Ratface Cecil was busy eating. Another bowl of ambiguous slop. He’d tripled down on the bodyguards, but half of those bodyguards were now eating.
The rain continued to pour, and even though the sun was supposed to be high in the sky, the intermittent cloud cover and the wind blowing across Lugh meant that the water that collected in the darker folds of our clothing was freezing or partially freezing.
The lack of light, however, helped to conceal us as we crept along a rooftop, across the street from the man.
“Lillian,” Gordon said, holding out a hand. Lillian fished in her bag, and produced a metal tube. She handed it to me. Rather than hand it to Gordon, I held it up and looked down the length of it, peering at the back of Ratface’s head. There were grooves spiraling down the interior.
Gordon reached out to take it from me, and the end of the thing poked at my eye socket.
“Jerk,” I said.
“Let’s not waste time,” he said. “I want to get back.”
“Do you even have the lung capacity to do anything with that?” I asked. I looked at Lillian, who had a bottle out, placed on the top of her bag, a syringe already filled with fluid, which she was now packing into a small feathered projectile. “Does he?”
“Cardiac and respiratory systems are linked. If he’s struggling, then it makes sense that he wouldn’t have-”
“I’m fine,” Gordon said. “Right Hubris?”
The dog didn’t react. Its eyes and ears were focused in the direction of Ratface.
“Exactly,” Gordon said.
“The fact that you named him Hubris is really fitting here,” I remarked.
“And you’re a terrible shot,” Gordon said. “A terrible shot with tiny lungs in a tiny body.”
“Wow, you get so mean when you’re dying,” I said.
His expression was stone-still for just long enough to wonder if I’d pushed the wrong button. Then he smirked.
“If you weren’t sure, I could do it,” Jamie volunteered. He was holding Lil’s bag steady so it didn’t fall and slide off the roof.
“You might be able to,” Gordon acknowledged. “But you’re not sure?”
“Right,” Gordon said. Lil handed out the dart. I took it and handed it to Gordon. Gordon placed it in the pipe, “Well, I’m mostly sure. Worst case scenario, keep your heads down.”
“Wind is predominantly coming from the southeast,” Jamie said, “You can see the waxed paper by the store next door, a good gauge if you want to get a sense of what the air currents are like down there.”
“Didn’t see that,” Gordon said. “Thanks.”
“He’s talking to the guy to his left,” I pointed out. “Bodyguard number three, counting from left to right. The guy is doing most of the talking. Either it’s a long speech, or he’s going to respond. Watch that you don’t shoot as he twists around to look at the guy.”
“Is that the sort of thing that goes through your head when you’re the one with the blowpipe, or when you’re in a fight?”
“It’s one of the sorts of things that goes through my mind,” I said.
“You think too much, Sy,” Gordon said, sighing. He brought the blowpipe to his lips and settled down against the roof. Hubris, beside him, did much the same, mirroring his actions, furry chin on the peak of the roof.
Gordon’s criticism left me torn. A part of me, of course, was loyal to the mission. We wanted to succeed, do a good job, maintain our reputation, and everything else. But another part of me really wanted him to miss. Extra points if he missed because I was right.
Gordon huffed out a sharp breath. The dart disappeared into rain and darkness.
Ratface leaped out of his seat, knocking his bowl over the other side of the counter. Bodyguards and bystander alike twisted, staring.
Ratface backed away, turning, his head craning. I saw him pull the dart from the back of his shoulder.
If he’d twisted around to talk to that bodyguard of his, then Gordon would so have missed.
“Come on,” I said. I pushed away from the peak of the roof. I let myself slide down wet and icy shingles. I had to steer myself a bit to keep on course, as I slid right off the roof, and onto a stack of crates. My feet banged against the top crate. Momentum still carrying me, I skipped down the boxes, and my feet skidded on ice and mud. I managed to keep my footing as I came to a stop. A few people who were standing around stared.
I turned around, and I saw that all three of the others, with the exception of Hubris, who now stood on the top crate, were only halfway down the roof, carefully easing their way down.
While they climbed down, making the uncomfortable three-foot hop down from the roof’s edge to the topmost crate, which was a good twelve feet up off the ground, I circled around the building.
Ratface was standing in the middle of the street, showing the dart to his bodyguards, who had surrounded him.
His eyes roved as he talked, and they locked onto me.
He gestured, and I raised a hand, palm up in a gesture more blatant than the Lambs’ usual.
He said something, then stopped, his bodyguards settling to stand beside him as well.
I pointed at him, then beckoned.
He was wary, but he approached. By the time he reached me, the other Lambs did too.
“This was you?”
“You had bodyguards,” I said. “This is more expedient.”
“You could have approached and asked to talk.”
I shook my head. “Your body language was defensive. You were all hunched over, over that bowl of whatever you were eating.”
“Whatever it was. Too guarded, and you’d want to flex a bit, which would only get in the way.”
He gave me an incredulous look. “What are you talking about?”
“Oh,” I said I reached under my hood to scratch my head. “You got scared last night. Felt powerless. Not a good look, for someone who has to do business in a place like Lugh. Given the choice between a cooperative, friendly chat, and retaking that image, that power? You would have taken the second option. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t.”
He gave me a long, searching look.
“You are,” he said, “The most unpleasant little child I’ve ever had to deal with.”
I smiled. So I was right.
“What do you want?” he asked.
“We’re running down leads. A man named Drake. Dark scales, tattoos, he’s tall, th-”
“I know the one.”
“You’re the best supplier in the area. You supplied to him. Food, specific materials.”
Ratface narrowed his eyes.
“Who else did you supply similar things to? They would’ve been recurring customers.”
“Sharing details of my clients, some of whom are working outside the confines of the law of the Crown States of America, would be a very good way to lose their business,” he said.
“True,” I said.
“I’m the best supplier in Lugh for a reason,” he said. “Being talkative isn’t it.”
I nodded. “Okay, sorry to bother you.”
I turned, gesturing at the others. Together, we turned to leave.
“That dart. What did you shoot me with?”
“Poison,” I said. “She has the antidote.”
“Like with Giles’ men?”
“Like with Giles’ men.”
“Except that was a bluff, apparently. The one is alive, still.”
“We poisoned two.”
“You shot one of the two,” Ratface said. His face was etched with lines of stress, disgust, and anger.
“We’ll stop in after we follow up on some other leads,” I said. “You’ll be feeling the effects by then, and you’ll tell us what we need to know.”
Control, power. The more I thought about it, the more I came to suspect that Drake and Emily wouldn’t have been able to make it in this city, after they’d reached a certain level of status. Strength and the upper hand were too important when it came to speaking the city’s language, and they were too soft.
“The crew of kids that Drake was a part of?” Ratface asked. At my nod, he said, “I can think of a number of others. Seven hereabouts, all wanting medusozoa.”
“Jellyfish,” Lillian said. “For a model nerve net to build off of, probably.”
“I don’t ask for details, but it catches the eye when that appears on the order form,” Ratface said.
“Two or three of those groups would have shifted buying patterns,” I said.
“More food,” Lillian said. “Protein rich, salts, minerals?”
“Yeah,” Ratface said. “Four of the groups are asking for a restock on the jellyfish every month or so, one is doing it at a good rate, too. But three, like you said, shifted focus. Alfred’s group, Old Harding’s, and the Ridgewell group.”
“Details,” I said.
“Alfred’s group, the one Drake’s a part of. Kids, or only a few years past being kids. Half the time, they don’t have all the money to pay for what they’ve ordered, but they scratch together the money in the end, even if it’s late. Driven, if distracted half the time by each other. Emotional, heads in the clouds. I see a lot like them. They never last.”
“Old Harding, I’ve been working with that crusty asshole since I started, and he had a decade on me even then. Academy trained, up to a point, got his white coat, tried for a gray one, couldn’t find it in him to do it. So he came over here and he set up shop. Tries one thing for five, ten, or fifteen years, whatever he thinks is going to be most profitable, then switches it up. Only barely keeps his head above water. This new project is his current focus. He has people working with him, even, which never used to happen.”
“Ridgewell group. They’re not local. Harding’s group, he pulled that together from a bunch of others who talked work with him over drinks at the pub, probably. Alfred’s group? Same idea, random kids who found each other and decided they’d be stronger as a team than they were alone. But the Ridgewell group? They showed up in town, their group twice as large as Alfred’s, and they all already knew each other. Each of them with a defined role. When they came to buy-”
“They already knew what you had in stock,” I said.
“Yeah,” Ratface said. “Exactly.”
“All they needed was a place to work unmolested, probably,” I said. “Everything else was set. I’m willing to bet their lab is nice, too.”
“It should be,” Ratface said. “They wanted some containers, ones with special seals. Had to go through colleagues of colleagues to track it down. Then they had it sent back twice, once because it had a scratch in the side. Not even a structural issue. Thing would’ve withstood a hit from a cannon without leaking, but no. No, they wanted it sent back on my dime. Would’ve told them to go fuck goats if they weren’t such good customers otherwise.”
“Where are they?” I asked.
“Am I going to lose them as customers the same way I might lose Giles?”
Giles’ organization is already crumbling to the point even Ratface is aware?
I turned to Lillian, “Let’s go.”
Ratface cut in, “I didn’t say I wasn’t going to tell you. I was asking, you little prick.”
I raised my eyebrows.
“If you want an apology for the insult, you can keep waiting. I’ll reserve my right to insult you until the day I die.”
“I don’t care about that. I just want the answer.”
“Ridgewell is up that way. I never delivered directly to them, but if you go there, you’ll see them eventually. They go out in pairs. Always with the long coats. One more a militia type, armed, and one academic. The militia protect the eggheads.”
“And Old whatshisname?”
“If you’re not even going to remember the particulars of what I tell you, why are you even interrogating me?” Ratface asked.
“We’ll do the remembering,” Jamie said. “He twists the knife.”
I smiled at the imagery.
“Old Harding is set up in his house. No street names over that way. Find the two churches, or ask for directions to them, even the meanest Bruno around Lugh won’t begrudge you finding your way to church. From there, head due west, you’ll find sprawling houses. Harding’s has a bunch of hand-wagons parked in the front. If you see more than one, his is the biggest. Bought out his neighbor to make room for the rest of the lab space, back when he was garden-growing meat.”
I signaled Lillian. She underhand-tossed the antidote at Ratface.
“Just so you know,” I told Ratface, “The project that uses the jellyfish? Bad news.”
He sneered at me. Apparently he didn’t need to pay me much mind, now that he had the antidote.
“There’s nothing I could tell you that would convince you. The Academy’s done that stuff before. They backed off. What those people are making, the people who’re giving them the money and recipe for making it don’t expect anything except disaster. The creations will get loose eventually. The Academy will have to mobilize with army and everything else, which is what the project’s sponsors want. If the creations don’t kill you right off, and if you survive the Academy coming to town, well, Lugh will be gone either way, and you’ll be unable to conduct business.”
“If I didn’t provide the material, someone else would,” Ratface said.
“Probably, but you trade in innocent lives, like you tried to trade with hers.” I indicated Lillian. “I don’t like you, and I wanted you to know that when the sky starts falling, so to speak, you have nobody to blame but yourself.”
“Yeah?” he asked. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
This time, as I signaled the other Lambs and walked away, he didn’t call out or try to stop me.
The rain continued to patter down as we put distance between ourselves and Ratface.
“Doesn’t solve the problem,” Gordon remarked. “What you said to him, what you did.”
“I know,” I said.
“We can clean things up here and go back home to the Academy, but others are going to crop up. Sooner or later, short of Lugh being wiped off the map, someone’s going to start up the project again, they’re going to get far enough in, and they’re going to succeed.”
“Probably,” I said. “Ratface is right.”
“Ratface?” Lillian asked.
“The guy. Who we were just talking to. He’s right. If we take him out, another supplier will fill the void. The floodgate is opened. There’s no closing it now.”
“We can tell the Academy,” Lillian said. “They’ll do something.”
So much faith.
I looked at Gordon. We’d exchanged words about needing to keep Lillian in the dark so this all could run smoothly.
“What?” Lillian asked, looking at me. Her eyes were large beneath a fringe of brown hair and her hood.
She was getting better at reading me.
Touch her. Hug her. You know how to distract her.
I didn’t touch, hug, or distract her.
I glanced again at Gordon.
“What!? Sy, you’re looking concerned. You don’t think the Academy can handle this? Or do you not want them to? Because if you don’t think the primordial experiments are a danger, then-”
“No,” I said. “No, it’s not that.”
She punched my arm, then grabbed it. “Then what!? Seriously, Sy.”
“The Academy will handle it,” I said. “I believe you.”
“They’ll bring an army. They’ll surround Lugh, and they’ll hit the city with plague or something equivalent. Soldiers with masks on will march through, scour areas for clues, evidence, and the ‘cats and cockroaches’ survivors. A place this large, they could spend days or weeks doing it, picking through the bodies. All the while, they’ll place gunpowder charges or oil or whatever else. When all is done, they’ll torch Lugh, burning it down. Then they’ll wrap it up by sending in war-hounds and warbeasts to find the survivors of that particular purge, and to knock down the buildings that are still standing.”
“No,” Lillian said. I wasn’t sure if she was disagreeing with me.
“The bigger a problem gets, the simpler we tend to make the solutions. It’s why people gravitate so heavily toward extreme beliefs, or hating whole groups of people. Sometimes we get our heads askew and we stop seeing things straight, so a problem seems too big, and we want to treat it as something very simple. Sometimes, though, the problem just is that big, too complicated to deal with in a smart way, when we’re already under a tremendous strain. So we turn to violence. That very thing happened with us and the Fishmonger last night.”
“They’d evacuate,” Lillian said.
“And risk that someone sneak out with pages of the material tucked in their underpants?” I asked. “Or in a metal tube they’ve jammed up their rear?”
“It’s not- It can’t work that way.”
“It does,” I said. I turned to Gordon. “Right?”
“It’s not enough you’ve got to go and be the bad guy, hurt Lillian by telling her all this, you’ve got to bring me into it?”
“Yeah,” I said.
He shook his head, closing his eyes before taking a deep breath. “I want people’s last memories of me to be of me being nice. A good guy.”
“You’re as big a prick as I am, Gordon. You just hide it far better. I’ll make it my life’s work to make sure you’re remembered as such. If you insist on playing the ‘I’m gonna die’ card as often as you are, I’m going to be trying even harder to discredit you post-death.”
“What Sy was saying about Lugh,” Lillian said, cutting in. “It’s true?”
“There’s precedent,” Gordon said. “For things less serious than what you described with these primordials.”
“Why can’t it be easy?” Lillian asked. “I… this was supposed to be a nice little reference on my record. A favor owed from people with money and connections to higher society. I gave up on that, and in my head I know it was the right thing to do, and Emily and Drake can have a good future together, but in my heart, I feel… nasty.”
“It was the kindest thing to do,” Jamie said. “You’re allowed to feel disappointed.”
“It’s not disappointment, it’s worse. I hate myself. I’m- Jamie-”
She was on edge, emotionally, lost, her sentences getting shorter until she couldn’t string together full ones. In the midst of it, she was turning to Jamie, not me.
“Jamie,” she said. “Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around? Can’t I logically know that this was a bad move, but at least feel good, in my heart?”
“I don’t know,” Jamie said.
“But now you’re saying that we’re going to walk away, and all the people here, they’re going to get killed, the city is going to burn?”
“It’s very possible,” Jamie said, gently.
It didn’t feel like enough of a response. Lillian was hurting, and I didn’t like that.
I spoke, “Fray probably talked to Mauer about this, planning it to some extent. I imagine she rationalized it, saying that people getting reckless with the primordial stuff was going to happen sooner or later, she’s just speeding it up, accelerating the process. She told Mauer what the Academy would do, what it would have to do, and now he’s waiting. His people are facilitating it all, and he’s waiting in the wings, ready to take advantage of a situation that would usually be neatly tidied up, point to it as something that started with the Academy and ended with the Academy. Rile up the people. Start something bigger. In the meantime, Fray has the way clear to engineer something else. Something more constructive.”
“Okay, Sylvester,” Lillian said, sounding somehow absent. Like she didn’t care about the particulars, or the motivation.
Lillian wasn’t me. In my darkest, most painful moments, I wanted the world to make sense. I wanted to have answers. When I lacked them, I would, well, reread the same diary entries for hours on end.
She wanted something else.
“Sorry,” I said.
“I wanted this to be constructive,” she told me. “Talking to Drake and Emily, I thought it would be. You gave them hope and a future and I could barely contain myself because I wanted to kiss you right there as the words left your mouth, and I was happy, and then that happiness faded, and I started to think about me again, and my future, and now a whole city, just burned away? Isn’t there a way to stop it?”
“Yeah,” I said.
I saw her stop.
The hope in her eyes stung.
“Maybe,” I said. “No guarantees.”
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep, Sy,” Gordon warned me.
“No promises,” I said. “Okay, Lil? Don’t take this as a promise. Don’t get your hopes up. We have a job to do, and you know, in both that head of yours-”
I touched her forehead.
“-and in that heart of yours-”
I touched her chest.
“That’s my boob,” she said, quiet.
I raised my voice, to be heard over her small protest, “You know that the number one priority is cleaning up this mess. We lay the groundwork we can, and we make sure the primordials in progress are cleaned up, then we take a shot in the dark, to see if we can’t engineer a happier ending for this gloomy shitstain of a city.”
She opened her mouth to respond.
I poked her in the chest again. “No. Bad. I can see it in your eyes. No getting your hopes up. No being disappointed if this doesn’t work. No being disappointed in me, and definitely no being disappointed in yourself. Understand?”
She reached up and took my hand in both of hers. She held it there, against her chest, where her heartbeat thumped against the back of my hand.
“I understand,” she said, lying through her damned teeth. Then she lied again, “I’m happy if we just try.”
I looked at Gordon, and the look he was giving me. Speak of disappointment.
He wasn’t one to think things through to the same extent I was, but he’d probably seen this exact situation arising when he’d encouraged me to keep my mouth shut.
“We should go after the Ridgewells first. They sound better armed, and they sound better organized,” Gordon said. “Better to hit them while we know what resources we have and the condition we’re in, than to wait and find ourselves ill-prepared.”
“Agreed,” I said. “Then we move on to… dang it, Ratface called him an old crusty asshole and now I can’t commit his name to memory. I just think of crusty assholes every time I try.”
“Old Harding,” Jamie volunteered. “I’ve heard of him. There’s a picture of a student club at Radham mounted in a stairwell, with names on a brass plate underneath it. A quote about him appeared as an inscription in a class yearbook, too. Not much to go on, but I’ll recognize his face when I see it.”
“Neat,” I said.
“Based on what he said, this won’t be easy,” Gordon said.
“No,” I agreed. “Jamie, got a job for you.”
“You have the best handwriting. If any of the rest of us write, we’re liable to get sentimental. Pen a letter to Mary? Let her know if she finishes her job early, she should come give us a hand. You can tell her we’ll do the same if she wants, but I don’t think this job is going to wrap up neat and tidy anytime soon.”
“Alright,” he said. “Should I break off and head back to our rooms, or see if a post office has the materials?”
“No. We’re all going back,” I said. “You can pen the letter while Gordon, Lillian and I explain the basics to the rest of the would-be-slaves I rescued. Extra hands on deck, much as I hate to do it.”
“Even the kids?” Gordon asked. “For something this dangerous? That’s not like you.”
I pulled my hand away from Lillian, and I jammed it into a pocket. It was colder there, I noticed.
The city was so dark, considering it was midday. The frost seemed to stubbornly cling to the edges and the shadows. I could see beyond the low, sloping buildings and make out structures that could be the targets we were going after. In another light, they were all homes of stubborn, stupid people who’d decided to live in a barren, ugly little city like this. People who would probably die to plague and fire, or to the monsters Lillian had described.
“Wanting Mary, if she’s available, wanting the kids and adults, it’s my roundabout way of saying we need help,” I admitted.