The old man stared out the window as he talked. The rain was coming down hard. Cups clinked softly as tea was poured, while the rain beat a drum on the roof. The entire building creaked with the way the wind blew the branches that extended from the outside.
“We need soldiers,” he said.
“We have soldiers,” Cynthia replied. She was dressed in the latest fashion, with a shorter dress and a long jacket that hugged her body, corset-like bindings closing it at the front. “We have three men for every one the Academy is prepared to field.”
Avis shook her head, “They have experiments, and regiments of stitched prepared for war. Even with the sabotage, one stitched is worth ten soldiers.”
“I’d argue that,” Louis said. He was seeing to the tea. He looked like a proper hunter, with a plaid print to his jacket, the red and the black matching to his maroon slacks and fine leather boots. He was an odd pair, put next to Percy. Louis’ build was barrel-chested and muscular, he was clean-shaven, and his ginger hair was wavy, though cut in a flattering way. Percy was narrow, pale in complexion, with his straight black hair slicked back from a widow’s peak, his beard combed and mustache waxed, an early gray at the temples and corners of the mouth.
The old man favored a more moderate approach. Louis attracted attention because he was a manly sort, Percy because he was a scholar, likely the sort of teacher many schoolgirls had been enamored with, before the touch of grey reached his hair. The old man walked a middle ground, where he could go unnoticed in virtually any place in Radham.
“I’m sorry, Louis, but I agree with Avis,” Percy said, picking up one cup of tea and walking over to hand it to Avis.
One or two members of the group snuck looks at the old man. He could see out of the corner of his eye.
“Avis is right,” the old man said.
Tea in hand, smiling, Avis took a seat in the corner, dropping down with enough force that the birdcage next to her rocked, the occupants protesting shrilly. She put out one hand out to steady the cage, then set her tea down, one ankle folding over the other. Her dress was ten years out of fashion, following the lines of her body down to the ankle, a vest keeping the ruffles contained to the collar and the sleeves, but her hair and horn-rimmed glasses were in vogue.
“You’ll have to say why,” Cynthia suggested.
“Avis can explain,” the old man said. He was more than capable, but he needed to curry favor where he could, and this would be one of the last times he interacted directly with the woman. Avis was too important. She was only one step away from being in complete control of all communications within Radham Academy, and she was charged with many of the more covert ones, the ones that necessitated flying messengers.
Avis liked to take her time before making a statement, which was a predilection that matched her other job well. Everyone in the room waited, some patiently, some impatiently, for the woman to speak.
The old man quietly thanked Percy as tea appeared on the small table by the window.
“Have you ever seen a real fight, Cynthia?” Avis asked, sounding more than a little arrogant.
“I’ve been in more real fights than I could count. It is, in fact, a large part of what Louis and I do here.”
“I’ll rephrase. Have you seen a battlefield? War?”
Cynthia shook her head.
“I have,” Louis said.
“With humans?” Avis pressed.
“I was one of those humans. You know this.”
“From my experience on battlefields, I know that when you send men into a fight, they’re scared. If you tell them they have to shoot or be shot, many will not shoot. Humans naturally trend toward wanting to survive and being part of a group.”
“And war doesn’t support either of the two?” Cynthia asked.
“War most definitely supports both,” Avis said. “However, it should be stressed that fighting in a war doesn’t. The difference feeds the endless restlessness between the nobility and the people.”
“How very clever,” Cynthia said, in a droll tone.
“In an actual war, you’ll see two or more groups of people trying to poke their head up out of cover, work up the courage to aim their weapon and then pull the trigger to kill the other person. You have to twist their arms to make them go over the breach, you play on ideology, or you convince them, and I do very much mean convince them, that they have no other choice. A stitched has no such reservations. A stitched doesn’t tend to stop and turn tail when his friend next to him gets gunned down.”
“That’s not necessarily a good thing,” Louis said. “It’s easy to lose an entire regiment to the same machine gun, if the man giving orders isn’t prepared. There are tradeoffs. The Academy needs infrastructure. While the war is ongoing, they won’t have it.”
Avis sipped at her tea, then said, “We agree there. The logistics of it all… so long as we have the roads blockaded and bombed, they can’t move from A to B. Without the trains and wagons coming in from the farms on the outskirts, they can’t eat or feed their experiments.”
“But,” Cynthia said, “you said we need soldiers, Godwin? You’re not confident?”
It was a question she asked while already knowing the answer. She was very much in his camp, and she was informed. He had talked to her about this before.
Godwin took the question as his excuse to turn and face the occupants of the room. “No, I’m not confident. Things are still preliminary, the people are on our side, but we’re not moving forward, and the Academy is figuring out solutions. It’s what they do. The Academy retook Westmoreland.”
“The mountains of Columbia are the Academy’s primary mining operation in the west,” Cynthia said, for the benefit of the others present. “Westmoreland, Columbia is the second highest producer of weapons for the Crown States. For as long as they have it operational, they’re going to be armed.”
Godwin nodded. “It’s a coup for them. They’re going to start retaking ground. On the large scale, with Westmoreland, and on the small scale, here. They’re nosing around, looking for us, specifically, and they’re getting close. There were advantages to being in Radham, our close contact with Avis foremost among them-”
“Thank you,” Avis said, preening.
“-But the risks are too great. We were able to lead things in the abstract, now we need to be more direct. We’ll need to split up. Each of us in a different city. To be effective whilst we’re doing that, we’ll need soldiers.”
“And the regular rank and file won’t do?” Louis asked.
“Those are men. I believe we need more capable individuals. As of right now, odd as it may sound, Academy dropouts and individuals like Mr. Percy here are in higher demand than the best the Academy has to offer. The Academy’s people currently have no other choice but to work for the Academy, but the people who have the knowledge and lack the loyalty… they can be swayed to either side, and they’re favoring ours.”
He had the rapt attention of everyone present. Louis seemed most comfortable hearing all of this, and was busy pouring himself another cup of tea.
“I’ll reach out, speak to some people, and I’ll have the money. What I need you to do right now is find the people with the necessary skills. The Academy has been quietly removing quite a number of them. Mr. Percy was one close call in that respect. We’ll find them and make them offers they can’t refuse. If the money doesn’t sway, quietly let them know we have the knowledge, and if you feel they’re worth the risk, we’ll go a step further and actually tell them who we are, inviting them to the inner circle.”
The others nodded.
“I’ll miss this,” Cynthia said. “Losing the more intimate setting, having a voice without shouting.”
“I can’t imagine you shouting,” Percy said.
Cynthia smiled at that.
“For the time being, focus on staying safe, make sure you aren’t being followed, particularly by Dogs.”
“Or little children,” Percy said, frowning.
“Especially little children,” Godwin agreed. “Louis. A man named Reverend Mauer is managing one of the larger and more successful revolutionary groups. I think you and he would complement each other nicely. Would you reach out?”
“And Cynthia, we’ve already discussed it-”
“Already doing what I can. They’re slippery, and they don’t want to be found.”
Godwin nodded. “Percy? Keep doing what you’re doing.”
“I’d like to think I’m making soldiers rather than recruiting them,” Percy said.
“You are, indeed,” Godwin said. He took a sip of his tea. “The most dangerous time and place for you is when you’re on your way from Radham to your new accommodations.”
“Which are where?” Avis asked.
“I’ll let you know in private,” Godwin said. He frowned. “From here on out, we’re operating in cells. I trust each of you. Do as you deem appropriate. You’ll each be in touch with one other cell. If you find you can’t reach them, then and only then should you reach out to me or Avis. Make preparations. We’ll meet in the morning, I’ll let you know particulars, and you’ll each leave.”
“So soon,” Cynthia said.
“Right now, we’re safe, we’re free, we have control of the roads and the railroad. In two days, that might change,” Godwin said.
Cynthia frowned, but she didn’t argue.
The others were already standing, and the ones who weren’t wearing jackets pulled some on, with many getting umbrellas. Cynthia lagged behind the rest.
“Thank you, by the by, for the tea, Louis,” Godwin said. “I enjoyed that one.”
“You’re very welcome,” Louis said. “I left you a small box of the teabags.”
“Good lad,” Godwin said.
Percy and Louis left together, with Avis a few paces behind.
The door clicked shut.
Cynthia took a moment to pick up the scattered saucers and teacups, holding two in each hand on her way to the little sink.
“Something on your mind?” Godwin asked.
“We told him that all of his creations were destroyed by the Lambs. If he discovers that they recruited one of them…”
“He’s very passionate, whatever he expresses on the surface.”
“What a very inconvenient man.”
“A very good way of putting it,” she said.
“I’d hoped to discard him, but he has a damnable way of making himself essential.”
“I’ll watch him,” she said. “I just wondered if you had any thoughts.”
He went through the little building and extinguished lights, then pulled on his raincloak. He joined her in exiting the building.
They were joined by the pair of experiments that had been standing in the hallway. Cynthia’s. The things were tall, narrower around than even the lithe Cynthia, and draped in rain cloaks that dragged on the ground. Each had large eyes and bat’s ears placed on otherwise underformed and unadorned faces. Chinless, noseless, the mouths frozen in a perpetual expression of a child that had just put a ball through a stained glass window. Neither blinked as rainwater ran down from their too-short foreheads and over the balls of the eyes, or even bounced off the orbs themselves.
Radham glowed, even at night. Temporary lamps with flickering bioluminescent lights within were placed at regular intervals between the regular lights, giving the patroling squadrons of stitched soldiers a better view of the surroundings. It was only approaching sundown, but the rain came down hard, and the gloom gave the impression of a later hour than it really was. Bridging the gap between winter and spring, it was an especially cold rain, cutting right through the raincloak, flesh and muscle to dig into the bone.
The eyes of a dozen stitched soldiers watched as the two of them walked down the length of the street, unblinking. The heads of the stitched moved slowly to track them, each of them moving in unison.
The riots had been quelled, but the fact that Radham needed to keep a boot on the throat of this downed enemy was a win. It bred resentment, and it limited how freely Radham could move.
Cynthia spoke up, when they were out of earshot of the stitched. “I was thinking. Lambert Academy, in Greysolon?”
Godwin casually looked around to make sure they were alone. It was probably safer than being indoors, he had to admit. The bat-eared experiments were on the alert, and the rain made for a lot of cover.
“A win for us, as much as Westmoreland was a win for them.”
“A win might be understating it. Lambert academy burned, the people that weren’t burned alive were rounded up, made to kneel, and put to the knife. It was symbolic, something the other revolutions could aspire toward.”
Godwin grimaced. “Bullets would have been kinder.”
“Bullets are precious to some.”
“What got you thinking about Lambert?”
“Most burned or faced the knife, but not all. There have been rumors about a set of Lambert’s experiments roaming around. I asked Avis, and she doesn’t think they’ve been in touch with any of the other Academies.”
“What are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking they might not be particularly attached to the other Academies. They’re almost human, they’re functional, they can work and earn food and shelter, but I can’t imagine it’s easy for them. It’s not what they’re meant to do.”
“What are they?”
“Lambert’s clean-up. Lambert doesn’t have enough work, so it sends them out here and there. They’re more about the kill than the capture. Four individuals.”
“What’s the difficulty?”
“If I’m wrong and I reach out, they’ll come after me.”
“You’ve dealt with worse, Cynthia.”
There was a pause.
“No?” he asked.
“If they came after me, I’m not certain I could survive it.”
“Then play it safe.”
“You don’t sound convinced they could be swayed.”
She shook her head, shifting her umbrella to her other hand, “I’m not.”
There was another group of stitched at the end of the block. They were accompanied by a creature that stood twice as tall as a man. Even from the other side of the street, Godwin could smell it. A chemical smell.
“Curfew,” one stitched called out, sounding more like he was imitating the way it sounded than actually uttering the word.
Cynthia offered a little bow and flourish in response.
“Curfew!” the stitched hollered the word, emphasizing the wrong syllable, raising his voice to be heard as they continued walking, the stitched falling behind them now. “Soon! Bell tolls!”
Too dumb to realize she had been acknowledging it.
He felt uncomfortable and unhappy, the words ringing in his ears.
“I long for simpler times,” he said, abstractly.
“You’re not quite that old,” Cynthia said, patting his arm. “There were stitched when you were born.”
“Not so many. I’ve watched it all unfold. The rate of growth has been startling. I worry sometimes that you and the others don’t understand just what you’re facing. The cost, if we don’t get ahead of this.”
“We value your pessimism,” she said.
He smiled. “It’s saved us once or twice.”
“We all have reasons for doing this,” she said. “Greater ones and personal ones.”
“You have your personal reasons,” he said.
“I do?” she made it a question. Not because she wasn’t sure, but because she was wondering why he’d brought it up.
“Will that be a problem, if your search proves successful? Will you be able to understand someone with greater ones?”
“The woman that provoked the war? We’ll have to see,” Cynthia said.
“I worry,” he said. “If this was her first move, what is the next one?”
“And will we be caught up in it? I’ll look for her, Godwin.”
They’d reached his building, which was large but a touch ramshackle, in a less than stellar neighborhood. The important thing was that it was unassuming. Cynthia waited and watched, her pets standing there, heads slowly turning left and right, ears up and out, listening to every raindrop.
He opened the door, and stepped inside. Experiments stood on either side of the doorway. Cynthia’s, again. Sentries, knights clad in armor that grew like a bug’s exoskeleton.
He didn’t like it, but some things were necessary.
“I’ll see you in the morning,” he said.
Cynthia smiled and waved, leaving, her pets following behind.
To all appearances, a coquette. Louis was a soldier’s son, the man had moved on to active military service, lying about his age to get in sooner. Cynthia was different, almost the opposite. She had had no family, no guidance, and she had raised herself on ugly streets overseas, where gutters had literally run red with blood, and where experiments had been piled so carelessly on trash heaps beneath the Academies that they overflowed into the city, some still alive, others dangerous despite being dead.
All she had needed was a little refining.
He walked through the house, casually moving past the myriad traps that he and Cynthia had placed. He was here so rarely, the minor inconvenience hardly mattered. More sentries were stationed throughout the house, many shuffling faintly as they sensed the activity and exited their hibernation states.
He walked into the washroom and stared at himself in the mirror.
Cynthia knew him better than anyone else, she knew how he thought. The inverse was also true – he knew Cynthia better than anyone else. Yet he hadn’t spoken up and said the truth.
The war would get far worse before it got better. The Academy was retaking control, but the rebellions were still underway, and the Academy’s efforts weren’t quelling so much as they were holding things at bay.
Sooner or later, things would reach a tipping point. To retake control, the Academy would need to do something significant. Institutions of this scale had only so many ways they could achieve that kind of control.
Fear was one, and he didn’t want to think about what the Academy might do to generate such a widespread fear.
The only way forward would be to beat them to the punch.
To do something horrific.
For that, he needed the woman who had started the war. He needed those talents, and he needed to be absolutely sure that she wasn’t already doing the exact same thing. Because if his group and her group both acted at the same time…
He couldn’t let that happen.
He bent down to wash his face, scrubbing, feeling old for the first time in a long time.
When he stood straight, he had company.
The man’s skin had been flayed away and reattached, overlapping strips, like the weave of a basket, head to toe, leaving every feature masked, but for a space for a toothless, tongueless mouth and two milky white eyes. The flesh around the edges of each strip of skin was scarred and flaky.
A mummy, wrapped in his own flesh, almost a straightjacket, but not quite. Two oversized hands were already reaching out.
They found me.
Godwin reached for his razor. He was jerked back before he had it, his finger running along the length of the handle.
Long fingers of two hands wrapped around his neck, one after the other. As the fingers fell neatly into place, interlacing, his neck was elongated, vertebrae popping. His fingers scrabbled for purchase on the sink, his legs kicked, but it was to no avail.
Another pop, a flash of pain filling his lower body, and then it all fell to pieces. The nervous impulses ran away from him, signaling motions he wasn’t making, pain and sensations he shouldn’t be feeling, all with a pressure that suggested his entire body had been crushed beneath a one-ton stone.
In the mirror, his arms and legs dropped, limp. He huffed out a breath and didn’t take another one.
The Hangman had dislocated his neck. He was lowered almost dismissively to the ground, as if forgotten, as the Hangman dropped one hand to its side and then let go, letting him fall to the floor, his head cracking against the tile.
He had a view, albeit one that had darkness swiftly flowing in from the edges, of the Hangman leaving much the way it had come in. It touched the door and hauled itself up to the top of the doorframe, as if it weighed no more than an equivalent amount of loose paper. It reached the ceiling, fingers bracing it against the walls on either side of the hallway, and then it was gone, whispering against the ceiling, past the sentries and defenses.
Godwin’s last thoughts were of Cynthia, his last sentiment a quiet horror at the idea that Cynthia might well think along the same lines he had… without the consideration to what disasters Genevieve Fray might have planned.
The hall had an upper stage that overlooked the lower floor, and Cynthia stood astride it, arms on the railing, watching. Her pets flanked her.
From the bottom to the top, she thought. She was with the upper class. The true upper class, she might say. These weren’t nobles, but businessmen, clergy, and pillars of the community. They were people with money who had earned that money, by and large. Those who had been born to money were already beholden to the Academy, hooks long set in.
Men and women in fine dress.
If they were going to retake Westmore, these were allies they would need. It meant the difference between the Academy having a gun for every soldier or having to do without.
One of her pets reacted, bat-ears twitching as it made a small sound. She wheeled around.
Nervous, since Godwin’s death.
Four individuals. Three men and a woman, standing in the shadows.
She almost regretted hiring them. The mercenaries. They’d turned out to be on her side, but they were… unpleasant, both in methodology and in personality.
“I thought I was alone up here,” she said.
The one in the lead shook his head. He had bug eyes and a custom gun slung over one shoulder.
Choleric, she reminded herself.
“What is it?”
“General Ames just arrived,” Melancholy said. Long hair covered her eyes, and she had a too-wide mouth. Of the four, Melancholy was the only one that Cynthia wasn’t sure about. The woman’s favored murder weapon wasn’t on display. No knife, no gun, no vials.
Cynthia turned to look.
Ames was a big man, in many senses. Proud, boisterous, fat, ruddy-cheeked, with blond hair. He was perspiring. More than normal. He was with his wife and child.
“What about him?”
“The girl,” Melancholy said.
It took a moment before Cynthia could see through the crowd. A young lady, beautiful, wearing an evening dress in miniature. A little blonde that promised to be a great beauty at some point in the future.
When Melancholy spoke again, it was in Cynthia’s ear. Cynthia hadn’t heard the woman approach. “She doesn’t smell like she’s his.”
Cynthia looked, frowning. The girl looked like any young lady should, bouncing with excitement at the fancy dress party. She was saying something, and her father was having trouble keeping up.
“What is she?”
“Not human,” Melancholy said. “She smells like blood.”
Cynthia nodded slowly.
“She smells like other children,” Melancholy said.
Cynthia’s eyes scanned the crowd. She didn’t see any others.
“You know what to do,” she said.
“Mm,” Melancholy said.
Cynthia smiled. She knew as she turned around that the four wouldn’t be there. In four paces, she crossed the room to pick up her gun, slipping it through a hidden pocket of her dress.
She wasn’t excited, she wasn’t proud or arrogant. She knew exactly what she was up against.
She’d come here to fight.
This, surrounded with people she couldn’t trust, was her medium.
Every time she’d faced this kind of situation in the past, everyone else had ended up bleeding or dead.