A carriage passed us, the wheels cutting through the golden leaves that had collected at the street’s edge. The man atop the carriage looked down at us and tipped his hat, smiling.
I watched as the carriage continued down the long, well-maintained road. The properties on either side were well spaced out, each one less than a proper manor, but more than a mere home. Walls both short and tall surrounded each. Stitched in servants’ uniforms were busy raking up leaves and pruning some peculiar trees with charcoal black bark and autumn-yellow foliage. I wondered if the grass was a similar type of affectation, because it wasn’t green, but a color comparable to wheat.
Peaceful, idyllic, every scene an image from a painting, juxtaposed by the contents of the carriage – a large cage with a dozen people and one monster crammed within. A young child gripped the bars with both hands, staring back at me as the beaked monster peered over her shoulder.
She let go of the bar, reaching out in my direction.
I lifted my hand, as if to take her hand, but she was already ten feet away, the gap growing.
I’d pulled ahead of the others, so I turned and started walking backward, looking at the Lambs.
Our contingent of Lambs were dressed up. It wasn’t a huge change for Jamie, who wore a shirt with a straight, stiff-necked collar, a jacket, and slacks, but Gordon had really come into his own with the finer clothes, dressing up in very much the same, but without the jacket. His shirt was tucked in, and a stylized belt buckle drew the eye. Even Hubris was groomed, his short coat brushed until there wasn’t a stray hair.
Lillian, though, had gone the extra mile, with a new dress, navy blue and pleated with a folded collar and a coat stylized after the doctor’s lab coats, new, fashionable, and nice enough that it could be worn in high society. She had a daub of makeup on her lips and the ends of her hair were curled outward and up.
It wasn’t her. She was prettier than I’d ever seen her, unless I counted some mental images of her in a nightgown, lit in just the right way by the light from the window, but I found myself itching to mess up her hair or clothes. I didn’t want to see her upset, but surprised would be nice. Smiling would be better.
I wasn’t sure how to reconcile the feeling or how to make it happen.
“What?” she asked.
“Nothing,” I said.
“You had a look in your eye.”
“Lies,” I said.
“You did,” Gordon said.
“Can confirm,” Jamie said. “Perfect recall. In prior moments when you’ve had that look, you’ve been up to mischief.”
“Okay, okay!” I said. I turned around, taking exaggerated steps to the left and then the right, before letting myself crash into Lillian’s shoulder. “Minor mischief.”
Lillian looked at me out of the corner of one eye, wary and getting warier by the second.
“You look nice,” I said.
“You said as much, just ten minutes ago, when you saw me come through the door,” Lillian said. “Are you saying it again because you want to distract me from what you were really saying or thinking?”
“So paranoid!” I admonished her.
“Is that a yes?”
“It’s a partial yes. The two ideas are linked.”
I watched her turn her eyes forward, picking her way through the possibilities.
No blush, but I could see the change in her expression as she connected the dots.
“Be good,” she said, suppressing a smile.
“Never,” I said, reaching down to take her hand. I squeezed.
“I’m serious,” she said. She didn’t pull her hand away. “This is really important to me. If you play around or mess up here, then I’m going to be really upset.”
I swung our hands back and forth.
“I know you want to, Sy. I know how your brain works, as much as anyone can. These people are as important as people can be, without having the power to cancel the Lambs project or call in favors to end us. They are probably the most important and powerful people you can get away with practicing your own Sylvester brand of villainy on, without repercussion.”
I started swinging with more and more vigor.
“Now it sounds like you’re trying to convince me to do something.”
“No!” Lillian said, her voice suddenly sharp. She pulled her hand away from mine, letting mine flop to my side, while stabbing a fingernail at my throat. It had been artificially grown or else glued on. Lillian didn’t normally have longer nails. Sharp. “No joking. No turning around thirty minutes from now and saying I convinced you to do it, no nonsense at all, Sy.”
The more serious and stern she got with me, the more I wanted to do something. Seeing her all prettied up just made me want to tease her more.
I could kiss her and make her melt, and smudge that makeup that made her look less like our Lillian and more like someone else’s Lillian.
It was a nice mental image.
“Yes ma’am,” I said. I smiled, but it might have looked more like a smirk.
Jamie turned to Gordon, pointing at his own eye, “Mischievous glimmer, right?”
“I saw it,” Gordon said, expression flat.
Lillian took that as excuse to stab my jugular with her fingernail again. “Be good, Sy. I want this. One day, I’m going to have to choose what I do with everything I’m studying. Professor Ibott wants to attend the nobles and have the most power a non-noble can have. I asked for this job, we didn’t have to do it, you agreed to do this for me, they did too, but you agreed.”
“I’m entirely on your side,” I said.
“I don’t trust you for a hot bloody second, Sy, not when it comes to unfamiliar territory like this. If I’m ever going to be a black-coated professor, I need friends, contacts, patrons. I need to make friends, and I need to look like I know what I’m doing. Please. Please, please, please, I’m begging you, don’t muck this up. Please.”
“We could have him wait outside,” Gordon suggested.
Lillian snapped her head around to look at Gordon, and I could tell that she was actually pleased at the notion.
“I don’t want to wait outside.”
“It’s a possibility,” Lillian said, not acknowledging me.
“I miss the old days. When I had backup,” I said, staring out off to one side, at the houses and the trees.
“Jamie would have been backing Lillian,” Gordon said. He looked at Jamie, “Sorry.”
“It’s alright,” Jamie said. “If it matters, I don’t think we should leave anyone outside. People like this, they’re liable to worry about subterfuge. Not being able to watch or keep track of every member of a group of visitors? I think it would put them in a warier mindset.”
Did he actually just back me up?
“That’s a good point,” Gordon said. “Where did you pick that up?”
“A book series I’ve been reading. Intrigue in noble courts. Not like ours.”
“Huh,” Gordon said.
“I’ll be good,” I said, with emphasis.
“I wish I had something on you,” Lillian said. “Something you wanted that I could take away, some weakness I could exploit, but you don’t leave any good openings. It’s so one-sided. How do I punish you if you ruin this for me?”
“You can beat him up, or wrestle him into submission and make him cry uncle and admit he smells like butt, or whatever you want him to say,” Gordon said. “I’m pretty sure you could beat him in a fight. He still can’t seem to grasp the basics.”
“First of all, not necessary, because I won’t do anything to deserve a beating, but she tried that this one night this past summer,” I said. “I teased her too much and she-”
“We’re not talking about that,” Lillian said, louder than was necessary.
“Not talking about it!”
I dropped the subject.
“Silent treatment, then,” Gordon said.
Won’t work, I thought with confidence, as I saw Lillian glance at me, working through the idea in her head. She’ll crack before I do. And I can make her break the silence.
“I’ll do it too,” Gordon said, “Silent treatment. Solidarity.”
“Hey,” I said. It’s like he read my mind and deftly countered my preliminary strategy.
“Me too,” Jamie said. “If it’s deserved.”
“We can pass on word to the others, too, just in case Sy got the bright idea of joining with the others the next time the teams got shuffled around,” Gordon said. “Mary would play along.”
“She would,” Lillian said.
“Helen too, if we bribed her.”
“Yep,” Lillian said.
“Ashton, well, if Sy really wants conversation, I don’t think Ashton would really suffice.”
“You boys are the best,” Lillian said. She put her hands on Gordon’s upper arm, then rose up on her tiptoes to give him a kiss on the cheek. He had to bend down a fair bit to even allow it. Lillian quickly skipped around to Jamie. She didn’t have to bend down or even raise up on tiptoes too much to do it. She beamed a smile as she looked at me.
“I’ll be good,” I said.
“You better,” she warned.
The rest of the way to our destination, she walked between Gordon and Jamie.
The properties to our right had given way to a downward slope and a view of a slice of beach and a lake filled with docks and fancy boats. The cart that had passed us earlier was now parked by the water, the door open, occupants and monster gone.
The houses to our left grew greater and grander the closer we got to the water. The modifications to each home changed, too. Where the smaller houses were riddled with signs of the cheaper means of building, trees growing into and through them, the bigger houses were more carefully done, the growth and alterations set in the gardens and into the walls. The stone walls had branches and vines creeping through them, covered in bright red berries and thin yellow leaves, crowned with greater clusters of golden yellow foliage at the tops. More conventional, old-fashioned houses in more alien settings.
Those leaves would be security measures, I knew. Poisonous to the touch, or covered in tiny fibers that would cause pants-crapping levels of agony for days on end.
The house at the road’s end was the capstone. A true manor, larger than any of the rest. The walls to the left and right of it encased rows of the black-barked, yellow-leafed trees, and the gardens were weird and wiry, more black wood and autumnal colors. The house itself was a sprawl, the wood done dark, the highlights and shingles pale enough they stood out. Stitched waited at the gates.
I tugged my shirt into position and straightened my collar as they began opening the gates, lifting and dragging them back and away.
Lillian appeared next to me. She looked at me.
“Your lead, Lil.”
“Don’t call me Lil. If they start calling me Lil because you did, I can’t correct them, and if this somehow works and I get an opportunity, I’ll have to live with that for a really long time. I know you’d get the biggest kick out of that, but-”
I raised my hands, putting them over her mouth, cupping them so I didn’t smudge her lipstick.
“Lillian,” I said.
She huffed, then nodded. I let the hands drop.
“I’m all agitated now.”
I turned to face the gate. People were coming down the long path. I wondered if it was more polite to meet them halfway. Under my breath, I said, “Your own fault you’re agitated.”
“No it isn’t,” Lillian said. She was facing squarely ahead as well, talking out of the corner of her mouth. “Two years of experience have led up to this, Sy. Gordon, Jamie, do I look alright? I’m not all ruffled, or red in the cheeks? Or-”
“You look fine,” Gordon said. Jamie nodded.
“You look like a proper professor in the making,” I said.
“Don’t,” she said, focused on the approaching husband and wife pair. She didn’t look at me. “Please don’t raise me up just to make a bigger crash when you trip me up and I fall. Any other time.”
“Said the frog to the scorpion, who was asking for a ride across the water,” Gordon said.
“You too. Don’t make me nervous,” she said. “Don’t-”
She let her voice drop off as the pair drew close.
I whispered, “Like I said. Your lead. You get to take point.”
Lillian gave me the smallest nod.
Husband and wife. He was a middle-aged gentleman with obviously altered features, cut a little too sharp. His face was clean shaven, his blond hair waxed to the point that it looked artificial through and through, as if it were finely carved of wood. He wore a jacket with tails and thin slacks, and held a bone cane, more for style than out of any need for one.
She was a woman who’d had more work done on her body than most. I might have taken her for his daughter, but she was wearing the open-front blouse that was so common to yesteryear’s high courts. The cut of the dress bared the space between breasts, and the resulting picture was decorated with low-hanging jewelry and framed with ruffles and lace. It would have been the style for Lillian’s mother when the woman was Lillian’s age or a few years older, if Lillian’s mother was born to a good family.
That dress told me a lot. It suggested she was forty, for one, her apparent age cut in half by good care by good doctors. It wasn’t unfashionable, but it took courage or reasons to wear it when she could have an easier time following modern fashion trends. The risque styles of dress had been a reaction or signal of support to the Crown around the time the infighting between Crown and Church had started. It was very possible that she or her entire family had a deeper stake in that particular fight, remembered even today.
She also had a tic, one finger moving rhythmically where she thought we couldn’t see, one hand in the other arm’s sleeve of her. If I remembered right, it was a problem common to people who had had certain augmentations placed within their forearms. A precursor to the same sort of thing that let Fray hide needles in her fingertips.
No, even from the way they held themselves, and the ease and care with which they moved, it was clear they were augmented from head to toe. Grafts, physical alterations, drugs, changes to their biological construction at the ground level, and more.
They weren’t nobles, but by golly, they wanted to be.
“The so-called Lambs?” the man asked.
“Yes sir,” Lillian said.
“I heard stories, I inquired, and what I was told led me to expect monsters dressed up like children. I was skeptical. Now I’m not sure whether to be disappointed or impressed. Are you the monsters I heard descriptions of, with particularly good craftsmanship?”
I bit my tongue rather than make a clever reference to Helen. Three sprung to mind.
“We’re very good at what we do, sir,” Lillian said. “Without knowing the stories, I’m afraid I couldn’t tell you.”
He looked us over.
“Very well. This is my wife, Mrs. Adelaide Gage. I am Everard Gage. I am grateful to you for coming.”
“We’re happy to render any assistance we can,” Lillian said.
“I would request that the dog stay outside,” the man said.
“I’m sorry, sir, but Hubris stays with me,” Gordon said, voice firm. “He’s a member of this team and a resource. May I suggest that I leave and take a walk down by the water? I can wait for the meeting to conclude, without bringing him inside or leaving him behind.”
The man studied Gordon, looked again at the dog, then shook his head. “No, both you and him can come in. Follow us, please.”
We followed the pair as they took the path to the front door.
I continued to bite my tongue. Gordon is willing to suggest having me wait outside, but the dog, oh, no, the dog is a member of this team.
Heavy double doors of black wood opened with Everard and Adelaide’s approach, though there were no eyes watching through nearby windows, and the doors themselves lacked openings. I glanced to one side as we passed through. The man in a servant’s uniform wasn’t stitched, but something else, lacking eyes, ears and hair. The man on the opposite side was a close match.
“In here,” Everard said, “This sitting room gets more light at this time of day. Not that there’s much to enjoy these days. All overcast gray.”
Lillian started to open her mouth, then stopped before voicing anything.
I stuck my elbow forward and to one side to push it into her back.
Lillian spoke, “If you don’t mind my saying so, sir, it’s much better than it is in Radham. The rain never stops there.”
“I’d forgotten about that,” Adelaide said, speaking for the first time. Even her voice has been altered to be younger and prettier. “I’ve been, but it’s easy to forget it’s so incessant.”
“Yes, madam,” Lillian said, more enthusiastic now that a basic rapport had been established.
I would have slapped my hand across my face if I didn’t think it would get me in trouble with Lillian and the silent treatment from the rest of the Lambs.
Lillian continued, “It’s so rare that I can go outdoors without an umbrella or a raincoat that I feel strange without one.”
The woman offered Lillian a tight smile, chin drawn slightly in, and replied with a simple, “Quite so.”
Lillian glanced briefly at me. She hadn’t missed just how quickly the mood had shifted.
“Would you have a seat?” Everard asked. He indicated the chairs and loveseat of the little sitting room.
We sat. I sat beside Lillian in the loveseat.
“Tea will be along shortly. We called for it as you arrived at the gate.”
“Thank you, sir,” Gordon said. He’d settled in a chair, and hand his hand over the armrest, scratching Hubris’ head. He looked like a young aristocrat, entirely at home in this environment.
Lillian had lost her voice, it seemed, if Gordon was stepping up. I guessed she didn’t know what she’d done wrong and she dreaded doing it again.
“Mrs. Gage, ma’am,” I said, “Mr. Gage, sir. Can I ask what happened?”
“We wrote about it all in the letter to your, who was it?”
“Mr. Hayle,” Adelaide said.
“The man in charge of our project, yes sir, yes ma’am,” Lillian said. She’d picked up on my hint.
“That letter should have had the necessary details,” Everard said. “Are you so forgetful?”
Right on the attack. Defensive.
I gestured discreetly with my hand at my knee, watching the eyes of the pair to make sure they weren’t noticing. At most they might take it to be distracted movements of the hand. Paper. Watch. Hidden. Word. Paper. Strategy.
“Sir, letters get intercepted, particularly those from people of your status,” Lillian said. I could hear the tremor in her voice partway through the sentence. Not something someone unfamiliar with her would have caught, but a sign that she was anxious. “It wouldn’t be unusual to keep details out of the paper that you wouldn’t want your enemies to catch wind of. But if we’re going to help, then we’ll need all of the details. The work we do is dangerous, and a seemingly innocuous detail could get us killed.”
Good, I gestured. You.
Everard and Adelaide exchanged a glance.
“You’re right,” Everard admitted. “Well said. I’ll be blunt, and admit our second daughter is missing. She’s run away from home, and she’s done so in the worst way possible.”
“A gang of hooligans,” Adelaide said. “In Lugh.”
“An hour’s ride away,” Jamie said. “Lugh is a blight. A harbor for rebels against the Crown and illegal trade. I can see why it concerns you, sir, her being affiliated with such things.”
“Yes,” Everard said. “A blight, I quite like that. We’ve hired help to go find her and drag her home, but it’s a hostile place. The Crown comes and stamps at them now and again, but the rats crawl into hiding, and they come out of hiding shortly after the Crown leaves. If they send people to stay and try to defend the city, they find resistance and sabotage every step of the way. We would send more people to recover her, but that would make this less discreet. We wanted quality.”
“You’re too kind, sir,” Lillian said. “I think you’ll be satisfied.”
Not how I would’ve worded the first half. Would have dropped the ‘I think’ from the second.
Adelaide spoke, “She’s altered herself. Threw in with artists and dock workers who tattoo themselves and go to back-alley hacks that alter their bodies. She’s lost leave of her senses, and now her outside shows it. Horns, altered eyes, tattoos, and who knows what else. All easily remedied, thankfully, but if it’s linked to us…”
She fanned herself with one hand. Her husband reached out to take her other hand.
“You’ll find her,” he said. “Without drawing attention.”
“Yes, sir,” Lillian said.
“Good, good,” Everard said. He paused, then gave Lillian a curious glance. “What are you, then?”
“The Lambs are creations, alterations, am I wrong?”
“Oh, yes sir,” Lillian said. “But not me.”
I leaned forward a little, “Lillian is purely human.”
I could see the disappointment cross Everard’s face.
“She remains one of Radham Academy’s top students, sir,” I said. “She’s years ahead of her peers, she does errands for Radham’s professors, handles aspects of various Lambs projects, and assists us as a field medic and, I don’t want to say she’s our handler, because we don’t need explicit handling, but…”
“She’s the human element, ensuring we don’t diverge into problematic territory,” Gordon said, very diplomatically.
Everard nodded, looking Lillian over. I wasn’t sure Lillian knew what to do with herself, finding herself put on the spot like that.
“If I may, sir?” Jamie spoke up. “I’m sorry to change the topic.”
“If you may what?” Everard asked.
“You implied there were details that you didn’t include in the letter, sir. You included nearly all of what you said here. Is there more?”
My memory wasn’t so bad that I’d completely forgotten the earlier conversation. I was fairly certain that he hadn’t implied any such thing. Implications were the sort of thing I paid close attention to.
“Did I?” the man asked. Then his expression changed as he realized what the rest of us had, that he’d verified that he’d at least thought it. “Yes, there is more.”
“Anything and everything you can tell us is helpful, sir,” Lillian said.
“You’ve heard of these texts that are being shared around?”
“These hooligans they’ve befriended, they’ve got one of them. They’ve been occupying themselves.”
“Oh,” Lillian said. “That’s problematic, but-”
“It would hardly be of concern, but for the harm it does to the Crown, and the severity of the charges that would be laid against her if she were caught by the full and proper authorities.”
“Yes sir,” Lillian said.
“…And the implications, with the alterations made to her,” Everard finished.
There was a bit of a pause.
This keeps getting better.
“What alterations, sir?” Gordon asked.
“She’s immortal,” Adelaide said.
“Immortal, ma’am?” Lillian asked.
“We don’t know the particulars. The doctor who started her on the regimen left for the war and hasn’t yet returned, though we’ve corresponded by mail. Exceptional fellow. He says that the drugs he’s given her will extend her lifespan indefinitely, and give her some healing ability. If it doesn’t, or if there are problems, she should last long enough for care to advance to the point of being able to fix it.”
“Some experiments have been done that seem to be pointing in that direction, sir, but the level of care required is high,” Lillian said. “Immortality exists, but it’s paradoxically fragile, enough that even many nobles avoid it.”
“Her doctor thinks he’s unraveled it, and our daughter was the test subject. We provided the funding. There was and is a massive chance she’ll die from complications, but the chance to pioneer something like this, we had to take it. Setting her above the rest.”
“Yes sir,” Lillian said, with less enthusiasm than before.
“It would be a grave disappointment if she were to figure out the particulars of that work and share it out at a lower cost, until it became common,” Everard said.
“We’d hoped for her to be special,” Adelaide said. “Enough to draw attention. Baron Richmond won’t be on this end of the Crown States forever. He’s a bachelor, keeping the company of his twin sisters. We need our daughter back in time to get her cleaned up and presentable, and we need it done with discretion.”
“Enough that the Baron doesn’t have to hear of it, perhaps?” Gordon asked.
Everard smiled, “We would be grateful.”
Lillian tried to speak and fail. She did a fair job of hiding her quiet shock.
They really want to be nobles, I thought.
“We excel at discretion, sir,” Gordon said, making brief eye contact with me, as if challenging me to disagree. Or maybe he was thinking of the Brechwell Beast.
“Very glad to hear it. We can provide rides from here to Lugh and back, should you need it, and anything else you require. Funds, to be sure.”
“Yes sir,” Lillian said. “Thank you. If it’s alright, we’ll confer between ourselves and then decide how to move forward?”
“You can do so here,” Everard said. “Adelaide and I will see what’s keeping the tea.”
And confer among yourselves.
The two departed the room, gently shutting the door behind them.
I gestured quickly, to let the others know we were probably being listened in on.
Lillian looked at me. She seemed a little lost. I wasn’t even sure she’d registered what I’d gestured at her.
Then she smiled a little, and leaned across the loveseat to give me a peck on the cheek.
“Thank you for the nice things you said,” she told me.
“Always,” I murmured. “Even if I call you a crybaby, I’ll have a hundred other nice things to say too.”
“I don’t know what to do,” she said.
“You’re going to do your job,” I said. “You’re going to do it well. You’ll make contacts.”
I gestured again. Another reminder.
“We’ll figure out the particulars on the way,” I said.
Then she leaned over and gave me another peck on the cheek. Her hands found my right hand and held it.
I’d opened up the relationship with a kiss to save her and to save myself. To cast doubt on her word when it came to me. I’d let her down, in a way, hurt her in the eyes of people she very much wanted to impress.
This, I could do this much. I would give her this in compensation.