The Fishmonger didn’t really have a body type, in the conventional sense. He was shaped like a hump to begin with. Now, with his legs bent at odd angles, belly sticking skyward, in clothing that rendered him even more shapeless, he was something else. He groaned and moaned as he flopped on the floor to the best of his impaired ability. It momentarily interrupted the dialogue.
I glanced at Lillian, who didn’t move a muscle to rush to the man’s aid.
Instead, both hands on the borrowed rifle, she walked over to the table with the patient she’d been tending to earlier. She spoke to him in a low voice, laying the gun down so it was still pointing in the general direction of the thugs, before picking up tools.
They didn’t jump to reach for their guns or give any sign they saw that as an opportunity. That was fine.
This was a dominance game, a vicious dogfight followed by the survivors circling one another, teeth bared but with no desire to fight. Each side was obligated to attack if the other showed weakness or a reluctance to play fair, by the rules of this particular arena. They had reputations to maintain, even among one another, and in the eyes of their boss. We had to hold on to the illusion of competence we’d created.
If Gordon teetered over and collapsed on the floor now, with Lillian occupied behind the group of thugs, then I suspected they would draw on us again. I hoped he had the strength to at least stand up straight.
I eyed Ratface, who had relocated himself to one corner of the warehouse, as far away as he could be from us without ducking out the front doors, and I suspected the only reason he hadn’t done that was that three people had made their exit, two had disappeared by way of mutt, and the third had been shot.
“Alright,” I said. The thugs were eyeing a bloody Lillian, looking over their shoulders, as she worked at cutting out the parasite that was crawling beneath her patient’s skin. Their attention turned back to me. “Here’s the deal. We’re not looking to muscle in on your turf. We’re not looking to stay.”
They were silent, staring us down.
Gordon spoke, “We’re on the hunt. We’re going to leave tonight, we’re going to get ourselves patched up, and then we’re going to look for the distributor of those books.”
“Who or what are you hunting?”
“Doesn’t matter,” I said.
“What he said,” Gordon said.
The thug stared us down. His tone was borderline insolent as he said, “Don’t know much.”
The tone of his voice, his attitude, it suggested he had very little interest in getting us what we wanted. We could bribe and persuade, but our position was a weak one. It was a fine line here, given the circumstances, between asking and begging. It wasn’t possible to beg here and still hold the tenuous control we needed to stand out.
Worse, we’d hurt their friends or colleagues, and we’d threatened and shot at the survivors. We were far from being on friendly terms with these guys. If they could screw us or mislead us, they would. Information couldn’t be trusted.
We had to give them an incentive, then.
“Like I said,” I told them, “We aren’t planning on staying long. We run this errand, get our hands on the books, and then depending on where things stand, we’re going to look for further work. We need to keep ourselves sharp, earn the money we need to keep going.”
I paused, glancing them over, before I continued, “If you’re helpful and your information is on target, then we come to you first. Give you a deal if you want to hire us. And if you don’t want to pay us, then we’ll still think, hey, those guys were helpful. Let’s not mess with them.”
“You got to beat us up and threaten us, we returned the favor,” Gordon said. I winced a little at the way he’d phrased it, but Gordon being Gordon meant he could get away with it in a way I never could. I would inevitably come across as if I was mocking them, jabbing at them. Gordon shrugged, a very easygoing, languid shrug considering he looked to be on his last legs. “We’re even enough-”
The Fishmonger interrupted with a groan, trying to move by pushing at the floor with his heels, only to inflict seven different kinds of agony on himself in the process. His legs wouldn’t work without help.
“-Even, as I see it. Now, if you want to help us out on this, maybe you could name a certain someone or someones. People who you hoped might have a bad day.”
Gordon did a good job of subtly indicating the Fishmonger.
He was saying what he was saying without making any promises or guarantees. It had always bothered me a little that Gordon had such an easy time of it, while I came under ready suspicion, even when I was being honest.
It wasn’t even with the important stuff. I could think back and I couldn’t remember a time when I’d been legitimately listened to by someone who wasn’t a Lamb, where I didn’t have to try. To logic my way to a listening ear or to manipulate to keep that listening ear.
Even with Lillian, I wasn’t sure it was ever easy. Natural, perhaps, but I could imagine a world where I could spend an entire day with her, from the moment we woke up to the moment we went to sleep, no obligations, no other people. In that world I envisioned, the most common scenario was one where I said or did the wrong thing and made Lillian genuinely upset. The next most likely scenario was one where I got tired from having to censor myself and pick my words, and fail to find time to enjoy myself, end up tired and miserable, or end up sabotaging it, leaving Lillian genuinely upset.
Gordon? Gordon just talked. He didn’t put special thought in it, he was direct, right to the point. People liked him and listened to him.
Gordon could have a nice day. He’d probably already had one at one point.
I envied him that.
“I’m not sure I’m seeing this as ‘even’,” one thug said.
“If there’s any disparity in casualties suffered, consider it balanced out by the fact that you picked this fight. I might sound younger than I am for saying it,” Gordon said, “But you started this.”
“You sought us out,” the eel-black thug said, “You planned-”
“No,” Gordon said. “Not planned. We allowed it to happen, because it led to this – us talking. A bit of exercise and practice, too.”
He smiled. White teeth, a bit of savagery in his eyes, beneath the civilized demeanor.
“You wanted this. You initiated it,” Eel said. He looked at Ratface, “Right?”
“I don’t want to get into the middle of this.”
“Alright,” Gordon said. “If you want to make this a blame game, you can do that. But we’re going to go and see what we can do with the rest of the evening, and you won’t see us again. Your boss might be ticked, considering that you’d be making this a loss instead of an opportunity.”
“And you’d be passing up medical assistance. I should be able to patch up the worst of the damage,” Lillian said, most of her attention still fixed on her patient, while she periodically glanced up to make sure nothing fishy was happening. “If the artery got nicked, though, he’s probably going to die. Standing by and letting that happen won’t go over very well, either.”
“That too,” Gordon said, very casually.
The Fishmonger groaned. “Get me my doctors.”
Eel glanced back at his boss.
I could see him avoiding eye contact with other thugs. I could sense anxiety in him, and yet he only looked to his superior. He wouldn’t or couldn’t look to the others for advice or counsel. Was he De-facto lieutenant? Or did he want to be?
“You’re on the fence,” I said. Better to keep changing it up, so we took turns talking. It was a show of power, one where we could suggest an ingrained sort of coordination and how we were collectively on the same page. It also kept them off balance, making it harder for them to get a read on us.
I continued, “You’re weighing the risks versus the rewards. Let me assuage your doubts. We’re not looking to cut off the supplier of the books, we’re not looking to sully your name. If our plan works out, you won’t even see how, the impact on you is so little. We finish our job, we maybe stop by to help you out-”
“Take out an enemy of yours, if you’re so inclined,” Gordon cut in.
“And then we’re gone. You can return to business as usual,” I finished.
I saw the thug scowl.
My body was sore. I couldn’t take the time to rub at my ribs or touch my face without looking weak, so I held the gun with one hand and flexed my other hand, every knuckle cracking and popping. I had a cut on my pinky from stabbing with the scalpel, my hand sliding down the shaft of the tool to let my finger prick on the edge of the blade before I’d found the traction to drive it in.
In the midst of that, I gestured. Lie. Question.
Yes, was Gordon’s response. I saw Lillian giving me a sidelong glance, recognizing what we were communicating.
We were lying through our teeth when we said we’d cooperate.
“Take the deal,” Gordon said.
It’s the best way to get things back to a comfortable normal, I said. Willing the thugs to believe it. If you want power, making a definitive decision now is a way to climb the ranks and look good in front of the Fishmonger.
“You look after Giles,” Eel said. “Get him some care. Don’t stop by to say hi or offer help. You disappear after this.”
“I’m done with the parasite,” Lillian said. She dropped the thoroughly butchered parasite on the floor. It landed with a splat, not even moving or coiling in response. Dead.
I should have been paying more attention to her. This was a dangerous point, one that moved things from the comfort zone we’d established. I was acutely aware of the guns throughout the room.
“I’ll look after your boss, now,” Lillian said. “Lift him up onto the table. Simon, I’ll need my bag.”
Oh, I still had her bag.
The man who’d been laid out on the table sat up, his restraints removed. Thoroughly traumatized, moving with the speed of a hundred-and-twenty year old man. Lillian gave him a hand in stepping down.
This was the sort of maneuver where a particularly bloodthirsty individual might decide to be clever, assuming the other side had let their guard down. Able bodied thugs, the Eel included, went to their boss, while I approached the table from another angle, one hand on my gun, which was pointed at the floor.
“No,” the Fishmonger said. His head rolled from left to right and back again. “No, you’ll give me my doctors.”
“You won’t last that long,” Lillian said. She sounded eerily calm, but I could see the tremor at her fingertips. “You’ve lost too much blood.”
I found my place at her side. I put the bag down and began sorting through the contents.
“If you don’t want me to act, I won’t,” Lillian said.
Dangerous question, that. If he said no, out of pure stubbornness, then we were in a bad situation.
I gave him an eight-out-of-ten chance of saying ‘yes’. That two-out-of-ten chance of a no was spooky.
“Fix me. But I’m watching you.”
“Scissors,” Lillian said.
Rather than simply hand her the scissors, I pushed it into her hand, holding it there and holding her hand for a moment, before I released it to her custody.
Lillian set to cutting the man’s pants off. He didn’t like that, but to ask Lillian to stop would have sounded petulant.
He’d controlled what, a sixth or a fifth of the city? I couldn’t remember. But it was a tenuous hold. That hold likely wouldn’t last more than a month, now. He’d shown too much weakness in this brutish, broken down little city on the coast. Here, strength was respected, to the point that a sea monster’s corpse was left to loom over the city.
“You don’t need to be standing and gawking. You two, go watch for trouble, you, you, and you, grab the bodies, all of you stay in earshot.”
I noted the hesitation before they acted to follow orders.
“We’ll need someone to stay to give us the information,” Gordon said. “I’m going to go check on the others, if you can wait a minute.”
“Others?” the Fishmonger gasped.
“If you ask around, and I imagine you will,” Gordon said, “You’ll hear that a fairly large group of children got off the boat earlier today. We’re far from being the only ones present.”
I watched the Fishmonger’s expression change. He’d been well aware we’d arrived as a larger contingent.
The best lies were those with a grain of truth to them.
The lieutenant with the slimy black skin stayed where he was, watching over the scene, while Gordon stepped outside, presumably to look after Jamie.
Destroy him, question, I gestured, now that I was more free to use my hands at the table’s edge without the Fishmonger’s lieutenant seeing. Not entirely free, but more free. Delay. Poison. Question.
I stuck the question marks on the end of each statement. I didn’t want to push her, but only to let her know what her options were.
I didn’t want her to regret her decision, whatever she decided, and I didn’t want her to resent me as part of that regret. I worried that this was too manipulative as it was.
Lillian’s hands were occupied. She wasn’t able to respond. Maybe, if she weren’t as frazzled and post-harrowed as she was, then she might have been able to be clever with how she gave me her next instructions. As it was, she was simply a capable field doctor.
Was it too much to ask her to kill? To suggest that option?
She’d come dangerously close to being broken in her dealings with this man. I felt like she needed a show of strength, to redeem herself.
But death? Was a death by poisoning fitting? Could it be horrible enough to be worth it?
No kill. I gestured. Destroy. Question.
Remove that option. Take that weight from her shoulders. A kill wasn’t appropriate, and no kill I could imagine with the tools we had on hand was fitting, considering what he’d put Lillian through.
She finished cutting off the pants. The fishmonger wore underpants that were more like cloth shorts, which I was glad for, but he’d been augmented, in a way that strained credulity to the point of splitting credulity at the seams.
Lillian didn’t even seem to notice or care.
I watched as she set to work, identifying the locations of the bullets, inserting syringe-less needles as markers, and then started cutting, carefully paring away skin and muscle to access the bullets.
The human side of Lillian was there, there was no doubt of that. Her fear, the shake of her hand, the expressions that crossed her face as she worked.
But I could also see the big picture. How she was throwing herself into her work, in a way that she had to have done countless times throughout the years. An escape, a concrete, real thing that she could control, excel in and remedy. Ordered.
I could see how the other emotions gave way to the problem she was solving, the order of steps, the careful measurement of fluid for syringes, her words as she explained each step to the Fishmonger, showed him the bottles.
Everyday Lillian was cute, but it was a leap to say she was a beauty in the way Mary was. She was a girl, where Mary was a young woman or even a young lady, even if Lillian was older than her friend.
But this Lillian, she was beautiful. In the tension of the moment, focused wholly on her task, face still and fingers working her craft, the girl wasn’t there. It was a glimpse of what Lillian might look like if Lillian was an experiment. Or if Lillian was a professor, wearing the black coat she wanted so very badly.
Or perhaps the distinction between the two wasn’t so fine, between the man-made monster and the man made monster.
She spoke, and I barely heard her voice, as caught up as I was in the scene. She asked for a tool and I handed it to her. Her blood-slick fingertips grazed my fingers, painting them, and I was very aware of the touch, the warmth, the almost immediate cooling where the fluids made contact. Her lips were slightly parted, and she barely seemed to be breathing.
I felt like an iron rod stretched from my pelvis up through my stomach and chest, all the way to my brain, and the intensity of this Lillian I was seeing was enough to warm it, radiating heat through me.
Then, in the next moment, concern crossed her features. She was Lillian the Girl again. A Lillian who nourished a different part of me. The Lillian I wanted to torment, to pull her hair, pinch and kiss her, just to see her squirm and turn red. The Lillian I wanted to hold and be held by.
I touched her hand, startling her a little. I kept my features neutral, I didn’t want to bias or manipulate her. Only to let her know she wasn’t alone, standing on this threshold.
“I need some antiseptics,” she said, glancing up from the work in progress. “Reach into my bag-”
I did. My finger extended. She watched as I indicated different things in the bag.
“Left. Up. A little more left-”
Her hand moved at the scalpel. Poison.
My hand buried in the bag, I touched a bottle.
Holding it, I used my thumb to pop the clasp and cork top.
“-more left. There. The bottle. Use it to rinse your hands. You want your hands clean-”
Another gesture from Lillian. Lie.
“-before you help me here. I’ll need you to get your hands deep inside, where the tissues of the thigh are thickest.”
I could hear Gordon in the background, getting details from the lieutenant.
But my focus was here.
I showed the Fishmonger the bottle, then used the antiseptic to clean my hands, the blood on my fingers came away easily. I was careful to get under my fingernails. Lillian took it and rinsed the wound, before patting it dry.
She’d told me not to get my hands clean, but if I were so obvious as to leave my hands filthy and try to give this man an infection, then it could catch attention. This man wasn’t a doctor, but he worked closely with them.
“Put it away,” she said. “I don’t want to lose track of things.”
“Okay,” I said.
I put the bottle of antiseptic cleaner back through the loop in the side of the bag.
My fingers swiped through the container I’d opened. It was granular, like salt. It stuck to my moist fingers, coating them.
“Put your fingers in deep, where I’m showing you,” she said. “Hold there.”
Her fingers trembled as she demonstrated.
“Is the anaesthetic working okay?” she asked the Fishmonger.
“I don’t feel much, why?”
“Just making sure you’re comfortable,” she said.
It was perhaps the best lie I’d ever heard her tell.
I waited patiently while Lillian glued my face back together, where I’d been slammed against the hard table’s edge. I kept my head stock still while I adjusted the wet cloth we’d draped over Jamie’s forehead. We were in a small bedroom, one with two small beds, a bedside table shared between them, and a closet.
Paralytic venom, it seemed, had been injected into Jamie with the spines. Gordon had severed much of his arm from the rest of his body to minimize how well that same venom could transmit, and his particular biology made the translation between sections more halting than it might otherwise be. His enhanced constitution covered the rest. He’d taken the time to recover, bounced back, and then gave himself enough medical care to retain some use of his arm.
But the venom had affected his heart. He wouldn’t be up to more brawling before his next appointment. Hubris was poised to stop him if he tried any exertion heavier than a walk. The mutt had snarled at Gordon for climbing stairs at a walking pace.
This would have been so much easier with Mary and Helen. Even Ashton could have changed the way that had gone.
Jamie had roused, found his body’s movements limited and stiff, and after some reassuring words from Lillian and something to help the muscle cramps, he’d dozed off.
It felt strange to be this close to Lillian, her hands on my face, while Jamie was there, sleeping.
I stared at her, trying to figure out her expression, while she utterly ignored mine, focused wholly on the damage to my ear, face, and eyelid. Her face was so close to mine I could have kissed her.
My instincts told me she was on the verge of collapse. Too much in one night. Disappointments, danger, and trauma, so soon after being worked over by a dilemma regarding a girl she was supposed to ‘rescue’, with her career on the line.
I wanted to hold her, hug her, give her relief and contact. To kiss her and whisper to her and I couldn’t bring myself to do any of those things while Jamie was there, even when he was deep asleep.
If it was any other Lamb, it would have been okay. Gordon would have ignored it, Mary would have been happy to see it happen. Helen might have threatened to join in the hug or tried to lick me, I wasn’t sure, but her presence wouldn’t have held me back. Ashton… Ashton had the effective emotional range of a houseplant at this stage. He wouldn’t have cared.
With Jamie, it would have felt disrespectful.
When Jamie had said we were warped when it came to matters of the heart, was this what he’d meant? Was it something else? How I’d felt about Lillian, seeing her with her hands covered in blood, captured by her work? How I wanted to toy with her?
I wanted to do this right, and more than ever, I wasn’t even sure that was possible.
He’s poisonous, she’d said, to paraphrase.
Sitting on the bedside table, Lillian’s eyes level with mine, I reached up and I fixed her collar, where she was a little disheveled. It wasn’t not intimate, but it didn’t feel like I was crossing a line while sitting in arm’s reach of Jamie. It didn’t feel disrespectful.
I pulled her top straight, where it was ajar, after all the running around. I settled my hands on her hips.
“What are you thinking?” I asked.
“That you’re antsy and you’re fiddling with me. You’re touching me.”
“What are you really thinking?”
“I’m worried. Worried that if they knew what I was doing, how I was operating, the sort of medicine I was doing, it might be a strike against me. Against my black coat.”
I nodded. I’d wondered something similar.
“I’m worried about the girl. Candida. We’re supposed to take her home.”
“I don’t know,” she said.
“We don’t know enough about her to even begin to decide on a direction or a plan. We’ll figure it out after we’ve got more information,” I said. “Until then, we can’t worry about it.”
“Can you really do that? Stop worrying?”
I wanted to say yes. That I’d taught myself a long time ago to ignore pain, to train my mind away from distraction.
But we’d lost Jamie, and I hadn’t been able to steer my mind away from that. I’d dealt with the stresses since then, the presence of this ghost of my best friend, a boy who wore the same face and shared similar mannerisms, who was very different where it counted.
“I try,” I said.
“I miss Mary,” she said.
“Helen too, sort of? It’s not like we get along, but I… it’s strange, not having her here.”
She rose up on tiptoes and she kissed my forehead. It was chaste enough that I wondered if she had the same sense of weirdness about being close when Jamie was here.
There was a light knock on the door.
“Come in,” I said. Lillian turned her body so she faced the door, her rear end resting on the edge of the bedside table, so the side of her body pressed against the side of mine, her cheek resting against the side of my head. My arm went around her waist.
This much, it felt natural, if still weird, in the here and now.
It was Gordon and Hubris.
“Took a while,” I said. “She took care of Jamie, fixed the bruises and cut and everything else.”
“I found the guy,” Gordon said. “Before I get into that… the Fishmonger? How was that handled? Do we need to tie up loose ends? Anything I need to be concerned about?”
“I’ve poisoned him,” Lillian said. The character had gone out of her voice. “Sy did, but I showed him how. Over days, weeks, and months, he’ll recover, the wounds will close, and the poison will degrade and spread through his body.”
“And?” Gordon asked.
“Incontinence, urinary and fecal. I saw how concerned he was at being hurt and not wearing pants around his soldiers. I thought… force him to wear a diaper for the rest of his life. it’s not an easy thing to fix, if he can even find a doctor good enough. Indigestion, stomach grumbles, acute stomach pain…”
She trailed off.
“It works,” I said. “It works really beautifully, actually.”
“It’s not my proudest moment,” she said, her voice soft. She actually seemed shamed, in the wake of it.
I wasn’t sure I got that.
He would never bounce back from this loss. He would never be able to fit himself among the upper class, even of a shithole like Lugh, or demonstrate power. Even with a more discrete diaper, if what she was saying about stomach problems were true, he would lose the respect of his men. Especially if the symptoms cropped up with any suddenness.
Rather than push the issue or try to understand it, I changed the subject. “What did you find out, Gordon?”
“The Fishmonger, being who he is, offered help in getting the books to the right people. I talked to one of those sub-distributors, and I’ve got the basic details down. The top distributor is connected to Mauer. Or is Mauer, if you want to take it a step further and assume he’s got more than one operation like this.”
I nodded. “And the girl, Candy?”
“Candida,” Gordon said. “We have a sense of where she is. She’s working with a small group that has the books. Mauer is funding them. In exchange for that funding, they’re doing some work on a specific project for him. It’s the same with other groups and cells. So long as they work on that project, they can do side stuff all they want.”
“What sort of work?” Lillian asked.
“The sort of work you were worried about,” Gordon said. “New stuff the Academy doesn’t touch outside of very controlled circumstances. A dozen, fifty, a hundred cells, we don’t know yet, all working on variants of the same sort of project.”
“Hoping that if enough people try it, one of them is going to stumble on a solution?” Lillian asked.
“Yeah,” Gordon said.
I felt her posture change. Tension. Concern.
“But there’s an equal chance of this spinning out of control?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Gordon said.
“No,” Lillian said. “More than equal. It’s very likely. How it goes out of control and what it looks like when it does depends on the project.”
“Any idea what it is?” I asked Gordon.
He shook his head. “But finding Candida and investigating what she’s working on should turn up solutions. There might be brownie points in this for us, if we can get ahead of the problem before it becomes a problem.”
I gave Lillian’s waist a squeeze. “Not so bad, that.”
Her smile was faltering, not quite convinced.
“Best thing to do would be to get this done,” Gordon said. “Jamie’s down and out, but we can leave instructions and have the people you hired escort him to a rendezvous point if he’s better. We go out right away, before the Fishmonger’s people spread rumors of us and people start getting paranoid or proactive.”
“Before your heart leaves you even weaker than you are now, you mean,” I said.
“Would be nice,” Gordon said.
It made sense. I’d made up with Jamie to a degree, I suspected he would agree with the logic of this decision, to put the mission first.
Lillian would give her consent, too. She would play along.
Which wasn’t the same thing as agreeing.
“In the morning?” I suggested. “We can get a few hours’ rest, let Jamie bounce back, and tackle things before it gets too light out.”
Gordon nodded. “Okay.”
“Then we’ll rest. I’ll be in the next room, let you guys get settled” he said.
“No,” I said.
“No. I- We’ll take the next room, if that’s okay?”
“That’s okay,” Gordon said. “I thought you’d want to keep an eye on Jamie.”
“We need to keep an eye on you, too,” I said. “And I know exactly what you’re going to say. The mutt will keep an eye out. He can keep an eye on Jamie too, can’t he?”
Gordon looked down at Hubris. “Yeah.”
“If that’s okay?” I asked.
He nodded. He looked so very tired.
“Keep an eye on them, okay, mut- Hubris?” I asked.
The dog only stared at me. But then it paced in a circle and curled up at the foot of the bedside table, eyes fixed on me.
“Good boy,” I said.
I led Lillian into the darkened hallway, then into the next room.
Before she could say or do anything, I wrapped her in a crushing hug, as tight as I could manage.
Too many stubborn idiots among the Lambs. People who wouldn’t admit their weakness or who would play along even if it cost them.
I wasn’t sure if this thing between Lillian and I was a good thing, but this, this gesture, I was sure about. I could read people and I could read Lillian. Nevermind concerns about manipulation or whatever else. Nevermind that a nice day might forever be out of reach. Forget that until tomorrow.
She needed a hug, she needed to rest, after all of that. I was supposed to take care of her and she was supposed to take care of me. That much I could understand.
“Thank you,” she whispered in my ear. “Thank you.”