The rain got worse as we got further up the road. It all flowed down toward Whitney, though a cliffside took most of it, which seemed like a pretty good idea from a strategic standpoint. Marching uphill against an entrenched position was one thing, if Whitney wanted to march on Westmore, but an uphill march against an entrenched position, against flowing water ranging from ankle-deep to knee-deep?
I was willing to bet it was an accident, but it was a happy one for the Academy’s side.
Sandbags had been piled up on the mountain road, giving clusters of stitched soldiers places to stand and wait. Some were piled in front, to protect against gunfire, while others were piled behind, to divert the flow of water and keep the stitched soldiers drier.
Each cluster had one person with it. I imagined the shifts were short, only an hour or three at most, but it had to be miserable. Sitting, waiting, watching. As the only truly intelligent set of eyes, that individual had all of the pressure placed on them, their only company the five or six dead men who stood around them. Those same dead men would smell faintly of the less pleasant human odors, except baked in. The scents of ozone, burned hair, and decay could and would join those.
The moisture in the air helped to carry smells to the nostrils. I wondered if the watch was a punishment detail.
One figure at the nearest set of sandbags blew a horn, raising an arm to order us to stop. The coach slowed, then stopped. Two hundred feet separated us.
Three figures came down the road, and one of them was stepping very carefully on the wet, sloped path. It was easier to tread where the sandbags broke the water’s flow, the road was wide, and I doubted there was that much danger. Maybe if someone tripped over their own two feet, or if the spring’s chill and the damp surroundings had left their toes numb. If and when someone did fall, though, they were likely to keep sliding. There would only be the rocky outcroppings on one side and the steeper drop off the side of the path to the other to interrupt the slide. Neither was fun.
The other two figures weren’t careful at all. They walked with very natural gaits, not so much with confidence as a lack of concern. It made it easy to tell the stitched from the living.
Lillian and Shipman had looked after us, more Lillian than Shipman by a considerable measure, but Jamie and Helen were still in unfortunate shape. Jamie’s cough had quieted, and the two of them were powdered, to slow the flow of blood. Mary was driving the coach, and the rest of us were within. Gordon and Shipman exited through the one door to step out and get a better view, while Lillian stood in the doorway, standing in such a way that she could look up over the top. I stuck my head out the window on the other side, watching as best as I could. I liked being able to lean rather than stand. My stomach still hurt, Lillian’s attentions notwithstanding.
“Ho!” Gordon called out.
“What are you doing?” the sole living soldier called out from a distance. He was wearing an Academy uniform. His hooded jacket was red, an academy’s shield sat on the breast, one I didn’t recognize, and was backed by the universal Crown, which formed a halo of sorts around the top of the shield. The gap between the crest and the top of the halo had the man’s rank. A dog’s head and the roman numerals for three. Spec 3.
That was barely above the G-ranks. I’d seen enough military types here and there to put together the details. Just as another day of hard training in the rain out in the fields was looming, a bigwig would step up and say there was an opportunity for promotion. They would have to miss training, there would be a long stint in classrooms, some lessons, but there would be hot tea provided. A few people on their last legs would jump at the chance. A promotion to ‘specialist’? Getting some training that might help them get their foot in the door when their stint with the Academy’s forces was done? It sounded good.
The G-twos with older brothers and friends among the higher-ups would know better. Sure, the class was fine, there was hot tea, and it was pretty painless. Borderline interesting, even.
The problem was that it led to this. Being the ‘dog’ who knew the essentials of how stitched worked and how to fix them, looking after them. Spending time in their company and their company alone. When they weren’t the human arm and brain of a particular unit of stitched, they were doing drudge work, being among the man who dragged the dead back to camp, or who did the jobs too menial for the proper academy students to do.
Most who fell into the trap walked away as changed men. ‘Changed men’ being the nice way of saying they ended up as assholes who resented everything and everyone they interacted with, or they were paranoid of further traps.
I watched him draw nearer, and his face was visible, a surly glare, a glowing cigarette propped between his lips, not the first nor the tenth of his watch, I was betting.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“We work for the Academy,” Gordon said. “We’re reporting in. I’ve got a badge, issued by Radham-”
“Stay right where you are,” the man said.
I pulled my head into the coach, looked through the window to see Gordon stepping back, the hand with the badge dropping to his side.
“Children?” the man asked.
“Yes, sir,” Gordon said. “We’re spies. We’ve got information regarding movements, numbers, people of interest, and events in Whitney.
“Mm,” the man murmured. He didn’t give a clear response, hemming, hawing, and making noises, as if contemplating.
“Some of it is time-sensitive,” Gordon said. His tone was so good, too. Perfect pitch and intonation, authoritative and confident, without sounding arrogant. If he’d used that same tone with one of those teachers who was just itching to find something to lecture a student about, they would have made a face and moved on to the next student.
But the words were the wrong ones. Gordon was good at what he did. People tended to like him. He bent the world to his will. He was the opposite of me; I always fought an uphill battle to get people’s trust. I had to study them and tailor my approaches to their motivations and weaknesses.
I knew that this man we were talking to was making the most out of the very limited power and amusement he could get, here. Gordon had showed the man a kind of weakness.
We have a need, thus it’s in your power to make us twist in the wind, I thought.
“I suppose you want me to let you into Westmore?” the man asked.
“Yes, sir,” Gordon said.
“It’s suspicious. People don’t travel down this road, and a coach of children, no less. Makes me think of the Trojan horse.”
“What possible danger could we pose?” Mary asked, without the slightest trace of irony.
I let my forehead bang against the frame of the window.
“What was that?” the man asked.
“My comrade. Another spy. We have three wounded inside the coach.”
“Two partially blinded, with burns. One gunshot wound.”
“I’ve heard stories. A group mingling with refugees, knowingly spreading a plague. People carrying parasites into enemy camps, sometimes inside their bodies. It’s easier to hide symptoms when you’re bearing injuries.”
“I understand that,” Gordon said. “If you let us talk to your superior-”
I banged my head against the door of the coach yet again.
Make him feel impotent, why don’t you?
“Ahem. I’ll be able to put those doubts to rest,” Gordon finished.
“Or infect a superior officer,” the Spec-three said.
“We’re more than happy to submit to quarantine procedures-”
I banged my head for a third time.
“Shut up, Sy!” Gordon called out, then resumed, “-if you’d just let us talk to someone in charge. We’ll keep a safe distance.”
The man made a sound, then said, “I don’t think-”
“Sir. I’ll be blunt. Brigadier Ernest Tyler is expecting to hear from us. I’ve corresponded with him. I know your fellow soldiers have been doing more prep, things are changing around, there’s an energy in the air, and fear is a part of it. The G-twos know it deep down, even if the people at the top haven’t said anything. The Brigadier is preparing to mount an attack, he’s just waiting for the signal. This is the signal.”
“That’s not-” the man started, then he changed his mind. “There’s no guarantee.”
Gordon verbally bludgeoned his way through. “We were forced to act early. He’s going to be forced to move before he’s entirely ready. He won’t be happy, not with us, not with the situation, and if you happen to be interfering with us and interfering with his situation, that unhappiness is going to land directly at your feet.”
He let the words hang in the air.
“Sir,” Gordon belatedly added, with that perfect measure of confidence that was so hard to call him on or slap down.
I closed my eyes, forehead resting against the frame of the window, listening.
“You go. I’ll watch this group.”
“She’ll need to come too,” Gordon said. No doubt indicating Shipman. “She knows the more technical details. We’ll need everyone to debrief, but we can give the Brigadier the immediate particulars.”
“Go,” the man said, not sounding happy.
“Yes, sir,” Gordon said. This time he said it with a jaunty tone. Rubbing it in.
He wasn’t above his moments of childishness. I grinned.
I stuck my head out through the window, saw Gordon and Shipman marching the rest of the way up to the front gate of Westmore. I pulled the window down from overhead, with flecks of water splashing inside as the latch clicked. Lillian climbed inside too, the door slamming shut.
The coach rocked. A weight on one side, then the other.
That would be the Spec-three, taking a seat on the driver’s bench. Not to take us anywhere, but just to sit.
A moment later, my door opened, startling me. Mary climbed inside.
She was wearing fairly simple clothes, but she had a habit of dressing up a little. A thin belt with a buckle to draw the waist in, lace-trimmed ribbons in her hair -only one ribbon today-, and lace at the bottom of her dress’ skirt. I knew she did her own sewing, to supplement what she was given.
As a covert agent, having tells was not a good thing.
As a girl, the touches defined her. She wore a coat, but it didn’t protect the lower half of her dress. The fabric clung to her knees and thighs, and only a second layer of fabric hid the outlines of the knives at her upper thigh. At the knee, the parts where the fabric was white and wet were see-through. We’d been traveling for a stretch, and I suspected she’d had her hood down for some of it, because her hair was wet, and so were her shoulders. I could see the straps of her underclothing and the tan of her flesh at the shoulders and arms.
Raindrops still beaded her throat, parts of her face and the parts of her leg that weren’t covered by boot or dress. Her knees were white, compared to the rest of her. A lot of time in the market, more indirect sunlight peering through the clouds now and then than any direct sunlight, but it added up. She was oddly prone to tan, either way.
She grabbed one portion of her dress, pulling it out to the side and inadvertently showing off more of her legs as she wrung the fabric dry, water spilling out onto the floor of the coach.
I looked up, and she was staring at me. She let go of the wrung-out cloth, and it fell roughly into place, still bearing the wrinkles of being twisted in a way that higher quality cloth might not.
“Mary,” Lillian said, her voice cutting into the stillness.
“Mm hmm?” Mary turned, dropping onto the bench with a bit of a flounce. Her damp dress did its best to flounce with her, and more or less failed, falling limp around her knees.
“The coach-driver?” Lillian asked.
“I told him to turn to leave the city. He didn’t want to.”
“He was nice.”
“He was a member of the uprising,” I said.
“He gave injured children a ride to the hospital, at no cost to himself,” Lillian said, sounding genuinely upset at my interjection. She turned back to Mary. “Did you- did he?”
“We rode over his knee and ankle,” Mary said. “He’s alive.”
Lillian exhaled in audible relief.
“You wimp,” Mary said.
Lillian smiled, but she didn’t argue. She’d been holding that little nugget of worry in for the entire ride to Westmore.
“He’ll wish he wasn’t when Shipman’s spiders get to him,” I commented.
Lillian stared at me in horror.
“What? Were you pretending that this was all nice and sweet?” I grinned.
“There’s something seriously wrong with you,” Lillian said.
“You’re a jerk,” Jamie mumbled.
I shook my head. Mary was sitting opposite me, still soaking wet, and there was a definite twinkle in her eye as she met mine.
“Sorry,” I told her. “About the plan.”
She shrugged. “Nothing we could do.”
“I filled the others in, but you were driving the coach and I wasn’t up to climbing out to join you,” I said. “Four or five assassins came after us. We got one. There are still three or four to take into account.”
“Enhanced smell, enhanced eyesight, enhanced touch, I’m not sure how that works, and enhanced hearing. There might be taste, or another sense.”
“Seeing those teeth,” Jamie murmured, his eyes closed, “Might be wrapping up smell and taste into one sense.”
Mary smiled. “I want to meet them.”
“You don’t,” Jamie said.
“I definitely do.”
“You might get a chance. It depends on whether Gordon sells us up the river and agrees to something like that stupid quarantine measure that came up just now.”
“He didn’t really expect the Spec dog to take him up on that,” Mary said.
“I know,” I said, “But if that man was a little smarter and if he realized what Gordon was doing, then he might just agree, to put Gordon in a tight spot.”
“Mm,” Mary said. She began to wring out her hair. Some of the water ran down her arms, and droplets landed on her stomach and on spots which were still dry. The droplets sank into the thin cloth and spread out in widening circles. “But he was right. I think he had the right sense of things.”
I sighed. “Yeah. Probably.”
Mary turned, abrupt. “Lillian. Do you have a comb?”
“With my belongings, in the back compartment.”
“Nothing in that massive bag of yours?”
Lillian shook her head.
“Jamie?” Mary asked.
“I use my fingers, most of the time.”
“You’re such a boy.”
Jamie didn’t react, motionless. I suspected any movement hurt, with his condition.
“Try Helen,” I said, leaning forward to look past Jamie, one hand on my side. Helen was draped over the bench, her head resting at an awkward angle at Jamie’s thigh. Her blonde hair was still gritty past a certain length, from crawling in the mud.
“She’s sleeping,” Lillian observed.
“It’s okay,” Mary said. Someone else might have thought she meant the comb wasn’t important, but Mary had come to be a part of the team, she’d shared more rooms with Helen than any of us.
“She’s fine,” I clarified. I moved over, half-draping myself over Jamie to touch Helen. I poked her in the forehead, hard.
No moan, no restless shift. Her eyes flicked open, already focused on me.
“Comb,” I said.
She rolled a bit to one side, reaching into a pocket, then raised a hand, holding a very elegant looking comb. She handed it to Lillian as Lillian reached forward, then dropped her arm, eyes flicking shut.
Asleep again, just like that.
Lillian scooted over, and Mary half-turned so her back was to Lillian. A very automatic process, without any offers or asking. As if it was just assumed that Lillian would do Mary’s hair.
A month or two back, I’d been at a store and I’d picked up a little rose-colored book, no thicker than my finger, titled ‘stories for girls’. I’d paged through it out of sheer curiosity. Not because I had any interest in girls in any special way, but because I’d been wanting some insight into how girls thought and how they were different.
I’d been disappointed somehow, and my inability to put my finger on why had annoyed me more than anything. It wasn’t even a big or important sort of disappointment.
The fact that I’d remembered that moment while watching Lillian taking care of Mary in the here and now made me feel like I was a little closer to figuring it out, except I hadn’t and it just made the annoyance well up all over again.
I could recall Jamie and Helen nettling me about girls and things, and I could imagine how they’d very wrongly interpret my line of thinking and felt even more annoyed.
I shifted position and punched Jamie in the arm.
“Ow! Damn it, Sy! What was that even for?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said.
He grumbled, but he didn’t have much fight in him.
Mary and Lillian were watching me out of the corners of their eye.
“Sorry,” I finally said.
“Y’should be,” he mumbled.
There wasn’t much conversation. Jamie and Helen weren’t up to much except resting. Mary had her eyes closed, head rocking in time with the strokes of the comb, head periodically jerking when Lillian found a snarl, though she didn’t seem to mind.
I watched them, Lillian asked about the pain, I answered. Mary made some general comments about the runs she’d done to deposit the boxes of spiders, and that sort of died off as she dropped into an almost meditative state, her hair being brushed.
“Oy!” Gordon’s voice was faint, and muffled by the walls of the coach.
“And he’s back,” Jamie observed.
We collectively roused, Helen sitting up, Lillian and Mary shifting position. I opened the door to step outside, flipping my hood up.
“We’re in,” Gordon called out, still too far away to be heard with a normal volume. He closed the rest of the distance, then reached up to hand the Spec-three a note.
The others finished climbing out as the man read it over.
“Gordon,” Shipman whispered, tugging on Gordon’s sleeve.
“Shh,” the Spec-three made the shushing sound.
“Do you see?” she asked.
“See what?” Gordon asked.
“Shh,” the Spec-3 shushed them again.
“Oh!” Gordon said, louder. “Oh.”
I had to step around to Gordon’s side to see. As I did, the man on the bench of the coach looked up, staring down at us. He’d refreshed his cigarette since I’d last had a look at him.
He followed our line of sight, down to his pants leg, which was torn, with a trace amount of blood collecting at the base of his boot. His leg jerked, and in that motion, he realized what had really happened.
The flesh of his legs had been joined, a ragged strip cut away, attached to the other leg.
“What? What’s the- what!?” he jerked more frantically, cigarette falling to the base of the bench.
“Don’t tear it,” Shipman said, “Don’t- careful!”
As the man struggled, one of the spiders from Whitney moved off to one side, away from the flailing legs. Once two legs, they were now functionally one. The Spec-3 saw the thing and twisted, pulling out his gun.
“Dont!” Gordon said, “You’ll spook the horses!”
Even the raising of his voice and the frantic movements of the man on the bench were making them agitated.
Shipman circled around the horses, while Mary climbed up beside the man. Before Mary could deal with the spider, he brought both feet up, then slammed them down, partially crushing the thing.
Shipman didn’t seem to mind. She reached out and grabbed it, fingers between individual legs, and flicked it in Gordon’s general direction with a movement of the wrist. She put her hands on the man’s shoulders, and Mary put a hand on one knee, and he stopped struggling.
“It’s okay. One of the spiders must have gotten onto the coach,” she said.
“What the fuck? What the fuck? I didn’t even feel-”
“Specialized anaesthetic and very standard coagulants,” she said. “It dulls your sense of touch, makes you feel like the limb is asleep, it cuts out partial sections with the incisors and stitches them to adjoining parts with its own silk and its forelimbs. Even if it had a few days with you, it probably wouldn’t kill you. It’s just for the psychological effect.”
I think he’s psychologically affected, I thought to myself. I bit my tongue rather than offering the comment out loud.
“You’ll be fine,” she said. “It’s a very easy fix. They just need to cut the spider’s sutures and put the skin back where it belongs. There won’t even be scars.”
“The fuck,” the man said, staring down at his bound ankles. Just his ankles, it seemed, now that I was looking closer.
“Do you think we can get the coach around the sandbag emplacement?” Gordon asked. “I was eyeballing it, but…”
“We can scooch by,” Mary said. “We’ll have to, since our guest here isn’t mobile.”
Gordon nodded. “You want to, or should I?”
Mary smiled, putting a hand to one horse’s neck. It flinched, then relaxed as she gave it a few rubs. “I can.”
The rest of us climbed back in, or partially climbed in. I stayed at the outside, one hand on a bar just beside the door, my foot on the step below.
I saw through the window as sourpuss Shipman showed more energy and excitement in two seconds than I’d seen out of her in the entire time I’d known her, bouncing in the spot and putting an arm around Gordon.
It works, she was saying, going by the movements of her lips.
My hood flew back as the coach lurched forward, and I didn’t fix it. Things rocked left and right as the coach scraped the cliff wall to the right and the sandbags to the left. The stitched that hadn’t accompanied the Spec-three were still standing watch, and their heads turned, dull eyes watching us.
Not nearly so well made as Fray’s Wendy had been. They were intended to do only one thing – follow orders. The man who was supposed to give the orders wasn’t with them. I hoped that Westmore wasn’t attacked in the time it took a replacement to walk down and join them.
Westmore was a city that had been built in wartime. Obvious enough. Walls, gate, defensive emplacements, and buildings that had been made solid, helped by an excess of material from nearby mines in the mountains and hills. Every building had a gutter around it, redirecting the water. Here and there, collections of debris and leaves blocked the way, or enough water had backed up to lift a collection free, and a grouping of brown-black detritus was scurrying along at the base of a building like some decaying, leafy version of a rodent.
It was a contrast to Whitney. Where Whitney had been a sprawl, too many people crammed into one space, Westmore was organized. Even at rest, people were in squads. Working, they were in formation. Everyone matched, with only slight variations in facial features, stature, and hair color.
The stitched were corralled, in strict rows and columns, their belongings at their feet, guns at their sides, butts on the ground, hands on the barrels.
In stitched alone, Westmore had twice as many soldiers as its little sister at the base of the mountains had in regular rank and file. It easily matched Whitney’s number in human troops, and Whitney’s soldiers weren’t, for the most part, even experienced in fighting, as this group looked to be. The ensuing conflict would be the enemy’s first.
Every set of eyes, the stitched included, watched us as we rolled down the main street, past neat stacks and wagon-loads of supplies.
On the other side of our vehicle, Gordon was doing the same thing I was. He gave Mary a verbal direction, guiding her to our destination.
We passed a barn, and I saw inside. There was something unnatural within, four eyes reflecting light, a deep scar running down its face, horns bigger than I was scraping the floor of the stable. A war-beast. Some Academy student’s final project for their fourth year of study, probably. His reputation would hinge on how well it did.
There were others. Like everything else, the creatures were neatly organized, kept in their own discrete places. Weapons from some of the Academy’s brightest.
“What are you thinking?” Mary asked me. She sat above me, looking down over her shoulder at me.
I could see the Brigadier waiting for us at the end of the street, standing under a set of eaves. An older man, with a beard and no mustache, wearing a uniform without a hood, a stylized helmet on his head.
Unlike my feeling from earlier, I could put my finger on this one. Something about the man, and all the little details put together. That prey instinct that had come up in my first interactions with Mary, an awareness that came from countless clues the subconscious registered that the consciousness didn’t.
“Why does it feel like, if things go on as planned, we’re going to lose this battle?”
“Excuse me?” the Spec-three who was on the bench asked, indignant.
“I don’t know,” Mary answered my question. “But it does feel that way, doesn’t it?”