Chapter 5: The Past Whispers

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Creak.

Lapis frowned.

Creak.

She tried to roll over, but found herself stiff, unresponsive. The last time she felt so inflexible, Patch had taken her for a hard workout outside the city walls, pushing her until she almost screamed with weariness and pain.

Then he told her about the stake he wanted help with. He said her lack of amusement could have stopped a sour frog from croaking.

She moved her right arm; it banged against her side and she hissed at the dull ache. She winced and managed to settle her elbow far enough away to avoid contact, but she still could not quite roll over.

“Lady?”

She blinked, tried to focus, think past the mental numbness. Rinan jumped from a badly abused chair and fell to his knees at the side of the bed, his lips tight with worry. It rocked backward and nearly tipped, but clattered back into place.

“What . . .” Had she been sick?

He smiled, over-relieved. “You was hurt, Lady. Don’t remember?”

The overwhelming need to go to the bathroom usurped his words. She tried to look around, but her neck did not respond properly.

“Whatcha need?”

“Bath . . . room.”

“Uh.” Rin bit his lip, apologetic. “I’s the only one here, th’moment.”

“Only one?” Who else resided in her room?

“Patch—”

“Patch.”

“Yeah, he’s all over, right now. None too happy ‘bout it, neither. Lyet’s gettin’ some meds. Come on. Let’s get you up.”

Bothered she could not remember how she became sick or why Rin hovered, she managed a sitting position with his help. She slid her legs off the mattress, stood, and the rat caught her when she buckled. Embarrassment and lethargy rammed through her while he picked her up and carried her to the toilet.

Carried her. She doubted she could carry him. When had he gotten so strong?

She felt light, ethereal, as if she were one of the white puffs of flower that sailed with the wind, so insubstantial it did not fall to the ground until the breeze died. Did that explain how he managed to cart her about? He settled her down, and her shooing motions seemed to come from someone else. He stepped around the doorway, skeptical, but she needed to do this on her own.

When had she gotten a toilet in her room?

Her body would no longer be denied, and she could not quite sit up on her own. She planted her head and shoulder against the wall and fought tears while she rearranged. What had happened to her? Memory blackness terrified her.

How had she ended up like this? Why was Rin taking care of her?

“Lady?”

She groggily recognized Lyet and could not quite form a coherent thought as she jostled about. The rat appeared and carried her back to the bed—and not her bed. Not the narrow but comfortable furniture piled with thick, if worn, blue blankets. This one had the width to hold two people comfortably, and the browns of the bedding reflected the street rat’s taste, not hers.

The suite. Rin bartered for the suite. She remembered.

She sank into the softness with a sigh, embarrassed, depressed, unable to stop the tears. They ran from the corner of her eye, thin, too quick. She had not been so ill since childhood. Typical, for her young self, but her curiosity about Vaar’s special gauntlet prompted her to sneak into his room and steal it. The bodyguard and his liege had enjoyed a midday meal with her parents, and she took the opportunity to whisk to the practice ring, strap it on, and punch the hay-filled dummy.

The special gauntlet reacted poorly to any who used it without permission. It clamped about her arm and refused to let go, pricking her flesh with multiple thin metal points. She had yanked and pleaded and cried, and finally removed the thing by tearing her skin up. She dropped it in the dust and then slunk off to her room, trailing blood and knowing her punishment would be swift and severe.

It was. The points contained poison, meant for an adult. Faelan had come to read to her, and without his panicked rush for help, she probably would have died that night.

Vaar’s guilt eclipsed her vomiting and delirium; her shame and remorse over making him sad remained with her, and sometimes she still dreamed his anxiety. A premonition of her current state, she supposed.

“You’s sick, Lady,” Rin said, over-gentle fingers wiping the tears from her rapidly chilling cheeks.

“Sick.”

“You’s poisoned. Not so bad, Lady Thais said, but you’s gonna be sick a while.”

Poisoned?

“You t’ be a little outta it. Somethin’ doin’ with the medicines Lady Thais gave you.”

She stared blankly at Rinan, trying to figure out who Lady Thais may be. Anyone with ‘Lady’ as a title came from noble stock, and nobles rarely bothered with the Grey Streets and its residents in a helpful capacity.

Lyet crawled around to her back and prodded her to roll over, then poked at her shoulder and down her side. “She’s Patch’s aunt,” the teen said, her voice a soft and steady murmur. “She has access to a lot of medical equipment and medicine that even the rebels don’t have. Without her help, you would have been sicker, and for longer.”

“Sicker.”

Rin nodded, serious. “Both she ‘n Caitria said, that poison the Dentherion used, ‘twere dried and mostly impotent. Lucky, that.”

Lucky? Yes.

“We’s givin’ you all sortsa things in water—pourin’ down yer throat’s a mess.”

Lapis touched her throat automatically, feeling the chill skin and the remains of cold water. Lyet clicked her tongue and patted her shoulder before helping her into a more comfortable position.

“Why am I in the suite?”

“It’s bigger,” Rin told her proudly. “Gives Lady Thais room t’ move about. Somma her stuff’s bulky ‘n takes lots of space. Gotta know, didn’t think it’d be a sickroom ‘n all, but that’s fine.”

“Thank you.”

“I’s the Lady’s man,” he responded. “But look!” he jumped to his feet and pressed at the wall that should have led to the room next door, one occupied by a sweet older woman who never complained about the ruckus the rats made. Instead, a dark space met her eye. “Leads t’ the basement,” he told her. “Them Minq had this place afore, ‘n they put in lots ‘a secret spaces. Patch’s goin’ through, makin’ notes ‘n stuff. It’ll make sure, iffen them Dentherion’s find us, we’s can gets away quick.”

“Never will,” Lyet muttered darkly and with satisfaction as he closed the passage.

“What do you mean?” Hopefully they heard her.

“Patch took care of the soldier who poisoned you.”

Oh. Should the teen sound so happy about that?

She, far too late, comprehended the door breaking open. The crack of wood and splintering, the shouts from Lyet and Rin, just before a large, red finger poked at her nose, trembling violently. The digit belonged to a round man with greying temples, a long beard and frantic brown eyes. He dressed in rich scarlet, gold-embroidered robes, something only the wealthiest wore.

So much for a quick escape.

“Where are they?” the man shrieked.

“Get out.”

Rin’s darkness equaled Patch’s, when he chose to fall to it. Lyet smacked the finger away and leaned over, hiding her assailant from view with the protective gesture.

“Don’t you dare order me around, you illiterate—”

“Lady taught me to read,” he snarled. “So’s I’s plenty literate.”

“You—”

“Listen here, Meinrad, the Lady’s sufferin’ ‘cause yer lad’s a traitor. Gots poisoned savin’ them rebel kids ‘cause you deserted ‘m. She’s still sick and ain’t seein’ the likes ‘a you.”

Scuffling sounds, and a man’s hiss of pain before a hard thump against the wall.

“RIN!”

Lapis forced herself up, fighting against her body while Lyet leaped off the bed and ran to the rat. Steel flashed in his hand and the strangers drew their swords with a chorus of shings. She surged to him but her legs collapsed and she hit the floor with a knee-splitting bang. She choked on the mew of pain as a sword pointed at her nose.

She slammed her fist into it, knocking the blade away. The man hissed and steadied his wobbling weapon with both hands. A furious enemy grabbed her right arm; she screamed at the pain that roared down her side. He ignored her reaction, hefting her up and dragging her back to the bed. He lacked the leverage to throw her across, and she banged her stomach against the frame before falling to the floor.

“RIN!” Lyet’s panic infected her, and she tamped down on the need to respond in like.

“Rin.” She could not produce a loud sound, but she caught his attention. He stood, knife out, Lyet holding him back, two other men slashed deep enough they could not hold their weapons bent over in front of him. The remaining, unscathed five, regarded him with disbelieving anger. “You shouldn’t sanctify your room this way.”

His eyes flashed, sharp as any blade. She knew what he did when he struck in rage; her haziness did not blot out that night. She looked up at the fat jackass, who wobbled about on his heels and viewed the mess of his men with shocked disgust. Why tempt an unknown enemy? “Who are you?”

“You don’t know who I am?” She winced, hard, at his outraged squeal.

He flailed his arms out, then quieted, studying her as she stared back. If she looked half as dead as she felt, he had to realize her mental and physical shape. “No.”

“Him’s Perben’s mentor,” Rin snapped.

Perben. Her hate engulfed her.

“She’s sick,” Lyet said, her voice trembling hard. “She doesn’t remember much right now. Lady Thais said the medication will make her numb, physically and mentally.”

“Truly?” the jackass asked. He stroked his thick black beard, considering the words as he stared down his nose at her. “You don’t remember me.”

She shook her head.

“Do you know where your brother’s at?”

Her heart thumped a painful beat. Had something happened to Faelan? They had just reunited! What if . . . what if . . .

No. If Faelan met with injury or death, neither Rin nor Lyet would have kept the news from her.

“Well, what have we here?”

Every man started and whirled. Patch leaned against the doorjamb, arms folded, a tinge of rage glinting in his eye. Meinrad bumbled about, his robes flaring wide and smacking her and the bed with his movement. She bent over, covering her head with her left arm. The edges were sharp!

“Where is Faelan?”

The certainty in which the man confronted her evaporated, leaving behind a hunched and apprehensive person. So he knew Patch and Faelan and Perben. A rebel, then. Should it concern her, she did not remember him?

“Upset he cut you off?” The rumbling sarcasm in her partner’s voice made the enemy shudder.

She settled her head on the mattress; she did not have to worry about violence if Patch was there. Her mind tumbled about as Lyet streaked to her and helped her onto the bed and into a sitting position. The teen’s eyes blurred with tears and Lapis gripped her arm as she sank into several sweet-smelling pillows. She smiled but apprehension leaked through.

“No one in the Blue Council knows where he’s at,” Meinrad gritted.

“Not true. The members he trusts know where he’s at. That doesn’t include you.”

The man curled his hands to fists, the fingers cracking at the pressure. “He trusts no one on the Council?”

“You don’t consider those loyal to Faelan to be members of the Blue Council?”

“All other members of the Blue Council—”

“I suppose you don’t count Lady Ailis, but Caitria and Tearlach are most definitely members.”

“We can’t find them, either!”

“For good reason.”

Rin skirted the men and retrieved a pack sagging against the wall, then scurried to the bed. The rebels parted for him, though Lapis knew her partner’s presence prompted their nicer behavior. He flopped on the bed, which wobbled her enough she grabbed at her mouth, hoping to keep whatever swirled in her tummy there. Guiltily, he withdrew several bottles labeled with names she did not recognize. Lyet handed him a half-full glass of water and they began mixing the liquid contents into it, using a precise measuring spoon.

“I can’t access the accounts,” Meinrad stated abruptly.

“You’re right. He cut you off—with Midir’s blessing.”

“We only have your word for that,” another man growled as he wrapped a cloth about his friend’s arm and yanked it tight.

“You think I’m lying? I nearly died for this rebellion—which is something you can’t claim. I’ve given my life to it, sacrificed for it—all while you and yours sat on your asses and whined about the lack of progress. You and your cowardice held us back—and that’s now taken care of.”

“How dare you,” Meinrad grated.

“You’re a rich noble. Pay for your upkeep with your own money. You’ve skimmed off the accounts long enough, without adding anything back.”

“There aren’t any missions or stakes, or—”

“Prove yourself trustworthy, and we’ll talk.” Patch’s pessimism oozed from him. “We’ll see how many roads you obliterated are rebuilt. Now get out.” The room darkened with his emotional state. “And if you or Rambart so much as touch Lapis again, don’t expect Faelan to hold me back.”

The younger men all turned to the older one, who huffled but decided to leave. He should carry himself with more care; Patch did not make idle threats. Meinrad must think himself safe from the chaser, a silly assumption if her brother and Midir cut him off.

“Lady, drink this.”

Lapis accepted the glass from Rin and sniffed the contents. She could not place the scent, but it had a sourness that tickled her nose. She took a sip; sweet coated, but did not quite cover, the tang. “What is this?”

“Something Lady Thais taught us to make,” the teen said. “It’s to help your body heal faster.”

She guzzled it.

The younger group, hesitant and angry, shuffled past her partner. Meinrad stiffened his spine and marched to the door, donning his arrogance like a cloak. Why continue to provoke him? Patch did not exactly have the most optimistic opinions of human behavior. They should thank the non-existent gods he didn’t finish what Rin started, because if Faelan and Midir cut them off, he had no reason to stay his hand.

Patch kicked the door shut and walked to the bed. He wore tight mottled black pants and a high-collared, sleeveless shirt, an outfit that, at the Jiy House, became synonymous with his wish to be left alone. Rebels skirted him or scurried away when he donned them, concerned about his temper. She hugged him instead, hoping to take the hard ice from his eye.

“Sorry,” Rin said, shamed.

“Rin, you faced seven rebels armed with swords. You had a knife. You’re fast, but not that fast. Get some more training, you may be.” Patch patted his shoulder. “You should clean the blade. Lanth has some supplies in her room if you don’t have any.”

“’Kay.” He levered himself off the bed and whisked out the door. Her partner half-smiled and regarded Lyet. “Can you make sure Dachs doesn’t cause more damage?” he asked. She made a face but settled the medicine materials in the bag and dutifully left, quietly closing the door behind her. Lapis watched her go, her sight blurring on continued tears. Her side, her knees, burned.

 “How do you feel?”

She did not manage a reply before he smiled. “Thais said you’d be groggy and fuzzy.” Lapis frowned, slowly processing, while her partner slid over her and nestled against her.

She pressed into him, wanting to feel safe, and his arms helped. “Who was that?” she whispered.

“Meinrad. You don’t remember him?”

“No.”

He grunted. “You might not remember many of the Blue Council. That’s not a travesty.”

“He’s looking for Faelan?”

“They’re getting desperate.” He kissed her head. “It’s a worry for another time. Get some sleep.”

“So nothing happened to him?”

“No. He’s safe, secure, and adamant about avoiding the members of the Blue Council he deems a threat. Now get some sleep.”

She buried her face in his chest. Sleep. Yes. If she had unknown enemies, she needed to rest, in order to heal, fast.

Lapis woke to soft brown shadows filling the corners of the room. She rubbed at her eyes and tried to place herself; she did not sleep in her own bed. A creak from the right caught her attention. Faelan smiled softly at her before settling on the mattress next to her, holding a glass.

“How do you feel?”

“I . . . I don’t know.”

He chuckled. “Here. Now that you’re awake, Lady Thais wants you to drink this.” He lifted it to show her before setting it onto the makeshift nightstand made from thick volumes. He helped her sit up, an arduous task with much worming about. Once settled, she swallowed the medicine, and sagged after finishing. He gently took the glass from her limp fingers and set it far enough away on the floor that he would not kick it.

“Where am I?”

“Rin’s room.”

Ah. Yes. “I’ve been sick.”

“The Dentherion soldier you confronted poisoned you,” he told her. “A few wear a specialized glove that injects a serum into enemy combatants during hand-to-hand confrontations. He never should have used it on you. He won’t repeat it.”

She slowly nodded. “Lyet said Patch took care of him.”

“Patch took a stake out on him. Five metgal.”

She choked. She sat up, gasping, and he patted her back until she could regain her composure. “Five metgal?” she squeaked. That . . . that was outrageous! Five metgal was a hundred-thousand bits! Merchant princes and unfavored nobility barely earned that in a year! While she knew he had a bank account, she never guessed he possessed that much money. Most of his earnings went into the Jiy House upkeep, including escape route maintenance, and rebel pay. How much more did he have?

“He wanted him dead. Even provided his location on the skyshroud. A Minq hunter took him out. And because Dentheria has been over-eager to promote native law-enforcement ways while remaining aloof, going so far as to bind their people to local law, there’s nothing the skyshroud leadership can legally do in retaliation. The Minq and Lord Adrastos are making certain it stays that way, mainly playing on Second Council sensibilities about killing children.”

“That’s nice.” As if the Dentherion Second Council cared about the death of a young Grey Streets child. They sanctified it in other situations, why assume concern consumed them? Perhaps they worried the media might run with it, making them look like the bastards they were.

He lifted a brow and cocked his head, noncommittal about her sarcasm. “The Minq are overjoyed one of theirs succeeded in the stake, because it undermines the ass in charge of the failed raid.” He rubbed at her back before withdrawing. “But you don’t worry about that right now. Concentrate on getting better.”

She settled into the pillows. “Why are you here?”

“We’ve taken turns watching over you.” He shrugged. “Lady Thais said you’ll need a bit of help while you recover, but luckily, it will be a full recovery. The Dentherions borrowed the poison from the palace—and the guards there made certain it was barely potent when they handed it over. That was good for you.”

“So I was lucky again.” Tears trickled down her cheeks. Faelan slipped his hand under hers and clasped it between his palms.

“Don’t think of it that way. Think of it as you saving a child from Dentherion murderers. Patch wasn’t silent about the stake—the entire western half of the city and a good portion of the eastern know you took a hit meant for a three-year-old. No one is happy that the empire’s intent on murdering young children for sport. And a non-urchin at that.”

She squeezed his fingers. “Faelan, someone came looking for you.”

“Meinrad. Yes.”

“You’re in hiding?”

He produced a long sigh. “Midir and I broke the rebellion.”

She froze. What?

“After that fiasco . . .” He snarled. “There’s a lot going on. Rin and Lyet said you didn’t remember Meinrad.”

“I don’t.”

“How far back do you remember?”

She squinted at him, but her mind did not properly focus on the events leading to her poisoning. Things fuzzed in and out, nothing clearly sat in her thoughts except for her attack on Perben. Her rage still burned, fresh and piercing.

“Do you remember saving the rebel kids from the raid?”

Her memory faded in and out. She vaguely remembered getting the board across the rooftops, the chutes, the Shank. “Some of it.”

“Well, the kids got left behind and you took them out of the House while Patch played decoy. It never should have happened that way. But . . . it was Relaine’s turn to help the children escape. She and Vivina were to lead them to Wicks Street, where a couple of the fathers would take charge. She freed Perben instead.”

That faithless guttershank. Fury flared but died a quick death on weariness and numbness.

“I’m glad you remember his capture. Anyway, it’s not safe for us right now. So we broke the rebellion, and only those I trust know where to find me. There are not many of them. Patch prepared an unofficial House, and that’s where we’re at. The remnants of the Blue Council don’t know about it and have no idea where I am. There’re some ugly rumors about my death, to cover for the fact so many lost their positions and connections.”

“Are they watching the Eaves?”

“Yes. But for the time being, I’m sneaking in through the basement.”

Rin had mentioned that. Lapis never realized the place possessed one. If the basement had Minq escape routes, did that mean they emptied into the sewers? She had chased guttershanks into them but refused to follow. How many underhanded people used those routes? Did they know about the ones leading to the Eaves?

“This building was a Minq syndicate safe house, and they sold it to Dachs after it was compromised. So it has hidden entrances, including one in the basement.”

“You want to see me that badly?”

“Yes.”

“If it’s not safe—”

“I’m not about to leave you unguarded.” He grinned. “Neither is Rin. He’s already thrown out a few nosy rebels wanting to see you.”

She had difficulty imagining Rin throwing anyone out of his room. His temper flared when instigated, and recently, swirling resentment flavored his brooding moments, but the gangly rat did not strike her as one to toss out a few annoyances.

“He isn’t much impressed with the rebel side of things. I can’t blame him. There’s much Brander and Sherridan have to put right.”

“They’re OK.” Relief flooded her.

“Yeah. Nearly every rebel made it out, unscathed, including the children. You and Patch made certain of it.”

“Who got hurt?”

“You.”

Blunt. She scrubbed at her face; of course, she was the only rebel injured in the escape. If past experience held, too many at the Jiy House would snicker at her misfortune, claiming her unworthy of the rebellion. How many of them bothered to check on the children before they fled, caring more for their own skins than those of others?

Her emotions slowly cratered. “So Perben’s free. He knows I’m Lady Lanth.”

“He does. Meinrad and Rambart have contacted him, and they refuse to share the details.” He sighed. “Patch has muddied the waters around your identity. We’ll see what comes of it. I’m concerned. I thought we should take you to the undisclosed House, but Lady Thais said it’s cleaner here, and therefore more beneficial to you healing.”

“Cleaner?” That sounded . . . unpleasant.

“The new House needs a LOT of care. It’s a large estate on Wrendle Street and hasn’t had much upkeep since the previous owner died.”

That strangely impressed her. Wrendle once contained the most opulent estates the wealthiest Jiy nobles could afford. They still existed, in various states of deterioration. Many were repurposed for over-priced apartment complexes targeting the poor. Some housed stubborn elders yearning for olden times while their property fell to ruin around their heads, or disfavored noble sons and daughters who had brought shame to their respective families. The richer lot hid in their mansions, allowing the overgrowth to conceal them from Grey Streets rabble. Lapis found them annoying, snobby and petulant reminders of a bygone era.

“It’s sound enough, it just needs a deep clean and some refurbishing.” He stood and stretched, then lowered his hands and absently observed the other side of the room. As a child, she quickly learned he used it when he had difficulty deciding exactly how to relate terrible news.

“What happened?”

He pressed his lips together, refusing to look at her. “Patch retrieved some things while searching for information on the Dentherion soldier who attacked you. Jarosa asked him to, and he brought her a treasure trove of info.”

“Something bad’s going to happen?”

“No. We haven’t gone through everything yet, but . . .” He shook his head. “I want you to listen to something.”

Listen?

Faelan retrieved a round metal disc from a small, ratty pack resting against the far wall. She had not seen one since Nicodem fell; her father’s rebel duties consisted of him reviewing hundreds of them. Dentheria made a practice of storing voice recordings in such devices, normally concerning military and political reports, and her father listened to all the Houses managed to procure. He sequestered himself in his study, feet on the desk, and lounged back in his chair, chin planted in his palm, half-asleep while he took notes. She had found it insufferable. Amused at her concern for his boredom, he would kiss her forehead and tell her that even the least exciting endeavors could produce important things. Her suspicious uncertainty elicited further laughter and a warm hug before he shooed her away.

“You listen to recordings, like Dad.”

“NO.”

Oh. He must find the task as boring as she.

Her brother adjusted the volume slider on the edge of the device and settled it on the blanket before pressing the center down. Gravelly voices rose from the case; the built-in speaker was in terrible shape. One belonged to a well-spoken man with the conceited thrum of a commanding officer and the other to someone who sounded like a palace guard; Grey Streets accent with fake, polite deference.

Faelan pressed the lower half of the object, and the voices sped up, a jumble of high-pitched words. He finally paused as the commanding officer’s voice crackled. “Interview tape eleven, Early Year two two, six forty-six. Subject Beltin of Cole, forty-seven, secret scout two.”

What?

Her mind numbed as she listened to the commander ask Beltin question after question about a random guttershank raid, the southern Jilvaynian accent scratching her ears.

He was dead. He was dead. The kind, all-smiles stableman who taught her to ride. But . . . who else had that name, spoke just like him? Beltin. Beltin survived the raid. Now he worked for the palace guard?

If Beltin survived and had ties to the throne, he betrayed Nicodem, as surely as Perben.

“He’s alive?” she asked as tears streaked down her cheeks. Had he worked in conjunction with the traitor? Had he fed info to Kale, telling him a good time to invade? Had he not cared for the people he knew would die?

“You think it’s him, too.”

“I’d never forget that voice.” Patient, gentle, filled with exasperated laughter, reminding her over and over again to adjust her seat, how to handle the reins, how to coax a horse into doing what she wanted them to do, and, especially, never never raise a hand to one.

Faelan nodded and pressed the center again, halting the recording. “There’s more, in a couple of other ones. The palace had him infiltrate Hoyt’s operations. He claims to have met the man, but that he sat in a chair with his back to him the entire time, staring out a window. That may or not be true, but I want to follow up on it. Many people are looking for Hoyt, and speaking to someone who had intimate contact with him may help us succeed in finding him.”

“Hoyt’s staked?”

“By the palace and the Dentherions—but not for death. The stakes wax long about his instigating a syndicate war, despite the fact he’s an underboss not associated with one, mentions nothing of his targeting Sir Armarandos, and threatens to punish any chaser who kills him. While the Minq think he’s acting with the approval of the Sansevelo Syndicate out of Ramira, I don’t think that’s why the palace wants him alive for questioning. Jarosa knows some of the Sans people, and while they do see the Minq as rivals, she has serious doubts they would start a conflict in another country where they have a scanty presence at best. We believe Gall wants him for something else, and we plan to find out what that is.”

Wonderful. Intrigue at its finest.

“Do you have a hint what that might be?”

He wobbled his head about. “Maybe. Midir’s concerned that this stake, coupled with a skyshroud under the command of a Second Councilor’s son in Jiy, means Dentheria realizes a sympathizer is meeting with us. Some interesting items in Danaea’s papers hint at her involvement with Hoyt for some unspecified stake she only refers to as ‘the skyshroud one’, which struck Jetta as odd because she kept blackmail notes on nearly everyone else. Whether any of this is connected is pure speculation, but we hope that Beltin might shed some insight into it.”

“Rin said Patch was working on something. Is this it?”

“Yes. He’s adept at digging up information. And I would ask that, when Patch finds him, that you meet with Beltin.”

Her mind blanked briefly as she digested his words. “Why?” she whispered, an ugly nausea worming up to her throat. Why would he even suggest such a horrid thing? She refused to be used in that way.

“Because he thinks you’re dead, and you know what questions to ask. The shock might make him talkative.” His voice darkened, deepened, deadened.

Not about Hoyt. About Nicodem. The lust for revenge, the need to hurt those involved, to reflect the years of guilty pain onto them, the want to take a knife and draw blood for every person’s terror and agony before they died. She gorged on that yearning for eight years.

Unlike Perben, Beltin had worked with the Nicodem staff on a daily basis. He knew the old cook with the limp, having run errands for her because of her lack of mobility. Molie. He knew the young kennel lad, who raised every pup with love and care. Roddie. He knew the laughter of the bubbly mother who had cared for the farm animals, and who had left two young children behind. Shonna. All butchered, while he escaped unscathed. He survived and now worked for the ones who completed that slaughter.

She never would forgive him for the unfathomable betrayal.

Lapis buried her face in her hands. Each person who worked at Nicodem had a name, a place, a family, a future denied. After the attack, it broke her, to think of them all, every face, every kindness, every firm reprimand that infuriated her childhood self. She mourned her family and found her heart too tender to grieve for every individual who fell. She needed to rectify that, to prove that even the lowest impacted the world they navigated.

Faelan gathered her up and she cried into his shoulder. The tears would not bring them back, nor return the love and laughter. But she could sprinkle revenge on their memory. She would make certain, the betrayer never ripped another soul from their lives, their families, their dreams. She could save the future for unknown others, who had no thoughts of twisted plots and dirty traitors.

“I’ll need Patch with me.”

“Yes. There’s no way I’d let you face a murderer alone.” He pulled back and pressed his forehead into hers. “Lapis, you’re my little sister, and years may stand between us, but I still love you.” He laughed, soft and nervous. “I have something for you.” He dug into his pocket with a small, secret smile, before pulling out a plain silver bracelet.

The bangle was a duplicate of his, the one she gave him for his eighteenth birthday, before the attack. A thin loop circled it, holding a charm resembling a cluster of berries, something she would have cherished in her younger years.

“I had this made before . . . well, before,” he whispered. “I wanted to give it to you when I got back, and never had the opportunity. I don’t know why I held onto it all these years, but the thought of throwing it away made me sick. I want you to have it, now.”

Lapis carefully took it, smoothing the polished surface. Faelan had brought her all sorts of gifts after being away from home, though she rarely thought much about the adoration involved because he had presents for all his siblings. This one, though, this one he meant to be special. If not, he never would have purchased the charm to link with it. He played on her love of berries and sweets, and now, eight years later, she appreciated the thought that her younger self would not have understood. She slipped it over her wrist, a cold weight that warmed as quickly as the heat spreading through her chest.

“I’ll wear it with joy.”

“Joy?” he asked, startled.

She clasped his hand in both hers. “Faelan, you were my special brother. You always had time for me, never brushed me off, never told me to go away. You read to me, took walks with me. It’s . . . it’s why it hit so hard, when I thought you’d abandoned me. I know we can’t be the same, too much is in between. But maybe we can forge something else. I don’t . . .” She paused, trying to gather her thoughts. “I don’t think I want to have my only memories of my family be blood and death and hate and how to revenge them.”

“They aren’t your only memories,” he said softly. He covered her hand with his other one, warm, comforting. “Jarosa reminded me that there’s more to life than the rebellion. As noble an endeavor as it is, any changes will take decades to ripen. She thinks I need to expand my thinking and outlook past the pain and darkness.”

“Walking through the Grey Streets isn’t the same as wandering through the forest,” she told him.

“True, but there are bright places among the greyness. We simply need to find those, before we lose who we are.” His soberness twinged her compassion. “I lost myself, after the attack. Uncle tried to help, but he suffered as much as I. He loved our mother, and his failure to protect her hit him hard. I doubted everything. I still do. Jarosa speaks of change, but I’ve never seen it. What do I fight for?”

“I have more to lose now, than I did a month ago.” She squeezed his fingers. “I failed, in vengeance. Maybe that’s a good thing. I don’t have dirty hands that smear the shards of my life. I can glue them back together without having to wipe away the muck I placed there.” She met his sad, purple gaze. “And maybe it means you don’t have dirty hands to soil the shards of the rebellion, and can piece it back together without the corruption.”

The townbird call caught their attention just before Gabby slammed the door open, rushed across the room, and tossed herself in Lapis’s arms.

“LADY!” she wailed.

Scand, apologetic, walked in her wake, scratching at the back of his head. Gabby’s arms tightened and she returned the hug; it hurt, the pressure on her ribs, but she had suffered worse. If Gabby needed this, she would give it.

“Gabby’s pretty insistent, when she wants to be,” the rat grumbled.

“And you’re not?” she asked. He blushed, since they both knew that answer.

“Well, Ciaran’s here. He brought something that he needs you to look at, Lady. He’s getting some tea, then he’ll be up.”

She held Gabby, though she wished to sigh, lean back, and sink in the mattress. She did not remember much from the past few days, but she did remember she wanted nothing more to do with the rebellion. Wishful thinking, considering her family history. Faelan patted their arms before rising, but she could not tell if curiosity or worry flashed through his orbs.

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