thing.” He shook himself and rose. “I need to go. Caitria wanted me to get a few medical supplies before I returned to the House, and the stores won’t be open much longer.” He tried to laugh. “She said Faelan has a habit of getting injured and requiring a lot of care.”

Lapis nodded and heaved herself off her unmade bed, seeing him to the door a few steps away. Her brother had taken a blade meant for her. If he often threw himself into danger like that, she could see the pressing need. “Be careful,” she cautioned. “I think anyone who has a favorable opinion of me is a target.”

“I’m not the one who needs that advice,” he said drily. “You still have that guttershank Hoyt after you for being the partner of someone you’ve never met. Between him and the rebels, you have a lot of people to avoid.”

She pursed her lips. “Uplifting, as always.”

He blinked, blushed brightly enough she noticed despite the dimness of light from her single candle, and hopped down the stairs.

Rin popped his sienna-haired head into her doorway before she managed to close the door. “What’s up?”

She shook her head, fighting the intense rise of tears. Perben killed Miki because he thought he was Rin. If Rin had died . . . “Nothing important. Just a note from Patch.” She held up the scrunched paper. “Rin, I need to go out.”

“No.”

She glared. “I have work,” she snapped.

“You gots plenty o’ silver from the Alchemist’s stake,” he reminded her. He spread his legs and folded his arms, glaring green fire at her. “They’s who’s huntin’ you ain’t gonna care, if you needs fresh air.”

Her tears bunched up into a dead-weight stone that plummeted to the earth and left a small crater. “I’m going out.” She slammed the door in his face.

“Don’t be stubborn, Lady!” he called through the wood. It took a moment, but she heard his footsteps retreat down the stairs.

Revenge. Regret. Release.

Lapis sat on the sodden roof overlooking the night market and her stake’s apartment, head tipped to the rain, attempting to push her feelings into the cold drops so they could rush away in a torrent of water and leave her an empty shell. She wanted to drown in nothing, to wallow in dark numbness, to forget.

She had failed.

She missed her mark. She missed putting Perben out of everyone’s misery. She had missed, leaving her promise of vengeance shattered on the floor of the Jiy House. She had missed, and now his supporters rose in force to defend him while tearing her down. If they freed him . . .

Lapis gasped and struggled to suck in the chill air, her tears a streak of warmth against her frozen cheeks. She was so afraid, her vows to her family would come to naught, that the disingenuous swine would free him and leave everyone she cared for a target of his retaliation. Perben and his allies insisted on his angelic and gentle nature and tried to claim she was the vicious, deceitful one; after all, she attacked him at the breakfast table. Who besides a hellion did that?

As if beheading Miki had not prompted it.

She clenched her hands, hard enough they ached. She had not trained for eight years, to have her righteous revenge sidelined by crass misogyny and ambition-inspired hate. She still held her dreams and promises close, waiting for the opportunity to carry her vengeance to Perben and anyone who thought him worthy. If they blindly followed the traitor because it felt comfortable, she would make certain their final moments held all the love and compassion Kale showed the mutilated bodies of her family and best friend.

“Lapis.”

She did not respond, so Patch dumped himself next to her on the crates. He dribbled water across the wooden surface, which soaked into her cloak and rump. He flipped back his sodden blond hair, unconcerned at the water he sprayed about.

“Patch—”

“Hmm?”

Patch smiled and joked with her, intimated things he never told others, had a mild disposition and soft touch when she needed comfort and care. That had been conspicuously absent the past three days, as he navigated the Blue Council hatred of her revelation while protecting Faelan and Midir from their impotent rage. His notes, a buoy for her, did not equal his presence.

He slipped an arm about her and drew her close, absently staring at the short railing that lined the roof as his fingers drew circles against her shoulder. Raindrops hammered it, casting smaller drops in all directions and covering everything under the black tarp in a fine mist.

“You’re cold,” he intimated. “Rin said you came up here after Brander left, hours ago.”

She shrugged and bowed her head over her knees, her hands clenching tightly. Rin should have kept his mouth shut. Did he not have enough to do wrangling the reading circle rats into a semblance of enthused reading group that night?

“Freezing isn’t going to help.”

“I’m on a chase.”

He sternly regarded her, his blue gaze unyielding. “A chase? The guy smuggling tech in coffins? He isn’t coming out in this weather, and you know it.” He rocketed to his feet and held out his hand. She reluctantly accepted it, and he yanked her up fast enough her numb legs could not stand. He held her until she regained her balance, clasped her hand tightly within his warm one, and led her away from the darkness and cold rain and bitter, devastating memories.

“Have you eaten?” he asked as they climbed down the tree to the muddy, unlit alley below.

She remained silent a moment too long, then cursed her wandering mind. She jumped the remaining way and shook out her cloak as he plopped to the ground next to her. He held out his hand; she even more reluctantly accepted it. His amusement annoyed her, though she did unintentionally smile when he softly kissed the back of her fingers. He gathered her in a warm and gentle embrace, his lips pressed against her forehead.

“We can grab something at the night market and head to the Eaves.”

She nodded, unenthused at the prospect. They walked across the street to the large, overhauled warehouse, and her tummy rumbled as they neared the awnings, triggered by the scent of warm, delicious food wafting through the air. That night the soft, delicate smell of bread permeated the place, accompanied by the sharper odor of hot spices. Her mind did not wish to eat, but her body demanded she override it. Immediately.

Street rats were there in force, though the patrons thin. At least the night market allowed them to rest along the black brick walls on the colder nights, as long as they kept to themselves. She wondered how many of her reading circle rats had abandoned their cubbies for the warm interior of the Eaves.

She noted Heran and Nilas sitting together with a smattering of other, older rats, huddled under a ratty blanket in the dimmest of corners. Nilas had found Miki’s body, and struggled with what he had seen, what he continued to feel. Copper, a street rat turned guard, helped, providing a solid grounding of empathy he could rage and cry at. Heran had withdrawn from everybody but Nilas. The reading circle rats said that she cried at odd moments, refused all sympathy and aid, and hid. They wanted to help her and had no idea what to do. Rin’s frustration at his inability to speak with her made him snappy and moody.

Lapis had no bits of wisdom to provide, and Copper was at a loss. The Lells merchants offered advice, but nothing they suggested penetrated Heran’s shell. The urge to walk over and ask after her warred with the knowledge that rats, when stubborn about something, could do the exact opposite just to spite the person offering assistance. She did not think any words from her would help, and perhaps make the situation worse, so she stayed away. Given time, the pain would recede though never disappear, and the teen would rejoin life, less enthusiastic, a lot more suspicious. She knew that, too intimately.

Patch chose Red’s Fried and Fresh, a popular stall that served seared meats seasoned with several tantalizing spices. Red’s employees believed that the spicier the food, the better, though they had offerings for those fainter of stomach. They planted themselves at the back of the long line that wrapped through the dining tables, and Lapis resigned herself to the wait. Why not chose a booth with fewer customers? While she normally enjoyed the night market’s dark and smoky atmosphere, she did not want to be around people having a good time. She wanted to return to her room, sit on her bed, and stare at the wooden floor.

“I’m giving up the apartment in the Kells.”

Lapis glanced up as Patch smoothed his hair back, water streaming down his cheeks and neck. He hated his landlord, hated the complex, hated his neighbors, and now that the throne had decided to crack down on traffic into and out of the district due to the brewing war between syndicates, there seemed no reason to stay.

“Where are you thinking of moving?”

She barely heard the low rumble of laughter. “The Eaves. If you’ll have me.”

She stared, for a different reason. Patch enjoyed time alone, the epitome of aloof chaser. She understood the need, and when he first began to chase the more dangerous stakes, she knew he believed separate housing outside the rebel House necessary for her safety. What had changed his mind?

He slipped his arm about her and drew her close. How did he manage to remain so warm on so chilly a night? “Well, that proves I was stupid.”

“What?”

“Your shock, that I would think about living with you.” He sighed and settled his forehead against hers. “I did need the time alone when we first moved here, but it’s been a long while since I wanted it. The rebellion and Ailis kept me too busy, but I’m going to pull back. The Jiy rebels don’t deserve the help I’ve provided, and I’d rather spend time with you than on another stake that pays their bills.”

Lapis did not think the majority of Jiy rebels understood that they lived in the mansion and had food on the table due to Patch’s work. The bulk of their salaries, room and board came from the monies he made in chasing the dangerous stakes and succeeding. Baldur certainly refused to spend anything on the typical rebel unless it benefitted him politically, preferring to shuffle the money Jiy rebels received from the Blue Council around until it landed in his own coffers rather than use it to pay for upkeep or prep the House for emergencies. The paltry jobs several people worked outside the rebellion could not support their families, let alone a grander swath of people.

“I never wanted to interfere.”

“And you didn’t.” He smoothed a long strand of damp hair from her face. “You understood and accepted my needs, and never complained. It may be, I’ll need time alone once in a while, but seclusion isn’t my answer anymore.” He smiled, a mischievous look. “If you’ll have me.”

She wrapped her arms around him and clutched him close. Their times together at the Jiy House were precious to her, and to have him at arms’ length more often than a few days a month excited her. A small bit of inner darkness brightened. “You know I want you with me.”

She had not realized his tenseness until his muscles relaxed. She frowned into his shoulder.

“Did you think I’d say no?”

“I haven’t been what I need to be, for you.”

“That’s not true. You’re my rock, and you’ve never turned away when I needed you.”

“Yes, but you did need me, these past days, and I wasn’t here.”

She looked up at him. “You couldn’t have known everything that happened in advance.”

“I should have known, that Hoyt was targeting you.”

“Have you talked to your contacts?”

“Yeah. No one knows whose ass he pulled the name Aethon from. The underground, like the guard, thinks Hoyt screwed up and named the wrong man as your partner in his hurry to target a phantom enemy. No one knows a chaser named Aethon that works in Jilvayna, and they’re mocking him for taking it seriously—especially now that everyone apparently knows we’re partners.” He shook his head in wonderment. “I never would have anticipated the obsessive interest. I don’t get it.”

“Neither do I.”

“The Council’s nosing about, too.” His words, spoken in the softest whisper, did not hide the searing rage that filled them. “Meinrad and Rambart want to send for someone from Coriy to ask them if we really knew each other there.”

Lapis glanced at the floor as they moved another minute step. It made sense, for them to degrade her, but Patch? “How badly did the meetings go today?”

He growled. She blinked at him, surprised at the reaction. “The rebellion, as it stands, isn’t worth saving. Midir and Faelan know it, too. They’re trying to resuscitate a corpse they haven’t pulled from the river yet. When they do, it’ll still be unquestioningly dead.”

Patch had joined the rebellion for revenge on King Gall. He wanted it to succeed because he wanted to have the opportunity to take the Dentherion puppet ruler out. That he believed it beyond saving worried her, because he would find another way to vengeance, outside the confines of rebel rules.

He took a deep breath, as cleansing as the ones she had indulged in all evening, and murmured into her hair. “It doesn’t matter, I suppose. They’re going to demand you go to one eventually, when they think they have enough evidence against you to counteract your testimony. Meinrad already told me I can’t be there when they summon you. I told him that his trust in a traitor makes him a danger, and I’d never let you take the risk alone.” His low chuckle was as dark as the atmosphere outside. “He was quite upset I didn’t bother to say nice things while in good company.”

If Meinrad knew anything about Patch, his disrespect for authority should rank at number one.

They reached the counter in time to catch the mixture of shock and wide smiles from the employees. The woman they ordered from, Risa, beamed at them. “Heard you’s t’gether,” she intimated happily. “Been talk from the Eaves regs ‘bout it. Never’d guess, you two’d know each other!”

Patch remained polite during their order, but Lapis knew he, like she, hoped the shock at the revelation died quickly. He hated overt attention, and the numbers of people who suddenly thought themselves buddy-buddy with him due to his connection to her annoyed him. He was a dangerous chaser, not a Grey Streets gossip friend. He accepted the small piece of paper with their food number on it and headed to the crowded area where people milled about, waiting for their order. They stayed to the dimly lit outskirts, which did not prevent numerous others from eyeing them speculatively. She had not realized she had pressed herself so close to him, uneasy at the attention, until he slipped his arm about her again, his hold tight.

The crash of a chair to their right alerted Lapis; a woman, with shoulder-length brown hair peeking from her hood, soft doe-eyes and lightly tanned skin, had tripped over the furniture, which a customer had just jettisoned back so they could rise. She tangled with it and fell, shoving the customer forward and into the table, which jarred the food and sloshed the drinks over the rims of the glasses. Whatever she held in her hand, a long, thin shiny silver thing, flew from her fingertips and skidded across the floor. One of the men waiting for food accidentally kicked it, sending it under Red’s counter.

The customers snarled at her, but the woman ignored them as she righted herself and staggered to her feet, her attention on Patch. Lapis glanced at him; he had dead eyes, a look she never transgressed because he only used it when he felt threatened and expected to fight.

“Patch,” the woman said, coming to an awkward halt in front of them. “We need to talk.” She huffed as if out of breath, and her cheeks purpled.

“Do we, Danaea?”

Lapis started as the crowd about them gasped and moved away, unwilling to become involved in a chaser spat. The customers she inconvenienced grabbed their meal and fled. Danaea nervously glanced about but chose to continue the confrontation despite his frosty outing of her identity. Shoos, an Eaves regular, had told her that the hunter bragged incessantly about Patch being her partner and lover, and the revelation that she lied must have made her desperate enough to engage him in public. Guards skimped on pay to chasers who lied to them about such things.

If she collected many stakes from above ground guards.

Danaea had a reputation for assassinating men in the throes of passion with her, and she had managed to complete several dangerous stakes on men who worked for the syndicates and rings by tricking them into bed. Lapis wondered how she managed it; unless she wore an actor’s worth of makeup and wigs, she did not have the looks to enrapture important and deadly men who believed sex with a beautiful woman was their due.

“Y-yes, we do. In private.” Her eyes flicked to Red’s counter. The staff appeared oblivious to the silver item's presence, so they had probably already kicked it about and sent it into a secluded niche or corner, effectively losing it.

“Like that’s ever a good idea with you.” He narrowed his eye and she swallowed. “I thought I told you to stop using my name in vain with the guard. Why didn’t you?”

“I . . . we’re partners.” Her voice strained against stronger emotions, sending it higher.

“That’s always been a lie,” he said. “And it will always be a lie. Go find some other sap to stick your name onto.”

She stood awkwardly, as if she had no idea how to proceed. She obviously did not know Patch well, to think he would have hushed her, embarrassed, and scurried into a corner with her to talk in semi-secret. No, he enjoyed loudly and blatantly calling people out, no matter the place. Her gaze focused on Lapis, and a small, evil smile lit her lips. “She’s staked. Once she’s gone, you’ll come back to me.”

“Kinda hard to return to a place I’ve never been. Besides, Hoyt’s not around to pay,” Patch said dismissively.

“Hoyt?” Danaea laughed “No. This one’s above ground, sweetie. No Hoyt involvement at all, though I’m certain he’ll be pleased to be rid of her.”

Lapis’s stomach twisted and she fought the rise of stomach acid as the hunter gloated. She was staked by someone else? Who? Those fucks supporting Perben? Cold raced through her, and not from the gusts of wind blowing in from outside.

“You should be more concerned about your own head.” Patch sounded carefully nonchalant; the revelation must have startled him as well. “Looks like the rebellion thinks you took out one of their leaders. A two-metgal reward. It came up yesterday. Combined with your other stakes, it’ll be a huge payout for whoever takes you down. I’m surprised you’re still in Jiy.”

Danaea took a step back, her face wrinkling as if she smelled something nasty. “What?”

“Considering who you bump off for a living, you don’t check the understakes every day?” He laughed with forced disbelief. “Good luck. Chaser’s already tracking you, and they know we aren’t partners, so you can’t hide behind me. You’re going to have to have some real good info, if you want to save your head.”

It took her longer to collect her thoughts than Lapis anticipated. If someone like Patch had told her that, she would have immediately run away—probably into the arms of those hunting her, but she would have run.

“So someone’s chasing me.”

“Yep. They’re not wiled by makeup and a tight dress or impressed with mediocre fighting ability.” He shrugged. “You can always get something to eat here and enjoy a last meal. They’ll probably allow that.”

Danaea did not believe him. The way she wobbled on her feet, her skeptical gaze . . . He turned away from her as their number was called and retrieved the food; idle others watched him, then flicked their gazes back to her, expecting a violent turn. Lapis tamped down on the thrill of terror that Patch had left her side, becoming over alert and trembly. If the hunter attacked, she could draw her gauntlet blade fast enough, but she needed to keep the fight to the two of them, without endangering any observers. The woman shoved her shoulders back, glared at her, then whirled and stormed away.

Patch returned just as Jetta slipped to them, granting her partner an unfriendly glare. Lapis had not realized she was there, but her mind was not where it should be, either. She needed to pay more attention to her surroundings because Perben was not her only enemy.

“What?” he asked. “You looked bored. I decided to liven up your night.”

Jetta folded her arms.

She wore a dark, water-resistant cloak, fuzzy grey clothing that looked very warm, and thick-soled boots that would not slip on the wet roadways. Her long, black hair was tightly braided and hung over her shoulder, as if it had fallen out from her hood. She did not have an open weapon, but Lapis knew she had one somewhere, within easy reach.

She had not seen Jetta since her brother took a sword cut meant for her, and she tried to quell her intimidation. The woman had a fantastic reputation within the rebellion, moreso than Perben and his Rebel’s Devil bit. She, as a knowledgeable and dangerous chaser, was often sought by rebel Houses around Jilvayna to clean up problems. Jiy had Patch, so she had no reason to visit, but Lapis had always wished to meet her. She wanted to become a similar chaser, even if the thought of dangerous stakes made her quiver.

Patch gave her his best mischievous grin.

Jetta looked at her. “Do you buy that?” she grumbled. She shook her head, and Patch’s fake annoyance made the other woman chuckle. “Alright, Mr. Chaser. You’re buying me stuffed cheesy bread and NO SKIMPING on the cheese and spicy dipping sauce and a blacknut cookie. AND you’re going to pay for it out of your own pocket.”

Patch raised his eyebrow but did not protest, proving that he trusted her.

“Oh, and Faelan thought to stop by,” she said, leaning towards them. “He . . . needs a break.” Her seriousness made Lapis nervous. “Danaea was carrying a common assassin’s knife. I’m not going to let her have a second chance.” She straightened and beamed, clapping her hands together. “And I’ll get to know you better, Lanth!” she said. “I’m so excited to have a sister!”

She bounded happily away in a very unchaser-like manner. Lapis blinked after her, stunned at the abrupt change, unable to immediately process the info, then looked up at Patch, who began to eye the menus for stuffed cheesy bread. “Sister?”

“She and Faelan are as devoted as any couple you’ve ever met. Under most other circumstances, they would have gone through some sort of marriage or binding ceremony. So she considers you her sister-in-law.” He cast her a quick and soft smile. “I know it’s hard to trust, Lanth, but Jetta’s a good person.”

“Do you know her well?”

“As well as anyone.” He sighed. “Who sells this bread shit again?” He glanced at her, intently sober. “After we get it, we need to hit the Night Market Guardhouse on the way home. I want to know what stake this is, that Danaea would come after you in a crowd to complete it.”

They reached the small, derelict guardhouse without incident. Patch had activated the tech in his eyepatch to scan the area about them for warm bodies, but they did not encounter anyone on the way. They had not quite waded down the puddled walk when Copper stormed out, papers tightly clasped in his left hand, rage infused. He noted them and rushed to them, trembling. He was soaked, his reddish-brown hair plastered to his face and neck, his clothing dripping. How long had he been dashing about in the rain?

“Lady, Heran staked you.” His words, so angry, so disbelieving, smacked her as hard as any physical punch.

Heran. Heran had staked her. She numbed and fell into soft darkness, the same feeling she experienced when she watched her family’s corpses displayed in coffins after Nicodem’s destruction. She listened as if she did not reside in her own body, but outside it, a bystander curious as to the commotion, but not involved.

“She promised a metgal, far more than she could ever hope to pay, and claimed you’re an accomplice to murder.”

The numbness shuddered, but she held it.

“That’ll get her killed quick enough, when shanks realize she posted a fake stake,” Patch said stonily.

“I’m going through and tearing them all down—and I don’t know who took it in the first place. Everyone in the Grey Streets knows she’s a rat and can’t pay this. They know what happened to Miki and how an undershank killed him, not Lanth. She had to have gone to another district and placed it—and why they accepted such a ludicrous stake from a street rat, I’ll never know.”

“She must have gone to the undermarket and placed one with the shanks there,” Patch said, his rage outweighing Copper’s. “They aren’t as picky in what they take and don’t necessarily take payment in advance. It probably made its way above ground from there.”

“What a stupid—” Copper paused, raised his head and smashed his lips together, attempting calm. He shook, hard, with the effort. “I’ve tried to help her,” he intimated. “I’ve tried to listen. She just got angrier and angrier and lashed out at everyone. Nilas told her to stop it. Miki was warned, like every other rat, about the potential danger of attack. He knew better, disregarded the threats, and died for it. It happens, you know it does. Rats think they’re invincible, until they die. They’re young, stubborn, and absolutely certain the dangers can’t touch them, especially when they’re on the border between rat and adult. They survived that long, they think they’ve made it.” He looked at the sodden papers in his hand and clenched them tighter. “She just endangered every rat of the reading circle, because if she did post it in the undermarket, shanks don’t care who gets in the way of a rich stake.” His gaze flicked to the cloth sack Patch carried. “I’ll hit the undermarket, too,” he said. “I’ll get Fyor up and borrow his horse. I . . . don’t know what else to do. But I’ll take care of the stake papers. Don’t worry about that.”

“Thank you,” Lapis whispered.

“Lady, I don’t know all the details, but I know the people who attacked Miki killed your family. It’s unconscionable for Heran to add to that pain, no matter how much she’s hurting.” He glanced past them, to the empty road beyond. “You’re better at sending out warnings to the rats than I am. It’d be a good idea if they remained on alert, these next few days.”

She nodded, all she could think of to do.

Patch snagged her hand and squeezed gently. She clutched him back, too tight. He tugged her on their way, outwardly blank, reflecting her inner emptiness. She stared at her feet the rest of the walk, purposefully listless, but popped up when they sped through the Eaves’ front door. She looked about; regulars, and all people she trusted. Patch scanned the scattering of people as well, though she knew he employed other methods to search for enemies.

Faelan lounged with the reading circle in their special corner, half-listening to Ness and Gabby tell him something, but Lapis recognized his distant stare. He pondered something else, which occupied his thoughts and most of his energy. She had detested that absentness as a child, but the older she became, the more she staggered under the same heavy burdens that prompted it. Tearlach sat next to him, amused at what they said.

Faelan glanced at them and immediately rocked up. “What happened?”

“Heran staked Lanth,” Patch said bluntly. “Put a metgal on her head.”

“She did WHAT?” Rin and Dachs said, together, with rage and outrage, as the scattering of Eaves customers quieted, and the rats gasped.

“I need to change,” Lapis said, unable to handle the stares. She fled upstairs to her room, huffing on tears and pain and rage and unknown emotions that tightened her chest hard enough, she struggled for breath. Her hand trembled violently, so she used both to jam the key into the slot. She slammed her door open and closed, an unsatisfying outlet. She smacked the key down on her dresser, the act stinging her palm, and tried to get out of her clothing. She tore her left arm from the sleeve, her hand catching, and the material ripped with a loud snarl. She yanked her shirt over her head, realized she still wore the cloak, and sank down to the floor, tangled in cloth and black hair. She curled over her stomach and planted her forehead against the cold boards and fought the mind-fuzzing panic.

Staked. The long, thin silver knife that slid under the counter at Red’s, in the right hands, could have cut her before she even realized the attack. She could have bled to death in the night market before help arrived, and not even known why. Patch must have realized the danger, because he had drawn her close and reacted to Danaea as if he expected an attack. Lucky for her, because she, too caught up in the dregs of mourning, for her family, for Miki, had not paid attention to the crowd. She knew better. Hoyt was still around and looking to harm her to get at her partner, and too many of Perben’s men freely wandered Jiy streets. She could not afford to drop her guard, for both would not hesitate to stab her if given the chance.

And now she had assassins after her.

Lapis ground her fingers into fists, wadding her clothing into them. Why had Heran done this? Did she hate her so much, because she was the reason Perben mistook Miki for Rin and killed him? She never wanted Miki to die! She never wanted any rat to die! She wanted them to live, to prosper. She provided books for the reading circle so they could gain skills that made them attractive to potential employers. Not everyone learned to read, in the Grey Streets. Not everyone could get an education. It gave them a way to step up and above. It gave them a way to provide for a lover, a family, and not drown in the dirt-alleyway poverty and dark sorrows guttershanks faced.

She barely noted movement before Patch settled dry, warm black clothing on the bed and squatted down next to her. “Come on.” He gently helped her out of her soggy attire and into the warmer fare, then gathered her in his arms and held tight. She clutched him as close as she could, barely aware of anything but him, as she tried to order her thoughts, emotions. She needed to regain her numb because she could not function without it.

“I’m sorry, Lapis,” he whispered. “I know Heran was a reading circle rat at one point. I know this hurts.” He nuzzled her temple, his lips soft and hot. “I’m not going back to the meetings until this is resolved. And neither should you, even if they summon you.”

“I’m causing so much trouble. The rats don’t deserve this.”

“You haven’t caused any of this trouble. And you would never purposefully put the rats in danger.” He settled his hand against the back of her head, his arms resting on her back, a cocoon of warmth and compassion for her to wallow in. “It’s true, they don’t deserve the life they’ve been dealt, but you help make it tolerable. You do your best to provide a way for them to rise above the Grey Streets. For Heran to add to that pain, it’s unconscionable, like Copper said.”

They stood together, Patch’s warmth-infused strength filtering into her, until a soft knock on the door alerted them. “Dalia’s warmed up your food,” Faelan called, his voice muffled by the door.

Food? She fought the revulsion. She did not want to eat, but Patch’s sternness told her he felt she should.

Everyone, rebel, rat, customer, Dachs, cast her concerned looks as she and Patch entered the main room. She hated the attention, but Patch had her hand firmly clasped in his, so fleeing back upstairs was not an option.

“Are you OK, Lady?”

She looked over at Lyet, and noticed Rin no longer sat with her. “Where’s Rin?”

“He and Scand and Gabby went to warn the other rats,” Phialla said darkly, adjusting her glasses before pushing her brown hair behind her ears. “It doesn’t take a genius to know Heran staked us, too.”

“But she didn’t,” Lapis protested.

“Yes, she did,” Brone insisted forcefully, his tone deep and somber. “Everyone knows about Lady Lanth’s reading circle and kidnapping one of us to get you out in the open is an obvious thing for a guttershank to do, especially for that much money.”

“No rat’s going to trust her again.” Lyet folded her arms and leaned back, her reddish-brown eyes flashing. She often attempted to bury her anger, but her eyes always betrayed her emotion. “And why should we? There’s no excuse for what she did. Did Nilas know?”

“I don’t know.”

“I bet Lars did,” Brone muttered, his brown gaze hard and unforgiving.

“If he helped her, he’s stupid,” Patch intimated. “Chasers hate fake stakes, and if a guttershank’s tricked into taking it, they’re never very nice to those who embarrass them.”

Faelan slid back onto the bench settled against the wall, and Patch pushed her to it as well. He sat on the edge while Tearlach took a chair opposite them. He hid it far better than the rats, but his anger raced through him as well, belied by his stiff lips and narrowed, deep blue eyes. Lapis remembered his angry hesitancy as a child; he, a scrawny kid with little muscle, did not have a chance against the bullies and their nastiness, so he hid. She had the feeling he no longer bowed his head and raced away from danger.

Dachs shuffled over with their meal, not bothering to hide his disgust. “Copper’ll get all the stake pages, Lady,” he said. “He’s thorough, when he’s upset. He’s been good to Heran, and she just spit in his face.”

“She’s hurting.”

“We all are,” Ness said quietly, sounding far more mature than his nine years. He regarded her soberly, his large brown eyes soft and sad. “Miki was really nice to me. He was really nice to everybody. I don’t think he’d like it, that Heran staked you.” His shoulders drooped, and his normally rosy cheeks dulled to a melancholy dark brown.

“I think you’re right,” Brone said, nudging him as the other rats murmured in agreement. Their assent intensified her guilt.

She should have killed Perben when she first noticed him in Jiy, instead of letting Faelan talk her out of it.

Lapis had to force food down her throat. Dachs brought warm tea, which slid down easier. She had not finished half her meal before Patch had completed his and rose. He outwardly expressed cool, calm, but he could not hide the hints of the furious fire raging in him.

“Patch—”

“I’m going to find out how she staked you,” he told her. “It shouldn’t take long.”

“We’ll be here until you get back,” Faelan promised.

She eyed her brother, but he and Patch obviously agreed with the assessment of the situation. She had no illusions about the ruckus her partner would make upon entering the undermarket and confronting the shank who took the unpayable stake. She sat back and nearly suffocated on the dark anger and frustration and helplessness swirling about her. She knew it, intimately, having experienced it after her family died. It had taken years to suppress it, and she did not want that for any of the people sitting with her. They deserved better. The rats continued to read, but their absent expressions proved their minds were not on words. Lyet and Brone had their black-haired heads together, their words a soft hum, their meaning covered by the slow restart of louder customer talk.

Faelan glanced at her, his purple eyes almost blank. He tended to swallow sharper emotions and bury them deep. She remembered an idle conversation they had during one of their long-ago forest walks, when he had told her that, because he was the son of the rebel Leader, he could not afford to feel them at inopportune times and have them used against him and the rebellion. She had expressed concern and hugged him, wanting to return love and care to him through her embrace, but her younger self never understood the cost he spoke about. Her older self lived it.

Jetta arrived in a scurrying flurry of cloak and rush to get out of the rain. She popped her hood back and wound her hair about the back of her head as she soberly noted the reading corner.

“Jetta!”

“Dachs!” She bounded to the counter and hugged the barkeep, brief and tight. “I miss you! Linz is great, but she’s not you!”

More than one customer eyed the two with jealousy. How many realized Dachs knew so many interesting people?

“Can heat up your meal,” he said, jerking his head back to the kitchen. “Want some tea?”

“Yes, that would be grand. It’s cold out.” She hopped over to the reading circle, slipped the cloak off and draped it over the back of a chair before gracefully sitting down. She observed every face, sat her chin in her palms, and waited expectantly for an answer to her unasked question.

“One of the rats staked Lanth,” Faelan said quietly, his black bangs hiding his purple gaze. Jetta stared, aghast, glanced about, raised an eyebrow, and pursed her lips.

“So that’s why Patch isn’t here. Who would do such a thing?”

“She was friends with Miki, the rat that was killed,” Lyet said into the silence. “She decided the Lady was to blame and took out a one-metgal stake for assisting in murder.”

Lapis failed to not laugh in hopeless self-mockery at the disgusted, flabbergasted look that passed over Jetta’s face. “There are easier ways to kill oneself than lying to hunters about a stake,” she grumbled. “Or targeting Patch’s partner. I’d hope no one would be idiotic enough to take it, but there’s already been one attempt.”

“One attempt?” Faelan asked darkly, staring accusingly at her. Lapis shrunk down, but she knew she could not hide behind her thick hair, like she attempted as a child.

“Not to worry, love. She was attacked by my stake. She failed spectacularly and ran away. She’s no longer a problem.” Jetta smiled brightly as Dachs slid her food to her, and she accepted the tea from Dani. “Thank you for taking care of me! It’s so nice, after being out in the cold all night.” She settled the tea, then turned about and dug through her cloak for a large packet of papers. She handed them over the table to Faelan, who eyed them skeptically.

“There’s a lot more there than you think,” she told him quietly.

She ate as he sifted through the pages, divided them, and handed half to Tearlach. Lapis glanced at the top one; a hastily scribbled explanation attached to a torn note that looked as if someone had dug it out of a garbage. She slid further down on the bench, absently playing with her gauntlet; if Faelan wished to share, he would have. She did not want more to worry about than she already had.

The rats drifted away, up to Rin’s room, the bad news taking the excitement out of reading. Lyet accompanied them, but Lapis knew she wanted to stay, a silent but supportive presence.

“I’ll be fine,” she told her.

“Outwardly fine isn’t the same as inwardly fine,” Lyet reminded her somberly. “We both know it.”

Dani manned the bar as Dachs came over, sitting on Tearlach’s other side. The customers had dwindled as well, choosing to quickly rush home after food and drink. The rain did not provide a comfortable atmosphere to stand outside and chat with friends, so the other option was to head to their warmer abodes for an early night.

“If you like, you can discuss things up in my place,” the barkeep offered, chaffing his small black curls at the base of his head. Jetta instantly brightened.

“I get to see your apartment? And all those Taangis shields you brag about?”

Dachs blushed brighter than a fire, quite the feat considering his dark skin, and mumbled something no one understood.

The place was cozy, warm, a mix of soft browns and warm yellows that created a sense of peace. Did Dachs, outgoing and boisterous, need a quieter place to retire to at night? Lapis understood that; sometimes, after the rats had exuberantly fled the Eaves, she retreated to her room, intent on wallowing in the quiet. He nervously tapped his fingertips together as Jetta meandered to the left wall. Shields dating from the beginning of the Taangis Empire hung there, defensive items used by soldiers long before it became a tech powerhouse. The metal and wooden objects contained central heraldic images of noble crests, painted with rich greens, blues and reds. Fading metallic gold and silver coated the edges and some bits of the interior design. They ranged from palm-sized decorations to heavy, dented kite shields that may have seen a battlefield or two.

“How much do you know about Danaea, Lapis?” Jetta asked as she took a sip of tea and studied the display.

She shook her head as she settled on the plush couch next to Faelan. “Not much. I know she’s an assassin who kills shanks while they’re having sex, and Patch seems to think her reputation’s greatly exaggerated.”

“No one likes her,” Dachs said, dropping into a well-padded rocker. “She wanders about the Lells and Candycakes, braggin’ about her most recent stake and bein’ partners with Patch. She uses it as a way to threaten merchants into givin' her stuff, free-of-charge. She tried that once with me.” Everyone winced. “I threw her into the street. I knew Patch would never partner with the likes o’ her. She was pissed. Screamed about me mistreatin’ women. Heard she was lookin’ into my background but couldn’t find anythin’ to hold over my head.”

“Well, that won’t be a concern anymore,” Jetta assured him.

Lapis disliked, how that simple sentence produced a modicum of hope. She should never feel that way, over the death of a person. Except for Perben. When he died, she would feel nothing but midnight-dark joy and relief. “When she confronted Patch at the night market, she told us I was staked. That’s how we found out. Copper confirmed it.”

Jetta rolled her eyes. “When she realized she had been followed—which amounted to me walking through her front door—she screamed about how Patch was her partner. I laughed and told her that I knew Patch, I knew you were his partner, and that I was surprised he hadn’t personally handled the stain she gave to his reputation.” She eyed the pages Faelan still clasped in his hand. “She didn’t have enough info to justify sparing her. I think she thought I bluffed.” She shrugged.

“Linz ‘keepin’ the stake?” Dachs asked. He had propped his elbows on the armrests and tapped at his chin with his folded fingers.

“Yes. They know how much was on Danaea’s head and is already planning to purchase a new wardrobe to celebrate their new home.”

Faelan half-smiled. “They believes we’re staying?”

“Yes. Are they wrong?”

“No.”

“Anyway, I’m certain all the info Danaea had is in the papers. She kept records about her kills, with braggy little notes attached to them.” Jetta lifted her lip in disgust. “What a horrid person. Linz and I took what we thought most relevant, but there’s still a lot there, so I sent them to get help in cleaning it out before they go to the guard.” The woman twirled her index finger about in the air. “We have confirmation she killed Ahebban, but it wasn’t as easy as her note implied. She couldn’t seduce him, so resorted to other measures, and she had inside help. Whether that inside help was from the rebellion or through one of his business associates, she doesn’t say. She had to write a report about it, though, and not for the guards. She had a copy to cover her ass because she was afraid of retaliation. She mentions a chaser named Dagby that she threatened with Patch if he took his cut. He apparently skulked away, vowed revenge, but nothing came of it.”

“Dagby’s a hunter,” Lapis said. “He was a regular chaser until he got addicted to brainbreak. He takes assassination stakes from the underground to support his habit. He and Patch have had a few encounters, and Dagby backed down from those stakes. The drug addles him enough, he won’t win a fight against another, competent chaser if they clash.”

“Those Dentherion drugs are nasty,” Dachs grumbled. “Can’t imagine a hunter usin’ them and bein’ successful.”

“It seems she made a habit of scaring other chasers from collecting their fair share by abusing Patch’s name,” Jetta continued. “He did or said something that made that more difficult, because she complained about it in some of the notes going back maybe three years. She still abused his name, but it was far less effective with chasers, even if it worked on the commoners.”

“Lies caught her,” Faelan murmured. He sighed and flapped the pages in his hand. “Lapis, do you think Dagby could be bribed to answer questions?”

“Probably, if it’s enough to buy brainbreak. I don’t know how much he might remember about any particular stake, especially if it happened a few years ago.”

“If he resented Danaea as much as she implied, he might remember quite a bit.” Jetta turned on her heel and downed the rest of her tea. “I hate to say it, but there’s something more sinister going on than a woman taking a rich stake against a rebel leader. Hunters don’t write non-guard reports like that one, explaining their stakes. Someone wanted to make absolutely certain Ahebban was dead and wanted to have something to hold over Danaea’s head so she wouldn’t squeal in the future. Why they didn’t just kill her at that point, I couldn’t guess.”

“Patch’s reputation,” Tearlach offered as he continued to shuffle through his pages with a disgusted wince.

Lapis studied the golden-brown mosaics that decorated the top of the coffee table situated between all furniture. “There’s a problem with all that. Patch and I came to Jiy five years ago. He didn’t start taking the stakes that gave him his reputation until after Ahebban died. The chaser community knew him, but he wasn’t a fear-inspiring force like he is now. If Danaea did invoke his name with Dagby, it wasn’t because of his reputation. There has to be something else that spooked him about it.”

“Luckily, he’ll be back soon to ask.” Jetta settled in one of the deep-cushioned chairs and lounged back. “She had quite the blackmail list. We can use that to advantage.” She smirked at her brother. “I have a feeling you, and maybe Midir, are going to have a few prominent syndicate members politely asking for a meeting to discuss anything recovered. It will be a metgal opportunity to make some cash for the rebellion and begin mutually beneficial relations.”

“Start our presence in Jiy with a bang?” Faelan nodded and flexed the hand of the arm that had been injured.

Too late, he already had.

Patch slipped into the room and stood behind Tearlach, his hair dribbling streams down his cheeks, dressed in dry clothing and barefoot. He did not look particularly upset, which made Lapis uneasy.

“What did you find out?” she asked nervously, twining her tresses between her fingers.

“That Heran’s an idiot?”

Lapis glared. She hoped the purple fire from her eyes made it through his thick skull and he rethought his tactic.

“She did go to the undermarket with Lars and stake you. When Lars realized what she had done, he and his buds went into hiding, because they didn’t want to suffer retaliation when eager shanks realized the stake had a fake payout. They thought I was there to kill them.” He sighed and ran his hands through his hair, glanced at the wet tips and wiped them on his shirt. “Anyway, Heran was still at the night market, so I told her how things work with stakes in the underground. She now knows she just endangered every rat in the Lells. I don’t think she believes she has a friend left. Other than Nelis, she probably doesn’t. I told her to lay low, listen to Copper, and let things die down until it’s safe to make amends. I don’t know if this has scared her to the point she’ll try, but I hope, at least, she listens to Copper from now on.”

“Listening isn’t the strong suit of teens,” Jetta said. Patch and Dachs smirked at that; Lapis did not consider it humorous. Neither did Tearlach; he studied them, eyes narrowed.

“I also talked to Sewri, because, conveniently enough, he was eating there. He said he didn’t put the stake out after review because he not only figured Heran couldn’t pay, he knew damn well Lady Lanth would never kill a street rat. He figured the girl was pissed about something and once she calmed down, she’d be regretful and glad her lies didn’t see the light of day. He said he doesn’t know where all the above-ground copies came from, and I believe him, because a stake like this will grab Sir Armarandos’ attention. There are rules in place to keep revenge stakes based on lies from being activated, and for the most part, Sewri’s people abide by them because he’ll lose business if the guard decides to audit the stakes he takes. He’s planning to talk to one of the guard superiors and get a meeting set up, he’s that bothered by this.”

“So someone used a grief-stricken rat to target Lapis.” Faelan sank back into the couch, his thin hand covering his mouth.

“Yeah. I don’t think it was overt but opportunistic.”

“Maybe. Or maybe someone provided enough hints that she thought it a good idea.” Tearlach glanced about the room. “Perben did things like that. He’d have friendly conversations with his people near enough to their target to get them thinking about one thing or another, and dangle enough of a carrot to prod them in a convenient direction. Their targets didn’t even realize their thinking was being influenced. It didn’t succeed every time, but it did often enough, with people who were mad enough or sad enough to follow through. Meinrad and Rambart taught him to do that, so they know how it works. If they’ve decided to get rid of Lapis, they probably sent a few of their people to nose about where rats congregate and saw an opportunity to urge Heran into a stupid decision that might exterminate their problem without anyone the wiser to their interference.”

“You never did like them, did you?” Jetta asked, laughter in her voice.

“No. But I always saw the darkness in Perben that others never noticed, and that Meinrad and Rambart promoted him above more qualified and more sympathetic people, it made me suspicious. I don’t think they’re as innocent in Perben’s involvement with the crown as they claim.”

“We’d need evidence,” Faelan cautioned. “Considering how many rebels are refusing to accept Lady Ailis’s well-documented and extensive proof against Perben, even if Heran picked the culprits out and they happened to be rebels, few would believe it, let alone think them capable of something more sinister.” He tapped at his cheek with his index finger. “I would like to know, why Heran chose this line of revenge. Is it out of character?”

“I think it is,” Lapis said quietly, clasping her hands tightly in her lap. “But grief makes people do things they normally wouldn’t.” Latching onto the possibility that Heran may have been manipulated was ludicrous, but she wanted to believe that Grey Streets darkness had not obliterated the rat she once knew. She wanted to believe Heran was stronger than that.

“True enough.” He held up the pages and sat up to toss them on the table. “Patch, Jetta mentioned that Danaea used your reputation against Dagby when he wanted his cut for Ahebban’s stake. Lapis says that happened before you gained your current reputation.”

“It did. I don’t think I’d encountered Dagby at that point, and the only reason I had heard of Danaea was because someone told me she had used my name with a guard who wanted to shaft her on a stake. I wasn’t taking any understakes at that point. I was doing too much for the House. There was no reason for me to know or interact with most of the underground chasers and hunters.”

“Another puzzle, then. I need to talk to Midir about this. Lapis, Patch, I would like you to read through these.” He motioned to the pages with a sweep of his hand. “Since they’re Danaea’s records, we may find something useful in them. Jetta, get Linz, Caitria and Mairin working on the other items you took, then tell Lady Ailis and Ciaran they need to visit Lord Adrastos.” Faelan made a quirky, annoyed face. “He’s going to love getting his hands into this.” He glanced at Patch. “Does Brander or Sherridan have more contacts at the undermarket?”

“Sherridan. He does most of the buying there.”

“Maybe he can nose about for some more info about Heran’s wayward stake. It’s turned into something more than a stupid stunt by a street rat, and if rebels are involved, we need to know.” He stretched, winced, and dropped his arm. He studied the concerned and disapproving faces about him and jumped to his feet. “Ready, Tearlach?”

Small, bubbly laughter formed in Lapis’s throat. Not much had changed in him over eight years, had it.

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