We approached the meeting place. It was down by the water. The ‘head’ of the mummified sea monster of Lugh loomed over us as we made our way down to the warehouses. A short bridge allowed easier passage over a tendril that lay across, between, and through buildings. The smell of the ocean that filled Lugh was overpowered by a smell of rotting seaweed and fish. I’d made the mistake of opening my mouth, and the smell became a taste, clinging to my tongue. I wasn’t alone; Hubris kept snorting, as if trying to clear his airways.
Lanterns lit up a warehouse and a cast of figures. Ratface was there with his bodyguards, standing off to one side, ostensibly the mediator, middleman and negotiating official.
The buyer was there too. I’d briefed the others based on what Ratface had told us. He went by Giles, and he had money to spend. He owned several homes in one of the nicer parts of Lugh, up the rocky hills above the sea monster’s body, and had refitted several to be labs with dormitory-like setups for the people who worked for him.
The placement of the homes was interesting. As far as I could tell, the setup meant that if and when the Academy got serious about cleaning up Lugh, they had to make their way through the entire city, past Giles’ eyes on the street, through the awkward little maze of routes that spilled out beneath the dead warbeast’s body. That would get them as far as the foot of the mountain – they still had to climb the steep and winding road to get up the mountain a ways to the houses poised on the rocky edges. By the time they got that far, the homes would be empty of anything incriminating.
Making one’s way down and away would be equally troubling. The people who worked for him most likely weren’t given the freedom to make day trips to the city.
From a tactical standpoint, the little bit of information we’d been able to pick up told us that Giles was known to the local underworld as the Fishmonger. He had a small army of thugs, and a set of modified humans as his elite soldiers. One sixth of Lugh belonged to him, which wasn’t as much as some, but his sixth included the harbor. Ships that didn’t pay the price to the men on the docks ran the risk of expensive collisions and complications.
“Lil,” I murmured, “From here on out, I might be a bit of an asshole.”
“You say that like it’s new,” Gordon said.
“Ha ha ha,” I said, monotone, before turning back to Lillian, “A lot of this depends on how well you sell it.”
She huffed out a sigh. Nervous.
I kept my eyes forward and didn’t touch her to reassure. “Right now, this is an opportunity. Think about how you felt when you were going to meet the Gages. If you’re nervous, tap into that, these are scary guys, you’re a bit unsure now that you’re here. Right?”
“Right,” Lillian said, quiet.
“When they close the net, seize you, whatever it is, you’ve got to tap into something else. Do you remember the argument in Brechwell?”
“You really, genuinely thought I wanted to support Fray, ignoring what you were saying about the dangers these books pose. Might be a starting point.”
“Don’t try to fake believing. Let yourself believe. Let the walls down.”
“I think I focus on reality too much to fall into the fantasy like that,” Lillian said.
“Would be easier if Helen was here. She could give you good tips. Here we are.”
We were getting close enough to be within earshot.
The Fishmonger. He was average height for a man, but had a stooped posture and a strange shape about him that made him appear shorter than he was. He was built like a lump, the edges of his chin merging into a thick neck, which merged into narrow shoulders in turn. His fingers were stumpy as they stuck out of his sleeves, his thumbs hooked on the pockets of his coat. His face was heavy, with jowls, a pug nose, and lower eyelids so thick and droopy they looked as though they’d been badly grafted on over his existing pair. His thick coat hung down nearly to his ankles.
He didn’t look wealthy. The wide-brimmed hat he wore and the coat were the same sorts the poorer people on the street wore. I guessed he was the sort to pinch pennies, except where food was concerned. If I assumed he’d dressed up for this, then he usually looked worse.
If he was looking to be incognito, he’d gone the wrong way about it. Of the group of people with him, four were heavily modified. Two had had their skin swapped out for thick scales. One was covered in spines, and both spines and skin were a ghastly, unhealthy pallor. The fourth was big, slouching against a wall, a head taller than the tallest of the other three beefy, augmented foot soldiers. His skin was oil-slick black and glossy.
All four wore the same coats the six unaltered thugs of the group did, the one with the spines being the only one to buck a trend of heavy raincoats and brimmed hats. Spines wore something more suited to winter weather, puffy, and wore no hat. He didn’t look happy, and I wondered if it was solely because of the wet and cold.
“Glad you could make it,” Ratface said to me. The look he gave me was intended to communicate something. That the plan was still on, probably. I was more focused on Giles the Fishmonger.
The Fishmonger extended a stubby finger, letting it rove over our group. Jamie and Gordon were with us, as was Hubris. Two of the adults from our recruited group were with as well.
Giles’ short finger pointed at Lillian. “You’re her?”
“Yes,” Lillian said.
“Yes sir,” she said.
“How many years at the Academy?”
“Three, but I took classes at a preparation school before. I’m- I was a year and a half ahead of my peers. I guess I still am?”
Good. But she sounded terrified. Uncertain, to the point where I could imagine Giles calling her a liar, and her reflexively agreeing.
“A year and a half ahead,” Giles said. “That’s a problem.”
Come on, Lil, stay on track here.
I would have elbowed her if I could’ve done it without being seen.
Instead, I raised my hand up, well within Lillian’s field of view, and fixed my hood. The sudden motion made several of the Fishmonger’s bozos move their hands in the direction of their waistbands.
Fishmonger Giles wasn’t watching them, but saw Lillian’s reaction. He turned his head and looked at his men. “Don’t you worry about them. You’re new to Lugh, you don’t have a grasp of the local politics yet. Trust me, if you end up working for me, then you’ll be happy to have protection like them.”
Happy? That rang out as a lie in my ears. The only protection they would offer would be protecting Giles’ investment.
“You said there’s a problem? Please, sir, we really need money. We haven’t been able to get much, and it disappears so fast. I’m hungrier than I’ve ever been in my life. I’m good at what I do. I’m a fast learner, if I don’t know something already.”
“You might be too good.”
“That’s not possible,” Lillian said. Then she seemed to realize what she’d said. “Sorry, sir, for speaking out of turn.”
That came across as real, but it was real. It had dug past the act and the moment to prick at the real Lillian, the part of her that likely connected with Mary on a level. She connected with Mary because the both of them believed that there was no such thing as being overqualified, too good, working too hard, knowing too much. Though their paths were very different ones.
The Fishmonger wagged a finger. Not as a reprimand, but gesticulating. “I’ll show you.”
He gestured, and his altered bodyguards parted, opening a way. Spines pulled a door open as he stepped aside.
The Fishmonger made his way into the building, raising one hand to beckon us with a finger.
The trap awaits.
“Sir?” Lillian asked, “Could you tell me instead? We’re outnumbered, and-”
“It’s fine,” I said. “That guy there-”
Ratface gave me a nasty look.
“Cecil,” Jamie supplied.
“Cecil said Mr. Giles was trustworthy. We asked around before we met you at the rendezvous point, and he’s popular around town. He’s the richest man in the city, which is why he needs bodyguards.”
All lies, but lies that made sense, built up my end of the scenario, that I’d put her to work.
“I understand, but-”
I reached out to take her hand. “You promised, Lil. That you would help us out. We’ve gotten you food, we’ve kept you safe, don’t spoil this now that we’ve got a chance.”
Giles watched us out of the corner of his eye, waiting.
“Okay,” Lillian said.
I let go of her hand and gave her a push.
Walk into the trap.
The key thing to do here was to keep options open. I could have followed her, but if something happened, or if he had a specialized means of securing her, I didn’t want to get caught by it, whether it was a tranquilizer or a net. I needed to be free to move to help her.
Instead, I followed her halfway, so she wouldn’t walk forward and see us standing still, my pace slowing as she got closer to the door.
She reached the doorway, and I saw her hands go to her mouth. She made an incoherent noise.
My heart skipped a beat. Against my better judgment, I approached, until I stood right behind her, Spines to one side of me, one of the scaly men to the other.
The inside of the warehouse was well lit, but the lights flickered and gave the interior a yellow cast. I could see black things swimming in the liquid of the long lightbulbs, long and snakelike.
Lying across a table was a man. He was strapped down, and now and again he jerked a limb, straining the leather straps to their limit. His back arched, and I could see his naked torso, where something moved beneath his skin.
“He got on the wrong side of one of my other people’s experiments,” Giles said. “Don’t know how or why, but the poor bastard might have thought he could steal from me. Take in a parasite, make a run for the edge of town, get it out, and sell it. Very valuable, these.”
The man wasn’t breathing. Instead, his back arched, then bucked the other way, as his head rose up as far as he could manage, throat distending.
Ratface spoke, right behind me. “He might not have been smuggling, might have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“Mm hmm,” the Fishmonger said. “Which would mean security is lacking. Something to think about.”
The man on the table heaved, to no avail. The thing that wormed its way out of his mouth took its own time, revealing itself by flailing around in the air before wrapping around half of the man’s face. Something like a leech or a maggot. It was as big around than his head was, and half-again as long, but apparently capable of squeezing through small spaces. The man thrashed, gasping for breath now, his head whipping from left to right, but he failed to dislodge the greasy blob of flesh from his face. Arms pulled against restraints.
“This was to be your test, little girl. Save him. Preserve the specimen.”
“This is inhuman,” Lillian said.
“I don’t believe in humanity,” the Fishmonger said. “I believe in what comes next.”
It was, in an eerie way, very similar to a sentiment I’d voiced before.
Lillian looked back over her shoulder at me, as if reading my mind, or thinking along similar lines.
I put a look of wide-eyed horror on my face. No words I could say would help this situation or sell the gambit.
The parasite was working its way into the man’s ear. Far too large an object for so narrow an aperture, but it was somehow doing it. The man struggled, thrashing, raising his head up and smashing it down, as if he could kill the thing by smashing his own head against it, or swipe it against the table’s edge and dislodge it.
“But, like I said,” the Fishmonger said, finger raised, “A problem. The test might prove too easy, if you’re as advanced as you say.”
“Please. Just let me help him.”
“He tried to help himself, you know,” the Fishmonger said. “Took a knife to his own stomach, trying to reach inside and get the thing out. We fixed the damage and got it so he wouldn’t die before you got here.”
He drew a knife.
“No!” Lillian said.
“I’m severing the sutures, is all. Back to square one, and-”
The knife flicked. A spatter of blood sailed through the air. The patient screamed, voice hoarse.
“Now you have a time limit.”
“The longer you wait, the more he suffers,” the Fishmonger said.
Lillian shook her head. She started rolling up her sleeves, running to the table, her satchel bouncing at her hip.
“There are tools ready for you.”
“I have my own,” Lillian said. “Simon, help me.”
I was surprised she had the presence of mind to call me by my fake name. I hurried to her side.
Bag out, on the table, and she was getting her tools out.
“I’m interested in the fact that you didn’t sell those,” the Fishmonger said, “Desperate for money as you are.”
Lillian ignored him. She laid the tools out, and began getting little bottles. The bottles were folded into a set, two rows of three in half of a box, held in place with ribbons, each box-half joined to the next with another ribbon. Made to be bundled together, easily unfolded or stacked without getting lost or separated from one another. She began removing and setting down bottles, one after another.
The man thrashed, the thing still working its way into his ear, halfway through now, and his arm struck at the bottles.
I was quick enough to catch the two that was knocked from the table. I moved the row of bottles to one side, out of reach of the man’s arm and hand.
“What can you tell me about the parasite?” Lillian asked. She was cleaning her hands with a solution from a bottle.
The Fishmonger was silent.
Lillian set her jaw. She began cleaning the site of the injury at the man’s middle with the same product, ignoring the parasite for the time being. It was a ragged injury, more like a crack in a pane of glass, branching off in every direction, and the edges were marked with the black thread of sutures.
“If it goes into his ear, where is it going?” I asked. “Brain?”
“I doubt it,” Lillian said. “If it went to the brain, the man wouldn’t be conscious. There’s damage to his other ear. It’s already come and gone from there, probably made it through the Eates tube, joins the ear and mouth. There’s similar damage around the nose too, and one of his eyes is damaged.”
I looked. It was hard to tell with how wild-eyed the man was, like a horse frothing at the mouth, too panicked to even see straight, but one of his eyes was indeed slower to move than the other.
“In and out of the socket?” I asked.
“Or it tried,” Lillian said. “Third bottle.”
I found and handed her the third bottle.
“Second, I mean. Order got mixed around when he knocked them down.”
Oh. I’d put it back wrong. She was letting me know I’d screwed up without saying it outright. I handed her a bottle.
She drew out a syringe, injecting it. Then she began her work, opening the injury wider, reaching in, and then feeling out the interior. “Damage is shallow. No organs damaged, but some bleeds. This is mostly surface damage, made worse by the thing moving beneath and around it, before and after stitches.”
This was a nasty distraction. We couldn’t let the man suffer, but the game plan we’d had laid out was well and truly out of sorts, now. I glanced at Jamie and Gordon, who were hanging further back, watching through the doorway.
Escape routes? Most of the windows were placed high, to let sunlight in, and the only one at ground level was boarded up. There was a front door, and if there was a back door, the rows of shelves and stacks of wooden pallets blocked my view of it. I could smell some of the products being traded, so I knew that most of the boxes on the shelves would be full.
That said, I doubted I’d find any weapons or tools sharper or more effective than a sweet potato, even if I had the chance to look, which I didn’t.
Six regular thugs, four altered ones, and the Fishmonger himself. Ratface was watching from outside, but he and his two bodyguards were more assets arrayed against us.
This isn’t your first dance, Fishmonger. You’re experienced, and you’ve preemptively handled more situations than this one with this heavy handed brutality and a total lack of humanity.
Lillian had tools. Some were sharp. But with all the eyes on us, it would be difficult to get my hands on them. If I messed up in the slightest, I was betting the thugs would be faster to get to their guns than I would be to get to a scalpel.
While I surveyed the situation, I caught a glimpse of the Fishmonger.
There was a look on his face. It was a smile in the technical sense, but there was no happiness to it. I had trouble pinning it down.
Because of Lillian?
Because of the trap? The idea that Lillian might as well be shackled already, being wrist-deep in her patient?
I glanced at the door. The men who’d been on either side of it were now standing with their backs to it, blocking my view. I looked between their legs for a glimpse of Gordon and Jamie’s feet, and didn’t see them.
If Gordon and Jamie had made a move, then the men wouldn’t be nearly that relaxed, blocking the door as they were.
Gordon and Jamie had been dealt with.
In saving this one man, we might have been doomed.
Couldn’t dwell on that. I was focusing on the work we were doing, handing over tools as Lillian asked for them. I couldn’t spare a glance to the Fishmonger, but I imagined that look on his face.
Setting up something like this, he had a mean streak. The torture this man was going through? No question of malice, here. He also desired power and control, and he was careful about it, setting himself up in the houses on the mountain.
Except, was he looking at us with anticipation?
The Fishmonger had us. He had absolute control. The torture the man was going through was enough to satisfy just about any sadist. The emotional strain Lillian was going through, it was gravy to this lump of a man.
What more could he be hungry for?
“Doing okay?” I asked.
“Trying,” Lillian said. “Working out in my head how we might do the parasite, while I’m doing the tears inside. There’s still a time limit, even after I sew him up. He has only so much strength.”
That was it.
This was too easy. The time limit wasn’t enough of a catch. The cut in the man’s side didn’t do more than delay Lillian in getting to the parasite. That could be a problem unto itself. Lillian being set up to fail.
The other possibility was worse.
“Small scissors,” Lillian said.
I found and handed her the small scissors. When she went to take them, I held for a moment. My hand was there, one finger extended.
“Got it,” Lillian said. “Can barely hold onto this. Hand wash?”
I got the hand wash. I held the bottle in a particular way, gesturing as best as I was able while holding something, upending the bottle over her hands. She rubbed them together and shook off the blood.
“Don’t drop it,” she said. “Your hands are messy too.”
“I won’t,” I said. I changed my grip. The gesture this time was for inside, caged, encapsulated.
She stopped where she was, her hands poised above the victim. Her hands were trembling.
“I’d hope a third year student of the Academy could handle some surface wounds to the stomach,” the Fishmonger said.
I watched Lillian as her eyes roved over the man, top to bottom.
Then her hands came down, one on either side of the wound. She shoved.
The man squirmed, fighting her. The thing at his ear was mostly inside, but for a bulb of flesh at the end, the only part of it that wasn’t squeezed into a space as large around as a finger. The flesh was stretched so thin I could see veins standing out against the surface of it.
Lillian released. She huffed out a breath. “Help. And watch yourself.”
I put my hands together, one folded over the other, pressing against one side of the wound. She did the same for the other.
“Three, two, one…”
We shoved simultaneously. Blood gushed out, flooding the site of the injury. I was pretty sure we tore the opening in the skin even wider.
Then it lurched out, a second parasite, flailing aimlessly, reaching for us. I pulled my hands away just in time as it slapped out against the victim’s lower abdomen. Smaller around and perhaps longer than the other.
“A second parasite,” Lillian said, hands up, stepping away.
“Is there? What a pleasant surprise!” the Fishmonger said, sounding entirely too pleased with himself. His lie was such that it would be obvious even to a distracted Lillian, “I thought one had escaped, it’s good to know it will find its way back to me.”
“It was probably anesthetized,” Lillian said.
“This poor man has some wits, to manage that!”
A win-win for our sadist. Either the prospective ‘hire’ has talent, or he gets to see her reaction when the parasite latches onto her.
It had been close, too. He’d almost gotten her. If she’d spent any more time rummaging around that particular wound…
I had a good imagination. The mental picture was too real. Lillian, with the parasite on her arm. The Fishmonger taking action to keep her from using tools or chemicals on it, kicking me way, possibly kicking her to the ground, stepping on her free hand. Watching while she struggled. The begging, the frantic screaming.
From my estimation of him, he wouldn’t listen. He would let it break her, then put her to work. The damage to her body would be a reminder for the rest of her days, while a threat of a repeat performance would be enough to cow any dissent or rebellion.
I’d developed a profound sort of hate for this man in a very short span of time.
He would have to die horribly. The parasites were too kind a death. For that to happen, however, we’d first have to get out of this situation.
I saw movement and turned my eye to the door.
The group from outside were coming in.
Jamie, limp, was being dragged in.
Then the two adults we’d brought with us.
And finally Gordon. He was dragged in by one arm. Whatever had happened, he was groggy and sluggish. A knife was embedded in that same shoulder, and each pull on his arm made the blood flow more freely.
Lillian didn’t even seem to notice. Her eyes were fixed on her patient.
“Two points of attachment are making it hard to remove,” she murmured. “The first, it’s a kind of anchor. A tendril or some other form of attachment, reaching forward into a new hole, or reaching backward, into the patient. One at each end, very strong, impossible to access without carving the patient up.”
“Sure,” I said. I managed to sound calm, which helped keep Lillian from looking up and seeing the others.
“The second, it’s the grip on the patient’s skin. The underside of this thing, or maybe the entirety of it, it’s covered in setae, or something like it. Tiny hairs, providing an absolute grip, like a barnacle to the underside of a ship, but gripping and releasing and moving in a cycle, so it can inch forward. Touch it, and you don’t get it free.”
“Short of removing the skin,” I said.
Lillian nodded. “Which is why… I could deal with the setae alone, flay the affected body part. But the anchors mean the thing can just reel itself in or hold itself in place. I could deal with the anchor, cutting deep and surgically prying it free, wherever or however it’s latched on…”
“You can’t handle both at the same time.”
“I can, but it’s messy.”
“How?” I asked. Keep her focused.
I handed over a fresh scalpel.
“Okay,” she said. She rummaged in her bag. She found a cloth sack for a number of pills. She dumped it out, handing it to me. Then she found another sack. This one had soap in it. “Wear these.”
She pulled the soap one over my hand like a mitten. Then she gave me the other. “I hope it won’t stick to you like this.”
“I think. Grab it, by the lowest possible point. Haul it up and away. Whatever you do, you have to keep your grip.”
I huffed out a one-note chuckle, “You know I’m not that strong, right?”
“Be strong,” she said.
Her eyes were somewhat wild as she looked at me. Then she looked down at the patient. “Please.”
I wasn’t sure if the please was for me or for a higher power. Or maybe the parasite.
I grabbed the parasite. The texture of it was different than I’d expected. It looked slimy, smooth, but it was like the fuzzy sort of leaf, where it had a shocking amount of texture. I nearly lost my makeshift mitten as it flexed.
My arms strained as I lifted it up and away. My legs, inner core and arms were tight with exertion as I tried to lift it up and away from the table.
If the Fishmonger wants to fuck with us, all he has to do is nudge my arm, poke me in my side.
Lillian reached down into the wound with the scalpel, bare skin inches away from the parasite.
Then she cut.
Ichor went flying from the thing’s rear end as it lashed out, flipping around, fighting my grip. It was all I could do to keep it away from Lillian’s skin as she pulled away, back out of my field of vision.
The more it struggled, the less it held on to the patient. I maintained my grip, praying it wouldn’t whip around and find its way to the space of bare skin between jacket sleeve and mitten.
Then, all at once, it was free of the patient. I stumbled, nearly losing it, then wasted no time in dropping both mittens and the specimen to the ground.
I looked to Lillian, and I saw her with the Fishmonger’s hand around her throat. She struggled.
Catching my balance, I moved to help- and a thug grabbed my arms. My struggles were in vain.
“I told you,” the Fishmonger said. “Preserve the specimen.”
Lillian couldn’t even speak. Her hands clutched at the Fishmonger’s wrist.
I saw that grim smile spread across his face. A look of anticipation, as cold as a crocodile licking its chops pre-meal.
He was strong enough to lift Lillian clean off the ground. I saw her scrabble for her collection of tools and come away empty-handed.
He wasn’t strong enough to keep holding her off the ground, but that wasn’t the intent. His leg came forward, and when he brought her back down, it got in the way of her firmly placing her feet under her. She went all the way down to dusty floorboards, hard enough to have the air knocked out of her.
Head a matter of a foot from the parasite.
It was a still tableau. The parasite writhed in place, the Fishmonger held Lillian where she was. I’d already ceased struggling, feeling how futile it was. The Fishmonger panted.
Then the parasite flipped itself over. It began to crawl in Lillian’s direction.
For his own enjoyment, or perhaps to see the look on my face, the Fishmonger loosened his grip enough to let Lillian voice that scream that had haunted my imagination just moments ago.