Thicker than Water – 14.14

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Thunder rumbled in the distance, and the rain momentarily let up.  It was a trick of the weather, a shift in the already high winds that lifted the raindrops up, holding them in the air, before letting them drop.

A moment of relief in the patter, followed by a sharp rap as the rain resumed.

I flung myself out of the window, arms out to the sides, eyes wide, my open, borrowed shirt fluttering around behind me.

I landed on the top of one of the carriages, shoes sliding on the rain-slick roof of the vehicle, impact startling the horse.  I managed to avoid sliding off, even with the height and angle of my jump.

Heads were turning.  I could see the greater picture now.  Looking through the windows, we had only been able to see a narrow portion of things.

Nobody shot me or shot at me.  Not right away.  That had been a concern.

The group that Jamie had estimated would be near the front doors, was there, out of sight of the window and of Mauer’s position.  There would be the people from further upstairs moving down, some people moving up, with Shirley and Jamie caught between.

They weren’t the only group he’d been able to identify.  There were two other groups the Falconer could be leading, based on what we already knew about the nobles looking to lead the army that was forming to surround Mauer.  Jamie had anticipated where and when they would turn up, based on distance, the speed of her ‘falcon’, and the speed of the vehicles on the road.  Vehicles at the end of the road changed course as I appeared, immediately looking to park, so the occupants could get out.  Odds were good that Jamie had been fairly close to exactly right.

The first of the people here and there started to react.  The hesitation had been fed by the fact that they hadn’t wanted to reveal their positions or presence to Mauer.  Everything had to be done out of sight, often with other obfuscation, and deciding to stop was a call that had to be made by people at the top.  That meant there had to be communication, even if it was a glance on the part of the subordinate and a nod from the officer in charge.

The result was as if I’d hurled myself from that window into water in the greatest of cannon balls, but the splash was delayed by a full five seconds.  The ‘splash’ was shouts, orders, and people moving.  The group by the door broke away, moving to chase.  Vehicles got in the way of other vehicles.

I hopped down off the carriage, onto the road, and ran, feet splashing in puddles as I crossed the street.  Horses, carts, and pedestrians provided some measure of cover.

Stitched exited one of the covered wagons on the far end of the street.  The wagon was the sort meant for the transport of goods, and it had hosted ten or so stitched soldiers, all armed.

I reached to my belt and grabbed a can.

“Grenade!” I shouted, as I threw it at the group.

The stitched reacted, automatic, their instincts trained for a battlefield.  They parted, moving to take cover, leaving me more or less free to run straight at the ‘grenade’ – nothing more than a tin can with a key punched into the top.  I moved right into the group of stitched, who were settling behind cover, ducking, or jogging away as well as a muscle bound stitched could.

I could see the two in the group that weren’t reacting the same way.  They followed the group, but they weren’t reacting like it was a grenade.  Stupider, less trained, their outfits basic, with no jacket and only some of the equipment.

The commanding officer, still in the vehicle, began to shout out orders.

Each of the stitched had bands at their arm.  I had to hope Evette had guessed right and that I’d remembered right.

“Tempest to field,” I said.

I had only a momentary glimpse of the man’s eyes widening eyes before one of the two stitched bulged violently and exploded.  Meaty bits went flying this way and that, and a heavy gas cloud expanded outward.  I disappeared into the midst of it.

Passing Gordon as I made my way into the alley, I was careful to grab some of the garbage, pallets, and milk crates stacked against the wall and tip them over behind me.  It gave away my position with the racket of it, but that wasn’t too important.

Gas and obstacles behind me, my way forward mostly clear.  They wouldn’t be following.  Not easily.

Not the people.

The concern was the experiments.  The nobles.

And, as it turned out, the squad of soldiers who were gathered in the alley, safely out of sight of Mauer.  They were sitting here and there, many smoking.  A

I slowed.

“Stay right there,” one of the soldiers called out, pointing his rifle with attached bayonet at me.

I raised my hands, my mind going over the scenarios.

They were too relaxed.  Their body language suggested they were familiar with each other.  Nobody had run to them, bringing news of trouble.

I shifted my expression and body language, and I approached them with little concern apparent.  “I’m Sylvester.”

“Who?” one of the soldiers at the side asked me.

“I’m part of the reason we’re here.  I’m helping set up Mauer for the Infante.”

“The kid,” the soldier who’d spoken first said.  “Right.”

“Sure,” I said, with a bit of uncertainty.  “Something’s up.  There’s trouble brewing.  Someone used gas, and it looks like it was Mauer.  He knows we’re here.”

The soldier who was doing most of the talking looked at one or two of the others.  Lieutenants?  Seconds in command?  Friends?

“You’re supposed to head west, move around, wait for a horn.  If Mauer flanks us, they want you ready to move in.  If you’re here, you might get mistaken for Mauer’s men and shot.”

“In the briefing, same breath they mentioned you, they said to ignore you.  If we had any suspicion at all…”

He asserted his grip on his rifle, pointing it at me.

“…We’re supposed to shoot you.”

I allowed only a hint of confusion to show.  “And you’re suspicious?”

“What are you even doing here?”

“What I’m supposed to be doing?” I said, trying very much to sound like I wasn’t sure what he wasn’t understanding.  “Outmaneuvering Mauer on behalf of the High Lord Infante.”

I touched the space over my heart, declining my head in the faintest of bows.

The man did the same, moving his rifle to tap it against the badge at his breast, head lowering.  To do otherwise would be to suggest that I respected the Infante more than he did.

To shoot me, after making such a suggestion, it would say all of the wrong things about their leadership over their unit.  The military wasn’t as political as the world of professors, but there were little realities of politicking, and he would have poisoned his leadership.  Any one of his soldiers that didn’t like him could mention the slight to the Crown and it would have spread through the rumor mill.

Lillian stood to one side, watching all of this.

All of that was a series of ingrained fears and worries, patterns of behavior long established by the man’s path to being captain.  Even if it was archaic and rarely performed outside of formal circumstance, if someone showed respect to the nobility, he did the same.  To question or to hesitate meant he was doing something wrong.

He did it and I’d made him do it, and in that, I’d achieved the upper hand in a subtle, infinitesimal way.

It had the added benefit of ensuring that the gun wasn’t pointed at me anymore.

“I’m not following your order,” he said.  Showing he wasn’t a pushover, that he didn’t believe me.  He was still suspicious.  He’d lost two small battles to me in my verbal rebuke and in the bowing.  This was his defiance.

His small defiance.  It propped him up, but it made him weaker, not stronger.

I could just barely hear the noise as someone pushed crates and pallets aside behind me.  I had pursuers.

“Fine,” I said.  “Just be on your guard.  I’ve got things to do, and Mauer’s close.”

I was sure to turn and make my departure before he could make an argument, point that gun at me again, and reaffirm his leadership.  Not as graceful as I might have liked, but it would have to do.

I wasn’t sure if he’d shout after me, tell me to stop.  He didn’t.

“Your funeral,” I said, under my breath.  I pitched it to be heard by the people at the fringes of the group, and not by the captain.

I didn’t look back as I moved on, taking the first right available.

One in five odds that there would be a discussion behind me, that they would actually follow the order I’d given them, and vacate.  Anyone following wouldn’t be able to ask them which direction I’d gone in.

Others were coming down other streets and alleys.  I avoided them as best as I could.  It was midday, but it was gloomy and the rain obscured the scene.

The nobles would be coming.  Montgomery, the Falconer, Augustus.  One, two, or three of them, potentially.  I was laying odds on having to deal with Montgomery again, and having the falconer close.

For this plan to work, we had to be in the right places at the right time.  Jamie had estimated things, but it was impossible to look at the nobles, knowing so very little about their capabilities, and figure out any way to deal with them.

I was prone to forgetting complex directions, so my plan of action was a simple one.  I was to cross the street, enter the alleys, pass six buildings, turn right, pass six buildings, turn right, and so on.

If I reached the street I’d been on, I was to cross it.

Which was bound to be a nightmare.  The hardest part of this.

But I was excited.  My senses were sharp.  My thoughts were falling in line with few stumbles or catches.  The Lambs were omnipresent but they didn’t interfere, and they didn’t look incomplete or horrifying.

I had an enemy, I had a goal, I had a greater plan in the works, mysteries to solve.  But it wasn’t a desperate, dangerous scrabbling to hurt the enemy, to pursue my goals, to solve the mysteries, because stopping meant falling into a chasm.

No.  The drop wasn’t nearly so far, if someone was there.  The ground, so to speak, was only a foot below my dangling feet.

I chose my path carefully, used the terrain, used the rain and the haze of moisture that it produced, water streaming off of me, soaking me from skin to bone and back again.  I watched for soldiers and I watched the sky.

I saw the Falconer’s bird, as it flew into the alley, flapping its wings to pause, taking in the scene, and began following me.

This danged thing.

Where were you, bird?  You disappeared for a while.  Reported to your master, then came to look for us again.  Did you bother Jamie?  Did you scare Shirley?

My eyes were opened as wide as I could get them, to better take in everything, see in the gloom and the rain.  My only blinks were really the reflexive ones, in reaction to the rain.

As I reached out to a windowsill of an open window, gripping it hard to hurdle over and inside, I saw the great black bird diving for me.

I let go of the windowsill, pulling my hand back and away, falling inside the kitchen there rather than gracefully leaping through.  The talon raked the base of the window where my hand had been, and flecks of water and wood splinters flew into the air.

I heard its cry, and I imagined it was a shrill, eardrum-piercing cry of frustration.  It was certainly loud.  Even after it ended, there was a kind of echo in my ears as my ears rang from the volume.

Before it could reorient and fly into the house, I hauled the window shut, then shut a second window.

That cry – everyone within two city blocks might have heard it.  The Falconer certainly would have.

The bird arrived, flapping violently before settling on the windowsill, the far side of the glass.  It stared at me, then shrieked again, a sound so loud and sharp it made my brain hurt.

“Yeah, get plucked, bird.  You going to come through that window?” I asked, backing away.

It rapped its beak against the glass.  One motion, sharp and backed by the full physique of its dense, well engineered body, and the glass shattered wholesale.  It flapped its wings, taking off.

I reached for my waist, and I drew a gun.

Except I didn’t really have a gun.  I’d sought to fake the bird out, force an instinctive reaction, much as I had with the stitched.

The thing didn’t even give a dang.  As I turned on my toes to scramble for the nearest doorway, my brain dwelt on why.  Did it not care about me drawing a gun because it was that smart?  That perceptive?  Was it capable of figuring out that I didn’t actually have a weapon?

Or was it tough enough that a bullet wouldn’t necessarily kill it before it killed me?

There were other possibilities, but I had to consider that this was a noble’s pet.  Hubris had been a beautifully engineered piece of work, dangerous to underestimate, smarter than all get out.  There was no reason to think this was anything less.

I would assume the worst, which meant assuming this thing was the best piece of work I could imagine it as, if not better.

At least it didn’t have hands.

Before it could fly at me and tear into me with talons long enough to reach into my chest and pluck out my recently repaired heart, I passed through a doorway and slammed that door behind me.

I heard the impact as it struck the door.  It was a sound like one I’d heard countless times before.  A sharp object striking wood with confidence.

Then silence.

I ran down the hallway, making my way to the front door of the house.

My hand had only just made contact with the doorknob when the bird came through the glass of the window by the staircase, to my left.  Its wings were spread wide, making it seem far larger than it already had, and it had already been the size of a proper attack dog.

I threw myself back and away, landing on my back on the rug that ran down the hallway.  The bird was a blur, talons raking the door in passing before it flew into the living room.  The doorway to the living room was an arch, with no doors for me to slam shut.

It knew exactly where I was, and it had gotten out of the building and around in time to intercept me.  It likely hadn’t hesitated longer than an eye’s blink before tearing away from the door and heading around to intercept.

Even that attack, slashing at the door with its talons- it knew full well that I wasn’t at the front door anymore, that I’d thrown myself to the ground.  It hadn’t actually been trying to hit me.  It was a show of strength, intimidation.

It perched on the mantlepiece, staring me down, extending that show.

“I’m not a fan of you,” I informed the bird.  “You’re too big, too sharp, and too fast.”

It flapped its wings and adjusted its footing, but it looked to be a show, just exercising them, posturing.

Then it shrieked at me.

I winced.  “And you’re loud.  Does your master put up with that?”

I wanted the creature to make the first move, so I could react.

The problem was, it seemed content to wait, let me act, and then it would probably scream at me, take off, and fly right for me.  It would scalp me, slash my throat, and I would have to deal with blood loss while making a run for it, if I even got that far.

Or I could wait, and the Falconer would saunter over here and kill me.

The tight confines, the countless little objects here and there, the pieces of furniture, the doors, they were supposed to be to my advantage.  This wasn’t a space that bird was supposed to be able to maneuver in.  It couldn’t even fully spread its wings in the hallway.

Why, then, was it so damn hard to think of a good way to deal with it?

Okay.  Have to do something.  Jamie and Shirley are waiting, and timing does matter.

I didn’t climb to my feet.  By the time I did that, the bird would be on top of me.  Instead, I raised my feet up, slowly, my eye on the bird, watching carefully.

I jumped to my feet, bringing my legs down as I brought my upper body up and forward.  I had to bring a leg back to catch myself from falling backward, but I was able to lunge for the front door.

It would be locked.  It was a two-step action, to unlock it and haul it open.  Another two steps to move through the doorway and close the door behind me.

And at no point would I actually be rid of the bird.  It would exit through the window it had entered through and be on top of me in seconds.

Four steps was still too many.  Seconds was a reprieve, time to think and act when this encounter moved at double that tempo.  Every half-second mattered, every action had to flow into another.

My rolling to my feet became a lunge for the door.  That became a jump, where I set one foot on top of the doorknob, running up, twisting around, aiming to go over the Falcon, utilizing the blind spot of the archway and wall that separated the hall from the living room.

My head grazed the ceiling, and I found myself face to face with the bird, which within an armspan of me.

I’d been out-anticipated and outsmarted by an animal with a head the size of two fists pressed together.

I struck for one wing – the most vulnerable and least sharp part of the thing, and hit it, but as gravity pulled me down, the bird maintained its height.  Talons raked my scalp and caught the side of my neck.

I’d have blood running down my face and the back of my shirt, and that neck wound would bleed like an alkie’s asshole, but he hadn’t gotten anything vital.

My eye was on the prize.  I landed, shifted to face a right angle, and sprinted to the window by the stairs, diving through it.

The bird was a second behind me, but it didn’t dive for me.

I tumbled to the ground, got my feet under me, and rose from the tumble to a standing position, reaching out for the wall to steady myself.

I saw the flapping of those great black wings in the corner of my eye, and I turned to look.

The Falconer had arrived.  Tall, raven haired, dressed in a white silk shirt with black leather over it in something between armor and a corset.  Much as the shirt was constrained by the black leather, belts constrained her skirt, which was just short enough to show how tall her boots were. The boots matched the falconer’s glove she wore.  Her free hand, ungloved, held a saber.

Every piece of her was decorated, but it was subtle, not ostentatious as nobles so often were.  Etching in the leather, stitching in the silk.  It drew the eye, made that part of me that wanted to investigate want to pay attention and discern meaning, whereupon I only fell into the trap and her dangerous allure.

Her eyes resembled those of her bird.

“My lady,” I said, instinctively.  One of my hands was pressed to my neck wound.  “I must say, I am not a fan of your bird.”

She advanced, silent, while her falcon flapped its wings without taking off, shifting its footing, much as it had done on the mantlepiece.

I backed away, moving in the direction of the street where the collected soldiers and stitched were.

Even if I lured her out into the street, the angle of the street and the placement of buildings meant that Mauer’s snipers wouldn’t have a clear shot.  There could be other snipers in other buildings, but if she was here, her bird had likely searched the area, and I was betting they had other ways of clearing the buildings.

She raised her arm, and the bird took off, flying high.

Dang it.

I turned and ran, knowing that she was faster.

As I approached the street, however, I saw something glorious.

The haze of the rain was made even hazier by thick clouds of gas.  I could see the spatters of gore.  I could see people reeling, hands to their ears

Woe unto the birds.

This particular command phrase, in retrospect, was very fitting, considering who my current pursuers.

I ran straight into the fog of gas.

The Falconer leaped up onto the top of a carriage, then leaped across to the next.  Staying high, above the fog and the smoke, while still pursuing.

I saw one wagon with a slope leading down to the bench, rain-slick, and put it between myself and the Falconer.

She leaped, and I doubted she saw the slope before she was in the air.  She skidded on landing, momentum carrying her into the slope.

I watched her adjust her weight, the foot that was set lower on the roof sweeping in a sharp, focused half-circle, scraping the wet wood for maximum traction.  Not quite enough to stop her downward movement, but it slowed her enough that she could leap to the next carriage.  One that had a flatter top.

She had a gravity.  I was drawn to her, as if there was something about her that made me want to fight her, to engage in a contest.  The problem was that it was a contest I was doomed to lose.

Her expression was unreadable, her body language expressing nothing but danger and her intent to catch and murder me.  But it was the lack of anything at all that made me feel a moment’s panic, the certainty that another blade was drawing near.

I shifted my footing, switched direction, moving closer to her, ducking around another carriage, deeper into fog, and I nearly ran into the hooves of a horse that was fussing and panicking at the spreading gas and the misery it was inflicting.  Its owner had already left the scene.  Civilians were few and far between, if there were any.

The Falconer’s fell bird came down, shifting its trajectory to follow me.  I’d anticipated it, because the Falconer had been too calm, too measured in her advance even as I’d slowed down to watch her.  Anyone else with her capacity for killing would have reacted on some level, quickened her advance.

But the guillotine had already been coming down, and she had no reason to hurry.

I had to shift direction a second time, letting myself fall to the ground right next to the rearing, stomping horse, to avoid the bird’s talons.

The Falconer leaped, in perfect step with her pet, and I rolled, beneath and through the stomping hooves.  The puddling water I moved through made my already drenched clothing even heavier, pooling within it, weighing me down, pouring out and altering my balance every step of the way.

The Falconer’s saber had been buried a half-foot into the road by her plunge.  With cool confidence, she stood, pulling it free with no effort at all.

Across the street, a stitched had already emerged from a covered wagon.  One stitched, but it had taken up the whole wagon.  Ten feet tall, it carried the floor of the wagon as a shield, wood reinforced by bands of metal and bolts as fat as my arm.  It was joined by a matching stitched, a second shieldbearer.  One had long hair, the other was bald, with a beard that reached its navel.  Both wore the same robes, waterproof coverings that sheltered them from the rain, augmented with armor here and there.  Both steamed as if the water that was on them boiled on contact.  Not that it did, but such was the effect.

I had to run between them to get where I needed to be.

I was running, only running, trying to get away.  I’m a chicken that needs desperately to get to the other side.

One of the shieldbearers raised their shield high overhead, holding only the bottom end.  The other raised its shield overhead, but held it horizontally, not vertically.

August dropped down from a window much higher than the second story window I’d leaped from.  Shielded from Mauer’s gunfire by the wall the long haired giant had created, given a platform to land on by the bearded one, he landed with both hands and one foot on the ground.

As I passed between the giants, beneath August, he stood, turning to face me.  Anyone else would have been shattered from foot to hip by such a landing, but he didn’t seem to have even paused.

Streams of water and wisps of gas flowed off of me as I made my way to the sidewalk, passing into the alleyway.

August, deposited on the ground, was supported and protected by his giants, the Falconer joined by her bird, as they entered the alleyway.  August said something under his breath, and one of his giants gave the pair of nobles a protective ceiling, using the great shield that was as broad as a cargo-bearing carriage and as tall as it was long.

It sounded like a rockslide, starting at one end of the street, sweeping to the next.  A series of detonations, one after another.  The nobles stopped, looking back and over.

I kept moving away, bracing myself.

The explosion swept over the street, and it caught something.  It wasn’t the other gas, which had enough methane to keep the chain reaction alive.  No.  One or several of the wagons that had been parked along the street had borne gunpowder, or explosives, or fuel.

Stitched were capable of burning.  They were dry, combustible.  Wagons were wood.  Soldiers carried grenades.

Whatever the case, that ominous rumble as the methane caught and was consumed in a rolling flame, it was soon punctuated by the crack and the blast of real explosives going off, each with their individual shockwaves and ripple effects.

I stumbled, tripping and falling as I wrapped my head around what was happening.  The nobles, their giants and their pet bird, they were closer to the street and the nearest wagon loaded with munitions.  The shockwave hit them.  The nobles were bowled over, the giants staggered, one of their robes setting alight.  The bird went down in that same lick of flame.

The goal had been to stir the pot, to give people reason to leave or be evacuated.  It also, in the roundabout path, would mean that people who had been further away would gather here, that numbers would be more concentrated.  All of that required buying time.

It wouldn’t be a guarantee, some civilians would have been caught in the blast.

The act of buying time had also given Jamie time to get in position, to spring the methane trap with the next of the command words.

The nobles had been bowled over.  The bird and one giant had been burned.

I picked myself up, and climbed to my feet, still breathing hard from the running, shaking from exhaustion that was half due to exertion and half due to my not having wood on the fire, food in the belly.

They remained on the ground for long moments.

I waited, watching.

August was the first to move.  The Falconer stirred after that.

Not even looking up at me or at her pet, she gestured at the bird, and she made a short whistling sound.

The bird moved, shifting its stance.  Wings stretched forward, and it crawled to its master on its bladed wing-tips and talons, much as the spike warbeasts had moved on four spikes.  No longer able to fly, but entirely capable of operating as an attack beast all the same.  Just as resilient as the noble it served.

The Falconer put one hand on its back, and rose to her feet, head still hanging, hair forming a curtain in front of her face.

I’d seen all I needed to see, gotten the measure of the damage we’d managed to inflict, by way of how slowly they moved.

The nobles, I was sure, would chase, and they would be sure to make us answer this.

I ran for it.  I ran to Jamie, and with any luck, to where Mauer waited to capitalize on this opportunity.

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Thicker than Water – 14.13

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The rain fell all around us, a steady drenching of the city, that had been sustained for far longer than nature should have permitted.  The entire city was shaped to accept and use the rain.  Stylized gutters, roof styles, and architecture that was exaggerated enough in places to still have some character after the rain had battered it for several years.  Plant and flesh growth as architecture could drink the water and grow more than the water beat it down.

The entire city seemed awash in the humid haze of summer rain, wherein a kind of fog that rose up over every surface that was being drummed at by the downpour.  The light of the sun fought to penetrate the rolling storm cloud cover, and the lights of the city strove to penetrate the dark haze of rain and mist.

I was wet from head to ankle.  Only precaution kept the water out of my shoes.  Evette had done that much.  The wind, twelve or so stories above the ground, proved to be brisk and vertigo-inducing, as if I was light enough to be picked up and tossed off of the top of the building.

It should have been enough to cool me down, to make up for the ambient temperature.  It wasn’t.  I knew I was sweating, adding a taste of salt to the rain.  I felt feverish, and I shivered.

“I was so busy with the Lambs and preparing for them that I barely ate,” I said.  I looked over at Jamie.

“Hm?  Yeah.  I had to push food on you.”

“And then everything happened and I hopped on the train with Shirley, and it was Wallace’s law in full effect, y’know?  Pell-mell melee, grandmothers biting small children to get that next sandwich.  Throwing money at the people bringing the food in?”

“It wasn’t nearly that severe,” Shirley said.  She looked a touch bewildered, as if she wasn’t sure what was going on.  “But he did give me the lunch instead of taking it himself.  He had a look in his eyes, like he was far away, I didn’t want to argue.  If I’d known that he was in that state, or that he hadn’t eaten-”

I shook my head.

“What are you getting at, Sy?” Jamie asked.

“I haven’t eaten anything in the past forever, except for a blood apple that was a few days overripe.”

“You know you’re not supposed to eat those raw, right?  They’re a garnish, or you use them in cooking?”

“I know.  But I was really hungry.  I-”

I had to stop myself.  I’d reflexively reached out, almost mentally withdrew, turning to a flicker of an image in the corner of my eye.  Helen.

Almost, very almost, defaulting to letting Helen say it.

“-I’m hungry,” I said.

Belatedly, after finishing the sentence, I realized that Helen had had a face, and that something had fit back into where it was supposed to be.  I smiled, too wide, at Shirley and Jamie.

“We can get you food,” Jamie said, matching my smile with unremitting calm.  His eyes were studying me, near-constantly.  Still checking, watching carefully.  He finally relaxed his investigation to walk over to the edge, before looking down.  “There were people on the ground before that aren’t, now.  I think they’re in the midst of coming up the stairs.  We should focus on surviving in the meantime.”

“Yes,” I said.  “Surviving is good.”

It took effort to set trains of thought into motion without reflexively redirecting them through the mouths of phantom Lambs.

As trains went, they felt floatier than they had, before all of this.  Freer, less heavy, less substantial.

Caught by sudden suspicion, I looked at Jamie.  “Just… to make sure everything is all right?”

“That’s not a complete question,” Jamie said.

“Because I haven’t finished it,” I said.

“You paused, waiting for a response.”

“Okay,” I said.  I frowned.  “You’re real, right?  You’re here.”

“Yes,” Jamie said, very firmly.  “I could slap you hard, if that would help.”

I frowned.  “I think it’s ok.  But why the slap?  I thought we were okay.”

“We’re okay.”

“And you apologized,” I pointed out.

“I apologized and I’m bothered at the same time, and a slap would go a long way toward helping with the second part.  I’m allowed to have complicated feelings, Sy.  Just take it in stride?  That would go a long way too.”

“You are allowed those complicated feelings.  I can do ‘in stride’,” I said.  “Shirley’s real?”

“I grabbed you,” Shirley said.  “I held your arm.  What did you think happened if I’m not real?  That you did it yourself?”

“Not wholly ruling that out,” I said.

The bewilderment became concern again.  She’d seen a lot about the way I’d acted, she’d heard what I’d said to Jamie, but this was the moment the depth of what was going on was becoming clear to her.

“Shirley is real,” Jamie said.

“Okay,” I said.  “Thank you, Shirley.  I mean that on a lot of levels.”

Shirley nodded, retreating further into the doorway, where there was some shelter from the rain, arms hugged against her stomach.

“The Lambs aren’t here, right?” I asked Jamie.  “Just you.”

“They went back to Radham.”

I exhaled.  “Probably for the best.”

“On a lot of levels,” Jamie echoed me.

I nodded.

“At the risk of sounding like Hayle as he conducts his metrics tests and scratches notes on his clipboards, on a scale of one to ten, how close to back are you?”

“Ten is I’m one-hundred percent me again?”  I asked.  At Jamie’s nod of confirmation, I stopped to think, conducting a careful self assessment.  I was still working on getting my brain up to speed, opening up my senses, and wrapping my head around the greater situation.

“Eight,” I said, without a lot of confidence.  My eyes roved until I spotted her, standing off to one side, in the shadows to one side of the little covered shed that served as an entry point to the stairway.  Evette, a short distance from Shirley.

I willed her to go away, and she remained where she was.

Go away, I thought the words at her with force, with all the will I could muster.  It felt like a feeble effort.  Not because I didn’t consider myself as someone with willpower, but it was a hard to exercise a muscle with no concrete feedback to it.

Evette remained where she was, her strange face angled so she could watch me with overlarge eyes, hair framing her face.

Other Lambs scattered the area.  I suspected they wouldn’t be any more inclined to go away than Evette was.

“Eight,” I said, more firmly.  “I don’t think a ten is possible anymore.”

I shivered.  The words sounded alien to my ears, as if I didn’t believe them, even as I knew they were true.

“Let’s work to keep you at an eight,” Jamie said.

“Sounds good,” I said.  Then, only minutes away from abandoning a crazed campaign at avoiding reality, I turned my mind away from that topic.  “Let’s not go down the stairs.  There’s a noble down there, and I think he’d be the type to tear my arms off in the same way a proper little monster of a child would tear wings off of a fly or whiskers off of a cat.  Or sit on me.”

“There aren’t many other options than down, Sy,” Jamie said.  “The nearest building is still too far to jump over to.  Do you want to go up?”

I gave him a look.  I wagged my finger at him, taking on a mock stern tone.  “Now don’t you go playing tricks on me, Jamie.  Just because I’m in dire need of a meal and I’m not as sane as I’ve ever been, don’t go thinking you can convince me we can sprout wings like some villain in one of those books you read.”

“I’m not saying we should sprout wings, Sy, I’m talking about the rope.  The one I used to get to this roof?”

I turned my head, taking in the rope.  It had been lassoed to a gargoyle in the modern style, and it was tied at the upper end, to something on the roof of the adjacent building.  Done up in the style of a court jester, face leering, nose too long and vaguely suggestive of something that wasn’t a nose.

It would take too long to climb.

“We’ll swing across,” I said.  “Get in through a window over there.”

“I’m out of rope, and we need something to pull the rope back after using it.”

“It’s fine,” I said.  “Not a problem.  Watch the stairwell, Shirley.  Jamie, untie the rope.”

I pulled off my shirt, drew a scalpel from my pocket, and began cutting the fabric.  It was like peeling an orange, keeping it all in one piece.  One shirt, reduced to one long ribbon.

I saw Jamie eyeing me, and raised an eyebrow.

“Your scar,” he said, as he undid the rope.

“We almost match,” I said.

“Was thinking that, and was thinking about your propensity for ending up shirtless.”

“Don’t act like you don’t like that habit of mine,” I said.

I could see the reaction that got.  The blinks, the mental skip as his brain failed to get traction.

“If that’s too far, let me know,” I said, cutting at the shirt.  “I don’t know about any of this.  I’m playing this by ear, because I have absolutely no context for how to do this.  I don’t want to touch sensitive territory, or get hopes up, or…”

I trailed off.

Shirley looked at Jamie.  “I wondered if that had anything to do with the break between you two.”

“Yeahh,” Jamie sighed out the word.

I finished shredding the shirt, watching the two carefully, trying to get a sense of the situation.

“Was I not supposed to say anything?” I asked.  “Because I figured, it’s Shirley, so…”

“It’s Shirley, and obviously Shirley would know if anyone knew.”

“Obviously,” I said.  Shirley had gotten to know us at the brothel, and between the fags there, Shirley’s comfort with them, and the curious fondness of the matron for Jamie… Shirley would know if anyone knew, and people had to have known.

“That part of it is fine,” Jamie said.  “I’m more stumped about the other thing you said.  How about I’ll let you know when I figure it out?”

“Sure.  On to other topics, like getting ourselves to safer ground,” I said.  I approached Jamie and tied the cloth ribbon to the rope.

“That’s going to break,” he said.

“You go first, then Shirley,” I said.  “I can climb down the outside of the building, find another way across, if I have to.  And if you’re gone and it’s just Shirley and me, then I can explain it.”

Jamie frowned.

“Don’t frown at me.  I’m not trying to get rid of you.  I’m-”

“I get it, I get it,” Jamie said.  “I just don’t like this process here.”

“Someone a long way down just stuck their head over to look up,” Shirley called over.

Jamie investigated the ribbon I provided.  He reached out for the scalpel, I took the rope, and Jamie started cutting at the bottom of his shirt, creating a ribbon of his own.

“How many floors down are they?” I asked.

“Five, I’m guessing,” Jamie said.

“Five sounds right,” Shirley confirmed.  “I don’t know if anyone’s higher up than the guy who peeked.”

“Based on the time I saw you and the time you showed up,” Jamie said, “Assuming no breaks along the way?”

“We walked some.  It got tiring.”

“Based on that, discounting the stitched, which would slow them down, giving them the benefit of a doubt… five seemed accurate enough.  I don’t think there will be a group that far ahead of that guy,” Jamie said.

He tied the makeshift ribbon to the existing ribbon, judged the length, then gave me a nod, handing the ribbon to me.

He gripped the rope, then stepped over the side.

I was careful to move to the edge, almost following him over, one arm extended with the ribbon firmly gripped.  I didn’t want it to end up too short and to be yanked from my grip.  That would be a disaster.

Jamie’s feet stopped him from faceplanting against the wall.  He held the rope as he walked over to the nearest open window, then climbed inside.

A moment later, after the place had been cleared, he gave me the signal.

It felt good to see the gesture.  Familiar and comfortable.

I carefully drew the ribbon back, pulling the rope back across the gap.  It was heavy, the ribbon thin by necessity, and there was a fear that the ribbon would prove too frail.

That fear grew in the instant before my hand gripped the end of the rope and pulled it over.  Holding it like this, rain-slick, while standing so close to the edge, it stirred that vertigo again.

“Shirley,” I said.  “Your turn.”

She hurried across the roof.  She balked as she approached the edge.

“Come on,” I said.

“It’s something, isn’t it?  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a drop like that in my life,” she said, securing her grip on the wet rope.

“Nope,” I said.  “How close are they?”


“Then don’t jump yet.  Hold on.”

I grabbed the second of the three canisters from my belt, pulled the pin, and tossed it at the stairs.  Buying time.  With that done, I took the ribbon.

“Go,” I said.

She, to her credit, wasted no time.

She turned slightly away from the wall as she swung.  On impact with the wall, catching it with one foot and spinning wildly, she dropped, her grip slipping on the rope before she managed to catch herself.

She gave me a look, very wide-eyed in a ‘did you see that’ way, before she got one foot on a windowsill, found the opportunity to secure her grip, and walked over to where Jamie was leaning out of the window.

The moment she let go of the rope, I began reeling it in.

I was halfway there when a warbeast, leash still attached to its collar, lunged through the cloud of gas at the top of the stairwell.

Corinth Crown’s warbeasts had been like maned wolves.  Radham favored creatures that looked like something had taken the more aggressive aspects of a mammoth, bull, and bear and scaled the end result to elephantine proportions.

This, at least, was something else.  It was headless, and its limbs and body seemed to be a collection of the musculature of the abdomen and the arm, in how the parts intertwined and fit together in a very purposeful engineering.

An elegant structure of muscle only partially covered by chitin, with spike-like limbs.

It huffed, then shook itself, reacting to the gas.  Where its neck was supposed to be, there was only a hole, with irregular, thorn-like spikes there and on the inside walls.

It galloped toward me, and I was left with no choice but to haul back hard on the ribbon.  No care given, no worry about snapping it – I pulled the rope closer to me and threw myself closer to it, over the edge.

On an instinctive level, I knew the rope wouldn’t swing close enough to me.  I was working against gravity and it was heavy with the rainwater.

It was a feat that I wouldn’t have been able to manage thirty minutes to an hour ago.  I still held the ribbon in my left hand, and my left foot went out as I twisted in the air, the side of my shoe catching the ribbon.  I used a kick of my leg to pull the rope closer, and caught it with my right hand.

I didn’t have time to fully secure my grip or adopt the right pose.  I hugged the rope close to my body, gripping it with one hand and both thighs before I hit the face of the building.

The muscle-and-chitin warbeast wasted no time in flinging itself over the edge.

It landed a short distance below and to one side of me, with all of its claws perfectly positioned to find holds and gaps on the face of the building – where window frame met window and where there were gaps between stones.  It should have bounced off and fallen to the street below, but instead, it simply embedded itself into the wall.  A four-legged, three-hundred pound, abdomen-less spider.

In the time it took me to shift my grip and get both hands securely on the rope, it asserted its position, and with a clicking sound, began making its way up to me with alarming speed.

I pulled a pin from the sole remaining canister, leaving it where it was at my belt, and began half-climbing, half-running along the outside of the wall.

The gas that billowed from the canister drifted down to the warbeast.  It had to take a detour to get out and away from the gas, which bought me seconds to climb up further.

It had circled down and around to my left to approach me from the side the gas wasn’t falling from.  I wasn’t in a position to turn the gas on it again.  It wouldn’t buy me any meaningful amount of time, compared to what it cost me, now.

I wondered at my odds with a knife in hand, one hand on a rope, against one of the finer specimens of a warbeast I’d seen to date.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to see my odds.  A piece of furniture fell from above; a dense bedside table or a clock too large to be a mantlepiece and too small to be a grandfather clock.  It struck the warbeast, and knocked it from the wall.

I hurried to climb up to the source.  Once I reached the window, Jamie and Shirley pulled me inside more than I’d managed to climb up.  The moment I was inside, I placed the canister on the windowsill and closed the window, so the canister was sitting outside.

“Signaling where we are?” Jamie asked.

“More like I’m trying to keep more from following,” I said.  “Lose the scent trail, or muck with whatever senses they rely on.”

We backed away from the window, looking up and over.

By the time we’d reached the bedroom wall furthest from the window, there were two more of the spike warbeasts at the edge of the roof we’d just left, perched and tense, rain streaming off of them.

They leaped, and the three of us turned, exiting the bedroom, cutting through the apartment, and entering the hallway proper of the apartment building.

“Ground level?” Jamie asked.

“Think so.  Or close to.  I rigged a whole squadron of the stitched to explode, instead of producing gas.  Mauer’s out there too, of course.  He’s got the guns, but I can’t imagine he wants to fire willy-nilly.  What I’m hoping is that we can blow it up.  Do enough damage to the Crown forces that Mauer feels compelled to seize the opportunity.”

“What do we do about Mauer then?  He’s far away, and crossing that ground isn’t going to be easy.”

“Leave him,” I said.  “Original plan was to let them get each other bloody, set them against each other and then capitalize on weaknesses and opportunity.  But now we’re here, Crown isn’t too enamoured with us, if Mauer wants to go to town, I’m happy to let him.”

“We let him live?” Jamie asked.

I could hear the doubt in his voice, the question.  It matched my own.

“I’m not sure either,” I said.

The smoke canister on the windowsill had forced the warbeasts to take a detour.  They’d slipped into other rooms and apartments, and from the sounds of it, were tearing through doors and walls, were navigating rooms and hallways.  Somewhere along the line, they hadn’t found another entrance to pursue us or appear out of nowhere and chase.  No heads meant little capacity to reason or be inventive, it seemed.

They were hunters, mechanical, simple and incredible in performing the one task they were meant for, but they didn’t test boundaries or break ground on their own.

We made our way down to the third floor before stopping to rest.  We approached a window at the end of one hallway and peeked out.

Peace.  Conflict hadn’t broken out.  Stitched were parked and waiting, out of sight from the building Mauer was supposedly in.  Squadrons and soldiers were ready, and any number of vans had warbeasts waiting within.  Custom made for this task.

Shirley took a seat further down the hallway, staying clear of the window, giving us some space.

“I gave them direction on what to do to corner Mauer,” I said.  “A lot of those same tools, they won’t really slow me down.  Warbeasts that make disruptive noise, stitched that explode into clouds of poison gas, parasites, stitched that run fast…”

“What can you do about stitched that run fast?”

“Stitched that are new and heavily modified?  They won’t have the same programming or alterations that advanced stitched do.  The old weaknesses-”

“Weaknesses hold.  I get it.  Fire.”

“I don’t anticipate a problem.  That said, I didn’t expect you two to be along for the whole thing.  You’re not immune in the same ways.”

“We’re not,” Jamie said.  “I was watching everyone come and go.  I have a pretty good idea of where our enemies are.  I wish that meant I could see a good way out and away.  But they really want Mauer dead.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “That’s a thing.  I investigated about what Emmett said.  Gomorrah.  Dead end.  Then I sort of told the Infante that Mauer was also chasing the Gomorrah thing, which he was, and I sort of hinted that Mauer didn’t reach a dead end.”

“And that relates to them really wanting Mauer dead.  There’s something to this?”

“There’s a lot to this,” I said.  I exhaled.  “It’s nice to be able to talk about it, finally, work it out with a set of listening ears to help me figure it out.”

Another vehicle parked outside.  The guy driving it looked like military, and the stitched horse looked sturdier than the usual.  The vehicle probably held another squad of soldiers within.

Jamie glanced back over his shoulder at Shirley, who had her shoes off and was rubbing her feet.  “The Gomorrah thing.  I talked to Emmett about it.  The missing children.  The Academy takes them.  Auctions them off as prime material for experiments?”

I gestured to him and myself, then back again.  “Prime material.  But, there’s more to it.  Because when someone like Mauer or Fray dig too deep, then the Crown steps in, and all possible evidence gets removed.  A hundred or more people killed, Academy asset and child alike, to silence something on a scale and level that the Academy wouldn’t normally care that much about.”

“More than a hundred?” Jamie asked.

“Hard to count.  I’d like you to visit the location with me, if they don’t erase it completely.  Your brain would be admirably suited to the task of deciphering that particular mess.”

“I’d be happy to lend my brain.”

“It’s a good brain,” I said.

I wanted to get the banter going again.  I wanted to find our stride, much as we’d had it before.

When it came to the task at hand, at least, we were more or less on the same page.  It was in the easy companionship that trust had been more or less broken.

This wasn’t easy.

“I keep wanting to joke or poke fun at you,” I said, staring out of the window.

“Joking and poking fun is good.”

“Or make witty remarks, or tease, or pick on you.”

“Sure,” Jamie said.

“And when I could bind up my brain and keep things neatly boxed up and organized… that was doable.  And it felt normal and friendly.”

“What does it feel like now?”

“Less normal and friendly,” I said.  “When I want normal and friendly.  I don’t want to give the wrong ideas or trigger some bad reflex.”

“It’s fine, Sy,” Jamie said.

“No, it really isn’t.”

“We can talk about it later.  I do want to have a discussion.  Put this to rest, maybe.”

“It’s not something that lends itself to rest, because it’s not a dilemma that can be reconciled or fixed, don’t you get it?” I asked.  “And it’s not fine either.  You do realize that the first time we had a serious talk on the subject, the first Jamie went and disappeared forever?  Then the second time we had a serious talk on it, I went and almost disappeared forever?”

“I realize.”

“You’re my friend.  And I want that, it’s good and you’re a good person and… I need to find out where the lines are drawn, and so long as there’s this part of me that’s afraid of stepping too far and saying something and triggering that reflex or opening the box that should not be opened… I know I screwed up, Jamie.  You know that, right?  I’m sorry too?”

“It was mucky.  But really, it’s something to be talked about later.”

“I’m afraid of overstepping and I’m afraid of understepping.  I don’t want to be reserved and holding back, because what we need, especially here, surrounded, with so much at stake, is we need to dance.  To move in sync.”

“And there’s no sync,” Jamie said.  He sighed.

“I’m worried there isn’t, or it won’t be there when it counts,” I said.  “Gut feeling, is all.”

“Gut feelings are important, but-”

“Jamie,” I said.  I had to pause, find the phrasing.  “I put a lot of myself into figuring out how to work with the other Lambs.  You included.  Those gut feelings, there’s an awful lot of foundation they’re rooted in.  A lot more on the gut, a little less on the feeling.”

Jamie drew in a deep breath, then sighed.

“Stakes are high, situation is dangerous, there’s no easy exit with this many people packed into the area, and the fact is, we have to figure this out.  The inability to banter properly is a symptom of a larger problem.  One that will see us killed or captured within the hour if we don’t resolve it.”

“Yeah,” Jamie said.  “That’s fair.”

“I’m just saying, if there’s talking to do, maybe we talk it out before we tackle this,” I said, gesturing at the window.

As if prompted by the gesture, a bird flew past the window.

A very large bird.

“Shit on a mad bat,” I said, stepping back from the window.  Jamie mirrored me, backing away.  “Shoes on, Shirley.”

“What was that?” Jamie asked.

“That would be the Falconer’s bird,” I said.  “A pet of one of the Infante’s charges.”

“Ah,” Jamie said.  “Shitty bat indeed.”

The bird flew past the window again.

“Confirms it, that.  She knows where we are,” I said.  “And she will be harder to slip away from than the spike beasts.”

“Noted,” Jamie said.  He was frowning.

“What are you thinking?” I asked.

“I was thinking it would be better to run than to fight this one, but I’m not seeing a good avenue to run.”

“I came to that conclusion forever ago, way before we jumped from the rooftop,” I said.  “It’s why I said I wanted to do this.  See it through.”

Jamie had the decency to look annoyed.

“You did that because you wanted to,” he told me.  “Not because you saw a lack of options.”

“That’s a pack of lies,” I told him, trying to be lighthearted, feeling the gap between us in the process.

“Conversations and figuring out your motives back there are going to have to wait,” Jamie commented.

“Sure,” I said.  “Nobles incoming.  Probably.”

“Probably.  With that in mind, how do you feel about being bait?”

“Do I ever say no to being bait?” I asked.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Thicker than Water – 14.12

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

She’d cracked the whip.  Now the whipped were working the way they were supposed to.

The collected stitched were being modified, surgically outfitted with contained bladders, flesh added to encapsulate these growths and other internal structures given to allow the growths to be triggered remotely.  Arandt was handling the mental programming so that hearing the right word would prompt the bladders to burst and the pressured gas within to be released.  He was nearly done the batch of stitched, tying a purple ribbon around the arm of each stitched that was primed and ready.  Once they were filled with gas, the ribbons were replaced with other colors.

The warbeasts had already been handled.  Other gas canisters were being loaded and prepared.

The work had gone on all through the night.  But for a detour where Evette had escorted Shirley to her own quarters, lending her bed to the exhausted young woman, Evette had spent the night awake, watching, and thinking.

The chatter of the Lambs was a constant background noise.  Slowly, things had taken shape.

Mauer’s men had taken the paper that had the ‘shape’ of the man’s agenda on it.  Not too important.  Her focus over the course of the evening had been to recreate it, and figure out the general shape of the Infante’s plans.

She watched as the doctors pumped stitched full of flammable methane instead of gas.  The labels had been changed around, the canisters moved.  The trap was set and primed, just a short distance from her.

There was a knock on the door.  It didn’t surprise her in the slightest.

“Come in,” Kinney said.  She looked considerably worse for wear after her poisoning.  A little bent, a little worn around the edges, her eyes rimmed with red and then by further dark circles.  She’d showered and changed into fresh clothes and a black lab coat, but fat had been stripped from the bone, metaphorically speaking.  The makeup rinsed off, the little touches of style gone.  Only the hardness and faint hint of madness that any professor needed to make it this far, now.

Evette didn’t recognize the man in the black coat who entered the room, but she did find him a very interesting person.  He was a professor by rank, and had an emblem on his sleeve she didn’t recognize.  Between the decoration and the way he’d styled his hair and the fine clothes he wore beneath his coat, she knew he was someone with money to fritter away.

Infante, she thought.

“The Infante will be here in a moment,” the man announced.  “Please ensure that you are not busy and that there will be no interruptions during his visit.”

“Yes sir,” Kinney said.  Arandt’s voice echoed hers by only a moment.

She had anticipated the visit.  She had also wondered how it would be approached; it was folly to enter any lab without warning about one’s presence.  Some work wasn’t to be interrupted at all, and even a knock was a grave mistake that could get people killed.

Yet, at the same time, to knock was to ask permission.  Nobles did not ask permission.

To send a delegate was one of the two way she had reasoned the Infante would make his entrance.

The doors in this building were large, reinforced, and heavy.  It took some effort for the fancy man in the black lab coat to position himself where he could see down the hall and still hold the door partially open.

After several long seconds, he moved back, opening the door wider, and knelt, still holding it open.

The Infante was large enough that he almost couldn’t pass through the door.  Kinney and Arandt had already stepped away from their work, dropping into deep bows, so they were already bent low as the Infante entered.

They bowed even lower as he passed through the threshold, to the point that it had to be painful.

As the Infante turned her way, Evette was sure to bow as well, hopping down from the table, timing it so she was lowering herself into the deepest part of her bow as he set his eye on her.

“Give a man free rein, and his actions soon reveal a great deal about him,” the Infante said.

“Yes, Lord Infante,” Evette said.

“How are things progressing?”

“Quite well, Lord Infante,” she said.  “I think we’re one or two hours from being finished.”

Likely two to three hours, but it was good to crack that whip a little more.

“You were gone for some time yesterday.”

“Yes, my lord,” she said.  “I was looking for Mauer.”

She’d realized, on seeing her tail, that she was being followed.  Since leaving the Infante’s company, she had likely been followed by one of his people or experiments.  On leaving Mauer’s company, Mauer would have his own spies on her.  That was, if he hadn’t already been keeping an eye out from the moment she’d been taken off the train by the group of young nobles.

“Do tell.”

“I’m sure the others told you about my heart problem, Lord Infante,” she said.  “I tried to get closer to Mauer and dialogue with him, using our… pre-existing relationship, if you will.  It could have gone better.”

“I asked you to kill Mauer, and gave you resources to handle the task.  Yet you ‘dialogue’ with the man.”

“Yes, Lord Infante.  For my plan to work, I needed to position him.  Left alone, he’ll carry on doing what he’s been doing.  Every time the Lambs have dealt with him, he’s been careful in how he positions himself.”

“So I have seen.”

Evette nodded.  “He treats these things like a game of chess.  No piece can be taken without retaliation or consequence.  It goes for everything from the lowliest pawn to the rooks, knights, hunters, to the king and queen.  But he and I have faced off.  It goes hand in hand with his plans being disrupted.  Tell a man you have a gun pointed at his privates, and even if he knows your hands should be empty, he’ll want to be sure, because he values his privates.  He’ll betray a glance, or move to better protect his privates from this phantom bullet.  By showing myself and invading Mauer’s inner sphere, I can make him wonder at his plans.  He’ll betray some subtle clue that lets me see what he’s really doing.  And he did.”

The Infante was unreadable.  She had to fight to suppress her fears and worries.  Everything was so precarious in the here and now.  Which was exactly why the Infante was here, and why she’d been so sure he would reveal himself.

“What did you dialogue about?” the Infante finally asked.

“We didn’t, Lord Infante,” she lied.  The lie made her already precarious position feel even more so.  “I was bludgeoned in the head and imprisoned in a bathroom.  I tried to escape and was summarily impaled through the heart and neck.  But I had sources that informed me what Mauer was up to, I was able to catch his attention before I bled out.  He opted to keep me alive.  But they made the mistake of trying to drug me.  It didn’t work.  I was able to slip away.”

“How fortuitous,” the Infante said.

He doesn’t believe me?  Or is he being droll?

Evette and the Lambs had rehearsed this conversation a hundred times over the course of the night.  Various permutations, likely scenarios and points to cover.  The Infante scared her like nothing else did, because he could so easily destroy her.  Physically, taking away the things she valued, changing her circumstance, or crushing her psychologically.  Worse, he could do it all with no effort at all.

She still wasn’t sure how to handle this.  She bowed deeper, remaining silent.

“You have a sense of what Mauer is doing and where he is, then.”

“Yes, Lord Infante.”

“That is a statement that invites answer.  Do not toy with me,” the Infante said.  “You know what I expect.”

“Yes, Lord Infante, but I can’t provide the answers you want without putting myself in danger.”

Anyone else might hear what she was saying and jump to a conclusion.  That she’d betrayed him, that her dealings with Mauer were less than genuine.

How the Infante reacted would be telling.

“Then come,” the Infante said.  “This way.”

His hand was extended, ushering her forward.

She straightened, collected the satchel with the ticking heart in it, and bowed her head slightly as she moved past him.  The hand he extended to her left served to set her path for her, palm out and angled so as to indicate the door.

Out into the hallway.

The Infante must have signaled his personal professor, because the man shut the door behind them.

There were no people out in the hallway.  The fact that the Infante had come this way meant that people weren’t permitted to use the corridor.  Subordinates had no doubt limited passage and access.  The hallway was long, wide, and decorated well with fine art along the one wall, above and to either side of doors that led into individual labs.  On the other wall, there were windows that pulsed faintly in time with the movement of the fluids between them.  Each pane and fragment of glass was surrounded by vein-like growths.  Something between stained glass, a broken window, and a living thing.

Pillars were set at regular intervals along that one side of the hallway, and it was one of these pillars that Evette was pushed up against, as the Infante scooped her up off the ground and shoved her back, pinning her into place.

He didn’t give a rationale.  He didn’t explain why he was doing this.  He saw fit to crush her, and there was little she could do.

She didn’t fight.  She simply felt her much abused neck and throat constrict fraction by fraction in his grip, and she hung limp, working to meet his eyes.

“Wretched creature,” the Infante spoke.  “If you think that my pity for your circumstance will spare you, you are wrong.  If you think your audacity entertains me and that I might enjoy you too much to kill you, you are wrong.”

Evette managed a nod, despite the meaty two fingers and thumb that encircled her neck.

He dropped her, and she made something of a point of collapsing onto the floor rather than landing on her feet.  He would like, even on the smallest, most insignificant level, that she was prostrate before him.

“I hope, for your sake, that whatever it is you were afraid of speaking of is something you can tell me here, in private, and not something you’re unwilling to divulge altogether.”

“Mauer’s plans and activity, Lord Infante?”


She swallowed hard.  “He took me to Gomorrah, my lord.”

“Gomer’s Island.”

“Yes, Lord Infante.  Gomer’s Island.”

“The place is often said to be a bastion for the religious and the rebellious in the Crown States.  Mauer’s like are often at home there.”

“So it is said, my lord,” Evette said.

Her response was coded, much as the Infante’s statement had been.  Talking about something without admitting or pointing to it.

Gomer’s island was far from being a bastion.

The Infante hadn’t replied to her, and she suspected his patience was running low.  He wasn’t invested in her fate, and if she failed to justify her continued existence, he would kill her and carry on with the remainder of his day, likely not giving her a second thought.

She wasted no time in sharing, “Lord Infante, he brought me there, drugged, with the intention of finishing me off, I think.  A hidden area within Gomer’s Island.  From the way he talked to his lieutenants, and from what I was able to infer…”

Something had shifted in the mood.  She couldn’t put her finger on it, but she sensed that what she said here could see her killed for entirely different reasons.  The Crown had killed a great many people to silence whoever had been at that location and keep any secrets they held.

“…My Lord, he’s as dangerous as I’ve ever seen him.  When he was at Radham, the very first time I saw him, and he addressed the crowd, he was fire, he was intense, he was taking the first concrete steps in carrying out a greater plan, and there was no sign of anything coming to stand in his way.  The Lambs hadn’t yet made their move.  What I saw, yesterday evening, there was a similar look in his eye, but it wasn’t that newly kindled fire.”

“Dispense with the poetry,” the Infante said.

Evette stared at the noble’s feet, still on her hands and knees.  “Lord Infante, that was the beginning of what he was trying to do.  Four years ago.  My mistake in dealing with him was in thinking he wanted or needed me.  But he’s close enough to the end, or a end, that he didn’t want me around to interfere with what he’s setting in motion.”

She waited, tense in mind and stomach, while she tried to keep the tension from showing in her arms, legs, shoulders, or back.  She couldn’t give the Infante anything that might suggest she was being deceptive.

“If he truly believes he’s close to any measure of victory, then he’ll be gravely disappointed,” the Infante said.

“If you say it is so, Lord Infante, then it’s so, and I feel sorry for the man,” Evette said.

She wondered for a moment if she’d pushed it too far.  If she came across as disingenuous.

Then again, whether she came across as Evette or as Sylvester, she sounded disingenuous when she was being genuine.

“Feel sorry for him indeed.  Mauer has set himself up to fail,” the Infante said.  “Still, I’ll be happy to see him die, so long as he has the guns and the will to face down the Crown and Academy both.  Carry on with what you’re doing.  I’ll send my doctor to you in two hours, with every expectation that you’ll be ready to act.”

“Yes, Lord Infante,” Evette said.

“Stand,” the Infante said.

“As you wish, my lord.”  Evette stood.

The man’s large hand reached down, and it brushed her hair out of her face.  Sylvester’s hair out of his face, to be fair.  The act made the angle of her head change, so she looked up at him.

He stared down at her with those eyes that were far too sharp for his massive, bulky frame.  It felt like he saw straight through her.

“Hm,” he said.

With that, he turned his back to her and started walking down the hall.  Raising his voice enough to be heard, he said, “Sir Charles.”

The door opened.  The well-dressed professor stepped outside, closing the door behind him, gave Evette a glance, and then walked briskly in the direction of the Infante, who was already a fair distance down the hall.

By the time they had reached the end of the long, straight hallway, Evette had surrounded herself with Lambs.

That was interesting,” Jamie said.

“Dangerous as all hell,” Gordon said.  “That nobleman does not like being lied to, and you lied through your teeth for most of that, Evette.”

Evette was silent, watching the Infante’s back.

“But you shook him,” Gordon said.  “You got his attention.”

Evette nodded, to Gordon and to herself.

“Was he telling the truth?” Mary asked.  “About this being something so dangerous and problematic that it might hurt Mauer?  Hurt us?”

“It’s not out of the question,” Gordon said.  “It’s equally possible we spooked him, and he played it cool.  More possible even.”

“Look at how he acted in the past,” Jamie said.  “He’s always been impervious, untouchable, unmovable.  He’s powerful in a way that, when we imagine him dealing with the Duke, it’s a power difference as vast as the one between the Duke and ordinary civilians.  Maybe not quite that extreme, but…”

“He moved,” Gordon said.  “He reacted, took an extreme stance, then course corrected.”

Evette stood in the hallway, thinking, letting the Lambs talk, while she waited for her thoughts to stop racing, badly out of sync with the tick of her temporary heart, which wanted so badly to beat madly in response to her fear.

Which was as good a reminder as any.

She made her way back into the lab.

“I thought you’d died,” Kinney said.

“What a shame.  I’m still alive.  Now, we’re working with a set deadline.  The poisonous gas needs to be prepped, and then there are the parasites.  Where are we with the fisteria?”

“Another lab is handling it,” Arandt said.  “We still need to test it.”

“That’s fine.  What about the fast moving stitched?”

“Handled, and already loaded into a wagon, ready to be brought wherever we need them.”

“Excellent.  We have two hours.”

“We need three,” Kinney said.

“The Infante gave us two.”

“Because of what you said, earlier,” Kinney said.  The look in her eyes.  It was tantalizing.  Pure, utter, abject hatred for Evette.

“Figure it out.  And while you’re at it, we’ll need this heart issue sorted out.  Fix my heart, so I don’t need this ticker.”

“You’re joking.”

Evette shook her head, her expression serious.

“I’ll reach out to someone.  I know someone who is good with this sort of thing.  And you can go fuck yourself for making me take the time to do that.”

“I want you to do the surgery,” Evette said.

Kinney stared at her.  The hatred took on a new dimension.

“You little bastard,” Professor Kinney said, “Are you aware I despise you?  That I actually want to see you dead?  You’re putting your very heart into my hands?”

“I’m aware,” Evette said.  “I’m also aware that you know the stakes better than anyone.  If another doctor made a mistake, they’d be more likely to get away with it.  But a failure on the part of someone invested in all of this, letting me die, when the Infante clearly prefers me alive?  No.  He would not abide such failure.”

“Clear a space on the counter,” Kinney said.  “Lie down.  If we’re going to have to do this, we might as well start sooner than later, so I can focus on what I need to.  With luck, you’ll be sore and tired enough that I don’t have to put up with you for a solid hour to an hour and a half.”

Evette smiled.

This made for her second trip to Gomorrah in the span of a day.  She rode in a nondescript carriage, one that could have belonged to any civilian in the city, and she rode in the company of twelve stitched, arranged in rank and file, in an interior that had only two seats.

She held Shirley’s hand, unsure of what to say or do.

She recognized the colors the stitched wore.  The red and purple ribbons on their left arms were supposed to mean the gas would create ringing in people’s ears.  To Evette and her future victims, it meant ‘methane’.  Explosive.

The stitched themselves were flammable.  The other gases had trace amounts of methane in them, and, from what she had been able to reason, wouldn’t stifle the rolling explosion when the time came.

For now, they smelled like burned air and formaldehyde, and their presence made the interior of the carriage oven-like, to the point that the glass of the windows was fogging up.  The outside was wet, with pouring rain, but it was as hot a day as she had ever experienced, all the same.  It was unbearable, and she suspected this was a punishment.  Chances were good that Kinney had called in a favor, to ensure that the higher-ups that were managing the distribution of forces put Evette in with the stitched.

Other vehicles would be moving into the neighborhood by other routes, by meandering paths, all with the same location in mind.

Mauer was supposed to be here.  If he wasn’t, it would at least be a collection of his soldiers, all gathered in one place.

The moment the vehicle slowed, she reached for the door, opening it, and let herself out, pulling Shirley after her.  She had to jog, then walk briskly to keep up with it, following it to the destination.

Further down the street, another carriage door opened.  A man stepped out.  Skinny, with longer hair than was conventional, and a ragged, unkempt beard.

But Evette could tell that the man had a gun, and she suspected that any one of Mauer’s men with binoculars would be able to tell, too.

He knew his way around guns, from the way he wore his, which suggested a soldier, but he’d worn a gray lab coat when she had first been introduced to the man, which suggested a doctor.  His unkempt appearance suggested something else altogether.

She assessed him as a damaged, curious man who looked enough like someone non-Crown and non-Academy to blend in.  So he’d been promoted.  He served a role here.

Part of that role was to wrangle her.

“Sylvester?” the man asked.  “And companion?”

Evette gave him a nod.

He gave them a once-over.  Evette had left her shirt unbuttoned, so it wouldn’t rub up against the fresh scar across her chest.  The scar was ‘Y’ shaped.  Kinney had a sense of humor.  The scar drew attention.

Shirley drew more, and Evette was grateful for that.

“I’m Lou,” the man said.  “And I hope the person who did those stitches was a first year student, and not anyone with a coat.”

“Black coat.”

He frowned a little.

“I made an enemy of her,” Evette clarified.

“I suppose that’s alright then.  What are you up to, outside of that carriage?” he asked, as she drew nearer.

“I’m getting some fresh air while I look for a vantage point.  Someplace high up.”

“High up is dangerous, and makes it slow to move around.”

“Fast to move around when you fall,” Evette said, giving the man a smile.

Lou made a bit of a face, then said, “Alright.  While you’re looking, you’ll want to know what you’re keeping an eye on.  Look past my right shoulder.  You’ll see a collection of buildings with a sign on one face.”

The buildings were red brick.  The branches that grew along the side of them grew in such a way that they followed the rigid lines set out by the mortar, zig-zagging and very inorganic.  The sign, faded, had once been painted but now peeled.  It had had a woman on it, once, but now only had a blob that suggested an hourglass figure.

The faceless, blurred image struck a chord in Evette, so similar to the broken Lambs that shadowed her now.  So did the hourglass, suggesting the deadline, the time limit.

“We’re using all of the resources you suggested,” Lou said.  “All from multiple directions.  It’ll be some time before we act.  You said he might spot us before we get everything in place?”

“He might.”

“Let’s hope he doesn’t.  We’ve got three nobles overseeing things, but they’re keeping their heads down.”

“Three?  Montgomery?”

“I don’t know who, exactly, except that the young First is nearby.  Be mindful.”

The First.  The Ogre.  August.

Evette nodded.  She was already soaked from the rain, and it did nothing to mitigate the heat of the outside.  It helped rinse the smell of formaldehyde from her, if nothing else.

She surveyed the area, picked a tall building, and let herself inside.

This was it.  The pieces were being put into place.  She would need to survey the arrangement before she made any calls, decided to pull the pin, and blow it all up.

“You’re playing with fire, you know,” Gordon said, as she reached the stairwell.  “You’ll go to pieces when it counts.”

She ignored him.

“We’re too slow,” Jamie said.  “You can emulate Sylvester given time to tackle things as a general problem, but it’s clunky, flawed, and when you try to handle too much and let it all pile up too much, it can be too great of a burden.  That’s when you crack at the foundation.”

It was true.  But what else was there to do?  Evette picked up the pace, moving up the steps doubletime.

“We’re all twisted up,” Helen said, hands on her hips.  “Wearing a mask.  You know you’re not Evette, you’re just Sy, burying the monster inside, and you’re not doing a very good job of hiding it, mister.”

Her heart hurt.  It had been fixed and glued together, with strips of something or other worked in there to patch it up.  It beat in time with her feelings, now, but it had been abused in the surgery, and the meds that were supposed to temper the pain weren’t as effective when Sylvester was as drug resistant as he was.

“You’re all tangled up,” Mary said.  “The Infante thinks he’s the one pulling your strings, setting you up so you hurt Mauer more than you hurt him, or you remove yourself as a problem.  Mauer thinks he’s got you on his side, working on this conspiracy with Gomorrah, that you hate the Crown and Academy more than you dislike him.  But the only sure thing here is that the weapons you’re deploying are double-edged ones.  The only guarantee is that you’ll hurt yourself.”

She couldn’t maintain the pace of taking the stairs two at a time.  She slowed, and she hated that she slowed.

She rounded the bend in the stairs, moving up, because the Lambs liked being up high, looking down, working their way from an advantageous position to a more secure, familiar one.

“Sy?” Shirley asked.

“I’m losing my mind, Shirley.  I’m not really Sylvester, anymore.  I’m sorry I dragged you with me.”

“I don’t understand.  What happened?”

“For all of my life, or the only years of my life that really counted, I’ve taken a drug, to make me adapt, to make me change.  It makes me liquid, they call it.  So that I can fit myself to a situation, learn new skills as I need them, forget skills and habits as I need to forget them.”

“I know that much,” she said.

“But in molding myself, I made myself fit to the group, to the Lambs.  I fit the void that was left when two of the Lambs that were supposed to exist ceased to be.  As the Lambs fell away, were wiped blank or killed, I spread myself thinner, to fill those gaps.  I couldn’t keep to that.  So I broke away.  Left them.  Jamie followed.”

They reached the top of the next flight of stairs.

August was there.  With a group of soldiers gathered around him.  He wore a suit jacket with long sleeves, shorts, and high socks, and he had a menacing aura to put any warbeast to shame.

Evette and Shirley bowed, before retreating further up the stairs.

“So long as I had Jamie, I could remember what the other Lambs looked like.  How they acted.  But we fell out.  A lot of things fell out.  And now there’s a kernel of doubt because I’m not sure I can remember any of the faces.”

Evette continued, with more energy now, because if she stopped, then Shirley would say something, and she didn’t want Shirley to interrupt.

“I get a glimmer, like the memory is there, the face is accurate, and then I question it.  I wonder if it’s because I want to see them all so badly that I’m filling in the gaps wrong.  I’m worried I’m going to pursue a fiction, build lies upon lies, so I pull back, and the doubt keeps getting bigger.  I’m not seeing their faces in my head anymore because I won’t let myself.  I’m not seeing my face anymore.”

“No falling out is worth this,” Shirley said.

“No,” Evette agreed.

“Then stop this?  Because you’re frightening me.  Can’t we go back?”

“If I go back, they might not be there.”

“But they might be,” Shirley said.  “Or Jamie might be.”

Evette wasn’t articulate enough to answer just why that spooked her.  She only shook her head.

Her heart hurt so badly, even with just the brisk ascent.

But if she slowed, then she might have to slow further, later.  If she slowed further, she might have to stop.

A direct answer to Shirley’s statement wasn’t possible, but she was able to say, “Things are in motion already.  The pawns set in place.  The only thing needed is a word, and then a match.  Or a spark.  Between the weapons we’re using to weaken Mauer and our makeshift bomb in the midst of the Academy’s ranks, combined with territory as neutral as any we’ll find in New Amsterdam… it should be bloody on both sides.”

“All three sides, you mean,” Shirley said.  “We’re a side, aren’t we?”

Evette smiled.

“That’s not supposed to put a smile on your face,” Shirley said.

“I’m smiling because you’re clever,” Evette said.  “I respected you in the first place because you were clever.  You just needed confidence.  I wish I’d done better by you.  I should have left you behind.”

“I’d feel glad I came along, if only because I was able to change your mind about all of this,” Shirley said.  “But I don’t know that I can?”

She’d made it a question.  Or she’d made it a plea.

Evette wasn’t sure which.

“If nothing else, let’s make sure we have a view,” Evette said.

Shirley didn’t say anything as they made their way up two more flights of stairs.

Evette stopped in her tracks as she was confronted with two more Lambs.

Jamie and Lillian, together, standing at the top of the next flight of stairs, staring her down.  Their backs weren’t turned.  Their expressions weren’t happy.

“Poison and fire,” Evette said, walking up the stairs, toward the pair.

She walked past them, and onto the roof proper.  The walk up the stairs had been enough for her to almost start to dry off.  In the downpour of warm water, she was quickly drenched again.

Shirley hung back, keeping to the shelter afforded by the doorway that led down to the stairwell and building interior.

Evette spread her arms, taking in the scene, while letting the rain soak her.  She knew she presented a good target for one of Mauer’s shooters, and that she risked tipping him off.  She suspected -or the phantom Lambs suspected, after a full night of deliberation- that Mauer wouldn’t run, and that Mauer wouldn’t shoot.

Mauer had other things to focus on.  Enemies of a less ambiguous sort.

“Sylvester,” the voice came from behind her.

She turned.  She was close enough to the ledge that she could have slipped and tipped over.

Jamie.  Jamie with a face, rain streaking his glasses.

“I thought you’d come back here at some point,” Jamie said.  “I staked out the area.  Saw the people and carriages moving in unusual ways.”

“You’ve been following me,” Evette accused.

“Of course!” Jamie said, with uncharacteristic intensity.  He drew closer, and she moved, almost to back up, except that would have meant stepping back and into the void.  She moved to the side instead, maintaining the distance between them.

“Good,” she said.  She nodded to herself.  “Good.  Take Shirley.  Then go.”

“Only if you come with.”

“I’m seeing this through.  It’s meaningless and petty if I’m not here to take action.  I have to hurt them, cripple both sides, and then step in.  Surgical strikes.”

“I know, Sy.  We talked about this for months on end.  But you know that we planned something bigger than this.  It was supposed to be more elegant.”

“I memorized the keywords.  Lipreading.  I know how to control the stitched.  The soldiers and doctors are the only concern, and I have ideas for dealing with them.  I can take August hostage.  Take the Ogre.”

“You could, I’m not denying that you’re theoretically capable.”

“It’s the same it was when we fought the Baron.  Just need to arrange things, set the tone, I can make this elegant.”

“You can.  But will you?  Will it really work out that way?  Sylvester, I want you to stop.  Take your mind off the mission for a moment.  Listen to me.”

Evette scowled.  She glanced over her shoulder, at the scene below.

Listen, damn it,” Jamie said.

He stepped closer.  Again, Evette circled around to one side.

If she just got a little closer to the stairwell, she could make a break for it.

Or to the side of the building.  She could see where Jamie had looped the rope and slid down.  He must have been on a different building, had seen her enter the building below, and moved over while she climbed the stairs.  She could use that same rope to descend.

“I’m sorry,” he said.  “I’m just- I’m sorry.  At Corinth, I was hurt.  I handled that badly.  I gave you the wrong impressions, I asked you to live up to unfair expectations.”

She was close to being able to make a run for downstairs.  She walked slowly, measuring her steps, avoiding looking at Jamie directly.

“I knew you were hurting and lost from what had just happened with Lillian, and I pressured you.  I want you to know, when I came looking for you in Tynewear, my feelings for you weren’t a factor.  I said that because I was hurt, I wanted to make it clear that my feelings were real, so I exaggerated, I…”

He raised his hands, then let them flop to the side.

“I was running away, in my own way.  Bending the truth, to try and make things clearer, while not having to be honest.”

Evette paced.

“Give me back the Sylvester that doesn’t get innuendo.  Who pokes fun at me, and who I can poke fun at in return.  The guy who makes me tea and who I can listen to music with.  Give me back the guy I can scheme with, as we figure out how to take on the most powerful people on this side of the ocean.  We can conquer the world together.  All of the rest of it, any other feelings, they’re unimportant noise.  Give me back my friend.”

She could hear the hoarse note in his voice.

“Please,” Jamie said, for emphasis.

She reached for her belt.  She found the gas canister.

Something to cover her retreat.

She unclipped it from her belt, pulling the pin with her thumb in the same motion.

Stepping out from the doorway, reaching out, Shirley seized her by the wrist, holding that same arm firm, keeping Evette from throwing.

The canister, still firmly clasped in one hand, began spewing gas.  Evette waited patiently for the gas to force Shirley to back away, to release her.

“Drop it,” Shirley said.  “And listen to him.”

Evette didn’t move.  Jamie watched all of this, silent.

“Drop it,” Shirley said.

She pressed the sharp point of a scalpel into Evette’s back.  When Evette didn’t react, the scalpel drove in a little deeper.

The canister fell from Evette’s hand.  Shirley kicked it over the edge of the roof.

A long moment passed.

“That was silly,” Evette said.  She jerked her arm, but Shirley didn’t release it.  “Now they know where we are.  You just tipped off both sides of the conflict down there.”

“Good,” Shirley said.  “It’s better than what was going to happen.”

“If Sylvester is buried too deep,” Jamie said, as if all of this hadn’t transpired.  “Give me the chance to do what he did for me.  Give me a bit of time, to help him forge a new identity and piece himself back together…”

He paused.

“…I really hope it doesn’t come to that, though.”

Evette wrenched her arm, trying to twist it free of Shirley’s grip.  In the process, Shirley wrapped her arms around Evette’s arms and upper body, in a tight bear hug.

Evette struggled and failed to break free.

“They’re coming,” she said.  “Every second you waste here, you’re bringing the bayonets and the rifles closer to us.”

“That’s fine,” Jamie said.  “I’m here.  You’re not going to get rid of me this time.”

Evette shook her head.  “Nothing’s been fixed.  We’re just going back to the same bad situation.”

“It’s fine.  We can figure it out together, Sy.  Whether it’s the people marching up those stairs or a tricky friendship dynamic.  Just so long as neither of us run away anymore.”

“You keep doing that,” she said.

“Doing what?”

“Calling me Sy.  You call yourself my friend.  But the Infante was able to figure something was up, you know.  Mauer was able to figure it out, that I wasn’t Sylvester.  But you pretend to know me, and you missed it.”

She made it a needling comment.  A jab.

“Because they’re the ones who are wrong,” Jamie said.  “Understand?  You’re you.”

She shook her head.  Smirked.

“Then look me in the eye, Sylvester.  Tell me that.  Use your devastating skills at deception, lie to my face.  Or show me you’re really not Sy and be genuinely honest.  Either way works.”

Reluctantly, she looked up at Jamie.

Sylvester’s best friend.

“The good moments,” the words came reluctantly, “The high points, they’re always met by falls.  Pain.  Loss.”

“Yeah,” Jamie said.  “I can see that.”

“I get attached to people and then watch them die one by one.”

“Yeah,” Jamie said.

“So if you say that you’re here to stay, you’d better not be lying.  You stick this through.  You’re not allowed to die.  Not before me.  No going blank, no fading away.”

“I promise,” Jamie said, with no hesitation.  “You’ll have to help me figure that one out, but I promise.”

That would have to be good enough.  It warranted a nod of acknowledgment.

“The Lambs.  They don’t get to die either.  We’ll have to figure that one out too.”

“Sure, Sy.”

I nodded.

“You can let me go, Shirley,” I said.

Jamie gave her a nod, and she released me.

I looked out over the city, then over at Jamie.

“This is a mess,” I said.


“I still want to see how much damage we can do in the midst of it,” I said.

He sighed audibly.

“Sure, Sy,” he said.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Thicker than Water – 14.11

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

We have nothing left to lose.

We always knew this time would come.

Wyvern takes a hold in the mind.  It leaves behind residue.  It collects in the body, stunting growth, taking resources away from other things, as the body heals, sequesters the toxins, and filters them.

Things are steadily lost and worn down.  With effort, with concentration, and with mindfulness, there’s a way to recover, to keep up.  Rebuild as things fall, with time and effort.  Keep the memories, the faces, the skills, the overall construction.  Practice, repetition, and care make much of it routine.

But the fact was that it was hard to rebuild faces when Sylvester didn’t want to face those same people.

Now the faces were slipping away, and it was getting harder to rebuild.

It had been in the cards from the beginning.  From the first time he had snuck a glance at his own file, he’d known what was in store for him.  He would be the last to expire, and it wouldn’t be by way of dying.

Sylvester’s memory had always been faulty, but it would get worse.  Accrued detritus would hit a critical mass in some lobe of his brain, and he would lose things.  It would be a steep drop, but it wouldn’t be a swift one.  Very different things.

He had decided, very early on, that he didn’t want his brain to be his undoing.  He’d made something of a decision around the time Mary had joined, and he’d made that a promise to himself at a later point.

It was around then that Sylvester had started to take on a different approach.  He’d always been willing to get hurt in the process of achieving goals, especially when it was something that could be readily mended.  Flesh was cheap, and experienced medical care could be bought in any back alley.  But he’d started to wrap his head around the future, the day his memories and thoughts started slipping.

He’d been eleven, around then.  Though he wasn’t wholly sure of that, anymore.  He’d never known his actual age, and, somewhere along the line, he’d started to realize the impact of Wyvern on his size, and he’d mentally adjusted his age.  He’d drawn comparisons between his behavior and thought processes off of Wyvern with that of other children he’d met, in the mice.

But he’d been in that vicinity.  Eleven.  Twelve.  Maybe thirteen.  Probably not.

Regardless, it was a young age to start thinking about how he was going to die, but he’d decided it would be in a blaze of glory.  Not a slow and lonely brain death.

He had refined a style.  He had made the moments of glory more important.  He had figured out tolerable risks and the ways to do the most damage.

On a level, during his extended winter and spring in Jamie’s company, they had been working on the task.  The blaze and the glory.

“We didn’t expect it to be this soon,” Evette said, to herself.

The borrowed shirt was far too large, and fell down around the knuckles of her hands even with the sleeves rolled up.  The weather was warm, the rain cold, and as the bag that she carried got soaked, she could feel her blood run cold.  Not because of any emotion, but because the external heart itself was getting cooler, because the tubes that ran into her body weren’t warmed by surrounding flesh.  It might have been only the difference of a degree, a degree and a half, but it could be felt in the areas where the tubes entered the body at the collarbone and beneath the ribs, much like how her hands felt cooler than the trunk of her body.

She could have caught or stolen a means of riding back to the Infante’s place, but too many things were about timing right now.  The countdown, Shirley, needing to set things up, needing to prepare herself and to prepare Sylvester…

The moment of glory was at hand.  She wouldn’t try to die, but if it happened, then it wouldn’t surprise her.

This was what she was for.

Helen, Mary, and Jamie had been recalled and were accounted for.  The edges were rough, the details unfinished, the complete pictures warped and tainted by subconscious thought and feeling, but they were there.

If she had another Lamb to

The walk gave her time to piece together others.

Gordon.  She put him together, piece by piece.  Hubris, too, not because he could contribute to any discussion or add anything particular, but for the sentiment.  He’d earned his place.

She had to work harder when it came to Lillian.  What had the others theorized?  That Lillian was Sylvester’s compassion, his ability to care?

Important, when it came to Shirley.  Even if it was only to have her there as a reminder, standing off to one side, her back forever turned.

She worked on the other Jamie, for much the same reason.  Because without him, she didn’t think about the dance, about cooperation.  Without the newer Jamie in his spectral, imagined form, she walked her path alone.

She walked alone regardless, whether she was missing Jamie as the spectre or the real Jamie.  It was only a question of degrees.

She developed Ashton, starting with the thoughts and feelings that went hand in hand with Ashton, the nascent foetus that had grown in the vat-like plant structure.  The rest of him grew and reached forth from that central point.

One by one, she collected each of the other Lambs, who she had known for such brief periods of time.

Then, all of that done in the course of an hour long walk, silent, staring only at the sidewalks and roads in front of her, her mind entirely elsewhere, rainwater soaking through cloth and flesh to the point that it felt like it saturated her bones, she had the Lambs start to talk.

Those things were all there.  The individual things that each of them represented.  They were accessible, even if the faces and fine details weren’t, even if the figures were bent in odd places or tattered or bloody.

Surrounded by her carnival of imagined Lambs, Evette had them babble, talking over one another, no one voice louder than the others.

The same tools were available, simply a little clumsier to access, slower to respond, while needing a little bit more effort before they cooperated or before any one thing could be dwelt on.

Evette let the chatter wash over her.  Her mind wandered, in a sense, but it wandered in a measured way.

“What are our priorities?” Gordon asked.

“Health,” Helen said.  “We’re literally heartbroken.  We need a doctor.”

“There’s no shortage of those in New Amsterdam,” Gordon said.

“We need an effective doctor who can treat us in time for us to get back to Shirley,” Helen said.  “That’s harder.”

“That’s harder,” Gordon said.  “Whatever happens, we’ll be expected to report to the Infante.  Harder still.”

“We can condense it,” the younger of the Jamies said.  “Turn two problems into one.  We go back, and we explain to the Infante…”

Evette navigated the crowd.  There were experiments being led around as pets.  Some were humanoid, others weren’t.  The night life was active, and the fact that she was still young, appearing as a boy no older than fourteen or fifteen, it drew odd looks.  The state of her clothes and the encrusted blood here and there probably didn’t help.

The others were still going on about the way to handle the discussion.  She paid enough attention to pick up the salient points.  As they got closer she would construct it into just enough of a plan that she knew what to do, without overdoing it to the point that she would collapse and go to pieces the moment the Infante did something unexpected.

Because that was a thing he did.

“Ashton?” Mary’s voice had a different tone, enough that it caught Evette’s ear.

Ashton, Lara, Nora, and Mary weren’t part of the ongoing conversation in any capacity.  No, they were focused on something else entirely.

There were any number of explanations as to what was going on there, but Evette had a sense of what it might be.  Detached observations, fear and concern, with an eye on the mission at hand.

She crossed the street at the next opportunity, not actively looking around, but still keeping an eye out with her peripheral vision.

Then, at that same intersection, she took another path to cross the street, still keeping something of an eye out.

“They’re experienced,” Mary said.  “Professional.  Watch the crowd.”

She didn’t watch the crowd, exactly, because looking directly at anyone would tip off the pursuer.  But she did pay attention to the directions they were looking.

The pursuer was positioned in such a way that they could watch, while using the crowd as cover.  But they weren’t invisible, and people glanced at them.

“Is it Mauer’s person, keeping an eye on you?” Lara asked.

“Is it the Infante’s spy, watching to see what we do?” Nora asked.

“Or are they going to hurt us?” Lara asked.

“Or kill us?”

“We’ll take precautions on those last two questions,” Evette said.  She turned away from the little cluster of people, so they weren’t even in her peripheral vision, and changed course.

“What about the first two questions?” Lara and Nora asked.

“I’m thinking on that,” Evette said.

“They weren’t flawless.  They didn’t blend in completely,” Mary said.  “They’d either bumped into someone, were being indiscreet about trying to look for Evette, or they were odd enough to draw the eye.  Possibly an experiment.  It’s possible they’re dangerous.  An assassin instead of a tail.”

The other Lambs commented.  Gordon, Jamie, Helen…

She took in the babble, and she started plotting, reconsidering old ideas, but now using the fact that they were being spied on and followed.

That was something they could use.

“We can make our move,” she said.

She had the attention of the assembled group.

“Let’s go back to our lab.”

There was no more room to stall, not any more.   Evette looked for a taxi carriage and flagged it down.

She had her Lambs, faceless and fading.

She had the means to lead some of her enemies around.

She only needed the tools to put everything to rest.

Evette climbed out of the cab.

“Hey!” the driver called out.  “You little bastard!”

Evette kept moving, turning to look at one of the guards near the entrance.  The man put a rifle out, blocking her path.

“I’m working for the Infante,” she said.  She glanced back at the cab driver.  “Pay the man.”

He didn’t move the rifle, but he didn’t stop her from moving it either.  She moved past the barrel, pushing it slightly out of the way, and then let herself into the building.

She was pleased that that had worked.  Pushing things a hair.  She would have to make her existence worth it for the Infante, to avoid owing any sort of debt for invoking the name.

On a level, she hoped that it would find its way back to the Infante.  That could be good.

The discussion of the others and her own trains of thought had left her with a diffuse, generalized sort of plan, less like an outline with neat arrows, and more like a pile of scraps of paper, with writing on each scrap.

Two dozen individual elements.  But she had to put it together, and it wouldn’t be a neat, seamless fit.

She made her way straight to the lab.  It was late, and there were less doctors about.  Here and there, doors were open, and doctors were sitting in groups, drinks in hand.  There wasn’t any roar of conversation – the doctors and staff had too much respect for the owner of the castle for that.  But there was a general hum of ambient noise that suggested that this place was alive – especially now that most of the doctors had headed back to individual quarters, permanent and temporary, and to sitting rooms and tea rooms.

She could smell cigarette smoke and the aroma of a few dozen open bottles and tumblers of nice whiskey and scotch.  She could hear music playing on machines, much like the machine Sylvester and Jamie had had at their place in Tynewear, all of similar types, all with the volume set low enough that it wouldn’t disturb others.

“I want to ask Sylvester what he thinks of this,” Duncan spoke.

Evette arched an eyebrow.  Duncan, of all people, was commenting.

“When Sylvester was studying drugs and poisons, we looked at some of the stimulants and narcotics out there.  The Academy-created superdrugs, remember?” Duncan asked.  “That would be your specialty, Evette.”

“I remember,” Evette murmured.

“There are drugs that give you drive.  A constant push.  They encapsulate that feeling of being captured by the moment, being on point, having all of the confidence in the world, the thrill and energy of being on the very cusp of obtaining what you want most in the world.  Stimulants, usually,” Duncan said.  “And there are the narcotics that encapsulate the feeling of being there.  Of having what you want most.  Of having stepped through the threshold, having achieved everything you want in life, of having everything you could desire.  That feeling of waking up in the morning with people you love sleeping next to you, the covers warm, the sun shining, with no worries on the horizon.  Or, at least, worries you can put out of mind.”

“Yes,” Evette said.  “And we’ve known people, we’ve known mice, who fell prey to both.”

“The Academy sells a drug to the students and doctors, in a figurative sense, don’t they?” Duncan asked.  “They create the need for the drive, and then they encourage it.  They create the need and then they’re really the only one who offer the supply for that need.”

“I don’t like that analogy,” Mary said.

“Why not?  Because it applies to you?”

“Because it applies to Lillian,” Mary said.

Exactly,” Duncan said.  “She does have that need.  None of you will argue that.  She needs her black coat.  When she achieves it, she’ll need to climb to the next rung of power.  But what happens in the long run, Evette?  Sylvester?”

“The same thing that happens to the junkies.  They hit the point where they can’t keep getting their supply, they destroy themselves, or they build up a tolerance and get dissatisfied-“

“And move on to something stronger.  Some people who use the stimulants, they really chase that feeling of being on the cusp of achieving, and then they switch over.  They want that feeling of having achieved.  Of having crossed that finish line.  I think I could be that person, easily,” Duncan said.  He gestured, and he drew in a deep breath.  “I could be here.  In the Academy’s equivalent of the narcotic.  Well past the finish line.  I could enjoy this.”

“You’re implying Lillian couldn’t.”

“Do you think she could?  Can you see her at home here?”

“There are other paths.  There are other places to go, that aren’t being at the right hand of the nobility.”

“There are,” Duncan said.  “Absolutely.”

“If you’re going to say something, then say it.”

“Lillian could run an Academy.  She could run the city that it is a part of, too.  But she’ll always want that challenge.  She’ll want to be on the brink.  It might even be a part of why she liked Sy.  The teasing.”

“That’s between her and Sylvester,” Mary said.

“Fine.  Fair.  But in terms of getting her fix, how does she carry that forward for the rest of her life?  Keep in mind, mind you,” Duncan raised a finger, while offering Evette a sad sort of smile, “that the Lambs will be gone by the time she gets that far.”

“Sylvester would say that he wanted her to become a champion.  To reach a certain point where she has her black coat, she has power, and she can start to change things.  Maybe in a small way, maybe in only a small area, but she’d have that power, and she could represent something better.”

“That’s what Sylvester would say.  How about you?” Duncan asked.

“I don’t know,” Evette said.

“She’s only one person,” Duncan said.  “That’s an awful lot of responsibility.  We have to look at where we are.  If the Academy is a living thing, then we’re not even pinpricks, we’re so small.  Lillian isn’t even as significant as a pinprick.”

“One of the first things Sylvester taught me,” Mary said, “Was that we have to trust the Lambs.  Lillian is strong.  You can’t reduce her down to being a mere junkie.”

“It’s an analogy, nothing more,” Duncan said.  “I’m pointing out that the Academy is massive and for all its rough edges and flaws, there are whole tracts of it that are damn well engineered.  The carrot dangling from the stick is as refined as it’ll ever get.”

“There’s something nice about pinpricks and carrots,” Evette said.

“What’s that?” Duncan asked.

“Used with the right poisons, they’re as good as anything at killing the recipients.”

Duncan smiled.  “That’s as good a resolution to our little conversation as any.  I’m glad we got some constructive ideas out of it.”

“Yeah,” Evette said.  “Except, I don’t think poison will necessarily work here.  Our enemies know us.  They’re watching us.”

“Ah,” Duncan said.  “That’s too bad.”


She had to check the notes she’d made and kept in a pocket.  She found the lab.

Professors Arandt, Kinney, and a half-dozen gray coats were in the lab space the Infante had granted them.

Shirley was present, too, sitting on a chair in the corner, looking miserable.

Three warbeasts the size of bears were in cages at one end of the room.  Cloths had been thrown over the cages, but the coverage wasn’t complete, and the forms with shaved fur here and there were clear enough.

“You’re back,” Kinney said.  She and Arandt were working on a large metal canister, as tall as Evette was.  It looked like the kind that held gas.  More were lined up along one of the counters.  Some had tubing attached to them.

“I’m back,” Evette replied.  She took in more of the scene.  There were stitched organized at one end of the room, naked.  Given the position of the gas canister, the contents were likely reserved for the stitched.

The stitched would become vessels for the gas.

“We picked up a lot of what we need and requested assets.  It’s only a starting point.  Much of the evening was spent on getting the ratios for your gases right.”

It wasn’t enough.  Too little work done, but Evette had expected that.  Now she was in a position where she had to twist their arms.

She and the Lambs had ruminated on this to some degree.

“Shirley,” she said.

“Hi, Sylvester,” Shirley said.  Her hands were in her lap, as if they were fighting with one another to engage in nervous tics and twitches.  “I’m really glad you came back.”

“I’m sorry it took so long,” Evette said.  She wasn’t good with words.  She preferred action.  Decisive, rationalized sorts of action.  “I kind of died.”

“What!?” Shirley asked.

The exclamation made several heads turn.

“Yeah.  But it’s going to be okay, I think.  We’ll get you out of here.  I’ll try to make sure you’re okay, before anything happens.  And I owe you an explanation.  I know.”

Shirley nodded, a very concerned look on her face.

Evette wasn’t sure what else to say.  She drew in a deep breath, then exhaled.  Her throat hurt, but at least the wound had been sealed.

“Your clothes are here.  They brought them off the train.”

Evette walked over to where the luggage was.  She knelt by it, opened it, and carefully managed her bag as she removed her tattered, bloody shirt, pulling it off in a way that wouldn’t pull tubing loose or let it get caught around the bag.

“Oh my lords,” Shirley said.

Again, the statement drew attention.

“What in the world did you do to yourself, there?” Arandt asked.

“If I was capable of performing this kind of surgery on myself, I wouldn’t have asked for your talents,” Evette said.

That earned her a skeptical look from Arandt.

“What happened?  What’s going on?” Shirley asked.

“It’s fine.  Just… put the mask on when I tell you to,” Evette said.

“The mask?”

Evette nodded.

She pulled on a clean shirt, decided changing pants would have to wait, and ran her fingers through her wet hair.

Through Sylvester’s hair.

“Professors,” she said, raising her head to face the others.

“Yes, Sylvester?” Kinney asked.

“Did the Infante happen to inform you that this task was a risky one?  That you stood to get hurt?”

“You know he did,” Kinney said.  She sounded annoyed.

“Okay.  Good.  My memory isn’t that strong, and I wouldn’t want you to have to deal with this without any warning.”

“Deal with- what are you talking about?”

Gordon and Mary fell into step with Evette as she approached Kinney.  There was a valve wrench on a counter, and Evette picked it up.

“What are you doing?” Kinney asked.

Evette remained silent.  There wasn’t a need for words.  She had tried that.

Action.  Decisive.  Explosive.

Kinney and Arandt backed away from Evette as she approached, hefting the wrench.  The gray coats backed away.  One made a run for the door and the hall.

Evette let it happen.  Her focus was on the professors.

But beating them with the wrench wouldn’t do.  It wouldn’t earn her cooperation.

“We’ll check your work,” she said.

She drove the wrench into the valve that stuck out of the canister of gas.

With a full-body effort, she levered the wrench, popping off the valve.

Gas plumed out, rising to the ceiling, then spreading out from that point, before starting its slow drift downward.

“What are you doing!?” Arandt cried out, hysteria at the edges of his voice.

“You two took so long to do this and not much else, it must be good work,” Evette said.  “I want to see it in action.”

Kinney ran, making a break for one corner of the room.  But to get there, she had to get past Evette.

Evette swung the wrench, aiming low.  Before she was even halfway through the motion, something caught in her chest, and she felt a painful pressure around what was supposed to be an operational heart.

The resulting swing was weak and half hearted.  But Kinney, in trying to squeeze past, bumped hard into one of the counters.

It wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t even that effective, but Evette managed to grab one of Kinney’s lab coat sleeves, hooking her fingers in there.  She’d hoped to pull the professor off balance and bring her down into the ground, but all she managed was to force Kinney to bend over, taking rapid baby steps to keep her balance.

Evette boxed one of Kinney’s ears with the flat of the wrench, and that served to knock Kinney to the ground.

Calm, casual, Evette walked over to the canister that was still geysering with pressurized gas, grabbed it with one hand, and pulled a the upper end so it would tip over.  It did, with a metal-on-wood clunk.

The geyser now spewed directly at Kinney, who was only just climbing to her feet.

Kinney didn’t even manage to scream.

Evette’s heart complained at her in the wake of that exertion.  She found it hard to breathe, and took a moment to swallow in air.

That had nothing to do with the gas.  Not yet.  It was her heart.  The replacement was no substitute for the real thing, and it was possible this moderate exercise could disrupt something and kill her.

Still struggling to breathe, she walked over to where Kinney had been striving to go, and found a box with a lid.  Lifting the lid, she found gas masks, along with other emergency countermeasures.

She tossed one to Shirley.

“Arandt!” Evette called out.

“Please,” the professor said.  “This is unreasonable.”

This is unreasonable,” Evette said.

She threw the gas mask onto the counter, then slapped at it with the wrench.

The echoes of pain weren’t quite as bad with that lighter exertion.

“Wanting work done now, for the good of the Academy, it’s the most reasonable thing in the world,” Evette said.

“You can’t ask for the world to be handed over tomorrow and be surprised if we can’t deliver.”

“I didn’t want the world, Arandt,” Evette said.

She’d approached the first of the tall, Evette-sized canisters that was lined up.  She used the wrench to tear off another of the valves, letting it fall to the floor.  Another plume speared skyward, but this one, displaced by the cloud of gas that already hung overhead, spreading and dissipating into the room below, was far faster to descend toward Evette and all the people who were nearer the floor.

“I want my countermeasures against Mauer,” she said.

“Please, no more,” Arandt said.  “Give us the rest of the masks, or let us leave until this gas clears up, but-“

He stopped talking to cough.  The cough soon became a retching gag.

Evette was only just starting to feel the most preliminary of sensations from the poisons.

She had asked for a long series of very minor chemicals, in hopes that they would be spread out, no one chemical achieving a high enough concentration in her body to really affect her.

She wrenched the valve off another of the tanks.

“No!  Stop!  Whatever you want, I’ll provide!” Arandt protested.

“I want the work to get done,” Evette said.  “You can spend all night working on this, to make up for time we lost with this little exercise.”

“Whatever it takes.  Just please-“

Another retching spell.  This one was violent enough to dislodge the contents of his stomach.

Had she broken these wild creatures, successfully domesticating them?

“And we’ll have to make up for all of this gas we’re losing,” Evette commented.  “Oh well.  We’ll manage.”

She moved the wrench toward the next canister.

“No!” Arandt said, voice sharp, his tone completely different.  “No!  That’s not poison.  It’s a component we’ve been using in small quantity-  methane.  And if you fill the room with it, we’ll have bigger issues than going blind and suffering coughing fits.”

She wondered if he was telling the truth.

She bent down to pick up the valve.

It took some doing and a turn of the wrench to get the valve back into place on the first tank she had opened.  Doing so served to stem the tide from it, so it no longer emptied out violently in Kinney’s direction.

The woman was curled up into a fetal position, her back to Evette.

It was hard to see in the gas.  She had to fish around to find the next valve, and this one went on more easily.

She collected the gas masks, and one by one, she threw them at Arandt and the gray coats.  Not that they would do a great deal of good, given the state of the room and of the men, but it was a goodwill gesture, a token effort that would set the tone.

Her heart wanted so badly to pound, but it couldn’t, and in the failure to do what it wanted to do, it tried to tear itself apart.  She felt that empty, throbbing weakness in her breast, as if her ribs were about to cave in on her from the negative pressure.

“You have our cooperation,” Arandt said, voice modified by the filter of the gas mask and by the gas he’d suffered from.  The professor went on, “But we can’t stay here like this.  Let us go.  We’ll clean up, let the gas vent for an hour, and then we’ll come back, we’ll do everything you requested, and we’ll do it well.”

“I don’t have any guarantees you’ll come back,” she said.  “Except… I know how the nobles operate.”

Arandt was quiet.  He tended to default to such.

“I know that if I tell them a way to absolutely control you, then they’ll use that.  Because they adore control.  You made a mistake, Arandt, wearing your heart on your sleeve.  You made your weakness too clear.  Your colleague, who you hate so much.”

She could only hear the raspy breathing of the gas masks.

“If you run away or fail to fulfill this promise,” she said, with all the menace she could muster, “Then I’ll tell the Infante that all he needs to do to destroy you completely and utterly would be to promote your nemesis and demote you.  And he’ll do it.”

She saw the change in Arandt’s body language.  Anger.  Fury.


Arandt was very clearly debating killing her.  It showed in the way he planted his feet, took stock of the room, and clenched his fists.

“Go,” she said.  “But be sure to come back.  For the next day, at least, you’re mine.  You do everything I say.  And be sure to take her with you.”

She gestured at Kinney.  Then she realized the professor couldn’t see well in the smoke.  He wouldn’t see her if she jumped on the spot and waved her arms.

But the man seemed to have gotten it, or he had guessed that the ‘her’ was Kinney.  He approached, and Evette backed off, giving him a wide berth while holding the wrench.

He collected Kinney and led the way in retreating from the room.

It left only Evette and Shirley.

“There,” Evette said.  “That’s only the first step.  I can give you the explanation you deserve, but you’ll have to bear with me.  There’s a lot to do in the meantime if I’m going to pull all of this off.”

Shirley only nodded, breath rasping through the mask.

Evette walked over to the large tanks of pressurized gas and found the one that Arandt had said was methane.

Standing in the midst of the multicolored clouds of gas, she had to fumble for a scalpel.

Using the scalpel, she began lifting the edge of the label from the canister.  It took time.  In the meantime, Shirley approached, silent but for the noise of the gas mask.

“What are you doing?” she asked, her voice distorted.

“Changing labels around,” Evette said.  “That canister of gas over there is going to retire.  This little gem… well, with luck, they’ll fill up some stitched with it, and we’ll have ourselves some exploding stitched.  All gathered up in Academy ranks, ready to strike out against Mauer.  And because they’re filled with the mildest, most inconvenient poisons, people won’t think to be overly careful.”

“You’re siding with the Reverend, then?” Shirley asked.

“No,” Evette said.  “No, I’m not siding with anyone.  But that’s too complicated to get into.  Too many variables.  I’m going to get my ticker fixed, I’m going to look after you, and I’m going to destroy them all.”

A blaze of glory, she thought.  One that might consume me.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Thicker than Water – 14.10

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

“Why me?” Mary asked.

Evette lay on the bed, working hard to breathe.  Her vision had cleared up from what it had been, but that only let her see just how extensive the damage was.  In the gloom, tubes ran in and out of Sylvester’s chest, leading to an external heart that lay on the table, pumping its mechanical rhythm.  The heart was flesh and bone, the bone shell encapsulating the upper left quarter and the bottom right.  With every beat, the corners of the two quarters clicked together faintly.

Two men were in the room, a rebellion doctor that stood by the window, smoking, and a soldier who had positioned himself by the door, so he could read by the shaft of light that came in through the crack in the door.

“You’re working on making us available to you again,” Mary said.

“Yes,” Evette murmured.

“You could have picked anyone else for this.  But you picked me.”

“The mission comes first,” Evette said.  “And you won’t lose track of that.”

Mary, faceless and distorted around the edges, standing in the dark, turned her head, taking in the room.

“Right?” Evette prompted Mary.


Mary seemed angry, but Evette wasn’t willing to push it or wonder why.

Better to muster her forces.  Hours were passing, she was supposed to be checking in to rescue Shirley, and instead she was lying in a bed in a dark room with rain pattering against the window.  Men’s voices in other rooms suggested an ongoing discussion between Mauer and his men.  She couldn’t make out the words, or really distinguish Mauer’s voice from the others, but one speaker’s voice definitely set the pace for the others.  There were longer pauses following it as others considered their words, and nobody interrupted or jumped in to add their thoughts to the tail end of any statements.

As discussions went, it was serious and methodical.

Mary spoke, looking in the general direction of the group of men in the other room, “Mauer isn’t cooperating.  I’m not sure there is a mission at this point.”

Evette looked at the shadowy lump that was the mechanical heart.  It didn’t keep as steady a rhythm as she would have liked, and it made her feel particularly out of sorts as she felt her pulse maintain a different course than her thoughts and feelings did.

“All part of the plan,” she murmured.

“No it isn’t,” Mary said.

“Don’t be that way, hon.  You and I, we can learn to dance,” Evette said.  “We could have gotten along.”

“There’s something Sylvester and I share in common,” Mary said.

“Yeah.  Fine.  I get it.”

“If you’d existed, Sylvester wouldn’t have.  I wouldn’t have.”

I get it.  Lordsy.  So you’re keeping me at arm’s length.  Fine.”

“And I’m not going to let you pretend.  No lies.  No disruption.  If we do this, we’re going to do it right.  I can stand separate and do that because there was never going to be a Mary and Evette.  Gordon and Evette?  Yes.  Helen and Evette?  To be sure.  But our stories never converged.  I was a bad seed and you were the problem solver.  At best, you would have killed me.”

“No lies, no disruption.  I can try that.”

“Shirley is a priority.”

“Not that I’m arguing, but I didn’t expect that from you.  You’re not exactly the warmest or softest.”

“I have my weak points.”

“Lillian.  But Lillian isn’t here, nor is she even liable to find out.  I can’t imagine that you’re representative of any part of Sylvester that’s compassionate.  Not given who you are, where you come from, and how you operate.”

“No,” Mary said.  “But we made a promise.  We hold to that.  Sylvester did when he promised Lillian and Emily that he would kill the Baron.”

“And you’re that?” Evette asked.  “That drive?”

“I don’t know,” Mary said.  “I don’t think it’s that cut and dry.  But maybe a part of me doesn’t want to be used by someone I can’t respect.”

“Percy?  No, this is his thought process too.  Him and the Academy.  You represent that too, even going back to the night he shot you in the knee.  I knew my instincts were good when I turned to you.  You won’t let us take any garbage from Mauer, either.  You don’t like being manipulated.”

“We don’t mind being manipulated if it’s someone we respect,” Mary said.

Evette cocked her head to one side.  That line bore some thought.  It was true, in a way, but at this stage, there was nobody they respected and trusted enough.  Could there ever be?  Was it part of why they didn’t want to get involved with Fray?

Did it color their interaction with Mauer?

Looking across the room, she saw the soldier with the book wasn’t reading, but was staring at her.  Was it her little head movement that had drawn his attention?

Mauer’s men were good at what they did.  Alert and effective.

He lowered his lead, facing his book, but she was pretty sure that, in the gloom, he wasn’t taking his eyes off her.  Still watching.

“We’ll need help,” Mary said.  “Work on bringing back the others.”

“Not like I can do anything else,” Evette muttered.

Helen first.  Helen was safe, predictable as an element.  Stable, and relatively unchanging over time.  Her act had become more refined, less like a mask she wore, but the monster beneath the skin was more or less the same.

That monster was angrier now, bloodier, more dangerous.  But more or less the same.  The same measures worked for winning her favor and for staying out of her clutches in the here and now as the measures and safety protocols of four or five years ago.

Jamie was next.  Jamie the younger, the one she’d seen as she had blacked out.  One of the few old memories that Sylvester held onto with any ferocity or clarity.

She was working on Gordon when the door opened.

Mauer stood there.  Two piping hot mugs of tea were in the palm of his oversized hand, which he held with his other hand to keep steady.

“You’re awake,” he observed, as he crossed the room.

“Yes,” she said.

“He’s been awake for some time,” the doctor said.  “He’s been talking to himself under his breath.  Incessantly.”

“Fever?  Infection?”

“No, and no.  Nothing physiological, I don’t think.”


Evette raised her head up to look at Mauer as he came to stand beside her bed.  He took care in lowering a mug of tea to the bedside table, just beside the artificial heart, before lifting the other with his good hand.

“If you would, Mackenzie, would you help him sit up?  I don’t want to speak to someone that’s lying down.”

Silent, the soldier by the door rose to his feet, put his book down, and walked around to the other side of the bed.  He put one arm under each of her armpits and raised her up, propping up pillows behind her.

“Thank you,” Mauer said.  “I’d like to speak to him alone, now.”

“Shall I guard the door?” Mackenzie asked.

“You can.  You can listen in and interrupt if you think I’m in danger.  But give us the illusion of privacy in the meantime,” Mauer said.

The soldier gave him one short nod, then left the room, closing the door behind him.

Evette reached out for the mug, but the handle was too hot to hold.  Mauer had held the cups in the one hand?  Was it supposed to be a show of strength, or did he just not care?

“You know what I’m going to ask,” Mauer said.  “You’ve been talking to yourself, so I would think long and hard before happening to lose your voice now.  I’ll end you if you try to be clever.”

Evette nodded.

“Speak,” Mauer ordered.

“I left West Corinth because I broke from the Lambs.  I came here because one of them, a new Lamb, he’d been taken as a child, and unlike many others, unlike…”

She hesitated.  Would it be see as a trick to imply she wasn’t Sylvester?

“…Me,” she decided, “he remembered details.  He was taken and he remembered what people said.  And what they said was that the children went to Gomer’s Island.  A number of them.  To something called the Block.”

Mauer nodded.

“Strip away everything else I am, everything I’ve been cultivated to be, everything I want to be, and I’m always going to look out for the children.  I’m always going to protect them, and shelter them.  I tried to set something up in West Corinth…”

The ‘I’ here was Sylvester.  Evette wasn’t so invested in it.  It made her sound, she realized, very insincere.

“I hope it works,” she said, without passion.  Maybe the fact she was relying on an artificial heart to live would explain it.

“If you’re trying to distract me-”

“No!” Evette interrupted.  Then, thinking about her position, she softened her voice.  “No.  It’s just, it was my motivation for coming here.  I was intercepted by the nobles.  Brought before the Infante.  Then things spun out.”

“I almost believe you,” Mauer said.  He lifted the tea to his mouth to drink, swallowed as a kind of punctuation, then added, “Almost.”

She reached for the mug at the bedside table.  Still too hot to touch.

“What else do you know?” Mauer asked.

“Not much at all.  It was a lead, a starting point.  I wanted to get away, to focus on something else.  In the last moments, when I thought you finished me for good, I wanted to… to communicate it.  To not let that thread go untied.”

Mauer walked around the bed, over to the window.  With the lights on inside, it would have been hard to make out the world beyond the thick, rain-streaked glass.  He stared out at the dark city, drinking his tea.

He was taking his time to answer.

“You know something about it,” she said.

Mary, Helen, and Jamie all watched the man with keen interest.

“I chased down that thread,” Mauer said.  “That winding road was what led to me meeting with Genevieve Fray in the first place.  Not so long after the mass sterilization and the chemical leash was inflicted on the public.  We found two parts of the same lead and followed it.  Oddly enough, it started with you.

“Me?” Evette asked.

“The Lambs.  You uncovered Percy’s plot to seed the upper class with sleeper agents, children who would be programmed to kill their parents, he fell into Cynthia’s clutches.  Percy found me.  Genevieve found Cynthia.”

Evette nodded.

“From there, we started discussing ideas and priorities.  It eventually led to the meeting at Brechwell.  The one you joined.”

Evette didn’t interject.  She wondered if her selection of Mary had had some prey instinct feeding into it too.  Some subconscious connections pointing to Percy being relevant, and thus Mary being key.

Mauer turned around.  He leaned against the thickest branch that supported the window, and sipped at his tea.

“You appear slated to walk this path, Sylvester Lambsbridge,” Mauer said.  “Every time the topic is raised, you appear as part of the greater picture.”

“Maybe,” Evette said.  She picked up her tea, avoiding the tubes and the beating heart, shifted position, and sipped at it.

“Maybe,” Mauer agreed.

They drank their tea, each thinking about what to say next.  Mauer seemed very relaxed, not inclined to be aggressive or counterattack.  It made her uneasy, because he had seemed agreeable before, before he had turned on her.

Maybe he knew that.

Outside, something screeched.  The screech took on a different sound as the source drew near, moving very quickly, before it flew past the window, making the entire building shudder fractionally.  The screech took on a different tone as the creature started moving away rather than moving closer.

“A small war started somewhere in this country,” Mauer observed, glancing at the window.  “Hundreds or thousands will die because of it.  People will lose loved ones.  The Crown will, if they don’t win outright, at least take an eye for an eye.”

“But you intend to fight that war?  You sacrificed soldiers to kill nobles.”

Mauer drew in a deep breath.  “You’re right.  It seems to be an undeniable reality.  They can never lose.  I thought, if they would kill one of ours for every one of theirs we killed, we could at least ensure we killed their best.  My comrades and soldiers are prepared to fight on that sort of battlefield, with those sorts of rules.  But when it came to Fray, I saw her maneuver against the Academy as a net victory for her.  Do you understand?  I thought perhaps we had a way of hurting them more than they hurt us.  She and I thought that Gomer’s Island was one of the best ways to achieve that.”

“What is it that makes the island special?” Evette asked.

“Imagine that New Amsterdam encapsulates the whole of the Crown States, if you will.  Imagine that it is representative of everything from west coast to east, arctic circle to the southern border.”

“I can do that,” Evette said.  She held her tea in both hands now.

“Gomer’s Island is the rebellion, in the midst of that expanse.  Small, isolated, an ongoing rebuke.  A condensation of the Lughs and Wickerhills, the Sudburys and the Lonshires, a place where the stubborn, the pious, and the recalcitrant reside.  A pocket of resistance.  It has taken many forms over the years, but the name should tell you what it is.  Gomorrah.  It is a heretical place.”

“I don’t understand.”

“New Amsterdam is a contradiction.  It paints itself as one thing while giving evidence to another.  In religion in particular, in a city where the Crown should have more control than anywhere else, it has the most faithful.  Gomorrah is where the faith is so often centered.  They name themselves as a place of sin and wrongness as an ongoing rebuke to the Crown and the Academies.”

“And the Crown allows it?”

“The Crown fosters it.  Gomorrah is a feast laid out for the faithful, with poisoned dishes scattered across the table.  For the starved, and the people are starved, it’s impossible to ignore.  But partaking leaves one vulnerable.”

“And the missing children find their way there?”

“Found.  Genevieve and I followed the thread to its conclusion years ago, and it was a trail that ended in Gomorrah.  I still keep an eye out for any clues that might allow us to pick it up again, any detail we might chase down.  I still hold hope that we could find another way to attack the Crown.”

“There are the children, too,” Evette said.  “The ones that are being preyed on.  That’s more important than finding a way to hurt the Crown.”

“There will be children who suffer for as long as the Crown lives and the workings of the Academies march forward.”

“There will always be a Crown and always be an Academy,” Evette said.

“And we have a circular argument,” Mauer said.  “One I’ve had with myself.  Give me a choice of saving children and hurting the Crown or the Academy, and I’ll choose the latter.  Their abuses and wrongs will cause more harm in the long run.”

There was a bitter, angry note to his voice.

He sounded spent.

Powerful, dangerous, but there was a faint ragged edge to the tail end of his words that suggested he’d talked himself raw over the past day.

“I don’t think I can agree,” Evette said.  She started to speak, then stopped herself.  She had to weigh her words before speaking again.  “Jamie and I spent the winter and some of the spring in Tynewear.”

“Jamie.  He died of plague, according to my intel.”

Evette nodded.

“My condolences.”

She smiled sadly.  The condolences stung, given how Sylvester might well have lost Jamie forever, given how things stood.  He had lost the Lambs.

“We spent our time plotting how best to hurt the Crown.  We weighed plans of attack, and decided our priorities.  Given the choice, I think Sylvester would choose to spare children before he chose to hurt the Crown and Academy.”

“You referred to yourself in the third person again.”

She closed her eyes, cursing to herself.

“Go on,” Mauer said, glossing over the misstep.

“You spared us because you thought we might give you that lead.  We haven’t.”

“You haven’t.”

“You haven’t stayed here, dug, searched, or targeted people.  You haven’t gone door to door, searching for answers.  You said it yourself.  You wrapped up things in pursuing this, and then you went to Brechwell.”

“Nothing so tidy as that, but yes,” Mauer said.

“If it’s so important, then why didn’t you keep looking?”

Mauer didn’t volunteer an answer.

“Or did you make the choice?  Leave that behind, wage your war, eye for an eye, breed your primordials, and start targeting nobles with those guns of yours?”

Mauer tippd his teacup back.  He didn’t stare at Evette, or at anything in particular.  His gaze fixated a distant point.

“Because-” Evette said, before stopping herself.  A doubt in the back of her mind told her to stop talking.  It was a hard voice to listen to.  The phantoms around her weren’t strong enough or complete enough to jump into the discussion and make her stop, either.  “Because those guns, right now, they aren’t helping you much, in the grand scheme of it all.  This is their battlefield.  The costs you’re paying are too great.  They adapt to any challenge they’re faced with.”

She expected him to argue.  To tell her something about how he could adapt too, or about the choice he’d made and the rationale for it.  He was a clever enough man to come up with good reasons, and he was talented enough to frame them in a clever argument.

Instead, however, he simply said, “I can show you.”

Mauer hadn’t joined her in this particular carriage.  The beasts that pulled the carriages were unrecognizable, reminiscent of the primordials, but stable, unchanging.  Simply ugly, irregular, vat-grown life, with the strength of ten mules and mass enough to bully their way through the streets.  Not that Mauer or his people had them do so.  The drive was quiet, dark and placid, navigating a loose tide of carriages, carts, wagons and the rare automobile.

They moved onto a bridge.  The water over the side of the bridge was only darkness, the sky’s canopy obscured by stars.  It was a bridge lit by lamps that were positioned such that they weren’t reflected in the water.  A glowing structure that seemed to cross nothing but void.

Something about the mood changed as they entered another part of the city.

People were outdoors, in the rain, gathered in groups.  The number of Academy-created monsters increased dramatically from the already dramatic totals in New Amsterdam proper, with seemingly no group going unescorted.

Familiar, that.

There were more churches here.  More religious symbols.  On the rarer occasions where a carriage or cart with a lamp mounted on it passed close to a wall, Evette could see the graffiti, and much of it was religious.

A bastion of faith in the heart of the Crown States, but it was an insecure faith.  Mauer had elaborated on it some as they had made their way down the stairs to the carriages, but had refused to provide information or influence her expectations about what was to be found there.

According to Mauer, this area was littered with hidden traps.  Academy agents posed as the faithful and found their way into groups.  There were entire groups that were Academy sponsored, that invited people in, catered to them for months and years, building trust enough to draw in others, before collapsing in on them.  The people were killed or happened to disappear.

The wider streets were brightly lit, with stores and buildings on each side, with one in five being a church.  But their destination was not on a wider street.  They went somewhere where there were few lights at all, where the streets were narrow, and where parked carriages and garbage here and there made them even harder to navigate.

Their destination was a proud looking building, with pillars and broad steps, windows that nearly reached from the floors to the ceilings, and five stories of height.  The carriage stopped.  Evette climbed out, and Mauer climbed out of a second carriage, which had been following.

There were no lights on, so they took the lanterns from the carriages and brought them with them.  Evette walked beside Mauer, the tubing and artificial heart slung over one shoulder and packed into a bookbag she wore.

Mauer’s men opened the front doors, which were unlocked.  They entered the hall proper.

A library without books.

Evette looked around, noting the dust.  It was thick, and none of the weather that had blown in through the cracks in the glass had really disturbed it, except for one hallway that had patterns like sand dunes forming in the stuff.

The shelves formed something of a maze.

“Almost weeks before we arrived, there was an event,” Mauer explained.  “A great many figures were in attendance.  If you saw the Infante and his doctors, and all the other doctors that spend time in his proximity, then you would know what they were like.  Scholarly men and women in their finest dress, many wearing stylized lab coats.  They came here.  Men and women brought trays of food and alcohol.”

Evette looked at the rows an columns of shelving, and the shelves that lay against the wall, to either side of the windows.

“Later in the evening,” Mauer said.  He reached a set of bookshelves that rested against the wall, found a catch, and then hauled on one shelf with his oversized arm, before switching to his good arm to haul on the next shelf.  They swung away, hinges screaming their rusty cries.  “The doors would open.  The partygoers would make their way to the Block.”

The Block was downstairs.  The set of stairs leading down was wider than any of the hallways at Lambsbridge orphanage had been long, leading into a basement.

Evette saw the first of the corpses, lit by the lantern.

She saw the next, all tangled together, arms and ribs interlocking, making it impossible to see where one of the skeletal remains ended and the next began.  Not because they were modified.  No, they had simply been embracing as they’d died, huddled together.  The bodies had collapsed into each other.

Behind Mauer and Evette, Mauer’s men ignited lanterns and lit candles.  Slowly, the area grew lighter.  Slowly, Evette, being sure to keep the light behind her, was able to make out the details.

Bodies littered the area.

Mauer was a man of words, very effective words, but he’d been unable to convey this scene.  It was something he’d needed to show, not tell.

The corpses had dessicated, or been devoured by bugs and by vermin.  There were so many, dropped where they’d stood, crumpled on the floor in awkward positions.

“The Block, based on what I was able to find out,” Mauer said, “Was an event held at this location once every two weeks.  We counted the bodies of at least eighty children and twenty grown adults here.  Our doctors tested the remains and it suggested they were all drugged to be complacent.  One by one, they would have their numbers and ratios rattled off, along with grades for psychology, wellness, nutrition, and more.”

We came from a place like this.  Sylvester did.  Jamie did.

“After each one had their numbers read out, the bidding would start.  They would be dragged away, very frequently to be experimented on.  Modified.  Quotas for the best, the healthiest, the brightest, all were demanded and met.  Money changed hands, and that money went to the Academies and the Crown, with a share going to procurers.  An endless supply of test subjects, fed through this engine.”

Evette looked around.  She could see the bodies, and she could easily imagine it was a hundred.

She could imagine it was more.

“You’re clever enough that I’m sure you can figure out what Genevieve and I figured out,” Mauer said.

The count was wrong, her gut told her.  Then, as she looked at some of the bodies, she realized that there were piles that were misleading.  A pile of two adults could easily look like three children.

But she saw the black fabric of a lab coat, and she moved it, looking closer at the long-decayed corpse, all bone and dried-on tatters of flesh that the mice and rats hadn’t elected to eat.

Academy people had died too?

She looked around at the bodies, and she realized what had unfolded.

“They killed them all,” she said.  “All of the children.  All of the adults.  And then they killed themselves?”

“Yes,” Mauer said.  “The bodies were still cooling when we made our way down here.”

She could look at Mauer, and because he wasn’t trying to hide it, because the pieces were all there, and because he’d hinted at it, she could see how it all came together.

“They killed all of these people, then themselves, all because you came looking?  Burning bridges before you could cross them?”

Yes,” Mauer said, sounding very tired again, even as he tried to put a kind of emphasis on that.

It was, in a word, the end of the story Mauer had been trying to tell her.  The final stroke of the picture he’d painted before her.

“No leads?  No clues?”

“Some,” Mauer said.  “We chased down what we could.  There were two, with one we intended to hold in reserve.”

“In reserve?  Then this trail isn’t cold.”

“It’s very cold, as trails go.” Mauer said.  “There were two people who knew the full story about how this worked, and just why they had a protocol like this in place.  One of the two people was the Duke of Francis.  I put a bullet in him, destroying his brain.  Word from within the Infante’s castle is that he drools and doesn’t eat unless a tube is pushed into his throat.”

“Leaving one person,” Evette concluded.  Her mind caught up, drawing connections.  Whisperings of the word ‘Noble’ found their way from Jamie’s mouth to her ear.  “Oh.”

“The Baron Richmond,” Mauer said.  He knelt, his hands moving in a gesture of supplication before he touched a child’s skull, one that had been picked clean by vermin.  He took a moment, praying silently, then stood.  “You utterly destroyed the man, and with that, you left Genevieve and I with no people to chase, and no people to interrogate.  I’d happily spared him in hopes of getting answers at a later date.  Not so.  I thought I had time to apply pressure on him.”

“Not so,” Evette echoed Mauer.  She felt a damaged, non-functional, broken heart plummet into her stomach.  The false heart in her bag continued to pump away.

Evette looked at Mary, who stared down at the bodies.

“Percy led you here.  He bought from this place, once.”

“He had a friend from the days he attended Radham, who gave him access.  It was a way for him to get the funds he needed to maintain his enterprise.  Given the chance, Genevieve hoped to slip into their ranks and observe things herself.  We never got that far.”

“Sylvester asked the Baron, once, about what happened to the children,” Evette said.

“Did he?  What did the Baron say?”

“The Baron laughed, and took this to his grave.  I think he liked the idea we’d find our way here, and we’d stumble on this scene, or one like it.  Maybe the bodies would still be warm.”

Mauer was only half listening.  One of his men had approached, and now whispered in his ear.

“I have to go,” he said.

Evette nodded.

“It would be hypocritical to blame you for your part in this when I had the other lead killed.  I believe you when you say you want to solve this particular riddle.  My only concern is that you will get in my way.  Swear to me that you won’t, and I’ll leave you here, to make your way.”

Evette couldn’t swear it.  Not without consideration.

She looked down at the sea of bodies, dropped where they stood.

“I want you to comb this place for evidence.  I want you to find what you can, Sylvester.  To share the information, or even covet it for yourself.  Search out answers elsewhere.  Whoever bought from this place years ago has found a new place to go for the purchase of test subjects.  I want you to find them, if you can.  You could do it with my blessing.  I want to let you.  But I need you to promise you won’t get in my way.”

She was being asked to make the choice.

She nodded.  “I won’t.”

“I wish you the best of luck, then.”

She remained in the graveyard, watching as Mauer and his men made their way up the steps to the library.  In a minute, they would be getting into their carriages, riding off to fight the next battle in an unwinnable war.

Evette spoke to her phantoms.  “Two different people were able to find this place, but something was important enough to keep under wraps that they had loyal Academy people kill themselves.”

“It doesn’t add up,” Jamie said.

Evette shook her head.

She moved her hand from behind her back.  Her fingers were crossed.  She uncrossed them.

She looked at each of her phantoms in turn.  She stopped by meeting Mary’s eyes.

“You don’t intend to keep your promise of leaving him alone,” Mary said.

“Not at all,” Evette said.  “Does that bother you?  I know promises are important to you.”

“Promises from the heart are important to me,” Mary said.

Evette nodded.  “Let’s go save Shirley, then.  And see if we can’t get my actual heart working again, without them asking too many questions.”

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Thicker than Water – 14.9

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Mauer’s men gave Evette a push, returning her to the apartment.  They nudged her with the butt ends and barrels of rifles, and manhandled her until she had been herded to the sitting room, and they had her take an armchair, before settling into position, with one behind her, another two to the sides, and the rest in front of her, staring her down.

The other soldiers filled out the rest of the room.

Mauer was one of the last to enter, followed by two doctors who went straight to the man in the bathroom, who was hunched over the sink.  The one who had had glass thrown in his eyes.

Mauer had donned his coat, which had fallen off when he had reached up to seize her out of the air, and it now hung over his shoulders, more or less hiding his monstrous arm.

She watched him carefully.  He took measure of everything in the room before finally relaxing and turning his attention to her.  Even then, however, he gave her a once-over before assessing her as a non-threat.

“Tea?” he asked.


He nodded, and signaled one of his men with the hand of his good arm.  “For everyone who wants any.”

One of the soldiers stepped into another room.

“Sylvester’s pain,” Mauer said.

“Yes,” Evette said.

“Shall I address you as Wyvern?  Sylvester’s pain is a mouthful, and addressing you as ‘Pain’ makes me think of the nobles with their pet projects.”

He didn’t even sound like he was humoring her.

Explaining about the Evette personality was too complicated.  “You can call me Sylvester.  It’s fine.  Names aren’t important.”

Mauer nodded.  He took a moment, thinking.  His men waited with no sign of impatience.  One or two heads turned to glance in the direction of the bathroom, but their focus was more on Mauer than anything.

The rain pattered against the window.  It was dark out.

“Sylvester,” Mauer said.  “You and I, whatever might have happened in Lugh, are far from being allies.”

He made it sound worse than being simple enemies.

Evette withheld comment.

“I know you’re a fugitive and that you’ve distanced yourself from the Crown and Academy both, but the very nature of what you are, or what Sylvester is, it means you can never be trusted.”

“I know,” Evette said.

“You’ve tried to burn me alive, and it remains very possible that all of this is a long con, with you breaking from the Lambs in an attempt to bide time and place yourself close to me or to Genevieve Fray.  It’s very possible that this is a short con, and you are indeed a fugitive, but I remain a piece in the current caper of an independent, unhinged Sylvester Lambsbridge.”

He’d seen the wanted posters then.

“You can’t be trusted,” Mauer said.  “Even this very shift in demeanor, posture, expression and manner of speech…”

Mauer gesticulated at Evette in a general way.

“…I have no way of knowing if it is reality or an elaborate act.”

“Most would operate on the assumption that it’s an act,” Evette said.  “Or would know that Sylvester is exceedingly adaptable because of the drug regimen he’s been on for most of his life.”

“Most would,” Mauer said.  “And I wouldn’t put it past him, or past you, to set up a trap with the subtlest of cues, using my own strengths against me.”

“Then why?”

“Because I don’t want that to be the focus of our conversation.  Because, if it is a ruse, I’d rather you had the slack to hang yourself with.  And because,” Mauer paused for emphasis, “if it isn’t, I have seen others with similar looks in their eye to the one you have now, and I wouldn’t want someone else to have called them a liar to their faces.”

“Ah,” Evette said.  She wished for a moment she had access to the manipulative aspects of Sylvester.  She felt like every thing she could think of to say would be too blunt or even abrasive.  Her thoughts turned over, trying to figure out a good way to guide the conversation.

Mauer beat her to it.  “How did ‘Sylvester’s Pain’ come about?  Is this a recent thing?”

“Yes.  It’s recent,” Evette said.  She was supposed to be feeling emotional turmoil.  She felt bad, but it was a static, flat kind of bad.  “Sylvester left the Lambs behind when he became a fugitive.  He abandoned them to avoid having to watch them die one by one.  Which doesn’t make a lot of sense, when you think about it.”

She expected an answer from Mauer.  The lack of an answer caught her off guard, and it was very telling, in itself.

“He didn’t want to work for the Crown or the Academy anymore.  Not after the way some of the others were treated.  He went to Tynewear, just in time for the plague.  He told himself he could maintain ties to the Lambs in some other way.  A cat and mouse game, challenges.  Because even being enemies was better than having nothing at all.  In trying, he ruined the ties he had left.”

She glanced up from her hands to Mauer.

No feedback, no indications.

“He retreated.  There was a bit of an adjustment, but I’m managing things now.  Everything extraneous is tucked away and pushed back.  I’m pursuing the mission, solving the problem at hand, until he comes back.  If he can.”

“What’s the mission?” Mauer asked.  “I have to assume I’m involved?”

“Right now?  I’m working for the Infante, but it’s a double cross.  In the end, I’m looking to help you.  Our goals align in this.”

“Do they, now?”

“Yes,” Evette said, with unvarnished earnestness.  She grinned.  “Because I’m betraying the Infante, and I can set the nobles up to get gunned down.  But it’ll be complicated, because the source I used to find you all here is going to be drugged and he’s going to crack.  He’ll reveal the lie, and I can use that to position the Infante.”

“That does sound complicated,” Mauer said.  “I don’t see a reason to play along.”

“I know what you’re doing.  You’re waging a war, slowly and steadily, choosing key moments, places, and targets every step of the way.  The soldiers who do it know they’re sacrificing themselves in the process.  Because they’re believers.  You’ve made them into zealots.”

“Zealot is oftentimes a sort of insult, Sylvester.  It would be wise to avoid ambiguous insults directed at the soldiers gathered in front of you.”

“Ah,” Evette said.  She processed that.  It was so easy to put her foot in her mouth, to focus on Mauer and forget the wider audience.  Not that she was an actor, orator, or director of any sort of play.  “I didn’t mean it as an insult.”

Mauer didn’t respond.

The slack he’s letting me hang myself with goes beyond the Evette persona, then, she realized.

How unfortunate.  Sylvester had handled adversity for a long time by escalating the risks, trusting the other Lambs to catch him when he inevitably stumbled.  None of that mapped to the other Lambs.  It didn’t map to the people Sylvester had studied as he’d developed.  It was his alone, fostered and refined by the Wyvern in his system.

It was Evette’s, now.

Now, faced with a grim sort of adversity, that risk-taking behavior was one of the few tools that Evette had at her disposal.  She had a welling bruise and a cut on her scalp from the blow she’d taken to the head earlier, her hand had been cut by the ground glass, and her throat still had some residual soreness from Monte’s abuse on the train, which was her fault.  Getting hurt in the process was a part of the gambles she took.

Now Mauer had prepped the noose for her, and she was left to wonder if the fact that it was metaphorical meant she was any less likely to inadvertently harm herself with it as she so easily hurt herself with other things.

“You’re going to run out of people, Mauer.  I know you hope to turn this into a movement with the initial victories.  That’s how you operate.  But it’s going to take time to find new people who are willing to die for the cause.  The Academy will develop countermeasures.  Even for your next attack, which I’m betting you’re already planning, I’m sure you’re calculating odds, weighing that nine or twelve or fifteen percent chance that you’ll make your play and they’ll have an answer.  Something that goes beyond the sniper-hunting, wall-crawling warbeasts.  The next mission will be riskier, as will the one after that.”

“Do you see me as a zealot?” Mauer asked.

“Huh?” she asked.  She didn’t miss that he’d used the word, so soon after criticizing her for using it.  The real, whole Sylvester would have been able to gather something from that, but she was left trying to wrap her head around the question.

“You seem to be implying I’m not as willing to die as any of my soldiers.”

“I don’t imagine you are,” she said.  “But that’s not what I’m trying to convey or accuse you of.  You’re working with Fray.  She probably has something up her sleeve.  But maybe she hasn’t told you.  Maybe you have doubts, after the primordial thing.”

“I have doubts,” Mauer said.

Her eyebrows went up.

“I’m on the verge of failure.  The Academy is a monstrous entity, as is the Crown.  You lowballed it on the chances, I imagine.  The real number is supposed to be higher, but we won’t talk about that,” Mauer said, his voice soft.

The look in his eyes was dangerous.

“Faced with all of this adversity, what am I to do?” he asked.  There was a note of concern in his voice.  “I’ve worked for years at this, lost good men.  Fray is unreliable, and I’ve spent a very, very long time in hostile territory, waging a long war.”

His voice had started to waver.  She heard a hint of panic now, she heard the exhaustion.  She saw some of Mauer’s men exchange glances.

“And you,” he said.  He extended his one good hand.  She didn’t miss the tremble in his voice.  “You, Sylvester-who-is-not-really-Sylvester, you have the answer.  You are our salvation.”

And with that final word, all of the tremor and the emotion dropped away from his voice.  The waver was gone, the insecurity banished.  The tone he gave the word was almost one of condescension.

Everything he’d said from ‘I have doubts’ onward had been solely to bait reactions, to build to that condescension.

“Create a problem,” he said.  “Then solve it.  I’ve done it myself.”

“That’s not what I was doing.”

“No?” he asked.  She could see a flash of anger in his eyes as he swept his monstrous hand out from under the cloak and extended it her way.  It trembled, as if it was a distillation of the anger that was etched into his words and face.   Muscles here and there stood out against the skin of the arm, twitching spasmodically.  “Sylvester’s pain?  That wasn’t what you were doing?  That mention of pain?”

The twitching seemed to intensify with that last word, as if he’d willed it to get worse.

“The dissent against the Crown?  The mention of lost comrades, or the hollow look in your eyes?  These weren’t elements you cobbled together to strike a chord with me and my zealots?”

“No,” Evette said.  She shook her head.  Every time Mauer used that last word, it was all the more damning.  “No, not at all.”

Had he doubted her all along?  Had he saved up the little details and clues that would have sounded so petty on their own had he called her out on them one by one, and built up a case?

This conversation was a mistake.  She wasn’t equipped for this any more than she was equipped to out-politic the Infante.

“Whatever you might be plotting, I’ll have no part of it.  I won’t put myself or my people in harm’s way at your suggestion.”

“That’s not-”

“Sylvester,” Mauer said, with gravity.

Evette stopped.

“I have complete and utter confidence in the path we are taking.  But as I said, we are far from being allies, Sylvester, and everything I know about you, from our first meeting to Genevieve Fray’s fondness for you, it tells me you’re too dangerous to leave alive.”

He reached into his coat.  Evette startled at that, immediately rising to her feet, turning, with the aim of putting the armchair between herself and Mauer.

A knife, not a gun.  Mauer’s foot went out, a leather shoe and one leg barring her way, so that she ran into his leg instead of escaping.

With his overlarge hand, he grabbed her, and he pinned her against the seat of the chair, in a way that had her lying sideways across it.

“Wait,” she said.  “Wait wait.”

He drew the blade of the knife across her throat.  Her eyes went wide at the initial leap of blood that appeared before her eyes.

She hadn’t even had a plan for what to say.

What could she say?

If not the Infante, then-

“Island,” she said, voice a squeak.

He moved his overlarge hand and embedded the knife in her chest.  The blow wasn’t remarkable on its own, but it felt like he’d used the giant hand to deliver it.  All of the wind went out of her.  Her heart strained to beat and failed the attempt.  It failed the next, and then the next.

With every failure to beat, more and more strength fled her.  The amount of strength that seemed to pour out of her was surprising.

“Gomer’s,” she managed, with a last gasp.

But Gomer’s Island didn’t mean anything unto itself.  That meant nothing to Mauer.  It gave him no reason to spare her.

Missing children,” she said.

Too late, she realized that she hadn’t actually said anything at all.  Her lips had moved, but there had been no sound.

A part of her reached out, emotionally, hoped, prayed, for Mauer to understand.  It had nothing to do with sparing herself, finding a reason to make Mauer want to keep her alive.  She simply wanted answers.  She wanted Mauer’s curiosity to be piqued.

Maybe he would choose Gomer’s Island for a place to hide out for the next stretch, and maybe, one shot in a million, he might find out something about the missing children.

Perhaps there would be resolution there, and the children would be okay.

That part of her wasn’t Evette.  It wasn’t a bundled together mass of the behaviors and reckless thinking, nor any representation or fallout of the countless sessions of agony and disorientation that Sylvester had endured to gain what Wyvern had offered him.

Hello, Sylvester, Evette thought.  Nice of you to join us.


Lambs, catch me.

“Put the book down for one damn minute, Jamie,” Sylvester said.

He had to dodge around the littler members of Lambsbridge, who were playing a violent variant on the game of tag, in order to reach the base of the tree, where Jamie sat.  The rain was lighter today, but Jamie still needed the dense leaves of the tree to protect his book from the water.

“Important bit,” a twelve year old Jamie said, scribbling something down, tongue sticking out between his lips.  “Gimme a minute.”

On the other side of the yard, Gordon roared as he lifted one of the smaller children over his head.

Mary, still reticent, not wholly used to the group, hung back, at the furthest end of the yard.  Her hands were clasped in front of her.  As a indicator of how nervous and out of her element she might have felt, the hands were minor at best.  The fact that she kept looking at Sylvester for reassurance was more telling.

Sylvester met her eyes and smiled.  She smiled back, and unclasped her hands.

Lillian was beside her.  Chattering madly about something.

Sylvester turned his attention to Jamie, and plucked the book out of Jamie’s hands mid-word.  The pen scratched against the paper in the process, no doubt drawing a long line down the page.

“Give that back,” Jamie said.

“I want to see what you’re saying,” Sylvester said.

Jamie stood, reaching for the book.  Sylvester blocked Jamie with his body, putting the book as far away as possible.

“Don’t be a dick, Sylvester,” Gordon lectured him.

Some of the other children picked up the cry  of, “don’t be a dick!”  It became a chant.

“I’m not being a dick!” Sylvester protested.  He mashed a hand into Jamie’s face, very intentionally making Jamie’s glasses sit ajar and smudging them, in an effort to keep the book away.

Helen, who had been braiding one of the older girls’ hair on the back steps of the house, handed over her work in progress to another one of the girls, stood, and carefully dusted herself off before stalking in the direction of the two boys.

“Drat and dang it,” Sylvester said, on seeing the approach.

“Whatever she does to you, you deserve it,” Jamie said.  He jabbed Sylvester in the kidney.

Sylvester, in turn, got Jamie into a headlock.  He did his best to unseat Jamie’s glasses, which forced Jamie to have to catch the glasses and use up one hand.

Jamie, with glasses and pen in the same hand, lightly stabbed Sylvester.

“Ow!  Uncalled for!”

“Called for,” Gordon judged.

“You can shut up, oaf!” Sylvester declared.


Jamie hooked one leg around his, and the two of them tumbled to the ground.  With that done, Jamie tried to mash Sylvester’s face into the grass.

Extending one leg out, Sylvester found the ink pot Jamie had been dipping into.  In the midst of the struggle, face being ground into dirt, Sylvester caught the pot between two feet, and jerked it up and in Jamie’s direction.

Jamie froze, releasing Sylvester.

The ink had splattered all over Jamie’s back, the back of his head, and one shoulder.  Some had gotten on Sylvester’s clothes, but he’d gotten Jamie far, far worse.

Jamie’s jaw had dropped open.

Sylvester let a grin spread across his face.

Moving slowly, so as not to disturb the still image, he reached up and over, touching the ink at Jamie’s shoulder.

So lightly it was little more than a tap, he planted an inky handprint on Jamie’s cheek.

“What is wrong with you, you little goblin?” Lillian asked, horrified.

“Poor Jamie!” Helen protested.  “Sweet Jamie!”

The children took up the cry, much as they’d taken up the call of ‘don’t be a dick’.

Sylvester could see Mary’s expression, the awe and the horror and the confusion.

Gordon stood off to the side with one hand at his mouth, hiding the smirk.

“I won,” Sylvester said.  “You always tell me I never ever won a fight, but this is a win!  This has to be a win, that was perfect!”

Jamie hit him in the ribs, adjusting position to better pin him down, and hit him again, harder.

“I won!” Sy protested.  “Tell them, Gordon!”

Jamie pressed the heel of his hand into Sylvester’s face.

“Tell them!”

“You lost,” Gordon intoned.

“No!  No I didn’t!”

“You lost because you were a jerk to your best friend-”

“He can take it!”

“-and because you’re getting your tiny ass beat right now.”

“No!  I delivered the finishing blow!”  Sy protested, in futility.  “It was glorious.  You all saw it!”

Lillian cut in, “You’re the worst, Sylvester.”

“I’m the worst and I won!”

Jamie shoved dirt and grass at Sy’s lips.  Some slipped through, despite Sylvester’s attempts at keeping his mouth sealed shut.

Sylvester caught a glimpse of Jamie’s face and he saw the smile.

Spitting, twisting his head away, Sylvester said, “Jamie!”


“Very sorry, good sir!”

“You should be.”

“Very sorry.  I was wonder- pff!  I was wondering if you might allow me to borrow your journal.”

“After that display?”

“Yes, kind sir.  If it would be no trouble.  You looked so happy while writing, and I was yearning, absolutely, positively yearning to know why.”

Jamie finally relented.  Sy lay on the ground, panting, while Jamie remained where he was.

Sy looked at the others.  Helen had stopped a short distance away, and was trying to ease the worries of one of the youngest children that were somehow able to see past her mask, talking about simple things, while keeping only half an eye on Sylvester and Jamie.

Gordon was talking to Mary, with Lillian close by, listening.  He held a mallet that was part of one of the lawn games in one hand.  It was very likely he was talking about the group dynamic.

But, in the midst of that, almost absentmindedly, Gordon flipped the mallet into the air, so it spun end over end three times, before catching it by the handle again.

In that show-offy little action, Gordon did far more to ease Mary’s worries about not fitting in than any number of words he might have offered.  It showed crystal clear in her expression and body language.

Gordon had won her over, just like that.  But that was the sort of thing he did, with no apparent effort.

Jamie interrupted the observations by dropping the heavy journal on the side of Sylvester’s head.

“Ow.  You sadist.”

“I don’t think you’re allowed to call anyone a sadist, Sy.  Ever.  It’s just not allowed.  You’ve got that market locked up tight.”

“As if I’m worse than some of the nobles or back alley lunatic doctors out there.”

“You’re worse than all of the nobles put together,” Jamie said, climbing off of Sylvester.  “Because at least they look pretty while they do horrible things to undeserving people.  And you’re worse than the doctors, because at least they have talent.”

Sy gasped, melodramatic.

“Shut up and read while I figure out if this ink will rub off.  You’re an absolute ass, for the record.”

Sy happily sat up, scooted over to sit with his back to the stone wall that surrounded the yard, and placed the book across his lap.

He paged through it, looking at the illustrations and the key words.  Jamie was only a third of the way through this one.  It started with the Snake Charmer, and moved on to the Bad Seeds.  Then there was Mauer, their first mission with Mary…

And finally, a page with a line running down a third of it.  On that page, sketched out in thin black lines with lots of hash marks, there was a depiction of the scene in the yard.  Mary standing in the corner, hesitant, Lillian chattering at her, Helen braiding Frances’ hair, and Gordon playing with the kids.  Sylvester had a spot of his own, hanging from a branch, observing it all.

He read the words.

“Mary looks very tidy and fashionable, with lace at the edges of her clothes.  I wish I could draw well enough to represent it, but words will have to do,” Sylvester said.

“She does.”

“You don’t call a girl tidy, Jamie.  You call someone tidy if you’re trying to be polite about the fact that they’re not very pretty.”

“Do you?  Huh.”

“May I make edits?” Sylvester asked.

“I don’t see why not.  You already added a long line down the page, and more ink to my clothes.”

“Scratching out ‘very tidy’, and adding ‘rather pretty’.”

“I’m fairly certain she heard that, Sy,” Jamie said, his voice quiet.  “She jumped as if you’d pricked her.”

In an equally quiet voice, Sylvester added, “What a darn shame.  Good thing it’s the truth.  Helen is all charms, no argument there.”

He looked up at Helen, who had returned to braiding.  She was some distance away, but she still looked up and winked.  Sylvester grinned at her.

“And Lillian?” Jamie asked.

“Lillian… is doing a very serviceable job of entertaining our newest member.  She’s not a complete disappointment.”

“Don’t you dare put that in the book,” Jamie said.  “That’s not right at all.”


“If you’re actually sorry at all for getting ink on me, I want you to come up with something genuinely nice to say about her.”

“What?  That’s unreasonable and over the top, compared…”

Jamie stared him down.


Jamie continued to stare.

“Fine.  Fine.  Lillian… makes a fine pair together with Mary.  Her school uniform fits her as well as the lace does Mary, with sharp looks to match her talents as a student and medic.”

“That was… better than expected.”

“Thank you.”

“And she glanced our way as you said that.”

“Dang it.  She heard?”

“She heard.”

“Dang it.  Too late to redact?”

“Too late.”

Sylvester dutifully wrote down the bits.  “Only thing I want to add about Gordon is that he was smirking after I got you with the ink.”

“I’ll figure out where to work that in.  But don’t get things out of order.”

“Alright,” Sylvester said.  He looked over the book one more time, then handed it back.

“Thank you,” Jamie said.

Sylvester bowed.

“Don’t act like it was a great service you did me,” Jamie said.  “I’m still miffed.  And Ms. Earles is going to be too, when I go to scrub down and I turn the bathtub black.”

“Why?” Sylvester asked.


“Why this scene?  You said it was an important bit.”

“It’s a good day,” Jamie said.  He found his seat again at the base of the tree, and carefully righted the ink pot, moving it aside.  “It’s worth remembering.”

“Hm,” Sylvester made a sound.

He looked at Lillian and Mary.

For the past little while, Mary had shown signs of insecurity that would fade only for a few moments, when he gave her close attention.  A glance, close proximity.  But that knot was unwinding.  She was embroiled in a three way conversation with Gordon and Lillian, and there were only faint signs of discomfort.

She would work out.  She wasn’t close to Helen in the here and now, but she slept in Helen’s room.  It would work out.

He felt a pang of fondness, looking at them as a group.

Even Lillian.  A little.  Ugh.


“Oh my lords,” Jamie said, without looking up from his book.  “You’re going to pester me all day, aren’t you?”

“Absolutely.  Absolutely.  Are you going to add the scene with the scrap between you and me?  With the ink?  Is that part of the good day?”

“Of course,” Jamie said.

Sylvester smiled.

“You dick.”

It was less a gasp and a lurch to step back from the darkness, and more an immense pressure, a terrible resistance, and finally pushing past a barrier, to stagger exhausted to the other side.

“There we go,” Mauer said, his voice soft.  “Gomorrah?”

Evette shook her head, opening her mouth to ask a question, and found she didn’t have the strength.

Her vision was blurry.  She could see the equipment that was strung into and out of her chest.  Sylvester’s chest.  Two of Mauer’s doctors were working on the damage.

Fought our way back.  There we go.

She felt profoundly lonely.  Sylvester was somewhere in there, but he wasn’t showing himself, and the Lambs, spectre or no, weren’t there.

“Gomer’s island,” Mauer tried.  “Also known as Gomorrah.  You mouthed two words, and it looked like missing children.”

He lipreads.

She nodded.

“I do believe I know what you’re referring to,” Mauer said.  “We’ll talk when you’re strong enough to speak.”

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Thicker than Water – 14.8

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

There was no elevator, and Mauer’s men weren’t inclined to be kind and meet me halfway.

Stairs, stairs, and more stairs.

That was the problem with these tall buildings.  They required too much effort to get from one point to another.  Humans, according to Wallace’s Law, had developed to confront the plains and the savannahs.  Large tracts of flat ground.  The reason the Lambs liked operating from high places was it positioned them to operate in a dimension their enemies didn’t.

But operating from up above was very different from getting there in the first place.

I’d used the word them to think about the Lambs.

Not us.

Was that why I couldn’t get the ghost of a person who never was to leave?

The recalcitrant Evette took the stairs with a kind of grim determination.  We worked through ideas on how to tackle Mauer.


My thoughts rambled, with Evette.  I didn’t have enough to hold onto, no past experiences to think back to.  I could try to organize them, but then I was fighting her.  I could embrace them, but then there was no guarantee we would find our way to a resolution.

“You’re slouching,” Helen pointed out.  “You’re making Sy slouch.”

“Shh,” Evette said.  “Thinking.”

“There are only so many times we can approach an enemy to have a face to face with them before one of them decides to be unkind,” Gordon said.

“I know this.  But we have a lot of ground to cover,” Evette said.  “Too many things to do.  Case in point.  I need the opportunity to figure out how this is all going to take shape.  Which means you all need to shut up and let me think.  The alternative is you get to shout at me, nothing changes, and we’re hobbled.  Wasn’t that the whole point of the ‘one person takes over’ thing?”

“This isn’t the way to do it,” Jamie said.  “Not in the big picture.  You’re shrugging off advice and counsel.  You’re not letting us offer our input.  Think, Evette.  Think, Sy.  What roles are the various Lambs playing here?  We’re representing parts of Sy.  And there are parts that are small and parts that are buried, that don’t get a lot of representation.  Those Lambs aren’t doing much.”

“I’m going to let you talk, but then you’re all going to have to be quiet and let me damn well think,” Evette said.

“I think that’s a deal?  It should be one, anyway.  Gordon?”

“Yes.  Fine.  Deal.  I hope you’ve got a good argument, Jamie.”

“I hope so too,” Jamie said, his voice soft.  “Helen’s obvious enough, Sy.  She’s instinct, your wants and needs.  Food, sleep, and a bit of identity, on the most basic level.  You as an organism.”

“I’d like to point out that aside from that blood apple, we haven’t eaten in a long time,” Helen said.

“Gordon’s trying to handle all the rest of us.  He focuses on the action, he makes the calls, he’s negotiating,” Jamie said.  “He’s us as the composite, understand?  All the different pieces working together.”

“I’m annoyed at that,” Gordon said.  “Doubly annoyed that I’m very clearly failing.”

“I’m about the connections, the deeper thoughts, the analysis.  I’ve always been slower than the rest of the Lambs.  I’ve always been more rational and inclined to educate myself on the details.  It says a lot that you picked me and not my successor.”

My heart was heavy at the combined weight of the thoughts of the older Jamie and the new one.  Both out of reach.

“You’re trying to put that stuff out of mind,” Jamie said.  “Jamie and Lillian.  If you actually reached out and tried communicating with them, you might tap into aspects of yourself that are more compassionate or teamwork oriented.  You might even figure out a way to get a handle on what’s going on in your own head, Sy.  Just saying.”

“He might not figure out a way,” Evette said.  “And the damage could be incalculable.”

“I won’t argue,” Jamie said.  “I don’t want this to be an argument.  But we haven’t seen Lillian or my successor since Evette really took over.  They’re very far away now, and that shows in how we handled Shirley.  I think that Lillian might represent a part of Sy that cares, in terms of compassion, and Jamie might represent a part of him that cooperates.  We haven’t needed to draw on the Lambs or any past experience for either of those things, except sort of with Shirley.  Again, stressing Shirley as a key point, here.  That’s not how Sy acts.”

“It was a calculated move,” Evette said.

“That’s the thing, though!” Jamie said.  And he sounded as agitated as I’d ever known Jamie to be.  “That’s the thing!  You called for a calculated move.  But you’re not that part of Sy!  That’s Duncan, I think, or it’s me.  You’re a different part of Sy.  At first it looked like you were the part that includes making the unconventional calls, improvising, problem solving and being inspired.”

“But?” Evette asked, sounding hostile.

“But there’s more to it,” Jamie said.  “I don’t know what it is, and I know that sounds lame and makes for a weak closing argument, but you broke pattern to be very calculating and ruthless in a key moment.  You’re the unique case.  You’re not based on anything real.”

“Allow me to make a counter-argument,” Evette said.

“Please do,” Gordon said.

“Sylvester is never more Sylvester than when he’s gloating over his victory.  When it all comes together, and he has the upper hand.  What we lack right now is Sylvester, the complete, nourished, functioning whole.  So what I’m going to do is very simple.  I’m going to take point, and I’m going to achieve a big win.  Something we need, after we had to say goodbye to everyone in Radham, dealt with wear and tear in Tynewear, and…”

“West Corinth.  Lillian and Jamie.  Yeah,” Gordon said, with a bit of resignation.

“That was supposed to be a win.  A good few days that let Sylvester be the devastating, magnificent person he needs to be, touching on every person and key point we needed to touch on.  But it wasn’t a win in the end.”

“So we’re doubling down?” Gordon asked.  “Going for broke?  Because if we gamble on this and we lose, and the odds are definitely not with us, then we’re not coming back from it in one piece, if we come back from it at all.”

“The fact is,” Evette said, “We were going to lose Shirley if we took her and walked away from all of this.  We can’t connect to her.  We can’t ask for help, cry on her shoulder, or be her shoulder to cry on.  There are deep-set problems and there aren’t easy fixes to them.  Thus, the gamble.  We take out the major players in one fell swoop.  We start enacting the plan he and Jamie were piecing together in Tynewear, during the winter and spring.  Purpose, drive, direction, and a reason to exist again.”

Gordon sighed.

“I don’t wholly disagree with the goal, even if I think it’s too much of a house of cards,” Jamie said, quiet, “But I particularly disagree with how you’re going about it.  The fact remains, we don’t entirely know what you represent, what you’re really striving for, or why you’re this prominent in Sy’s head.”

“That’s fair,” Evette said.

Gordon spoke, pointed, “But so long as you aren’t willing to vacate the spot, Sylvester will be one dimensional.  Jamie’s right.  Helen commented on posture, you’re barely even caring about how you present yourself at this point.  I’m commenting that you’re not thinking things through.  There’s not even a glance in the direction of compassion… I could go on.”

“I’m willing to hear you out, but I’m not willing to vacate,” Evette said.

“Why?” Jamie pressed.

“Because we were and are off balance.  All it took was a little push, and we crumbled.  Every time we exchange places, our perspective shifts, our goals alter, and we end up walking a zig-zagging line.  It’s contradictory, when Sylvester has to reach out to each one of you to get things done, but he doesn’t want to reach out to the Lambs or remind himself of them.  Did nobody else catch the metaphor that was running through Sylvester’s head back on the train?  Grabbing a blade and clutching it?”

“I noticed that,” Helen said.

“What we were doing wasn’t sustainable.  What I’m doing isn’t either, but at least we’ll get more done before it all goes to pieces,” Evette said.  “We’ll get more done traveling in a straight line than in a zig-zag.”

“I’m not so sure,” Gordon said.  “The moment we find ourselves in a circumstance where you can’t handle things, we lose all the ground we gained by traveling that single course.”

“Given the alternative is guaranteed lost ground, the pain of having to deal with you, being off balance with constant adjustment, and falling to pieces?” Evette asked.

“It seems you already decided,” Jamie said.  “Thank you for entertaining my argument.”

For the next two floors of the upwards ascent, it was only Evette and I.

“We left on a good note with Mauer, all considered,” Evette mused aloud.  “The good note being a truce with the Baron, a primordial, a plague, an acquaintance of ours being carted off to have all of her custom body work torn out and her body crippled head to toe…”

It was hard to know what to expect with Mauer.  Better to go into it with an idea of what to say and how to approach the discussion.  Treat it as a problem solving exercise.

What did Mauer want?  He was driven by anger, at least in part.  He was driven by pride.

We could feed his pride.

I fished the paper out of a pocket, looking it over, framing the individual strategies and the key points to hit.  Weaknesses, strengths, what he wanted and needed.

We rounded a bend in the staircase, and movement at the top of the stairs drew our eyes up and away from the paper.

We folded the paper and put it into a pocket.

Men, waiting.  They had the looks of soldiers, but were wearing civilian clothes.  Two of them had long rifles leaning against the wall by them.  One had a revolver in hand, aimed and pointed since before I’d even come up the stairs.

We raised my hands.

He gestured with the gun.  We ascended the last leg of the stairs.

There were more people beyond a doorway, all gathered in a single apartment.  The way was clear for us to pass through.

The moment we passed into the apartment, however, we felt the sharp pain and sense-rattling impact of a heavy object striking my head.  All the strategies and ideas we were holding ready, for arguments and to make the case against Mauer, all for naught, as our thoughts flew sideways and darkness took over.

Evette stirred.  She blinked, slowly, suppressing a wince at how the simple action was cause for more pain, then began to pick herself up off the ground.

Something had shifted.  She raised her hands, looking at the backs of them, before patting herself down.

Still Sylvester, in body if nothing else.

No other Lambs around.

“Fragile,” she murmured to herself.  “It would have been nice if we could have gotten off the train and taken a few weeks to ourselves, come to terms with things.  But we keep on taking our lumps, and we keep crumbling.”

The room was bright, as she allowed herself to open her eyes wider.  The artificial lights were on, glowing, with dark things swimming within, and the walls, tile, counter, and fixtures were white, with some black shapes winding through them.  A small bathroom, with the door closed, the doorknob missing.

“It looks like we’ve been taken prisoner,” she said.  She paused.  “It would be a problem if we were too late to reunite with Shirley.”

Her hand went to her waist.

The canisters were gone.

Her boots had been removed, her shirt untucked.

Subjected to a search while unconscious.

There was a part of her that was supposed to feel violated.  There was another part of her that was supposed to be reminded of Lillian and the moment of their second goodbye.  The frisky frisking.

She welcomed it.  It was something that made sense.  She was the enemy, and the enemy didn’t get the benefit of niceties.

Additionally, she reasoned, ignoring all of the jokes the Lambs had made in the past, it would have been very weird if Mauer had conducted a frisk while they were awake, if the frisk was even remotely similar to the one Sylvester had performed with Lillian.

She welcomed the pain, too.  It was a nice, neat little indicator of where things stood.  The adversarial relationship, the gravity of the situation, and he expectations of the enemy.

She looked around.  The mirror had been removed from the wall.  The components of the toilet had been removed, from the flush chain to the lid and, she suspected, the contents of the wall-mounted tank that held the water and mechanisms.

She searched the cupboards beneath the sink, and found them empty, except for a single, isolated mouse dropping.  She crossed to the other end of the small bathroom, and searched the shower.  There was soap, but the taps and the head of the shower had been removed, leaving only the pipe sticking out of the wall.

Peering closer at the drain, she saw the residue that had collected where the metal met the varnished bone.  A bug so small a less keen eye might have missed it crawled away from the residue, making its way to a crack between the tiles.

Blood.  Now that she knew to look for it, she could see more of it in the cracks between tiles.  Someone had been killed here, or they had been cut apart into a more convenient series of smaller pieces and then the pieces had been disposed of elsewhere.

She closed her eyes, halfways to anticipating the others speaking, interrupting the scene with interjected thoughts and ideas.

The silence was blissful.  Troubling, to be sure, but it was a problem that could be solved later.  For now, she was finally free to think.

She walked over to the sink, and checked out the wound to her -to Sy’s– head.  She turned on the water, slowly, so as not to make too much noise, and filled the sink.

With her sleeve, now damp, she daubed at the wound.  She bent her head low and then washed her face, immersing the upper corner of her scalp where the skin had parted and the congealed blood had formed what she suspected were the beginnings of a scab.

Trying to decide her next move, she stared down into the pink-red water, and she saw her reflection.  Sylvester’s face.

Sylvester had made her to fill a void, and then he had become a void.  He had retreated.  To then find herself being confronted with the fact that she wasn’t real- it wasn’t good.  She was the sole operating figure right now.  The lone personality.

Sylvester was hurting, and every time he got hurt any further, he retreated.  He’d given up his volition to let the individual, discrete parts of his personality and mind make the calls.  He’d retreated further and distanced himself from the Lambs, and let them become flawed, unrecognizable on a level.  Now he’d pulled far enough away that he’d pulled the Lambs out of her reach.

She focused, and she used Sylvester’s technique to build up a mental image strong enough to obscure and overcome what she was really seeing.  Now, when she looked down into the water, which was briefly distorted by a lone drip from the tap, she saw Evette’s face.

What were her options?

She took stock of the tools at hand.

Carefully, she swept her attention over the tiles, searching, checking for anything that might be loose.  They were firm enough she didn’t think she could pry anything loose.  A shame.  Whether bone or whatever it might have been, it could have been broken and turned into a shard.  A shard could serve as a weapon.

The glass from the light fixtures would be too fine to serve as a good cutting weapon.  It would crumble rather than break through tissue.  The light fixtures were mounted on the wall above the sink and the unpainted patch where the mirror had hung.  She climbed up onto the counter, swaying a little as her head throbbed, then used her dry sleeve to prod at the bulb.

Too hot to touch, much less unscrew.  The switch for the lights wasn’t in the room, either.

She pulled off her shirt, balled it up, and used the two largest wads of cloth to seize the first of the three bulbs and crush it.

The occupant fell free, grazing her knee as it fell toward the sink.  Rather than let it fall into the pool of water, which might have been inconvenient, she kicked it in the general direction of the toilet.

She shook as much of the glass particulate onto the counter as she could, before reaching up to crush the second bulb, this time being more careful of the black, worm-like thing that dwelt within.  She handled the third quickly enough, though she could smell the cloth starting to smoulder from the high temperature bulbs.

The room was dark, now.

She thought about pulling the shirt back on, but decided against it.  She shook it out as well as she could, then set it aside, using her hands to scrape up the glass dust into a small pile.

She couldn’t wear the shirt again.  That gave her another idea.

Yes, there was a way out.  She would have to think fast, improvise, and rely a touch on luck, but there was a way.

She unbuttoned her pants, then removed them, before removing her underwear.

There was a bar of soap.  With water from the sink and soap in hand, she lathered up, and rubbed her entire body down.

With cupped hands, she pooled water on the floor, and ground the bar of soap into the tile there.

The clothes were set aside, pants bundled in one hand, the crushed glass collected and kept as a reserve measure.

The trick was to keep her feet dry.  She avoided stepping in the puddle she’d made as she retreated to the tub, so she could plant a foot there, kicking off against the tub’s edge to give herself a forward push.

She crouched there, and she waited, the only light in the room being the light that came in through the door.

While she waited, she thought about her plans, her goals, and her needs.

Ironic, that when a noble had offered his full resources to her, she felt she had no resources to spare.  The problems she had to figure out, problems with Sylvester, with needing to wake him up, with the Lambs and with various enemies, weren’t problems that Academy medicine could easily solve.

When her skin started to crackle and the soap film began to flake, she dipped her hand into water and wet herself down again, reapplying soap.

If she concentrated, she could hear the noise outside.  Voices, people talking, discussing.

She heard the change in pitch as the conversation changed, and she tensed.

The key turned in the lock, and the door swung open.  What had been a muffled mumble became a voice.  “-lights are off.”

The soldier, a revolver in his hand, stared at the scene she’d created.  At the naked adolescent that was curled up in the corner by the wall and the tub.

He shut the door.  The key sounded in the lock.

“Damn,” Evette said to herself.

But she remained where she was.  She counted off numbers in her head and considered the details of that scene of the open door, the room beyond.  The light had been glaring, her memory wasn’t any better than Sylvester’s, but she’d see people in the room beyond, multiple, and the floor, and the distance to the wall, which had had windows running all alongside it.  The exterior wall of the apartment building.

Again, she heard voices change.

The door opened.  There was a different man there, this time.  Not Mauer.  And the first man was there too, standing behind him.

Faced with a tricky and questionable situation, he’d turned to a superior for counsel.

The superior drew his gun.  Evette didn’t move.

“Cuffs,” he instructed his subordinate.

She heard the jangle of the chain.

“I’m going to come in there,” the captain said.  “You’re going to give me your hand, and I’m going to cuff one of your wrists.”

Evette waited.

The man stepped into the room, set one foot on the puddle of soapy water, and sprawled.

She lunged, driving one foot into the man’s stomach as she walked on him, kicking him across the face as she entered the doorway.

The subordinate that had first opened the door was there.

She’d noted the nature of the floor earlier.  Now she dropped.  Still slick, soapy all over, she slid hard into one of his legs, toppling him.

His hand grappled for her, his fingernails scraped skin, but found no purchase.

“He’s getting away!” the man roared.  “Fuck!”

There were others in the apartment.  A man sat by the window with a long rifle.  Quick to react, rising to his feet as he drew a gun.  She figured out the way to the front door, then bolted for it, using the passage into the hallway as a way to get out of the man’s field of view.

A fourth man was in the hallway, guarding the closed front door.  A harder barrier to pass.

Still sprinting, she hurled the handful of crushed glass in the general direction of his face and eyes.  She had to bring her shoulder down low to drive it into the man’s solar plexus.  Being shorter had its advantages here.

While the man suffered, knowing the other three were about to appear behind her, she passed the pants to the other hand, which had fine glass particulate embedded in the skin and countless fine cuts across the surface, and used the other, unhurt hand to turn the key and knob.

She hauled the door open, found herself with a grown man on one side of her and a grown woman on the other.  Their hands found no purchase on her slick skin, but the attempts at grabbing her put her off balance.  She half-fell, half-slid down the short flight of stairs, caught herself, and then hurled herself downward, one hand on the rail to keep her balance as she ran down the stairs.

Soap and water had transferred from her to the stair, and one of the two that she’d just now evaded slipped, catching themselves on the railing or their comrade.  Whatever it was, she only saw a glimpse through the gaps between stairs and railings, and that glimpse suggested they’d stopped, at least for a moment.  There were others catching up now.

She flew down flights of stairs, jumping down as much as she ran.  After several flights, a glance suggesting they were a little ways behind her, she paused to catch her breath and pull on the pants.  The texture against her soaped-up legs was uncomfortable.

The other Lambs would be making comments now.  Still a concern, that.

But it could wait.  A lot of things could.

The noise of the soldiers coming down after her spurred her into action again.  She ran down the stairs, hit the landing and stumbled, then took two steps and jumped the remainder to the next landing.

There were people coming up the stairs.


Timing was key.

She knew there were people coming down from upstairs.  There were people coming up from downstairs.

If she waited too long, then the ones from upstairs would catch up.  If she was too early, she’d throw herself into the clutches of the people below.


She dropped down to a crouch, bracing herself, and then, on seeing a glimpse of the people below arriving at the top of the stairs below, about to round the corner and look up at her, she took a few running steps, and then threw herself down, one hand reaching for the railing.

She vaulted over, down to the stairs well below her, reaching for the railing on the far wall as something to catch and keep her from landing on the stairs and tumbling the rest of the way down.

A hand seized her by the ankle, coarse and rough enough to bite into skin and find purchase there.  With sheer strength and a twist of the man’s body for leverage, she was hauled down out of the air, onto the stairs and landing.

It was Mauer, and two of Mauer’s lieutenants.  She might have recognized one as being from Lugh.

Mauer looked tired, far older than he’d looked the first time she’d seen him.  Or had Sylvester painted a prettier picture in his mind’s eye?  Mauer’s coppery hair was longer and shaggier, his face slightly drawn, but his eyes were sharp.

“Trust you to make an entrance, Sylvester,” Mauer spoke.

That voice.  The younger jamie would have a perfect word for the sound of it.

She looked up at the man and smiled.  “Just who I wanted to see.”

“Yet you didn’t seem satisfied with staying put?” Mauer asked.

“The head wound and lack of explanation led me to assume the worst,” she said.

The men from upstairs were catching up now.

Mauer looked up at them.

“Charleston got the soap from the tub, but forgot the soap by the sink, or vice versa.  The boy might have blinded Flinn, we didn’t think about the lighting.”

Mauer pursed his lips.

“We left our last meeting on good terms,” Evette said.  “I hoped this one would go considerably better.”

“Mm,” Mauer made a sound.

For a man with such a powerful voice, he was being very quiet.

He settled his eyes on Evette.  He seemed to take a long moment to study her.

“But you aren’t the Sylvester I knew,” he said.

“Ah,” she said.  “Long story.”

Mauer drew a gun, aiming it at her.

“I can condense it.”

“My instinct and logic suggest you couldn’t get the drug you’re accustomed to taking and took something else, with a resulting change in mannerisms and manner of speech,” he said.

She almost opened her mouth to confirm that suggestion.

“But,” he continued, “things are rarely simple with you.”

“Rarely,” she said.

“Who are you?” he asked.

She thought back to the conversation with the others.  The discussion of what part of Sy they each were.

They weren’t there or listening in, as far as she could tell, and the pat answer likely wouldn’t satisfy Mauer any.

“I’m Wyvern,” she said.  “I am Sylvester’s pain.”

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Thicker than Water – 14.7

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

The rain was heavy, drilling against carriage roof and street around us.  The streets were smooth, but the roads were wet and the carriage skidded with every turn and adjustment in direction, the wheels squeaking and grinding as they ran sideways across the road with every skid.  Each of the wagons had lanterns mounted on them, and it was just getting dark enough for the lanterns to be lit, making for fleeting, passing lights that illuminated the raindrops on the windows like hundreds of individual, tiny light sources.

“…going to need some warbeasts.  Can you modify them so they’re loud?” Evette and I continued what had been a long discussion.

“Theoretically, but-”

“Make them loud, then.  Mauer is a communicator.  He’s an orator, and every time I’ve seen him, he’s had a way of commanding the crowds.  People look to him for direction.  So we have to deny him that.  If we’re going to get him, we have to deny him that role.  We blitz, we steal his voice, and we steal their ears.”

Kinney shook her head, “The modifications to the warbeasts would have to be post-fact, there are drugs, there are machine augmentations, and there are likely resources we could tap into for alternate organs or physical structures, but there would need to be time in the lab, surgery-”

“You can’t?” Evette and I asked.  “I thought you guys were good, I thought we had resources.”

“We can,” Kinney said, patiently.  “But the one resource that isn’t in our hands is time.  If you assign arbitrary tasks-”

“I was asked to hunt Mauer by the Lord Infante because I know Mauer better than anyone the Infante has at his disposal.  I have spent more than half of my life, nine out of about sixteen years, hunting people like him.  When I talk about the measures we should deploy, I’m doing it for a reason.  Not to be arbitrary.”

“I have doubts,” she said, very calm, “I’m voicing them, full disclosure.”

“If you’re questioning me on this, you’re questioning your noble.”

She gave us a very unimpressed look that suggested she knew full well what we were doing, then matched the look with tone of speech as she said, “Perhaps it would be better to tell us what you’re looking to accomplish, and we can suggest the tools to accomplish those things.”

“No,” Evette and I said.  “Because I don’t have time to run everything past you.  We’re dropping me off shortly, and then you’re taking the carriage to go straight back to the lab to start getting everything ready.  Some of the things I name have reasons that aren’t just for the obvious purpose, so I want you to strive to give me what I want, not just close approximates.”

“Evette,” Gordon commented.  “You’re not making friends.”

“And you want warbeasts that make noise, of all things?” Professor Kinney said.  She looked over at Arandt, as if checking for confirmation.

He was remaining quiet, arms folded, listening while letting the younger Bette Kinney handle the negotiation.

“We want warbeasts that make enough noise to drown people out,” Evette and I said.  “Things like this-”

We tapped at the canisters that were still connected to our belt.  “Smoke that chokes, for obvious reasons, and some smoke that nauseates, to disrupt focus and, again, potentially steal their voices.  You and Professor Arandt will work on more smoke generation vehicles.  Smoke with drugs, things to cover other bases, I want them to suffer if there’s even a whiff of the drug.”

“Something effective in lower doses?” she asked.  “We could kill them in low doses.  Why hold back?”

“Anything that potent would likely kill me.  I’m going to be in the thick of things.”

“In the thick of things?” Arandt asked, his eyebrows rising.  “Against Mauer?  A trained soldier, capable combatant, religious and military leader with a small army of revolutionary soldiers at his back.”

“Because Evette,” Jamie said.  “Because her default approach is the unexpected, chancey one.”

“It’s because of the scale and nature of his forces that I’m going to be there,” Evette and I said.  “It’s part of a greater plan.”

“I note how they doesn’t even have a good reason ready to supply for why they’re going to be in the thick of it.  They just want to do it,” Gordon commented.

“Shh,” Evette  urged the spectres.

“That ‘greater plan’-” Professor Kinney started.

We interrupted.  “Stop.  Look.  Mauer expects the out-of-proportion response.  It’s how the Crown and the Academy operate.  If we kill his people, we make ourselves a bigger, more intense enemy.   If we kill him, he becomes a martyr.  That carries weight, especially with the way he positions himself.  That means taking his strengths and turning them into weaknesses.  It means giving him no room to find or keep his balance.  We break him, and we break him by being soft, ephemeral.”

“By getting you in close proximity to him, and leaving him unable to command?”

“Among other things,” we said, thinking.  I looked up.  “Is there a drug we can use to induce ringing in the ears?  What’s it called?”


“Do that.  Gas form, if possible.  Enough to be uncomfortable or disruptive, without destroying.  I want a cumulative effect with that and a number of other drugs, with no contraindications.  Choking smoke, nausea, lights or sparkles in the eyes, mild pain, hallucinations, a little bit of bleeding from orifices?”

“All doable.  It’s a question of asking for the right chemicals from the right batches, keeping an eye on management, packing it into canisters like the one you have-”

“No,” we said.


“Not canisters.  No.  I’m thinking… it needs to be stitched.  Or warbeasts, if you think you can get enough set up.  But probably stitched.  Fill them with gas.  Set them up to explode, or exhale it, or leak it when shot.  It’s about pressure, having bodies on our side that we can expend while still accomplishing our objective.  And the gas needs to be thin, easily dispersed into the air and still effective when dispersed at those concentrations.”

“You’re asking for a great deal, again, stitched would have to be modified to carry a payload.”

“And you’re worried about time, you said?” we asked.  We weren’t as good as some of the others at going on the offense, or at manipulation.  All we could do was seize on something and push for it, and run them down with quantity of words and ideas.  “Recruit more people.  I’m sure you can do that, can’t you?  Just use the Infante’s name, bring some people on board?”

“It’s in the realm of possibility,” she said.  “And you’re introducing complexity now.”

“I’m not even halfway done.  The next phase is parasites.  The worst thing that could happen is that I capture Mauer and we get to the stage where they’re on their heels, and then his very well trained and very dangerous lieutenants immediately make a counter-play.  Mauer will have plans up his sleeve, things he’s discussed with his lieutenants.  We get Mauer, they enact the most viable plan, and suddenly they have a person, place, or thing hostage.”

Gordon commented, “And they get the hostage or they take away something that hurts-”

“The nobility won’t pay ransom,” Kinney said.  “It would have to be a very valuable hostage, but it’s more likely that we don’t pay, and we lose something that hurts.”

“Very likely,” I agreed.  “Which is why we step it up.  We need longer-term problems.  Something to delay.  Parasites.  Something that’s time consuming to get rid of.”

“Fisteria,” Professor Arandt suggested.

“Would it be hurt by the smoke as proposed?” Evette and I asked.

“Most things would.”

Evette and I nodded, “Find a way to make it so they’ll stay at peak effectiveness.  Hamper Mauer’s men, don’t kill.  We want them to stop, hurt, and think, before they decide on their next move.  We’ll also need a deployment.  Something different from the stitched.”

“I have to ask,” Kinney said.  “Why aren’t we outright killing them?”

“I covered that,” Evette and I replied.

“No, you suggested roundabout reasons why killing the men and leaving Mauer alone would give him grounds for further aggression, and why taking out Mauer alone would make him a martyr.  Killing the men and killing or capturing Mauer in a massive assault would prevent both.”

Evette and I stopped.  There were reasons, but spelling it out meant having a better mental footing.  Implementation was easiest.

“Theoretically,” we said, stalling.

Gordon.  Help.

Gordon spoke, “You want a reason her approach won’t work?  Mauer’s forces are too spread out.  They won’t be concentrated in a way that can be easily attacked.”

Evette and I repeated it, virtually word for word.  We were speaking with a delay before we spoke, and our attempts to cover it with body language and manner of speaking weren’t perfect.  Far from.

“The gas and the parasites, distributed well enough, will be able to reach or inconvenience most of Mauer’s men on the fringes.  The lookouts and the groups that are waiting to flank us as we attack Mauer in the heart of his group.”

We repeated Gordon’s phrasing.

“With a distribution that wide, you’re talking about affecting civilians,” Professor Kinney said.

“Definitely,” Gordon said.  “Mauer’s men, they’ll be in tall buildings a block or two city blocks away, watching over things with those guns and some binoculars or telescopes to give them the ability to watch things unfold.  We want to catch at least the closer ones in the course of the general assault.  We’ll want fast moving troops with guns.  Expendable ones.  Limber stitched, where possible.”

We repeated for him, sentence by sentence.

“Stitched, as a general rule, emphasize durability over agility.”

“But you can,” Evette and I said.

“We can, yes.  But I happen to wonder if we should.  A lot of this makes me wonder if we should.  I’m not seeing the thrust of it, and I’m not a member of your little team of like-minded experiments.  Why should we go this far?  Explain your rationale.”

Evette and I answered, not waiting for Gordon, “You should, because you want to make an impact.  You should recruit as many people as you can under your banner for the sake of this attack, because you want to enjoy the power, however briefly, that comes with working under a noble.  That ability to say ‘jump’ and have a crowd of people obey in unison.”

“Arandt,” Gordon said, with a hint of urgency.

We wheeled on Arandt, extending a pointing finger.

He’d just opened his mouth to speak, his arms still folded as he sat in his seat in the carriage.

“Yes?” he asked.

“He was going to interject,” Gordon said.  “He’s been waiting all this time to find a point to jump in and devastate your argument.”

“You were going to interrupt us,” we said.

“I was going to add a comment,” the gaunt Professor Arandt said.

“A comment about your recklessness,” Gordon said.  “You’re painting a picture, staking everything on this plan, the drama of it, and he’s too conservative and careful to truly want to be a part of it.”

“You have your doubts,” we said, speaking over the last few words of Gordon’s commentary.  “I understand.  But there’s more to this.  Aspects I can spell out later.  What we need for now is for you to get started.  Mauer just took major action.  There’s two ways he could go from here.  He either escalates, seizing on prior advantage, or he does something to cement that advantage and burns every bridge behind him as he disappears.  One of those actions is imminent, and hitting him while he’s in the process of preparing for it may be one of the few times we catch him with his guard down.”

“I can’t help but notice the infrequent use of the royal ‘we’,” Kinney observed.

“And that last part is complete and unmitigated bullshit, Sy,” Jamie commented.

Gordon was gone, and Jamie was present.  He wasn’t lurking in my peripheral vision anymore, but I still couldn’t look directly at him without him dodging off to one side, like an afterimage from a very bright light very close to my eye.

“That isn’t how Mauer operates,” Jamie said.

“Sy doesn’t get all of the credit for the unmitigated bullshit,” Evette said.  “I helped.”

“You helped,” Jamie conceded.

Kinney had said something in the midst of the conversation between Jamie and Evette, and my observations of Jamie.  She was looking at me expectantly.

“You said something,” I said.  “What was it?  I was thinking.”

“Timing is sensitive, then,” Kinney challenged us, allowing herself a private smile at the irony.

“This is doable.  You have your black coats.  I know you’re capable of recognizing that something is achievable and making it happen,” we retorted.

Arandt dryly commented, “It’s a question of motivation, I think.  We serve the noble lord Infante, of course, and we do our utmost to produce the best work possible for him and his extended family.  But the best work possible looks very different when we truly want something ourselves, and when we are simply doing our duty.”

“There it is,” Gordon commented.

“This isn’t entirely untrue,” Kinney said.  “That motivation factor might make the difference in this being achieved.”

“Do we really want to tap vast resources and personnel and reinvent the wheel for a risky gambit that might make an impact?” Arandt asked.  “And might make us look bad if we’re deemed to have any part in its failure?”

“The best way to avoid looking bad is to do exemplary work,” we challenged him.

Arandt shook his head a little, and didn’t venture a reply.

“We will, rest assured, do our best work,” Kinney said, with an notable lack of sincerity and a look in her eye that suggested she was testing us.  The ‘best work’ she was talking about was best work that was liable to see most but not all of the required work done, with time constraints being their very real and unavoidable reality.  They wouldn’t do any more work than was necessary to meet their goal.

Leaving it like this meant that she and Arandt won the argument, and it meant that Evette and I weren’t achieving our goal of keeping them sufficiently busy and out of our hair.

“What you’re doing doesn’t make sense as an approach, Sy,” Gordon said.  “And why would Evette be clever about planning and strategy and treat social problems as if she’s bashing her face into a wall and hoping to win?”

The carriage came to a stop.  The driver knocked on the carriage roof.

We arrived.

We looked over at Shirley, who was sitting beside me, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible.

“I can do this,” Gordon said.  “And criticizing you two as you’ve stumbled through this conversation has given me renewed life.  I’ll get the professors on the same page as us.  Swap out with me, Evette.  I don’t want to keep doing the thing where I talk and you two repeat after me.”

I relaxed, shifting my thoughts to allow for the swap to happen.

No,” Evette said.

The syllable rang in my head for long seconds in the midst of the uneasy pause that followed.  My skin crawled as goosebumps took over.

Evette remained sitting beside me.  When I looked, there was nobody in the space of the carriage that we had allocated to Gordon, where Jamie had appeared.  Where Helen would appear if she wasn’t so uncomfortable to look at, so unnecessary to this current situation.

With only Evette at hand, faced with prospective allies who might well be uncooperative, we had no idea how to convince them.  I reached for things and there was a distinct nothing instead of the Lamb that should have spoken up, a void in place of the part of me that should have fielded that aspect of the problem.

Stiffly, we rose out of the seat, opened the door, and stepped down onto the rail beneath the door.  We stopped there, already getting drenched in our brief exposure to the rain.  Shirley had partially risen out of her seat.

“You stay,” we said.

“What?” she asked, eyes wide.

“Stay.  With them.  If they go back to the labs and I’m out here handling things, they’ll think I’ve absconded, and they won’t work.  It’ll be my word against theirs.  If you stay, then they have reason to believe I’m coming back.”

“I’m collateral?”

“I need to be active out here, they need to be active in the lab.  My plan will work, and it will make a lot of old problems manageable.”

“I’m collateral,” Shirley said.  She stared at me, quietly horrified.  “You’re treating me like some thing you might pawn at a store to have some money, Sy?”

That’s not wholly wrong, I thought.  I felt a pang of conscience.  This was where the other Lambs were supposed to speak up.

Evette started speaking, and I moved my lips to match.  “That’s not wholly wrong, except you’re a lot more valuable than any item.  You’re priceless, because you’re that close to me-”

The only one that was close to me.  We were playing it up a little to exaggerate, but only a little.  We weren’t good manipulators like this, me and Evette.

“-and the Infante himself recognized that you had that value to me.  Which is why they won’t and can’t touch you, and why this will even work in the first place.”

She shook her head, staring at me.

“I will be back,” I said.

“Browsing the pawn stores in Tynewear, I saw a lot of people who lived beyond their means pawning treasured and sentimental items to cover debts and make bets.  All of them convinced themselves in the moment that they would get the money, they would return, and they would have what they wanted and their personal treasures too.”

“Yeah,” we replied.

“There’s a reason those pawn stores stay in business, Sylvester.  It’s not because they routinely give back those treasures they held as collateral.”

“Yeah,” we replied, our tone less confident, less proud.

“Yeah?” she asked.

“But there are still ways to make sure things work out,” we said.  “Big picture and small.  Trust me.”

We looked at the professors.

“You’ve memorized what we want?” Evette and I asked.

“Yes,” Kinney said.  She smiled, self-indulgent.  Not because of the exchange between Shirley and us.  Because she wasn’t being wholly sincere.

“I’ll be back later.  I’m most comfortable skulking around on my own, and I need to get my head around the shape of what Mauer’s doing, and what the battlefield might look like.  I’ll come back with more ideas on what we need to tackle this, and a more exact idea of what his big move might look like,” I said.

“More ideas,” Kinney said, in mild disbelief.

Evette and I smiled, and we shut the door with some force.

The chill that had come with Evette’s refusal to vacate hadn’t wholly left me, even though the evening was hot.  It was warm enough that the rain didn’t cool us down so much as it got us thoroughly drenched.

We were free, in a manner of speaking.  There was an indistinct time before we had to return for Shirley.  We would come back to find that the professors had churned out some but not all of the work.  Much of it would be the easiest tasks.  The gas, the chemicals, produced in large quantities.  The stitched would be put off.  The warbeasts too.  Perhaps they would have students recruited to do the grunt work.

It wasn’t ideal, but we were free.

“You’re building a house of cards,” Gordon said.  “You realize this?  They’ll interrogate the soldier you convinced to lie, and they’ll use drugs, the same ones they used on Lillian.”

We ignored him, walking briskly.  The numbering of the streets made navigation fairly easy.

“Putting Shirley at stake like that, it’s not good,” Gordon said.  “You would never do that.”

We continued to ignore him.

“This isn’t sustainable, Sy.  You’re going downhill, hour by hour.”

I could have pushed him away, but I didn’t want to.

I should have been able to push Evette out, but I couldn’t, even though I wanted to.  There was a part of me that refused to let go of that aspect of her.

We walked, moving through the crowd.  Even in a city where people walked with purpose and a brisk stride, we were faster, which meant having to navigate the people, the warbeasts, and the other obstacles.  A fast moving zig-zag through the forest of moving bodies nearly saw me walk into more than one stationary obstacle that I hadn’t seen until it was too late.

“Maybe, maybe this works,” Jamie said.  “Maybe you find all of the pieces you’re looking for, you arrange everyone perfectly, keeping in mind that Mauer is clever and capable, and the Infante is monumentally powerful with the wisdom to use that power at its most effective.  Maybe the stars align, and absolutely nothing goes wrong.  And maybe, just maybe, you accomplish this.”

He paused for emphasis.

Moving through the crowd, I saw a girl that looked very much like Lillian had when Lillian was young.  The same face shape, the same nose shape, enough that I thought she was a very distinct spectre.  Then I saw the blonde hair, and the features that didn’t quite fit, the fact that her upper arms were thicker, implying a different body type, and that Lillian would never dress that way, and, and, and-

And then she was gone and the image of her flew from my mind, and I was left with only annoyance at myself that I’d seen any resemblance at all.

Jamie spoke softly, in a voice I shouldn’t have heard through the hustle and bustle of it all.  “Maybe you even achieve your quadruple-cross, with all of the pieces of your and Evette’s intricately constructed setup serving their roles, playing out with grace and impact and all of the desired fallout.  In part, what you and the other Jamie were plotting during that long winter and spring in Tynewear is achieved.”

In part.

“That’s a lot of maybes, Sy.  A lot of gambles, with narrow odds.  On another day, with help, you might achieve it.  Might.  If you were at your best.”

We’d found the intersection that Mauer’s soldier had mentioned.

Jamie was gone.  Helen was there.  Twisted up, but capable of speaking, despite having no mouth half the time.  I only saw fleeting glimpses of her in the midst of the crowd.  A person would walk between us, and I’d see Helen mostly intact.  Then the next instant she disappeared from view and reappeared, blocked by intervening bodies, she would be a twisted ruin again.

She spoke in her cold, reptilian voice, the one without inflection or emotion, only delivery, “You’re not at your best, Sy.  Gordon is right.  You only slept because you were drugged.  You haven’t eaten.  You’re getting steadily worse, with more flaws in this crutch you’re employing.”

Evette and I looked at the houses.  We judged which one Mauer would prefer as a spot to camp out in, one of the places his followers had gathered, stockpiling resources while using windows to monitor goings-on.  Perched on a corner, it was a spacious house that might have been a home once, but broken down into individual apartments within.  Red brick, with branches crawling through the woodwork.

“I’m inclined to back Duncan’s mutiny,” Gordon said.  “Even knowing what it might cost.”

“It costs Sy Sy,” Jamie said.  “We oust him, and we take up residence, taking our turns as needed.  There’s not even any guarantee it works.  We might try as a subconscious craving on Sy’s part to utterly change, and leave ourselves a collective vegetable.  Or something worse.”

“Are you saying all of this to him or to me?” Evette asked.

“To both,” Helen said.  “The two of you were supposed to bring Shirley.  But you seized control, you discarded her.  We don’t want to be that person.  We need Shirley.”

Evette and I hopped the fence, in broad daylight.  We approached the side of the house, peering in through windows.  People were staring.

Who was going to act, though?

“Give us time,” Evette said.  “A few hours.”

“We won’t last a few hours,” Gordon pointed out.  “At the rate we’re crumbling, the rebellion on Duncan’s part, and now on yours, refusing to cede ground to us?  Pushing us further away?  Sy’ll be gone in one way or another before the night is half over.”

“An hour, then,” Evette said.  “Two.”

“An hour,” Gordon said.  “Then the rest of us start talking extra measures.”

“One hour, but if we’re doing okay, you extend the time,” Evette said.


And, in the meantime, you help,” Evette said.

Gordon nodded.

Evette and I nodded, as we found an entrance that might have worked.  A window was slightly ajar.  The sill of that same window, we noted, had glass shards worked into it, the points sticking up and out.  Deterrence for would-be thieves.

We climbed up, careful, using other aspects of the building, and peered into the room, checking all was clear.

There was a mechanism in place, tucked into one corner of the window.

It took some doing to fiddle with the mechanism and raise the window up without cutting me on the glass shards.  We managed it, then held the mechanism firm while climbing through the window.

Gas and chemical, sorted out into containers, all arranged in a battery that was reminiscent of the Caterpillar project’s brains.  Wires and mechanisms fed from every entrance and exit of the house to the battery.

The window had been a decoy.  Shove it open and boom.  Fire and death.

Even if it were a real, unwitting thief, the explosion would distract the Crown.

We moved through the house, careful for more traps.  There were signs that many people had slept here, many people had stayed.  Beers had been imbibed in great quantities during off hours.

With Jamie helping, we identified the chair that had been Mauer’s by positioning, quality, and the damage to one of the arms.  His massive arm had rested on it, clutching at the handrest.  He had been standing by it, drawing attention, helping to form the connection.

Mauer had been here once.  Perhaps it had been a headquarters before, before he’d made a routine change of location?

Eminently believable that he would be here, all in all, but nothing useful.

“The man who led us here might have expected us to trigger the trap and die,” Gordon said.  “I’m very curious what we plan to do if he talks about you asking him to lie about Mauer’s location.”

“We can handle that,” Evette and I said, “It’s part of the quadruple-cross.  Everyone is aware of how smart they are.  They’re aware of how smart we are.  The Infante is expecting a betrayal.  We’ll give him this one, mild and enough to draw his curiosity.  Then we give him what he wants and deliver a fatal blow at the same time.”

“And Shirley?” Jamie asked.  “She’ll be okay in the midst of this?”

“The Infante doesn’t see the point in hurting her,” Gordon said.  “He didn’t see the point in using our relationship with Lillian against us, threatening her.  I still don’t like sending her back there.  I don’t like hurting her.  But… if we’re cooperating with Evette in this, I’m ninety percent confident she’s safe for now.”

“I don’t like that ten percent,” Jamie said.

Helen was silent, standing by a table.  We approached.

There were fruits, set in a bowl.  They hadn’t rotted, though they looked a touch ripe, which meant Mauer had been here somewhat recently.

Helen being there meant something.  Instinct, needs.  We reached for the fruit, sating hunger by biting into an apple.

Thick juice ran down our chin.  The apple tasted like coins and raw meat.  The texture wasn’t apple, either.

Nothing like biting into an apple and realizing it was a blood apple instead.

Proteins, all the same.

“There are clues in the situation here,” Gordon observed.  “The sheer quantity of explosives here.  It means he’s not detonating any bombs or anything in the near future.  If he’s making further moves, he has something else in mind.”

“He should,” Evette said.  “We should find out just what that is.”

“That so?” Gordon asked.  “How do you propose we do that?”

“We ask, clearly,” Evette said.

Seizing paper and a pen, we began scrawling out a message.  We found our way to a window, and we observed the surroundings before moving to another face of the house.  Once there, we found our target -a high building nearby-, and we raised the paper to the window, holding it there.  We fixed our eyes in their general direction, so that if they looked at us through any binoculars, they would see is looking more or less at them, and they would see our message.

‘Truce talk.’

Even as damaged as I was, with the various voices in my head commenting at how badly things were drifting to pieces, I felt a little bit of excitement at the prospect of talking to Mauer again.

Two long minutes passed, no doubt while they debated whether or not to shoot me.

Evette was fairly certain they wouldn’t.  It would cost too much.  The gunshot would bring countermeasures into play, things like the wall-wolves coming out of hiding to collapse in on the place the noise had come from.

On the eighth floor of a ten-floor spire, lights turned on, then turned off.

That would do.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Thicker than Water – 14.6

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The cell was dark, dry, and spacious, with very nice furniture, all considered.  There was a desk and chair that would be fit for any of the more respected businessmen or politicians in Radham, a modest bed with nicer sheets than I’d ever had, a stocked bookshelf, and some basic lab equipment.

My hands moved through practiced motions, putting together smoke canisters.  We only had the materials for three, pieced together from canisters that were intended to be thrown at fires to extinguish them and from basic chemicals in the kits.

We only worked with the basics anyhow.  No education to draw from, only what Marv and Jamie had been able to impart, with a little bit of ingenuity and problem solving.

Problem solving could get us 90% of the way there.  The trick, it seemed, came down to either luck or having the right resources to tap.

We were in a very interesting place when it came to resources.

“Smoke bombs, smoke bombs,” Evette and I said.  “Smoke bomb with nerve poison, smoke bomb that suffocates, smoke bomb that nauseates, smoke bomb that suffocates, again…”

Pause.  Wait, listen.

We smiled, setting the four bombs in a line on the desk.

We reached out, and set one of the tall glass cylinders to spinning precariously on its end before snatching up a piece of paper.

“To… do,” we said, penning down the words.  “Get Mauer.  Capture.  Have a chat.  Kill or deliver him-”

We reached out and stopped the wobbling canister from toppling over and falling to the floor in the process.

“See how much damage we can do to our enemies and to ourselves in the process.  Wouldn’t be Sylvester if we didn’t get him hurt in the process, am I right?”

Only silence answered.

Wyvern had originally been intended to help with learning language and other things that were so frequently shaped in childhood and then ‘locked in’.  Academy students were often pushed by their families from a young age to learn their ratios and study texts, attend tutoring, enroll in academy prep schools, attend summer classes, and to treat every experience as a learning experience, without a spare moment to play or to draw.  They often reached the point where they could do the work, they could study well, but with all their prior experience, they hadn’t been equipped to have an original thought or idea.

When those students stumbled, if they’d curried enough favor, then that little green syringe would be dangled in front of their noses, with the promise that it would hurt more than anything the student had ever experienced, and it might give them the ability to cross the hurdle in front of them and revive parts of the brain that had atrophied in childhood.

We knew there was another use that had come up before.  Compulsive behaviors, habits, and surgeon’s jag, when those actions that someone performed a thousand times a day coupled with pressure to introduce a crippling compulsive twitch or jerk to the precise actions.  Wyvern could soften the brain to allow the person to work out the mental wrinkles and knots.

But it was a double edged sword.  Things that had worked before could so easily slide into that same domain.  Tics, new habits, forming deep grooves with very mundane actions or roles that were only temporary.  For most, it was one small dose to correct the major issue, then two or three doses more to steer back onto course, with the subject learning how to direct things and being very, very careful.

Or, in cases like mine, the doses were ongoing for long periods of time, and the risk of the wrong things crystallizing in a bad way was minimal.

Minimal wasn’t ‘nonexistent’, however.  And Evette and I had no idea if I was that much more susceptible to problems in this less stable state.

“Food,” we noted, penning it down.  “Still haven’t eaten.  Need food.”

We snuck a glance at Helen, who was in the corner.

She was Helen in the same way that a towel was a towel when it was soaking wet and wrung tight into a coil.  There was hair on the head and there was skin and a long neck and a pretty dress, there were arms and there were legs, and they were all roughly in the right positions, but even though the figure stood still, things were twisted and stretched as if she was mid-movement, everything turned around and wrinkled in action and bent straight.  Abstract, the distillation of the individual puzzle pieces that put a physical Helen together as a dream might provide in the midst of a flurry of chaotic events and impressions.

But the prison cell was quiet, the flurry had stopped.

Our Helen, silent and completely without a face.

We couldn’t let this crystallize.  We couldn’t fuss, let ourselves get upset, or give this moment any emotional resonance.  That would make it more likely to stay this way.

“Sugar.  Brain food.  Cake,” we spoke aloud, penning it down.

The hope that we might be able to snap our imaginary Helen back into being was dashed when the image didn’t respond to the prompt.

We couldn’t let ourselves be disappointed.  Disappointment could be an emotional connection, something that tied this impression of Helen to our emotions.  We had to control how we thought and felt, to avoid this broken image tainting the deep-set impressions of the Helen we knew.

The trick was to keep moving, and not dwell too long on any one point.

“We’ll need information.  Two ways we can go about that.  We’ll probably need to go after his people, see if we can’t trace them back to him.  We’ll need to get the shape of his approach.  What he’s doing, the moves he’s making, what his group structure looks like, the resources he has, the direction he’s thinking…”

“How we position in respect to that,” Gordon said.

“Yes!” Evette said.  Her glee mirrored my own relief that this was sort of working.

“And how we position in respect to that,” Evette and I said, noting it down on the paper.  The scrawled letters joined the other points that were scattered around the page, including a large, angular shape, labeled ‘the shape of his approach’.

I looked up at Gordon.

Gordon, in response, only stood there.  He wasn’t all twisted up and wrinkled into ambiguity like Helen was, but the spectre lacked a face.  There was only an irregular expanse of skin.

Nope!  Not about to dwell on that.  Couldn’t let myself worry about what happened if I lost that face in my head forever.  Were there even pictures of Gordon anywhere, to let me remind myself?  In Lambsbridge, perhaps, but that was a tricky place to get into.  A hell of a task.  In Radham Academy, in his files, perhaps.

I huffed out something that might have been a laugh if there had been any humor in the moment.  Radham academy, easy peasy place to go, if we needed a reminder.

“Focusing on the task at hand-” Evette started.

Yes.  The task at hand.

“Mauer.  We like Mauer,” she said.  “He’s fascinating, and he probably enjoys the brilliant moments where it all comes together just as much as we do.  We’ve run into him before, we know he likes the slow burn, setting everything up, then the flare.”

My hand shook as we brought the pen closer to the page.  We wrestled for a moment, working to try to get it steady enough to write something proper.

Giving up, we embraced the messiness, drew exaggerated, sketchy circles around ‘resources’ on the paper.  Then added notes.  Time, materials, people.

Multiple sketchy circles around time, then, leading to ‘moves’.

Together, we diagrammed it out, dipping the pen into the inkwell a few times to make some bolder, sloppier lines where needed.

It was likely indecipherable to anyone but us, but it was, on paper, the ‘shape’ of the problem.

“That scrawling,” Jamie’s voice came out of nowhere, “is not a good sign, Sy.  It’s worrisome.”

“Genius usually is, to a mere layperson,” Evette and I said.

“A mere layperson.  You two are lucky I’m a ghost, Sy, because I’d normally punch you in the shoulder for that.”

Evette and I grinned.

I looked for Jamie, and the spectre was there, intact as far as we could tell, but the image jittered, darting to the side, like a spot of light on my vision, remaining in my peripheral vision.

We took a deep breath.  In.  Out.

This was doable.  Disheartening, but it was progress.  We’d been thrown off balance when our guard was down, and it had hit us where we were already hurting.  The coherency had suffered.  I had built the images in the first place, and they were something we could rebuild.  But we couldn’t push, and we couldn’t let things settle in a bad way.  We would have to put off sleeping, make the most of our recent dose of Wyvern, and ideally, we would need a distraction.

It was hard to say if five seconds or a quarter hour had passed when the knock on the door sounded, but the sketched out ‘shape’ had doodled wings, courtesy of Evette, that hadn’t been there when Jamie started talking again.

“Come in,” Evette and I said.

The door was ajar, and someone pushed it open.

Doctors.  Ones with black coats; one male, one female.  Both young-ish.  Younger than thirty, which was pretty damn respectable.

“Sylvester?” the woman asked.  She wore a stylish dress beneath her lab coat, and her hair was coiffed with tight rolls down one side, the other side pinned.

“Yes,” we replied.

The man was a very staid, stoic man who looked more like a stitched than a man, with hollow cheeks, a long face, and deep-set eyes.  He was silent, frowning as he looked over the room.

“I’m Professor Bette Kinney, this is Professor Arandt.  We are apparently at your service.”

“You weren’t the doctors for any of the recently deceased nobles?”

The mention of the nobles’ deaths made Professor Kinney’s expression visibly darken.  “No.  We happened to be around.”

Evette smiled.  “You’re rolling the dice.”

“Beg pardon?”

“They had to have told you.  Full disclosure.  If you work with us, you’re putting your lives in the hands of a known enemy of the Crown.  I’m a fugitive, but the Lord Infante wants to equip us to do as much damage as possible to his enemy, to Mauer.”

My finger tapped the page that still lay on the desk.  Kinney gave it a dubious look.

“Us?” she asked.

“Yes,” Evette and I said.  “No.  Nevermind that.  You’re distracting from the point.”

“Evette was always going to be miserable at the social graces,” Gordon observed.  “That was a niche that Ashton was planned to fill.  If she made it and Ashton didn’t, I was going to be the face.  If Ashton made it and Evette didn’t, I was going to be the problem solver, but when the both of them didn’t make it…”

The pair looked uncomfortable.  Evette and I watched them as Gordon’s voice continued in the background.

“The point,” we picked up the so-called thread that had dangled, “Is that you know this is a risk, but the Infante asked if people were interested, and you said yes.  A random invite here is nice enough, but an opportunity to place yourself on a noble’s radar?  All you have to do is make it through the next few days without humiliating yourself, getting killed, or fates worse than death.”

“Essentially,” Kinney said.  “Except Professor Arandt-”

The gaunt Arandt interrupted, “I wasn’t ‘randomly’ invited.  I was coerced into helping a colleague, and I’m happy to have an unassailable excuse to fuck right off and do something else.  The risk of dying is a small price to pay for the confidence that my colleague is going to humiliate himself in front of twenty professors and five different nobles without my help.”

Kinney sighed.  “I can’t understand that mentality.  He may well die.”

“The mentality is that the asshole has reveled in being a festering cyst in my nethers for half of my life.  He placed second in the class every year I placed first, but he has enough rat bastard in him that he’s been able to reach up and snatch the positions, accolades and jobs I want most from me, take credit for my achievements,” Arandt said, his expression grim, a skeletal glower.  He didn’t smile in the slightest as he said, “This is the best day of my life.”

Evette and I, however, smiled.

“I like you,” we said, steering clear of the ‘we’.  “Let’s try to keep you alive.”

Arandt bowed slightly.

“And me?” Kinney asked.

We gave her a blank look.

“Nevermind,” she said.  “I couldn’t help but notice you were talking to yourself as we came in?”

Had I been?  I remembered pausing, noticing the doodles, but I hadn’t been talking, had I?  A blackout?

“Duncan,” Evette and I realized, aloud.  You bastard.


“No, I’m just thinking aloud,” I said.

We had to stop.  We drew in a deep breath, then centered ourselves.  We were erratic, all over the place, and things were spotty.  Evette was largely unstructured by design.

I had to slow us down.  Decide on a direction, lest everything we do in this state was left as messy and incoherent as the parchment we’d scrawled on.

“May I ask another, unrelated question?” Kinney asked.

“You can,” we said.

“Why the prison cell?  With the door open?”

“Because I wanted some space of my own with some quiet.  It was the Infante’s suggestion,” Evette and I said.  We paused, then added, “Eerily prescient.”

“Prescient,” Kinney said.  “I won’t ask.  We’re doing lab work with you?”

“For now, you can come with,” we said.  We clipped the canisters to my belt at my right side.

“Come with?” she asked.

“We’re investigating.  But we’re picking up my friend first,” We said.  We echoed August the Ogre as we spoke, voices firm, “Follow.”

It was fun to do that.

“Beg pardon?” Kinney asked.  “You may have the wrong idea if you think you can give me orders.”

We paused in the doorway, half-turning.

Arandt was the type to watch carefully before doing anything.  His caution might well have been why his nemesis of a coworker had been able to snatch opportunities away from him, but it earned my respect here.

Follow,” We said, with no subtlety, no grace, and no real manipulation that wasn’t granted to us by the situation alone.  “Or go and tell the Infante that you agreed to help and then decided you weren’t willing to.”

With Jamie lurking in one corner of my eye, Gordon faceless, and a wrung-out Helen, Evette and I led the way out of the cell.

The scene of the crime.

Starting from the first concrete point, and seeing where it led us.

It was the same area as the shooting.  The area had been blocked off, leaving it empty of all people, and a firm Academy presence had been set in place.  Soldiers and academy experiments filled the area.  Stitched with cleaning supplies were sloshing out buckets onto the street to help encourage the bits of bone and splinters of wood to find their way to the gutters and drains.

It was dark, with overcast skies, but there were lights here and there, even in late afternoon, and there would be witnesses who were in the buildings and watching the entire process.

It felt wasteful, this kind of presence being deployed to a place that Mauer wasn’t going to strike at again.

Shirley, Arandt, Kinney, the Lambs and I all entered one of the buildings and stepped into a lift.  After a word from Arandt, a team of stitched atop the lift began hauling on the pulley system, raising us up floor by floor.

We could smell the faint ozone wafting off of them.

“This is intimidating,” Shirley said.  “And I’m not sure I like the height, and the empty space beneath our feet.”

“You were never in the tall buildings near the theaters?” Evette and I asked her.

She shook her head.

“Heights never bothered us,” we replied.

“Are you actually using the royal we, now?” Kinney asked.

We being the Lambs,” we lied.  “I was a member of a team of experiments working for the Crown, once.”

We passed each individual floor.  Through the stylized wooden door of the elevator, which was very easy to see past, I could see the individual floors we were passing.  Each one had a different Lamb standing in the hallway, facing the elevator.

I was a member of the team.  Emphasis on was.  Once.

None of the Lambs were intact.  Intrusive images, abstraction, incompleteness, it riddled the whole package.

Evette and I watched them.  My heart rate was picking up, and it had nothing to do with what Shirley was complaining about.  Nothing to do with height.

“I’m not sure I understand what’s going on, Sylvester,” she said.

“I know,” we said.  “I owe you answers.”

We passed another two floors.  Nora and Lara, in turn.

I’d meant to ask Lillian what the inspiration for Nora’s name had been.  I knew Lara was derived from Larva.  Nora had me drawing a blank, and my mind wasn’t in the right frame to dig through and find the right connections.  I might have recruited Jamie’s perspective, but I wasn’t sure things were on a solid enough foundation.

Evette.  Just Evette, for now.

“Things made sense a few days ago,” Shirley said.

“Things were good, a few days ago,” Evette and I agreed.

“Something happened,” she said.

We didn’t volunteer a response.

“Months ago, you and I got to talking.  You helped me find a kernel of courage.  I thought, if I stayed with you, then I could repay you for that, by helping in small ways, and I knew I could learn things from you.  Because I admired you.”

The elevator passed a floor where Jamie remained out of view, peripheral.  I only barely caught Jamie saying, “Past tense.”

“I want to repay you, still,” she said.  “So long as I’m able, I’ll try to repay you.”

Arandt and Kinney were in the elevator with us.  Shirley wasn’t saying everything she wanted to say.  She knew full well that something was wrong.  Had we been alone, she no doubt would have said more.

She wanted to help.

The lift took us up to the higher floors before stopping.  We stepped out into a hallway.

These tall buildings were offputting.  These floors were too high off the ground, to the extent that it wasn’t a useful kind of height, where we could work our way downward to affect what lay below.  Things were out of reach, and it was oddly difficult to move downward, or upward, or through any of the hallways or rooms, without constant obstruction or space considerations – too much or too little.

Crown officers were waiting in the hallway.  Arandt handed one a note, and they waved us through.

“When you took this task,” Evette and I asked the pair, “Did you think you’d just have to do some lab work with a troublesome fugitive, or did you realize you’d have to go out into the field?”

“I didn’t expect it, but I can adapt,” Kinney said.

“Past experience?” Evette and I asked.

“I went on field trips,” she said.

Evette and I laughed, short, abrupt, and deeply offensive to the proud Professor.

“I didn’t care,” Arandt said.

“Didn’t care?” we asked him.

“About whether this was field work or lab work.”

Gordon spoke, “You have to appreciate the single-mindedness.”

We entered the room.

It was the scene of a battle.  The wall-crawling warbeasts had come tearing in through the windows, bringing broken glass and three-fourths of the frame into the room with them.  Each was roughly a hundred pounds, all muscle bound around four spike-like limbs, with a fanged head.  Light, mobile, and made of nothing but power and natural weaponry.

Roughly six had entered the room and summarily died as they were stabbed and shot at.  The sheer damage to the room and the wall around the windows suggested that something close to another six had been in the room at another time.  Deep gouges I could hide a hand or foot in carved through every surface and cut through furniture.  The force of the mass of muscular forms tearing through the wall had turned the windows into gaping holes.  The wind and a steady patter of rain blew into the room.  Eight to ten men had died here.

Shirley hung back, staying away from the bodies and the blood.

Four Crown officers, two doctors, and five different experiments were in the room.  The experiments wore masks with filters and heavy coverings, akin to robes, with hoods, leather boots and gloves.  They were also my height.

The officers marked down things in their books, the short experiments pawed through evidence and brought their faces down close to it, and even rubbed themselves in it.

Evette and I pointed, raising a quizzical eyebrow at our accompanying professors.

“Scratchers,” Professor Kinney said.  “Brought over from the heart of the Crown by the Infante, then replicated by his teams.  They can tell the difference between dirt from one patch of earth and dirt from a patch of earth on the other end of the same field.”

“Ah,” we said. “Enhanced senses?”

“No.  Another sense entirely.  The closest analogues would be smell or touch.”

“Enhanced hearing?”

“No,” Kinney said.

“I like this,” Evette added, “The investigation.  Taking it all in.”

It was good.  A relief.  Something to occupy the senses.

“I wish we could have seen this play out,” Helen said.  “The chaos, the looks on their faces.”

“Without being a part of it, you mean,” Jamie said.

“Do I mean?” Helen asked.

We turned my head to look at her.  She had a face now.  Her dress fit better, instead of being a choked mass of cloth.


How long before we take another two long steps back?

We approached the guns that lay by the windows.  Destroyed.

“Intentionally destroyed,” we observed.  “By Mauer’s men?”

The Crown officer nearest me glanced in the direction of Kinney and Arandt.  He must have received a signal or a nod, because he answered, “Yes.  Built into the guns.  They twist a key and haul it out along with a band of metal, and it melts internal mechanisms.”

We looked across the floor, at broken glass, at rubble, and bits of flesh.  We picked our way carefully past the dead warbeasts.

Evette and I spotted a band of metal with a key attached lying beneath a warbeast,  and toed at it until it was out in the open.

The officer bent down and picked it up, carrying it over to the scratchers.

“You’re welcome,” Evette said, sneering.

I kept my mouth shut, but it was hard.  If I hadn’t been able to maneuver in very comfortable territory, doing something very much like I’d been doing all my life, I might have lapsed, and fallen too closely into step with the Lamb that wasn’t.

Helen chirped, “If I may say so, this is going much better than we anticipated.  Sylvester and Evette have been paired up for several hours, and nobody is dead yet.  Not even Sylvester.”

“I’m offended,” Evette said.

“You had to say it, Helen,” Gordon said.

“Doubly offended.”

“Just keep us alive, Evette,” Gordon said.

We finished picking our way over the broken bits of wall, furniture, and window frame.  We glanced through the open window at the incredible distance to the ground below, then pulled my head back.

The corner of the room we’d approached had an open door.  We stepped through, with the two professors a few paces behind us.

There was a bathroom, with a claw foot tub set at one end.

Two Academy doctors were tending to a grievously injured man who had been placed in the tub.  Bags and tubing with blood were hooked up to the man, along with more tubing and mystery fluids.

The man was muscular, his hair short, and he was missing more flesh than I could have carried in my two outstretched arms.  The wall-crawling warbeasts had done their damage.

Mauer’s man, captured alive, but not quite so well that he could be easily brought down and out of the building.

He was why we were here.

You,” he said, fixing his eyes on me.  He sounded remarkably well, all considered.  The fact that his genitals, stomach, upper thighs and some of his chest were all mangled didn’t seem to have put any waver into his voice.

“Me?” Evette and I asked.  “We’ve met?”

“You set the lab I was in on fire,” he accused.

“Ah,” we said.  That would have been in Lugh.

“Go fuck yourself,” he said.

The part of me that was Evette wondered momentarily if that was even possible on any level.  With enough work with spectres, enough disconnection from myself…

“I’d say you’re thoroughly fucked enough for the both of us,” we replied.

“I wish I could step in,” Gordon said.  “Negotiate.”

His face was back, we realized.

The relief was palpable, and put a smile on my face.

Only a moment later, we realized that the smile would seem taunting to someone we’d just accurately described as fucked.

“Fuck you,” the man said.

“You know they’ll get the answers out of you,” we told him.

“They’ll try.  They’ll find drugs and inject me, and they’ll push me, and maybe eventually I’ll slip.  But it won’t be soon.  It took them this long to get me conscious,” the man said.  “And don’t think you’ll do any better.”

“By the time someone figures out what you know, Mauer will be gone,” we said.

“He’s gone already.  But by the time someone figures out what I know, he’ll have a head start.”

A fanatic.  He would die for Mauer.

Mauer did a good job of fostering this kind of loyalty.

“Maybe,” we said.  “But you know who I am.  I’ve spent the entirety of my life getting answers.  Understand?  I’m a better torturer than some people who torture as a trade, on behalf of the Crown.  Because I grasp people.  I know how people tick, and I can find the weak point that breaks them in an instant.”

He narrowed his eyes.  It was clear he was faintly drug addled.  He’d been given chemicals to help him survive despite the damage that had filled the bathtub with enough blood to cover the less mangled bits of his unmentionables.

“Yeah,” he asked, setting his jaw.  “Some people aren’t that weak.”

“You’re a zealot,” we said.  “You believe, both in Mauer and in his cause.  A lot of the soldiers under him have been with him for a very long time.  And, to top it off, you’re winning, after getting two nobles in one day.  A task you were willing to die for.  All we have to do to break you is to target the one weak point in it all, and everything unravels.”

Evette, it seemed, like the monologues.

He was silent, forcing me to volunteer the nature of the weak point.  “Mauer.  I tell you one little thing, and you’ll know it’s true.  You’ll realize a fact that you’ve been keeping from yourself for years, and your world will crumble.”

“Try me,” he said.

We smiled, and we leaned forward, over the tub, shooing back the doctor that was working on the man.  One hand went on his shoulder for stability as we leaned close.

In his ear, we murmured, “Working on a double cross against the Crown, on Mauer’s behalf.  I want you to give me a location you know he isn’t.”

He frowned, looking up at us.

Gordon, too, was frowning, sitting on the ledge at the other end of the bathtub.  “You had to jinx us, Helen.”

We glanced back at the professors and crown officers at the other end of the bathroom.  Kinney was standing on her toes to look over and around and try to get some sense of what was going on between us.

“We’ll convince them Mauer just left.  That will give me time to take action.  I can set some things in place in the meantime.  But I need help convincing them I’m cooperating-”

“Sylvester,” Kinney interrupted.

“Look confused,” we whispered, before leaning back, turning to look at Kinney.

“What’s this?” she asked.  We saw her look between our conspirator and us.

She’d seen the mock fear.

“Give me another minute,” we said.

Leaning close, we provided some verbal instruction to the soldier on how to look properly horrified.

“Swear at me,” we urged him.

“Fuck you!” he raised his voice.  We realized a moment later it might have been genuine, because he reached for us with a good arm, seizing us and trying to drag us into the tub with his naked, bloody self.  “Fuck you!”

Hands seized me, and hauled us back and away from the tub.  The grips remained strong even after we were well away from the tub, securing me.

We stared the man down.  Willed him to cooperate.

If I were anyone else, I might have been able to manipulate it out of him.

The force of will proved fruitful.

A full minute passed, and we could see the surrender gradually take him over.

“There’s an apartment block on Thirty-first and Queensway,” he conceded.  “He won’t be there anymore, but there was enough stockpiled there that he wouldn’t have left right away either.  The tail might be warm.  Fuck him, if you’re not lying to me.”

We liked this guy, even if his loyalty wasn’t to me or to us.

We looked over at the professors.

“I guess we’re visiting the next location,” Arandt said.

“No,” we said.  We left the bathroom, stepping into the living room.  “The Crown police can go, confirm or deny.  But I’ve been thinking.  We need you in the lab.  We have ideas-”

And, we thought, We need you out of the way.

One of us can work on projects,” Arandt said.  “Depending on what it is you need.”

“Special stitched.  With gas inside.”

“It’s been done,” Arandt said.

“I need it done in a few hours,” we said.  “And we need something that can produce a disruptive sound, and we’ll need equipment.  Lockpicks, knives.”

Evette and I continued to ramble, but we were aware of the grumble of dissent.

“Turning on the Crown, just like that?” Gordon asked.

“I don’t object,” Jamie said.  “But it feels precarious.  A double-cross?”

“If this isn’t a quadruple cross by the time we’re done,” Evette and I mused, internally, “Then we’ve shamed ourselves.”

“A quadruple cross?”

“Getting everything lined up so that we can take out every major player in this city with one bullet, lined up to pass through all of the bodies,” Evette said.  “And we’ll see if we can’t find the Island with the missing children while we’re at it.”

“You’ll get us destroyed before you’ve set up half the cards,” Gordon observed.

“Probably.  But if we don’t get destroyed, it’s going to be glorious,” Evette said, clasping her hands together.

We blinked hard.  Focusing on reality.  We were standing in the room with all of the bodies, staring out the window.

The professors waited patiently by.

Another blackout?  No, this had been brief.

We turned to Shirley.  “Doing okay?”

It was the wrong question, awkward, out of place.

“Not so well.”

We reached out and took her hand.  It was infantile, but it reassured at the same time.  She smiled uncertainly at it.

“Let’s get out of here,” we said, feeling as if we’d failed, that the question and the hand holding were far, far too little, even misleading, considering what we needed in the greater scheme and solution to this puzzle.  We needed to give Shirley kindness, to reinforce the connection, lest she run away from us.

Chances were good we were going to need her to save us from ourselves.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Thicker than Water – 14.5

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

The carriages pulled into an enclosed space, and the light that was filtering in through the windows faded.

This was another protected space.  An area of the city the nobles had carved out, where raids like the one they had just weathered wouldn’t be possible.  Guards, more thorough countermeasures, and fortifications would abound.

Climbing out of the carriage, I was surprised by the surroundings.  Calling the space a stable or a garage felt wrong.  The ceiling arched, and there was space enough for twenty carriages and their stitched horses, with a wide path that a small parade could have passed down, running through the middle.  Said path was paved with stones, and rose up in a series of stairs that led into the building proper.  To the left and right of the stairs were arches, with stairs leading down into an unlit space.

But the reinforcement of living flesh was prominent here.  The walls had flesh-like growths, complete with circulatory systems, fatty tissue, and something respiratory.  They kept time, with one pulse a second, for the parts that pulsed, but they also breathed, expanding over five seconds, then contracting.  Whatever it was, it also served to hold the stones of the walls together.  Artificial tubes as large around as my leg ran into spaces, feeding other fluids into the wall, and large arrangements of wires and metal rigging seemed to be set into the flesh, running down to the individual spaces where the stitched horses were.

Jamie and I looked back at the carriage we’d just left, and we could see how the metal rigging was being connected to the horse by stitched with heavy, insulted gloves.

“I like this place,” Helen said, admiring the walls.

“Agreed,” Evette said.

“Focus on the nobles, all of you,” Gordon urged, his voice quiet.

“There’s no hurry,” Jamie said.  “Let them mourn.  They won’t be saying anything for a little while yet.  We might as well assess our options and escape routes in the meantime.”

“There could be clues you’re missing while we’re focused on a very neat station,” Gordon said.

Station worked, as a word to describe the space.

The doctors had all piled into the third most intact carriage.  Now they were administrating stitched in handling the care of the three bodies they’d had collected before we departed.

The nobles, with Marcella joining them, were standing on the other side of the path that divided the station.  Shirley was with them.

“People saw,” Gordon said.  “In the heart of the city, people saw nobles die.  The magnitude of that… even if a hundred of Mauer’s soldiers died to pull it off?  I could see them saying it was worth it, for the sheer damage they just caused.”

Marcella didn’t explain.  The other nobles didn’t ask.  The four of them watched, expressions as still as stone, as the three bodies were placed on stretchers, the stitched carrying them.  Doctors stayed by their dead nobles as the stretchers were carried out to Monte, Moth, the other noble, and Marcella.

The four nobles looked down at the bodies.

Jamie was right.  There was silence, and nobody talked, nobody moved.

Some of the doctors turned their heads.  They dropped to their knees, and the nobles in front of us did so a moment later.  Jamie and I took their cue and set one knee on the ground.

“There goes our chance to get away,” Gordon observed.

“There was never going to be one,” Jamie said.  “The moment we failed to get through the window and jump from the train, there was never going to be any getting away.”

“Unless we’d used the ambush to abandon Shirley,” Helen said.  “Which we can’t.”

“That’s taking Duncan’s path,” Gordon said.  “We destroy Sy, and it skews things in a bad way when it comes to the rest of us.  I might have a role, but I’m imagining a scene where we’re left with Helen in full-on bloodlust, Evette, Duncan, and maybe Mary in play.  I’d be so busy managing that nightmare I wouldn’t ever get a say.”

Evette sighed.

“We need Shirley,” Jamie said.

“He needs Shirley,” Helen said.

Shirley looked so scared.  She was kneeling, trying to bow lower than the Lady Moth without being prostrate.

Shirley had her gaps in education, but she knew how to act around nobles.  I wondered if her madam had ever trained the members of the house in the nuances of how to act around nobles, knowing that Tynewear might one day play host to them.

A bird took to the air above us.  That added to what I was able to make out in my peripheral vision, allowing Jamie and I to place the new arrivals.

The first was a young man, heavy, an ogre dressed up as a prince.  He was six times as large as I was, sheer physicality, but with a beautiful face, and crisp clothing.  His pants were tucked into socks, so they crumpled and puffed at the knee.  Those socks, in turn, that came up to the top of utterly massive calves that looked like they might let him grind granite underfoot.  He wore a dress shirt with suspenders and a belt.  His hair was neatly parted to one side and slicked down.

The slender woman next to him… I didn’t like nobles, but I’d found something I liked about her when I’d first seen her.  She did what the Lady Moth seemed so intent on doing, making herself into a physical and fashionable entity without going over the top, and she managed to sell herself as a Noble without being ostentatious.  A lot of that was how she moved, and her focus.  Her hair was black, swept over to one side, and her clothes were black silk, leather belts, and a shoulder ornamentation that looked like a roost for the falcon.  her hand on that same side was clad in a stylized falconer’s glove.

The raptor that was flying around the station would be hers, then.

The pair made their way down the stairs, leaving us kneeling, and approached the stitched, who had knelt while maintaining their hold on the stretchers.

A noble said something under his breath, and the stitched all remained on the ground, one foot and one knee planted on the stone path, but they lifted the stretchers up for a better view.

“Thank you,” the Ogre said.

The Doctors stood.  Heads still bowed, they gave instructions to the stitched.  As a group, they split up to enter the tunnels on either side of the stairwell, disappearing into an apparently unlit abyss.

“Follow,” the Ogre said.

The remaining doctors, nobles, Shirley and I all followed the Falconer and the Ogre into the building proper.

Veins and flesh held panels of glass as part of a greater skylight in the main hall of the building.  I could see the layout.  A castle, sprawling, with three of the taller buildings in the city sprouting from it, spearing toward the sky.  At the top of those towers, another castle was poised, suspended between them.

“Who handles this?” Jamie asked.  “I can do it, but…”

“I could,” Evette said.

“No,” Gordon said.

“I wouldn’t be the best choice,” Helen said.  “Sylvester likes the Falconer though.  If he wants to pursue her at all, practice his wiles, I could sit in.”

No,” Gordon said, again, in a different tone.  “And I think it’s left to me.  Jamie’s too set in deep thought, introspection, and he’s not quick enough on the draw.  No offense.”

“None taken.  I might rephrase that ‘not quick on the draw’ part, though.  Not because it bothers me, but because it’s easily misunderstood.”

“You’re right.  Noted.  Alright.”

Jamie fell back, joining the other Lambs.

We were faced with six nobles, their retinues, a great swathe of unfamiliar and hostile territory, and emotions were likely running high.  Theirs and ours.  Gordon had commented earlier on the situation, on the fact that they’d been hit in the heart of their territory.

The problem was, as Gordon and I turned the situation over in my head, there weren’t any weak points we could target that weren’t also weak points for us.  The insecurity of the nobles was just as likely to backfire on us and see us put to the sword.  The presence of enemies in the city would make them more guarded, less likely to offer us a weak point.

The Falconer’s bird, perched on her shoulder, watched us.  It was half again as large as any bird of prey I’d seen, and Avis had once had some very large eagles.  The bird of prey had a head of golden feathers, and a body of black ones.  Its talons and beak were oil black, adding to the contrast.  Modified.  Possibly a chimera.

Gordon and I assessed the thing, and judged that if we had to bolt, and if we couldn’t close a door behind us, that thing would probably win in a fight.

The entire building was dark stone, lit by light from outside, and biological growth reinforcing it, all of the same fleshy nature.  When the daylight faded, they would have light by other means, yet there were no torch sconces, no artificial lights.

It went back to the biological growths, stylized stretches of flesh, running along walls.  Veins twined their way between stones.  In the castle proper, the growths were more elegant, less like tumors or unidentifiable masses of flesh, and more akin to pillars.  The networks of veins and the beads of fatty tissue formed fractal patterns and geometric arrangements.  When the lights went out, the biological growths would likely provide bioluminescence.  The veins would light up.

But the placement of them had another purpose.  There was a strategy to it.  Something that an intruding agent or group might miss, after a lifetime of acclimating to the wooden growths that supported buildings across the Crown empire.  They were positioned at key junctions, and there was little doubt that they were loaded to the brim with biological weapons and agents.

None of the nobles talked.  It was as if the hierarchy left the Ogre with all of the power, here, and it was up to him to decide if conversation was permitted.  Even if the mood had allowed for talk, we doubted he would have said much.

The place was crowded.  There were stitched servants everywhere, perhaps a third of the people we saw were stitched, but every last one of them was work on par with Fray’s stitched, whatever her name had been.  Stitched without stitches, at least not in visible places, their nature only noticeable if one knew what to look for.  They wore uniforms, and they moved with purpose, attending to tasks up until a noble came into sight, at which point they stopped, stepped to the side of the wide corridors, and bowed or curtsied, freezing in place until we were past them.

Another third were alive.  They were hard to place, more important than servants, but not in charge, either.  Facilitators, if I had to guess.  Administrators, aristocrats, suppliers.  Political grease.

The final third of the people present were doctors, and there wasn’t a white coat to be seen.  It was like an Academy, almost, but the standard student or white coat had been replaced by a grey coat specialist, and the remainder wore black coats.  Professors, top of the heap.  The best at what they did.

If they hadn’t been doing as the servants did and been stepping to one side, heads bowed, Gordon and I imagined we would have heard heated debates, strict orders, and calls to action.

There was a power in surrounding oneself with smart people.  The Lambs were an indicator of that.  This place, this building, it was where the brightest minds gathered, one of the peaks from which the greatest ideas flowed down to the rest of the Crown States.  Professors looked forward to the day they got an invitation to join a discussion here and then they burned with envy for those who got to lead the discussions.

And, in exchange, the nobles could call on this collection of minds, name a task, and expect that the task would be seen to.

We watched as lord Monte spotted one group of professors, broke from the group, and leaned close, to whisper a few words in the ear of a man who had had ten other professors trailing in his wake.

Monte caught up with our group, returning to his prior position.  The man he’d spoken to broke into a run, heading in the direction we’d just come from.  His retinue followed.

Gordon and I glanced back, and saw, halfway down the corridor, that the professor was recruiting others, and sending others running elsewhere.  All business.

All hands on deck.

Leaving that isolated storm behind us, we reached the end of the main corridor.  Large double doors were framed by an arch of stone and fleshy growths.

The Ogre pushed the doors open.  We entered the garden, where the Infante waited.  The Falconer’s bird found its roost.

The area was a space beneath a partial dome of glass that kept the rain at bay while allowing sun and wind through, all framed in growths of wood and flesh.  The paths and the walls of the architecture at the boundary of the space looked to be cut obsidian, the plant life had been cultivated to grow in shades of red, magenta and violet.  The space, all in all, took  up roughly as much property as the grounds of the Lambsbridge orphanage had.

The red plants were eerie and ominous, in light of the plague that was sweeping across the Crown States.

The Infante, with sprightly eyes and a frame that dwarfed even the Ogre, wore only a ruffled collar and a simple black outfit.

Sitting in a chair near him was the Duke of Francis.  Intact, no damage, dressed as impressively as he’d ever been.

But, as I looked, the sharpness was gone, the light absent.  He moved his hands, placing one over the other in his lap, and the movement was slow.

It hardly mattered at this stage.  The concern was the Infante.  The lie we’d told, and the danger we were in.

Gordon and I raised up taller, confident, sure in ourselves.  It had the added benefit of putting us in a slightly better position to run if we needed to run.

“Lords Jeremy, Richard, and Edmund, then,” the Infante said, looking over the group.  His voice was terribly deep, magnified by the acoustics of this open space, and it seemed even deeper because the plants and the surroundings should have dampened noise, instead of strengthening it.

“Yes, father,” the Ogre said.  The Falconer walked over to her bird.

“Are their corpses salvageable?”

“No, father.  They’ll try, the bodies are only thirty minutes cold, but the damage is extensive.  It’s the new guns.”

“Go to the labs, August.  Don’t interrupt the man, but talk to Jeremy’s lead,” the Infante said.  “He’ll be upset, already thinking about leaving, if the revival isn’t possible.  If we don’t catch him, he’ll convince himself to leave by the finish of the mandatory three tries.  We want to keep him.”

“Yes, father,” ‘August’ said.

“Tell him that the Lady Charlotte needs an attending first.  That’s a move up for him.  A fresh start.  She was only just born.”

“London, uncle?” the Falconer asked.

“My brother will owe me one,” the Infante said.

Sent off by some signal Gordon and I didn’t see, August turned, striding past us and through the doors.  We turned to look, and he gave us a nasty look with his small, dark eyes as he closed the doors behind him.

“I heard about the attack as it happened,” the Infante said.  “I had some information about who it was, but no confirmation until just now.  An unfortunate end to your first proper outing, and to theirs.”

“Yes, Lord Infante,” Monte said.

My heart pounded.  Every single one of the Lambs was present, fixated on the Infante and on the other nobles around us.  A simple choice of phrasing could utterly destroy us.

“I see you’ve brought me a present.”

Gordon and I bent low into a bow.  “Lord Infante.  It is good to see you again.”

Setting the stage as best as we could.  We were caught in a river.  All we could do now was steer as best as we could, and hope we wouldn’t be dashed on the rocks.

“A fugitive,” Monte said.

“I’m well aware of who he is.  Sylvester Lambsbridge.  One of the Lambs of Radham.  Francis, you were intimately familiar with this one, were you not?”

Not good.  We saw Monte shoot us a sidelong glance.  The lack of familiarity was telling.  The first rock, and very easily the one that might sink us.

Gordon and I watched the Duke’s eye move.  There was a delay.  As if it took willful effort to direct his eye, to fixate on us.  Whether there was recognition or a complete mental blank, the man gave no indication.

“A pity you’re not up to talking,” the Infante spoke.  “Your counsel would have been appreciated.”

A heavy hand settled on the Duke’s shoulder.

“You may leave,” the Infante said.

“I wish that meant us,” Lara said, from the sidelines.  She stood near Lillian, who was leaning against a tree, arms folded, cross, her back to me.

“Lord Infante,” Monte said, not budging from where he stood.  “Sylvester Lambsbridge told us that he was doing work for you.  That we were to bring him to you.”

“Is that so?” the Infante asked.

Monte bowed deeper, then took his leave, joined by Moth and the others.

It left the Duke, the Infante, and the Falconer in the garden with Shirley and I.

“A shame about Jeremy,” the Infante said, as if he were speaking to the Duke.  “But I do like Montgomery.  Nascent promise, there.”

The Duke, striving to put in effort, moved his eye, looking up in the general direction of the Infante.

“I see a lot of the Baron Richmond in him, as a matter of fact,” the Infante said.

“What?” Gordon asked.  My lips remained closed.

The Infante set his eyes on me.  “Richmond was clever, once upon a time.  He could have climbed a fair way up the ladder, done more with himself, and done more for the Crown.  But he learned the wrong lessons along the way.  Tragic, but all too common.  His death at your hands was just.”

Gordon and I bowed deeper, acknowledging the statement.

“Montgomery could go either way,” the Infante said.  “Straighten up.  Look at me.”

We did.

“You lied to them, telling them you worked for me.”

“I did,” Gordon and I said.

“You have your audience.  Will I now find out that your companion there is plague infected?”

“No, my lord,” we said.  Have to take the subject off of Shirley.  “My understanding of you is that you appreciate strong, bold, meaningful strokes of the brush.  Cornered, my first thought was that, instead of dying, I could make myself useful to you.”

“Had you phrased that as being useful to me again, I might have had you killed,” the Infante said.

Easy enough to see what he was thinking about.  “With all due respect, Lord Infante, I took the death of the Baron Richmond to be a neutral thing.  As much good done as bad.”

“The bad, unfortunately, being ours to bear,” the Infante placed his other hand on the Duke’s other shoulder as he said that, standing behind the man in the chair.  He made the Duke look small.

“The act of killing the Baron was the nail in the coffin, my last act as a Lamb.  I was cornered by a former ally, I had to shoot-”

“Mary Cobourn.  In one knee,” the Infante finished for me.  “I’m well aware.  Faced with a strange boy with high aspirations and two dead noble ladies already killed by his hand, I sought to inform myself.  I asked after you, and I obtained my answers.”

“Yes, Lord Infante,” Gordon and I said.  We bowed, acknowledging him.

“I’ve remained aware of you as you cut a violent and explosive swathe through Tynewear.  I read your records and I put good minds to work on analyzing data, about Wyvern and similar drugs, to project forward and to reach conclusions that your doctors wouldn’t have found until five years after you expired.”

The Falconer was watching.  Very quiet.  Her eyes matched the Infante’s.  Dark, penetrating, and suggestive of something very clever going on beneath the surface.

The Infante continued, “When word of you being on a train heading south from Tynewear reached my ears, I had investigators track down people who were on that same train.  We traced things backward, in the midst of some of the greatest chaos this continent has ever seen outside of wartime.”

Gordon and I remained silent.

“I could make threats, but what good is a threat?  You’ve lived with Wyvern’s venomed stinger for all your life, promising pain today and lost sanity before you’re twenty-one.  I could threaten the life of Shirley Pope, hold her hostage, but you grew up with your fellow Lambs and you knew you would likely live to see them die.  They’ve been hostages all your life, and they remain hostages now.  You lost your childhood friend and brother Gordon to one pull of the trigger.  Jamie, another childhood friend and brother, lost to oblivion after a throw of the switch.  Threatening you and holding things you love hostage is old hat for you.  Those things have permeated every day of your existence for a long time now.”

Jamie loomed in my peripheral vision, to my left.  Gordon loomed in my right.

I wanted to say something, and I couldn’t.  I wanted Gordon and I to say something, and he wasn’t volunteering anything.

“You left them behind,” he said.  “All of the rest of the Lambs.  One by one, you’ll hear stories.  Your Mary Cobourn already has notes in her file.  Fatty deposits under her skin, in the armpit, behind one ear.  Moles.  In a year and a half, they will be noticeable.  Within six months of that point, she’ll be slowed or crippled by it.  In three years, she’ll be dead.”

I looked over in Mary’s direction, then wished I hadn’t.  My mind jumped straight to trying to paint her with the Infante’s brush, complete with lumps and blemishes, and in the effort to erase that part of the image, I blurred the picture and lost the clarity in her.

“Duncan reported to Professor Hayle early on that your Helen was becoming emotionally disturbed.  I’ve had other sources say that Ibbot is neglecting her as a project.  He invests too much energy into the political side of things, when his talent is solely limited to the art of biology.  She’ll soon reach a point where she requires more upkeep than he is willing to provide while he is so eager to seize greater opportunities, and the idea of a custom wife, pillow companion and personal weapon that he grew in a vat will lose out in the end.”

I didn’t look at Helen.  I didn’t want that image to be blurry like Mary’s had.

But the Infante kept talking on the subject.  “She will go to his lab for a standard appointment, bubbly, smiling and laughing.  That preferred personality is in her records.  She’ll be nonetheless obedient as he asks her to lay down across the counter and opens her up to examine her organs.  And I can assure you, that spiteful, vitriolic little man will be in the midst of palpating her insides with a scalpel lying within arm’s reach, and he will find his way to the decision that frees him to pursue his politics.  That is, if she doesn’t break before then, slip up, and lead him to the conclusion herself.  Whatever the case, he will make a single small cut, deep inside her, and she will go quiet and cold.”

Shirley shot me a nervous glance.  I remained very still.

“You’ve condemned yourself to a very lonely existence, Sylvester Lambsbridge,” he said.  “You’ve put considerable distance between yourself and the people you love to avoid having to see them go.  But word of their passing will find you, no matter where you hide, and you will, with your last vestiges of sanity, wish you had been there.”

He released the Duke’s shoulders, and he approached me.

I didn’t move as he placed his hands across my cheeks, cupping my head in his hands.

“What do I do with you, child?” he asked.  “I have all the resources in the Crown States at my disposal, and you’ve confounded me.  How do I invent you a punishment fit for hell when you seem so intent on flinging yourself there first?”

He knelt before me, and the weight of him made the thick black stones under my feet shift slightly, crunching with a stone against stone sound.

He embraced me.  Even kneeling, he was far taller than me, but he hugged me to his prodigious stomach.

“Wretched child,” he said.

I looked up at Shirley.

Gordon, Jamie, and Helen didn’t volunteer anything.  The other Lambs were unreachable, indistinct, or too far away for their individual reasons.

There were ways to salvage them.  I could work my head around it.  Dig for them if I really wanted them.  But to do that, I had to acknowledge that they were as fragile as they were.  That they were smoke.

I was legitimately afraid at how easily it had crumbled.

I hadn’t anticipated the Infante doing this.  I’d expected a challenge.

A challenge, I could rise to.

This wasn’t a challenge.  This was the epitome of what I’d hated, in the very earliest days, with Lacey and the other doctors.

Acknowledgement of my reality.

“Do you want something to occupy yourself with?” the Infante asked.

“Yes,” I spoke, finding a voice.  Belated, we added, “Lord Infante.”

“Then find and kill Mauer for me.  He’s in the city.”

“As you wish,” we said.

The Infante released us from the hold.  He gave us a measured look.  “Then take your companion with you.  I have no need for hostages, I have no need for threats.  I’ll give you a general direction, pointed away from me, and we’ll see if you do more damage to the other side than to mine.”

“If I may make a request?” we asked.

“I’d thought I was being generous enough, but you may.  My resources are at your disposal, should you want them.  I certainly have enough.”

“I’d like access to a lab,” Evette and I said.

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