I watched as Lugh came into sight. For a city that seemed to have been named as a hybridization of ‘Lug’ and ‘Ugh’, the sprawl I saw before me seemed fitting enough. It called the shims of Radham to mind, the poor, menial labor focused area of the city, but writ large and dashed across rocky seaside.
Half of the buildings were blocky and brutish, pure utility and the cheapest means of building put to use – stone blocks and the builder’s trees, which seemed to have been grown into and through buildings rather than used as the buildings were first put together. Of the other half of the buildings, those that weren’t made out to be sloping off to one side by optical illusion and the jaunty slant of rooftops were actively working on falling over, with no optical illusion needed.
A thick, dark smoke rose from chimneys, a thin spitting of rain came from the clouds above, and the odd occupant of the city had a lantern out or a flickering light on and casting orange light, despite the fact that it was still early in the afternoon.
But the capstone, the element of Lugh that made people want to drift close enough to see, should they be on a boat, was the impressive sight of the great superweapon. Or the ex-superweapon. It had died at sea and drifted inland, or it had died at the coast and languished there. Either way, it was too big to really dispose of, so it had been left to rot. The armored exterior and the skin had proven too resilient for even vermin and disease to eat at, and much of it had calcified over the last decade or two, the remainder falling away. As new buildings and sections of dock had gone up, they had done so under, over, and around the tendrils and tentacles that flowed from the armored carapace. Here and there, wood had been grown and brickwork laid to reinforce the structure.
“Professor Ibott’s mentor created that thing,” Jamie remarked.
“Really?” I asked.
The waves were heavy in the bay, and the ship rocked this way and that. We were heading for the dock, and it didn’t feel like we were slowing down enough to avoid crashing bodily into it. I tensed a little and gripped the railing.
“They made the project a recurring one, they keep a pack of those things in the water, but the batches are smaller. At a certain point, with size, you’re not getting any more effective, you’re just showing off,” Jamie said. He smiled.
I felt like he was making a joke, and I didn’t get it. That annoyed me, quite a lot.
Was it a short joke? Because I was shorter than most boys my age? Whatever my exact age was?
“Sure,” I said.
“Sorry,” he said, looking out at the city.
“S’alright,” I said. Even after months, there were still bound to be growing pains. I could take a short joke if it meant things would fit together better than they had been.
He leaned over the railing, resting his chin on the back of his folded hands.
I went still.
Bad, complicated memories were springing to the fore.
I swallowed hard, and I looked away, watching as the distance between the boat and the dock dwindled. The crew of the ship were rushing back and forth, seeing to duties.
Lillian was further down the ship’s port side, crouched over, her arms around Hubris, talking to the dog while she looked at Lugh through the posts of the ship’s railing. Gordon was below deck.
When he pulled away like that, I knew something was troubling him. He’d be trying to rest so he could be in the best shape possible when we hit land again.
Talking to Jamie was a good thing, from a strategic standpoint. I couldn’t just stick to Lillian and pester Gordon and call it a day. Leaving Jamie out and off to one side wouldn’t breed loyalty or develop the firm bonds, and it would leave me in the dark about him and him in the dark about us when it came to knowing how each of us approached things and thought.
It was a good thing, but it was so dang hard sometimes.
“You’ve been quiet on the subject of bringing the runaway girl home,” I commented.
“I don’t have strong feelings one way or the other,” he said.
“Really?” I asked.
He raised his head up, which was a bit of a relief.
“Really, really?” I asked him.
“No,” he said. The chin went back down, and he resumed watching the waves break to individual pieces against the rocky outcropping that was the closest thing to Lugh’s ‘beach’.
Leaning forward like that, that position of head and hands, talking while he scanned the surroundings with his eyes, baring a part of himself, even with a singular ‘no’, it was too painfully familiar.
I was tougher than this.
The real Jamie wouldn’t want me to be stewing in emotion to the point I couldn’t function.
“You’re not a stitched,” I said. “You have a brain of your own. We won’t bite your head off if you voice an opinion.”
“I know that. I’ve read the books, I… cognitively, I understand things.”
“Not-cognitively,” he said, breaking a small smile, “Not-cognitively, I feel like an impostor.”
“You are,” I said.
I saw him flinch. He straightened, stepping back a little from the railing and from me.
It dawned on me that the words had actually flowed from my head and out of my mouth.
“That wasn’t what I meant to say,” I told him.
He looked away. I could see on his expression that I’d hurt him.
This situation was a parallel to that one in more ways than how the tableau was set out.
“Jamie,” I said.
“I can remember,” Jamie said, very slowly, as if he was picking his words out, “What Mary said, back when we first met. I overheard your conversation with Fray, Mauer, and Percy. You confessed your manipulation of Mary, and she said, I quote, ‘You’re really terrible at being honest’.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond.
“We’ve been made into such warped, stunted people, haven’t we?” he asked. “Fair is foul and foul is fair. I’m someone that was propped up with memories and knowledge, only to be knocked down and forced to pick up the pieces. You’ve been twisted around, so that it is the lies you tell that are the most just part of you, and the truths you speak-”
“Are the most unjust?” I finished for him.
“No,” he said. “Not unjust or unfair. But you’re really unkind when it comes to picking them out.”
If he’d wanted to strike me across the face, it likely would have hurt less.
“I didn’t really mean to be unkind,” I said.
“I know,” he said. “Like I said, I’ve read the books he left behind. I know how you operate. I know who and what you are, in nature and personality. I don’t think any less of you, I don’t blame you, and I don’t harbor any negative feelings.”
“I forgive you, Sy,” he said.
He reached for my shoulder, and I pulled back, without meaning to. His hand froze where it was.
After a long second, he resumed moving his hand. He gave me two lame pats on the shoulder.
I could remember tackling Jamie, the roughhousing, me getting his head under my arm, him getting my head under his arm more frequently. The jabs, no holds barred.
This Jamie stood arm’s reach away, withdrawing his hand.
“I’m going to go down and let Gordon know we’ve arrived. We might need to wrangle the indentured workers you purchased.”
He turned to leave.
I looked back at Lillian, wondering if she’d seen, or maybe to look for eye contact, to see someone’s eyes with warmth in them, familiarity, genuinely happy to see me.
Her attention was divided between Hubris and the imminent contact with the dock.
“I can’t seem to do anything right when it comes to you,” I said, to Jamie’s back.
“Sorry,” I said.
He glanced back at me. “It’s alright, Sy. I know that feeling very well.”
Only my white-knuckle grip on the railing kept me from falling over at the unexpected contact with the dock.
When I stood straight again, I saw Lillian recovering from the light crash with Hubris’ help. She stood straight and flashed a smile at me.
There it was. That look.
I’d needed that.
I held out a hand. She almost skipped a little as she hurried to take it.
Once she had it, I pulled her close. She didn’t let go of my hand until I tugged mine out of the way, so the hug I gave her was a stilted one.
Needed that too, if I could admit that much.
“What’s that for?” she asked me.
I gave her a quick peck on the lips, then reached up. My fingers mussed up her nicely-done-up hair as I put my hands around her ears. Then I kissed her again, more meaningfully.
I’d expected one of the sailors on the ship to comment or jeer. What a grave disappointment that was. I could have made her blush.
I broke the kiss.
“Or that?” she asked.
“Do I need a reason?” I asked, moving my hands so she could hear me.
“You always have a reason, Sy. For everything you do.”
Hubris pushed his head under Lillian’s hand. She gave him a scratch.
Lillian’s hair was messier now, but she was still dressed nice, one button at her collarbone undone. Her cheeks were flushed, her lipstick ever so slightly smudged, and she looked to be more or less in her element and happy, if only for the moment. I wasn’t sure she’d ever looked prettier.
Because you almost make an empty and cold part of me feel full and warm, you make me think it’s possible to leave old hurt behind and heal this wound, and that has nothing to do with your abilities as a field medic or doctor in training, I thought to myself. Because you’re genuinely nice to look at and be with.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” I told her.
“Probably not,” she said. She shot me a look, serious and accusatory. Then she smiled. She linked her arm with mine. “Let’s get changed.”
“I was going to say something about needing to remove all of that lipstick, first.”
“I was going to already, Sy-” she said.
I reached out, put a finger on her chin, and turned her head my way, so I could kiss her again.
“Oh,” she said.
There, right there, that was the bright red flush and the flustered look that was all mine to enjoy provoking.
“Not that we actually have time,” I said.
“And there it is. The let-down after raising me up.”
“Barely,” I said. “Cut me some slack. And the mission does come first.”
“Except I’m dreading this one,” she said. She looked up as a sailor pushed past us, breaking my hold on Lillian.
We had to hurry to get out of the way as others were pressing in, wanting to access the cargo belowdecks. I made sure to keep our arms linked so we wouldn’t be separated again, and the two of us headed back to the corner where the others waited with our luggage.
I saw Jamie there. I saw him smile at Lillian and I in greeting.
When he’d said he’d forgiven me, he’d meant it.
I wasn’t sure how to parse that. But if it meant keeping the peace and working toward something better, I could do my best to simply take and accept that kind of understanding from him, where I’d never really accepted it from anyone in the past.
I was doing that a fair bit these days, trying to make amends by making changes in ways I wasn’t sure I could explain to the people in question.
The people of Lugh were more heavily modified and tattooed than any group of people I’d seen in the past. I tried to avoid staring as we passed a collection of six men with roughly identical builds, each with slabs of muscle, hunched-over posture, and arms as thick around as their legs, which were thicker around than I was. Where the next guy could pick up a given maximum weight, these Brunos could carry two of those ‘next guys’ and the weights besides.
I knew the type – manual laborers, taking some cheap and freely available option to alter themselves. Radham had one or two that popped up now and again, but for there to be six gathered together, and then more at the docks and some outside the bar down the street, and an eclectic assortment of other types nearby?
It made for very interesting people watching.
“Strategy,” Gordon said. “How do we handle this? Is it a kidnapping job? Hunt and stalk? Infiltration? Sabotage?”
“Th-” I started.
“Shut up Sy,” Gordon said, without malice. I doubted he’d even been sure I’d been replying, the way he was walking ahead of the group with Hubris and some of our recruited help. “Lillian’s answering this one.”
“Someone woke up grumpy,” I said.
Gordon, Jamie, Lillian and I had dressed down for our exploration of Lugh. Our clothes weren’t bad, but they weren’t nice enough to stand out. Lillian wore boots, stockings, a dress, and a sweater with a run in the wool. Gordon, Jamie and I each had simple slacks in muted colors tucked into our individual boots, simple white shirts, and jackets. Gordon had donned a cap.
“Um,” Lillian said. “Thinking about it, I’d rather avoid violence. That’s not in the cards unless we put it in the cards, I think.”
“Okay,” Gordon said. “Disappointing, but ok.”
“Who are you?” one of the adults we’d recruited asked. “You haven’t really explained what’s going on?”
Ugh. I wished we hadn’t had to bring them to get the kids. The kids were at least willing to shut up and listen and see if they couldn’t figure things out for themselves, instead of looking a gift horse in the mouth. When and if they did ask questions, I was betting they’d accept the answers they got. Not so for the parents.
“We’re looking for someone. If we find them, we get paid,” Gordon said. “That same pay that let us buy you free of your debt.”
“There’s a hint in there, if you listen for it,” I said.
“What are we here for then?” the man asked.
“Sylvester had a plan for you, but he mostly wanted to be a nice guy and free you,” Lillian said.
“Lies, balderdash and fuckin’ bullshit, that last part,” I said.
“We’ll probably use you to gather information, Sylvester will walk you through it,” Lillian said, sticking her elbow into my ribs. “Where you need to go and what you need to listen for, or things you need to say. We’ll pay for your food and lodging, and when we’re done we’ll pay you enough that you can get where you need to be, or at least until you can get by.”
“Hmph,” the man said. He didn’t sound happy, but that was an out-and-out lie. I hadn’t missed the change in his body language the moment Lillian had said ‘pay you enough’.
“No violence, then,” Gordon said. “What else?”
“Um,” Lillian said.
“You’ve been with us long enough to know how we do things,” I said. “We need to find the target. Girl with horns, not that that’s going to help-“
I could see two different girls with horns nearby, and I’d seen a handful since we’d left the harbor behind.
“-the parents didn’t give us a name.”
“They did,” Jamie said. “You weren’t listening. Candida Gage.”
“Oh that poor girl,” I said.
Lillian, Jamie and Gordon nodded.
“Okay, we need to find… Candy?”
“I have some ideas about the information gathering, but I don’t know which one is best,” Lillian said.
“What do we want, what are we giving?”
“Giving?” Lillian asked.
“Let’s say we put the word out, start asking questions. Someone mentions to another someone that some kids and strangers were asking about whatshername.”
“Candida,” Jamie supplied.
“What happens next?” I asked.
“She runs,” Lillian said. “Leaves the city, maybe, or makes herself harder to find, if she can’t.”
I nodded with approval. “Question is, can we bait her in, or can we offer something that would make people want to come to us instead of Candida?”
“Saying her parents were hurt?” Lillian asked. Then before I could shut her down, she shook her head. “No.”
“No,” I agreed. “The bond isn’t strong, and they’ve manipulated her enough she’s watching for it.”
“Family doesn’t work,” I said.
“Don’t go and give her the answer,” Gordon said.
“You are. You have an answer in mind, and you’re picking and choosing and subtly pointing the way to that answer.”
I clapped a hand over my mouth.
“I bet you can’t keep that up for two minutes,” Gordon said.
I pointed at him and winked.
“Can’t be family. Do we push or do we pull?” Lillian asked. “Rhetorical question. Thinking out loud.”
“You’ve been spending far too much time around Sylvester,” Gordon said.
“She’s going to run if we push, unless it’s the right kind of push, but I’m not clever enough to figure out how to do that.”
I poked her in the arm, hard, my other hand still in place over my mouth. When she looked at me, I wagged my finger at her.
“You’re cleverer than you think, Lillian,” Gordon said.
I nodded, in a very exaggerated way.
“I’m a year or two older than most of you and I’m still behind you in terms of my ability to pick things up and put them together,” Lillian said. “And I’m years behind a real, practiced doctor. I know I have my strengths, but let me be self-depreciating when it’s accurate, okay?”
I poked her shoulder again. She swatted at my hand.
“We disagree on how accurate it is,” Jamie said.
“Then let me be self depreciating when I think it’s accurate, then,” Lillian said.
I poked her again. She swatted at me, and I grabbed her hand, my other hand still clasped to my mouth. I held her hand and pressed it to her chest, over her heart.
“Sy’s trying to tell you something. Because he just can’t resist,” Gordon said.
“I don’t get it,” Lillian said. She tried to pull her hand free and I held on. In a quieter voice, she said, “And you’re touching my chest, Sy.”
That was maybe the fourth most important thing going on here.
Maybe the fifth.
I let her move my hand away, and extended a finger, pointing at her. I had to work against her to extend a single finger and tap it against her chest.
“Me,” Lillian said. She shook her head.
I could see her expression changing. The disappointment in herself.
I tapped that finger against her heart again.
“Sy’s going to have an aneurysm,” Gordon said.
Lillian’s smile and half-chuckle was more sympathetic for Gordon than anything.
I kicked at his leg.
Clod! Jerk! Look at her, read her! Understand what she’s doing. She’s frustrated and you’re rubbing it in her face.
“Me,” Lillian mused. “What can I do that nobody else can?”
I was too busy avoiding Gordon’s retaliatory kick to give her further guidance.
Lillian continued to voice her thoughts out loud, “We know they’re working on something using the books. What if… we tell them the truth? That I know Academy science, I am- was a student of the Academy?”
Gordon and I turned our full attention to her.
“They might want help or details, if they’re working with those books. Or we could tap into that, if we make it clear I’m looking for one of the books too. Through that, we could find them. It’s a slim chance, but it’s-”
“Brilliant,” I said.
“Ah, ah, ah!” Gordon said. He smiled triumphantly.
“Eat your dog’s shit, Gordon,” I said.
“Wow,” he said.
“I hope you puke it up and you get that thing where it goes out the nose, too.”
“You amaze me sometimes, Sy.”
I ignored him, because he was in a prickly, surly mood, and pointed at Lillian. “Good.”
She smiled, but it was a faltering smile. “You ended up leading me to the answer you wanted in the end.”
“I actually was thinking along the lines that you could trade your services for information, at first,” I said. “And I did jump to the idea you gave, but I was too busy with Gordon kicking me to actively lead you to it.”
“That’s sweet, Sy,” Lillian said. “I don’t believe you.”
I turned and looked back at the two families and the one stray child that were all following us, in earshot, but far enough away to almost count as a distinct group.
They looked so confused and lost.
“Where are we staying?” I asked.
Jamie pointed at a building that loomed above the rest. Where there were many buildings here that ranged from the dilapidated to outright shacks, the building Jamie indicated was one of the sturdier ones.
I spoke to the families, “Pass on word, ex-Academy student is looking for the book. If they ask what book it is the student is looking for, they aren’t who we’re looking for. If you find them, then you get a role in what follows, with a corresponding increase in pay. We meet at that building at dusk if unsuccessful. If successful, you can lead them to us at that building, or just take note of who they are and where they are, we’ll handle the rest.”
I saw a number of uncertain nods.
I had my work cut out for me.
“Start out by saying you’re looking for work. Might be you find something for yourselves, which is great. But mention that you have a friend who has Academy training, young and not sure what to do. You can say she’s heard about a book or say she’s looking for a mentor.”
More uncertain nods.
I suspected I could give them a day’s worth of lessons about how to handle this, and they would still have doubts.
“You’ll figure it out,” I said.
“Go in groups,” Gordon cut in.
“Oh yeah. Dangerous town, you’ll want to be safe,” I said.
“Pairs, trios, or as a family,” Gordon said. “Keep an eye out for trouble. We got you out of a bad situation, if you do decide to head off to greener pastures, maybe do us the favor of letting us know what you’re doing, so we don’t waste time looking for you?”
Less than committal nods.
People were so annoying sometimes.
“Go,” Gordon said.
The families scattered, staying to their individual family units. One family was black, the other white, and the youngest criminal, independent of either family, immediately went off and ignored Gordon’s instructions to stay in groups and left on his own.
“We’ll stay in groups too,” Gordon said.
“Great,” I said.
“Lillian’s with me,” he said.
I opened my mouth to protest, then closed it.
“If I put you with her, you’re going to be distracted.”
“Scurrilous lies,” I said.
“Or you’re going to distract her.”
“Damn straight,” I said.
Lillian swatted my arm. She was so physical like that. I pitied the man who ended up with her, after I was dead and gone.
“If I take you with me, I’m not sure that pair will have any forward momentum,” he said.
Which was a fine way to say that a pairing of Jamie and Lillian were liable to get their asses kicked.
But, I thought.
I could see the look on his face. There would be no negotiating, no pleas.
I looked at Jamie, my new partner.
“Right-o,” I said, after managing to muster up something resembling enthusiasm.
“Stay out of trouble,” he said. Then to Jamie, he said, “Watch him.”
“Best I can ask for,” Gordon said. He whistled for Hubris.
I watched as he and Lillian walked away. Lillian glanced back at me.
I looked at Jamie.
It made sense, doing things this way. On a technical level, I knew it was for the best.
I was doing a lot of those failed, miserable attempts at convincing myself that things were ‘technically for the best’ too, these days.