“I move for transplants of parts A, B, and D between steps twenty-seven and thirty.”
“On what basis?”
“Temperature of the transplanted parts is deviating by point four percent high while they’re sitting in the cold rigging. I’m putting it down as risk level three. Nobody marked anything below thirty with higher risk than that.”
“Thanks for the reminder. Putting down step thirty-four as risk level two.”
“We can argue about that in a second, you sneaky bastard. Cameron, justify risk level three?”
“The latest version of Wollstone’s recordings, cilia in the trachea are down on Ian’s global vulnerability scale as a thirty-three nine, damage to the cilia now would increase maintenance further down the road, and could lead to post-operative infection.”
“We could give him a new trachea if it comes to that.”
“Which is why I argued for three, Adams. A new trachea has its costs too, which I would argue raises it above a two on our crude priority list.”
“Fine. Well argued. I’ll second.”
“I’ll third if you don’t give me a hard time about thirty-four, I’m too tired to argue. Good. Let the record keeper take note that I got a nod from Cameron.”
“I might give you a hard time in a second. Put it on the board, nurse? Don’t lose track of the numbers as you move everything.”
“I know you jokers in black coats are going to insist on blabbing about priorities like a bunch of old hens while I’m elbow deep in vat-grown intestine, but can we please make a rule where the nurses keep quiet? I’ve gone and forgotten the length of the cut.”
“At least you’re good for something, Berg. Sectioning four-fifty. Are you going to be done step twenty-two in the next minute?”
“Yes, yes. I’m a useless sod, that’s why I’m in this room. Nurse, you there. You’ve been shuffling your weight from foot to foot. Go scrub down, get the good professor here something to eat, scrub up, and hand feed him while he works. He’s getting cranky.”
“I’ll have step twenty-two done in twelve, eleven, ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two… one… Done.”
“Out of the way of the stomach cavity. Organs going in. I hope you dunces have been careful about this. If he gets a hernia in ten years because I had to fumble around for two minutes getting your organs in the right places instead of taking the time to set the intestines into place-”
A voice cut through the conversation, deep and heavy.
“If my nephew gets a hernia in ten years because of incompetent work done today, you collectively pay the price.”
“My apologies, my lord.”
“Lord Archduke, sir.”
“My lord,” the third voice spoke.
“My lord,” echoed the fourth.
“Stop with the bowing and scraping. Look after the boy. He’s in pieces on four separate tables. I would like to see him put back together before the night is over. Aimless formality at this stage is in poor taste.”
Wet, sucking sounds, squelching, and spatters marked the silence that followed. There was no negotiation, no discussion of scales, ratios, values or markers.
Heavy footfalls drew closer to the table.
On the table, the boy, blind, unable to breathe or move anything but the stump of one arm, reached up for his uncle. Further down the table, the hand that was joined to the stump by tubes both real and unnatural opened, fingers splayed, reaching in the wrong direction.
The uncle’s hand ran along the child’s bare scalp.
“It hurts, doesn’t it?” the Archduke murmured.
The boy opened his mouth, pleading, but the mouth wasn’t joined to anything.
“To this day, I still remember being on tables very similar to these. Different procedures, different advancements. But I remember the agony. A lifetime’s worth of pain in one night, at the age of three. Then another lifetime’s worth at the age of five, and at seven, and one last time at ten, to bring it all together.”
The hand stroked the boy’s head again, large enough that the bottom end of the palm grazed one ear and the fingertips grazed the other.
“You’ll endure tonight, then have two more nights like this, and you’ll be done. You will be state of the art, and you’ll be art, my little Duke.”
The boy tried to move his body, but some pieces weren’t connected, and other pieces weren’t in the right place.
“I came to talk to you because I want you to pay attention. Cherish this pain. Come to know it and carve it into that beautiful brain we gave you. You’ll choose to inflict pain on others thousands of times in your lifetime. You’ll condemn entire cities to agony so dire that people’s bodies destroy themselves, their own muscles trying to tear bones from sockets and break their own backs.”
The boy felt a soft kiss on his forehead.
“Two years ago, we gave you a great mind. Now we give you a body to suit. Remember tonight, because it is the last night you are human in any way. From tonight until the day you pass from this world, you look down on them.”
Another caress of the head, and the hand was taken away.
The boy stared in the Archduke’s general direction with eyeless sockets, and gawped with a tongueless mouth that lacked wind to make a single utterance.
The heavy footsteps retreated. The only noise was the wet sound of guts being arranged in a stomach cavity, the rhythmic knocking and whooshing of machines, and the sound of fluids in narrow spaces.
A distant door banged shut.
“Nurses. Leave the room.”
The room emptied.
“Over here. The boy can hear.”
Footsteps retreated. The boy was alone, no longer being handled by three people at once. He opened and closed his hand.
He could strain and hear the distant conversation with the ears he had been given two years ago.
“The boy is supposed to be in pain?”
“Nobody said anything about that.”
“The Lord Archduke just did.”
“We weren’t told in advance, is what I mean.”
“We cornered ourselves. If we continue to apply the nerve controls to minimize the pain and he reports it to the Lord Archduke, we’ll be known liars. If we cut it off and the boy remembers, he’ll know we could have spared him the pain, and he could seek vengeance at a later date.”
“We should have said something while the Archduke was here.”
“I didn’t see you stepping up. I know I didn’t want to interrupt that intimate moment. I was too busy shitting myself.”
“Enough bickering. We need to decide what we’re doing.”
“We’re dead either way.”
“It’s a question of whether we want to stay in the boy’s good graces and risk the Archduke’s wrath, or the reverse.”
“The reverse could see the Archduke wrathful all the same.”
“Enough with the bickering. You’re children, all of you. We can’t follow the spirit of the Archduke’s expectations, but we can follow the letter of them. Disconnect the nerve controls, let the remaining painkillers wear out. It’ll be worse with the backswing.”
“Not quite worse. By Wollstone’s third ratio, we can expect-”
“Enough bickering, Adams. If anyone asks, the backswing adds to the agony, and compensates for the fact that he’s feeling almost nothing right now. He’ll get that lifetime’s worth of agony.”
“If anyone asks, the fact they’re asking means our goose is cooked and we’re as good as dead.”
“Yes, well, say what you will, but I think we’re in this together from here on out. I don’t know about you lads, but I was told that if I bollocksed this up in any way shape or form, they would search out every person I cared about, snuff them, and then erase any and every record of us from history. I do have people I care about.”
“We all do. We keep mum on this. Agreed?”
“Agreed,” three voices spoke in unison.
“Let’s get back to work, then.”
“I want my tracheal transplant bumped up. We spent time talking.”
“I’ll help you. Give me a hand with the eyes, leading up to that?”
The four professors returned to the table, now cooperating.
The discussion and the noise of the doctors starting work anew came to a sudden stop. Hands that held body parts remained where they were, momentarily frozen.
“Lord Duke,” Berger said, quiet, “I know I do far too much in asking anything of you. Let me say only this. If you’ll forgive us of this, I will give you a lifetime of service so devoted that other nobles will look on you in envy.”
“Agreed,” one of the professors echoed, barely audible. The remaining two joined in, echoing him.
A switch was flicked. The boy Duke jerked.
“Painkiller at three percent and ticking down. He’s feeling it, but the edges are dulled. We’ve got about ten minutes before painkiller is clear. Can the next person with a free moment go fetch the nurses?”
Lying on the table, the Duke clenched one hand.
The Duke gazed out over the city. It sloped, built on hillsides and cliffs, and the buildings sloped in their own individual way. It was as if the city had been caught in a rockslide for the initial moment, and then froze in place.
The people in that frozen city were gathering, coordinated, at the other end, the mass of them at the harbor, marked by the torches and lanterns they held.
He had seen battlefields since he was six years old, and had studied battlefields for just as long. Teachers had posited scenarios and he had been asked to solve them, or to find the best answer if it wasn’t solvable. There very rarely was any middle ground between the two, in his experience. They both called for radically different kinds of thinking.
With all of his experience, he was still mildly surprised to see how organized the people of this ramshackle city were.
“I like this moment,” Richmond purred.
The Duke turned his attention to the Baron, taking his time in doing so. The Baron was a snake of a man, and everything about him completed that particular picture. Straight golden hair swept back from his hairline and straight down the man’s back, his checkered scarf conjured scales to mind, and his method of dress was tailored very close to his body, marking a very lithe, sinuous figure, complete with long, jeweled fingers. The teeth, eyes, and jewelry the man wore were designed to draw the eye. When he desired it, he could beguile the unwary, drawing the eye this way, that way, and then lashing out in the next moment.
Richmond was as dangerous as a snake too, but that was all the more reason for the Duke to enjoy his company. He imagined it was how ordinary people saw the world. Didn’t life seem so much more like life with that breath of danger, where any bystander in the street could be a threat to one’s person? A killer, an enemy to the state and its people, looking for a target?
Yes, the risk was very low, but a natural wariness kept the mind sharper. That narrow possibility, however very slim it might be, it had to help, didn’t it?
“Before the battle, the tension, imagining possibilities.”
“Do you participate?” the Duke asked.
“Given the chance,” Richmond said. “I understand that sometimes a particular battle doesn’t allow for it.”
He was asking for permission.
“We’ll see how it unfolds then,” the Duke said. “Look at how they are clustering there.”
Fine hairs on the backs of his hands and neck alerted him to movement behind him. He didn’t startle, and kept his reaction slow as he looked back at the twins.
The Baronets were identical in a way twins and even clones rarely were, each in old fashioned white gowns with fur collars, with pale, straight blond hair. They sat shoulder to shoulder, one with a hand in the other’s lap, caressing, the other with a hand at her sister’s chin, tracing the bottom lip with a gloved finger. Both were leaning forward in the chairs that had been set down for them for a view, but not yet standing or intruding.
In unison, their eyes flicked up at the Duke. In unison, they smiled, hands going down to their own laps as if they were small children that had been caught doing something naughty.
He didn’t particularly care. In fact, he would rather they kept to such things if it kept them amused. Their other form of amusement involved payments to families and quiet threats to ensure those families didn’t ask any questions about the whereabouts of their loved ones. He didn’t have to busy himself with such things, but the people who worked for him did, and it was so much trouble to go to for a pair of bastards.
But he liked Richmond and so he tolerated them for the time being. When Richmond was near the time he would go back home, the Duke might bait the sisters into a trap, having them kill someone they shouldn’t, just to remove one of them from the equation and see how the other crumbled. If they were as incautious and mad enough to fall into the trap, the family would be better for their removal.
“Stand. Step closer, and have a look for yourself,” the Duke said.
They stood. Rather than walk, they seemed to glide, even on the uneven terrain. They found positions on either side of their brother, hands falling on different positions on his body as they gazed out over the landscape of Lugh.
One raised a finger to her sister’s mouth, pressing it against the lips to silence her, before turning to the Duke, “So ugly a city. I imagine it’ll be uglier by the time we’re through with it.”
The other raised her hand to a matching position as her sister’s hand fell away. “Of course, ‘we’ would be the Crown. We wouldn’t dare assume we’ll be allowed to participate.”
“I’ll contrive to give you a chance to amuse yourselves,” the Duke said.
The twins smiled.
“I’ve seen too many battlefields in my life. I’m interested in a…” the Duke paused. He picked his words to prick at Richmond’s pride without wounding it, “…Not a layman’s point of view, but an intelligent, inexpert one. Or three, as the case may be.”
The flicker of a glance from Richmond was reward enough for the choice of words.
The twins raised fingers. After a moment, one let their finger tick over to the side, indicating the other. The other twin then spoke, “Considering the fires were only just set a little while ago, they’re very organized for people in such a disorganized place.”
“Exactly what I was going to say,” the first said.
“They are,” the Duke agreed. “Organized people for a place that shouldn’t breed such.”
“A trap?” Richmond asked.
“It’s possible. That said, I’m at a loss in figuring out what they expect to accomplish,” the Duke said.
His eyes took in the broader picture.
For every citizen carrying a torch down below, he had one stitched soldier, and those soldiers were gathering at the periphery of the city now, in tidy rank and file, twenty five soldiers to one handler. The soldiers were equipped with uniforms and guns. The citizens wouldn’t be.
That wasn’t counting the Crown’s rank and file soldiers, either. A two to one numbers advantage, his forces had the high ground if they were advancing down the slope toward the harbor, and he didn’t even need to fight to win much of this conflict. Fire and noxious clouds would flow downhill in advance of his troops and kill or cripple nine in ten members of the opposition.
Fifty warbeasts were ready, shackled and caged, ready to assault the city, and to his experienced eye, every one of the warbeasts his forces had at their disposal had been born this year or the year before. Newer, better, stronger. The best Radham Academy had to offer.
“Our enemies can be stupid,” Richmond said. “They might have underestimated us.”
“They sent us evidence that they know how to create primordial life, with evidence of that life. Stupid people can’t do that,” the Duke said. “Anyone who knows enough about the primordial experiments knows the kind of response they have to bring about.”
The twins raised their fingers. One deferred to the other.
“Perhaps it isn’t about the battle?”
“Yes, sister. We’re on the same page,” the other twin said. “They sacrifice a city to breed advantages elsewhere. Could this be a diversion?”
The Duke didn’t answer the question. He stared, watching, thinking. Between the sea creatures in the water, his forces here at the east end of the city, his forces at the south end, and the mountains to the north, he had them boxed in. He let his mind take the ideas and let the rest of the world slow down so he could think over everything in detail.
He didn’t know enough about the mountains.
He raised a hand. The hairs on the back of his hands and neck were telling him about the movements all around him, the sway of branches with few leaves, the movement of wind, the movement of the twins, as one reached around Richmond to run a finger up and down her sister’s back, and now the approach of a military commander. He moved his fingers slightly, letting his brain interpret the signals, reading the wind. The one with the mustache and thick head of hair beneath his helmet, it seemed. One of the good ones, as the mere humans went.
The Duke extended a long finger.
“There should be enemies or traps in the mountains to the north of the city. They plan to attack or hit us before the fire reaches too far into the city. It may be a pincer attack, using the people we can see down there and the group in the mountains.”
“Yes, my lord. Shall I spread the word?”
“Do. Have Aversbad figure out the resources we have available in terms of setting our own traps. Then get one legion of stitched and one legion of soldiers and prepare to assail the mountains. Tell the first legion commander that you see that they’re to lead. They stagger out the approach, send in the stitched first, to trigger any traps ahead of you before you send in the living. Report back to me.”
“Yes, my lord.”
The man didn’t hesitate in departing.
The twins raised their fingers again. They had to have a system to ensure they didn’t talk simultaneously. When and if that happened, well, hearing one’s own voice with the wrong timing or cadence could disrupt one’s own speech.
“Problem solved?” one asked.
Richmond turned his head toward the Duke. He smiled. “No.”
“No,” the Duke agreed. “How did you know, my friend?”
“You have that look in your eyes that I’ve only seen when you’re in a fight.”
“This is a fight,” the Duke said. “Parry, thrust, move, counter-move.”
“Fair point. But I meant that you have that look about you that I’ve only seen on two occasions, when you stood in the midst of a sea of corpses.”
Did he? The Duke wondered, studying his own expression with a calculated measure of where and how his facial muscles were arranged.
Even I can learn something new from someone lesser like Richmond, he mused. He wouldn’t have expected it, for the battlefield as an abstract to serve the same sort of role that hand to hand combat did for him. To inflict pain, to experience it, it was as close to humanity as he got, now. As close to living.
He quickly calculated the number of homes in Lugh, and estimated the population at one hundred and ten thousand. A full third of that number was scattered, still, too far on the fringes to really feed into the center mass that was organizing so readily. Men and women who worked in quarries and on farms at the outskirts. Some were already being put to gunpoint by the Crown’s forces, or their homes were being torched.
Was it that more than eighty thousand people might die in the next twenty four hours, the vast majority on the enemy’s side, that woke up his blood and breathing so readily? Death, blood and pain, if not directly by his hand?
Or was it the primordials that had allegedly been created, and the prospect of dealing with them, even personally?
The mood was somber as he walked down the length of the hallway. The floor was treated wood, harder than stone, and roughly the same color, though the details were rich and it glowed silver under the light. The walls and ceiling of the hallway were formed of a complex tangle of wood, grown and woven into braids and complex figures, smaller stones worked in between them. Here and there, there were irregularly shaped glass panes, looking out on rocky cliffs with grass growing atop them.
A temple without a god, on an island that few could reach.
His body was new, he’d been looked after for the last time, and at ten years old, he stood taller than the average man. Even with a cane, it was hard to move his new arms and legs without stumbling now and again.
The first three nights of agony had added to him, or taken away weaknesses. Mind, body, and power. The fourth had made him noble, physically better and more beautiful. His genetics had been better than some, and he’d been presentable even before the last series of operations. Some weren’t so lucky, and were cooped up away from the public eye for a full decade.
He walked in the company of his mother, aunt, and two of his cousins, Richmond and Geraldine. He wasn’t sure what was going on, and instincts bred by ten years in the court told him he shouldn’t ask. More and more, these days, what he was expected to know wasn’t told to him, but shown.
Nothing about that was new. Every day, he was thrust into situations and others expected him to keep up. A small failure could weaken his standing in the eyes of his extended family, and open him up to a lifetime of sabotage or small abuses. A larger failure could ruin his chance of achieving anything at all before he died.
But, for the very first time since he was three years old, he was without the quartet of professors that looked after him, the tools they had implanted within him, and the adjustments they had made to his body and mind.
He hadn’t seen a single non-noble since he had stepped off the boat and onto this island crag.
Looking at Richmond or Geraldine could have been construed as an attempt to seek reassurance in an unsure situation. He kept his eyes forward.
His aunt stepped forward and pushed open two double doors. They passed into another hallway, darker than the last.
In the distance, someone screamed, unhinged, and he immediately knew where he was.
He relaxed, in one moment, and tensed in the next.
Should a noble need to be placed somewhere out of the public eye, they would come here.
He, so recently operated on, was a candidate for that placement. Was there something wrong that he didn’t know about?
When he was three years old, his mind had been altered, to allow him to better control how fast he thought, and how he perceived the passage of time. He had only mastered it a few years ago, and controlling it took effort that often left him exhausted at the day’s end. Still, he kept up the practice, and his control improved.
In this moment, he let his awareness speed up, to better survey things from all of the angles. A part of his thoughts were dedicated to making sure he maintained the same speed and pace. Slowing his pace by a fraction would signal to others that something was wrong.
He contemplated how he might go about this, if this prison was indeed intended for him, if he needed to run, or else face imprisonment for the rest of his days, bereft of the doctors who were supposed to tend him, slowly going to pieces over decades.
In the end, he decided that he couldn’t beat his mother and aunt in a fight. At least, not like this, with his body so new and untested.
He was scared.
His aunt pushed open the next set of double doors. The next hallway was darker still, windowless, with water behind glass with bioluminescent creatures swimming on the other side, each of them casting out a lazy red glow that only barely lit the hallway.
The final set of double doors revealed a crowd. Nine more members of the family, frozen like a tableau.
Further, beyond a thick pane of glass, was a man that the young Duke recognized as his uncle.
As beautiful as the man had been once, he was now broken, twisted, and gnarled. Growths like tumors riddled him, but the tumors had a particular sort of aesthetic to them, sharp-edged, more growth than growth gone wrong.
The Archduke howled in pain, rage, and madness, before striking at the thick pane of glass. Not a single person in the room flinched.
The young Duke, the nephew, joined his aunt, mother, and cousins in joining the frozen tableau, watching the man flail, cavort, and rage, changing his pattern of action from moment to moment.
“It’s taking his brain,” one of the nobles said.
It was a strange statement, in timing, and because it was so obvious. The young Duke allowed himself to peer over the room, looking at each of the people within. They were sculpted, every one of them altered, set one half-step away from ordinary people. But where the trained eye could see the difference in quality of work, like the vast chasm between the Duke and his cousin Richmond, it was clear that the room was filled with lower quality nobles.
He was starting to understand where things stood.
His mother spoke. “Spores from the growths infected no less than thirty people. We’re working to find a way to clear them of the spores and the growths that sprout from them, but it appears grim. Life finds a way to breed. Life of this sort… all the more so. It has to be stamped out before it finds its way. Take this as a lesson.”
The only lesson he was taking was that this was something done with intent.
“The people infected, they were from Warrick castle?”
“Yes,” his mother said, glancing at him.
He could read things in that glance. A warning, a touch of danger.
If he considered every noble residing in Warrick castle a casualty, then every single person in this room had just advanced no less than twelve steps closer to the Crown. He himself had ascended from thirty-five steps away from the Crown to a mere twenty. A massive power grab for everyone present.
That they were all here, gathered, only fed the conspiracy.
“Such things are not to be tampered with,” said another member of the conspiracy. “Not to be toyed with.”
The Duke heard the words, and he believed them. He knew the image of his uncle would be burned into his mind forever.
Five years ago, the Archduke had visited him while he was being given his second set of operations. That night five years ago, and several times since, the man had showed an almost human kindness. Tempered with a very inhuman cruelty, yes, the Duke remembered the point the man had made about pain, but the kindness was what lingered in the Duke’s recollection and left the deepest impression.
This meeting and this display was meant to communicate something, he knew, but he took it for something else. A chance to say goodbye to one of the only people who felt something like family.
The Duke sensed someone approach the tent, and turned. The Baron and Baronet twins looked over, as well.
“Lord Duke,” a man spoke from outside.
An officer stepped into the tent. “My lord.”
He was so very tired of the formality at this point, even if he understood the necessity of it. “Speak.”
“My lord, you asked us to stop any couriers from leaving the city. Forces approaching from neighboring regions stopped a mail courier traveling from Lugh, and we searched all correspondence…”
He handed over a letter.
The Duke took the letter, and then read it.
A complication, an advantage? More the former than the latter.
He voiced his thoughts aloud. “The Lambs are in the city, on another errand. Interesting that they think their mission important enough to ask for help from another team on another job, but they didn’t think to tell their superiors. Or the Crown.”
“Did they know about the primordials?” Richmond asked.
“I imagine they did. We’ll have to give the order for the fire and plague to stop for the time being. Let it spread on its own, that will be devastating enough. But we want to move carefully here.”
“My lord?” the officer made it a question.
“Just for the time being. Baron Richmond, Baronets. You have your wish. I have an errand for you.”
The Duke took a pen, and drew out a rough sketch, with notes beside it.
The Baron Richmond and the twins drew closer, looking.
“This is one of the Lambs. We have a vested interest in them. Find them, and remove them from the city. If you can’t, we’ll have to consider this a tragic loss.”
The Baron picked up the paper. He read it, then showed it to the twins, before folding it up and putting it in a pocket.
“Anyone else,” the Duke instructed, “Anyone that gets in your way, kill them.”
“And the other Lambs?”
“Like I said,” the Duke spoke, “Anyone else that gets in your way.”
The trio nodded, and stepped from the tent.
The Lambs, and an enemy named in the letter that one group of Lambs had sent another, Mauer, who had some talent at battlefield strategy. He’d dealt with Mauer’s forces before, and it never failed to be interesting.
But the primordial was what lingered in his mind. An enemy that gun and sword couldn’t necessarily kill. One that had killed his uncle. He’d taken away a lesson from that day, as intended. He couldn’t hold back or underestimate it in the slightest. He had soldiers supposedly prepared for the task, but that might not be enough.
He turned to his doctor. “Professor Berger, Adams, Cameron. A checkup, if you please. I want to make sure my weapons and body are prepared, if it comes down to it.”
The loyal professors wasted no time in attending to the task.