A towel was draped over my head, another over my bare shoulders. I didn’t move as I hunched over in front of the stove, eyes moving from the fire glowing within to the window. We’d placed a log within, and the door was closed, with the slots in the door left open. It was a weak, unenthusiastic glow. The only other light inside the building was from outside, as people moved down the street, carrying lights.
Not our home, not our fire, not our towels.
I was so cold and tired that I felt nauseous. I imagined it as my body feeling almost insulted at the heat and light it had been offered, to the point it was rebuking me. Not enough heat and human comfort, I need more. Nourish me, get answers and find the others so I can stop tying your guts in knots, my body told me.
I watched the fire, and I envisioned the city continuing to burn. I tried to imagine the way things might play out, all of the possible moves the Crown and Mauer might make, and how it affected the bigger picture.
I kept coming up with ideas that involved the others. Gordon was better when it came to the big battlefield stuff. Lillian would know ways to fake illness or lightly poison me. I already looked like hell, and with a bit of dramatic vomiting or other symptoms, I could lead a section of Mauer’s army to think that there were plagues in the air, and give them second thoughts.
With some elbow room, I could make other things happen. Maybe.
But I didn’t have Lillian. I didn’t have Gordon.
I most definitely didn’t have Helen or Mary, or even Ashton, who could be so very useful in these circumstances.
I couldn’t shake up this situation because it was already as shaken as things could get, and both sides had chosen their courses.
The logs in the fire shifted, cracking and spitting out sparks that danced within the stove’s confines.
Words? Written or spoken? Could I negotiate with the Academy?
The goal here was to get out alive, to minimize the loss of life on the Academy’s part, and take away Mauer’s power. I doubted there was anything I could say that would deter the Academy or give Mauer second thoughts about what he was doing.
“You were right,” Jamie said, behind me. “They have someone about our age in the house.”
I turned to look his way. He had clothes bundled in his arms. He draped them across the kitchen table.
“Had to dig for a bit to find something in your size.”
He held up shirts, both a little threadworn, and I pointed at one. He held up a black sweater, and I nodded. He tossed the clothing my way. A fresh pair of pants, too, and socks.
“Thank you,” I said.
Jamie smiled. He started pulling on a fresh sweater as well.
With anyone but him, this would be so much easier.
The shirt he’d given me hung a little weirdly on my narrow shoulders. The sweater prickled, even through the cloth of the shirt. I endured it.
“Thinking about Gordon and Lillian?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Me too. I know I’m not as close to them as you are, but I haven’t known anyone for all that long.”
I touched my leg, judging how damp my pants legs were, and found them still a little wet.
“The pants might be a little large,” Jamie said. “Want to try?”
I nodded. He threw the pants my way, and I caught them. I stayed sitting as I wiggled out of the damp pair and pulled the new pair on, briefly lifting my rear end up off the floor. I stood, one hand on the waistband, gauging how likely they were to fall down on me.
“You’re thorough,” I said.
“They’ll need adjusting. They’re fit for an adult. We took some food, firewood, and left a bit of a mess, so I left some money and a short note behind. I don’t know if this place will even be standing, but it felt right.”
Jamie was changing clothes too, now that I was set up. I looked away as he pulled his shirt off.
He wasn’t quite as abashed about it as old Jamie had been, though he turned partially away.
“Both sides are completely confident they’ll destroy the other,” I said, as much to myself as to Jamie. “I’m pretty sure they’re both right. I think the fight is going to be ugly, and it’s going to be too costly, with collateral damage above and beyond what both sides expect.”
“That’s a fair summary,” he said. He turned my way, now pulling on a sweater that was a bit too big for him. His first attempt to find his glasses nearly knocked them from the table, making my heart jump. The last thing we damn well needed was for Jamie to be blind.
“You good?” I asked, once he’d fixed his glasses.
He ran fingers through his damp hair, getting it out of his face. He gave me a nod.
I could hear gunshots in the distance. The battle was opening.
“The only way forward that I can see just yet is to upset the balance. Taking the wind out of Mauer’s sails creates a risk, because it means the primordials might get loose, by accident or by deliberation.”
Jamie’s body language changed in a very subtle way. He stared across the room at me.
“Are you testing me?” he asked.
“We’re in the middle of a war, both sides are a danger to us, we’re undermanned and overwhelmed,” he said, still staring me down. “I’m getting the distinct impression you left that statement unfinished because you’re gauging if you can trust me.”
“Ah,” I said. I held my hands out toward the fire, letting them warm up. My bones hurt.
“That’s not a yes or a no,” he said. He was still staring, his neck and body rigid. “We need to upset the balance. Okay. Attacking Mauer means complications, alright. And what you leave unsaid, because you want to see how I say it, is that we could attack the Crown, and try to upset the balance in that direction.”
I stared into the fire. The stove could use another log, but I doubted we were going to be around for that long.
“He would’ve been slower about connecting the dots there.”
“He,” Jamie said, “Knew you well enough to see through what you were doing, even without connecting the dots.”
“True,” I said.
“I’m not him,” Jamie said. “I’m not Jamie.”
“I know,” I said.
A moment passed.
“Sorry,” I said.
“You want to attack the Crown,” Jamie said.
I hesitated. I could remember when Jamie had walked into the meeting to discuss the Brechwell incident. He had been the sole member of the Lambs I hadn’t been able to predict.
I still couldn’t predict him, even now. We might have mended fences and left the door open to improve things between us at the outset of this trip, but as far as trusting him? I wasn’t sure. It was too easy to let my guard down, to focus on the problem at hand, and give him material he could pass on to noble and professor, giving them cause to end the Lambs altogether.
I ventured an answer, “I’m almost certain it’ll be easier to throw a wrench into the works where the Academy is concerned. We already tried setting Mauer on fire, he’s on guard against anything else. He’ll be watching, because he knows we’re around.”
“Treason,” Jamie said.
“Yes,” I said. “That’s what they would call it. We can justify it by saying we have information the Academy doesn’t. That they have more primordials than the Academy is aware of. That all of this is a trap.”
“Maybe,” he said. “There are only so many times we can get called up in front of the metaphorical firing squad before they start wondering why they aren’t pulling the trigger. What you’re talking about, it’s still treason. Treason you think is justified, given the situation, treason you think you might be able to argue was defensible.”
I stared at him. Here, as in so many other things, he insisted on making things difficult. He wasn’t giving me anything, even as he took a hard line. He wanted me to give him an answer, knowing that whatever I picked, I could be screwed. Say no, and I was abandoning a path, committing us to a harder, more dangerous road, because I was agreeing to play things by the books so long as I worked with him. Say yes, and I was putting myself and the Lambs at abject risk.
Do you belong to them, in a way that none of the other Lambs do?
“Yes,” I said. “I’m advocating treason, here. If we give the Crown reason to hesitate or pull back its forces, we either create an opportunity to communicate with them, we create an opportunity to direct the flow of events, or we put Mauer off his game. Or all three.”
“And if I say no? That I’m not willing to take the risk?” Jamie asked me. “You said, once, that it was easier to think of ideas when you knew the boundaries you were working within. He wrote that quote down. What if I draw the line in the sand here and tell you that you have to think of something else?”
More gunshots sounded in the distance. I heard an explosion.
My mind whirled. More noise. Frustration, black anger, pain in the midst of that noise.
“Are you thinking, Sy?” Jamie asked me.
“Always,” I said. The calm of my voice was at odds with my thoughts.
“Are you thinking of what you’d do if I say no? Strategies, plans? Or are you trying to think of ways to manipulate me?”
I put my hands in my pockets, then sighed. The admission was a hard one. “I can’t manipulate you.”
He nodded at that.
“I’m trying to decide if you’re pushing on this point because you really want to say no, or if you want me to put my neck on the chopping block, admit outright that I want to commit treason, and let you decide my fate.”
“You think I’m manipulating you?”
“I’m fifty-fifty on the possibility,” I said. I bent down to pick up my coat from the stool by the fire, and pulled it on. “You asked me to admit I wanted to commit treason. I did. Maybe now you’re asking me to fight for that course of action.”
“That’s ugly,” he said.
“Is it untrue?”
He didn’t break eye contact. His stare could have been an accusing one, or it could have been a refusal to budge and admit what he was doing.
I couldn’t read him, because I couldn’t look hard enough at him without seeing Jamie.
Uncomfortable, I was the one to turn away. “I’m going to push for this course of action. If it comes down to it, and we get in trouble for it, tell them I had no better ideas, the other Lambs weren’t around, and it was a desperate action. Make sure the other Lambs don’t get sunk along with me.”
“Okay,” he said.
That was the best answer I was going to get. No confirmation, no insights.
I made my way to the window, pushing the curtain aside to get a better view of what was happening on the street. Jamie pulled on his coat, flipping the hood up. He paused at the stove to close the shutters and replace the screen in front. By the time he made his way to me, I had migrated to the door.
I paused there, my hand on the handle.
“I understand that we’re all different. We have our needs, our mental quirks,” I said.
He didn’t respond to that. Which was good.
“Your brain is… architecture,” I said. “Everything has a place, it’s reliable, it’s solid work. You struggle more than some do when things are uncertain. He did too, but he handled it by taking slow, steady steps, whatever he was doing. You move faster, and maybe that movement comes with even more uncertainty.”
I stared at the door. Jamie could have walked away and I wouldn’t have known. Easier to talk to wood.
“I used to think that each of the Lambs had another Lamb that they didn’t work that well with. But he and I were different in that. Because we should have conflicted, but we complemented one another. And that’s not the case with you and me. I make things uncertain.”
“Yeah,” Jamie said, behind me.
“But I need to be able to trust you too.”
The gunshots that sounded beyond the door weren’t all that far away.
Jamie took his time in responding this time, “I understand.”
“We need to find a way to work with one another, or we won’t make it through this,” I said. We might not make it through this even if we do find a way to work together.
I didn’t wait to hear his response. Cowardly as it was, I finished my statement by hauling the door open and stepped out into the streets of a city at war.
Fire streaked across the sky, before arcing down to strike at rooftops or hit other streets. The house we were in had been at the fringe of Mauer’s group, and now it was still at that fringe, but Mauer’s group was no longer huddled at the harbor to the east. It was actively fighting to the west, and we were behind the back lines. People here were stragglers, they were the cowards who weren’t fighting, and they were the wounded, being carried back and away from the fighting.
Smoke was supposed to rise, but all of the light sources around us had halos, fuzzed out by the lingering haze. People who ran this way and that had smudges on their faces, from mingled smoke particulate, snow, and the rub of the back of a hand. In one or two cases, I could see people who had those same smudges, except the areas around the smudges were raw, blistering or inflamed. Subtle, but it would be worse by the night’s end.
As I was about to cross the street, a bullet struck a puddle in the middle of the street, sending ice fragments spraying, the bullet or the bullet fragments ricocheting off toward the harbor.
Not aimed at us, or at anything in particular.
I gestured, then bolted, running diagonally across the street, with Jamie so close behind me he could have stepped on my heels.
The closer we got, the greater the ambient danger was. All it took was one stupid stray bullet, inhaling in the wrong cloud of thick smoke that hung close to the ground, or an unlucky artillery shot.
The eye of the great sea creature that overlooked the harbor stared now at the battlefield, red-orange and grim. Above all of us, the sky was alive, roiling with smoke and wind rising from a thousand different places, glowing with the fires that had ignited across the city. We were venturing into an area with more hot smoke overhead, and here, the snow melted before it reached us, absorbing the smoke. It left black-brown streaks on Jamie’s glasses.
We reached the back lines of the battle. Here, the number of wounded were thicker, laid out in alleyways and sitting on blankets in the streets, so close to the people at the rear of the fighting that those people could have tripped over them, should they step back with any retreat in mind.
A squad of ten stitched soldiers marched out of an alleyway forty paces down the road. Those same stitched opened fire on a crowd of people so packed they couldn’t crouch, let alone move to either side or seek cover. The makeshift militia returned fire in kind, unloading pistols and rifles. I saw one stitched take what might have been ten bullets, and keep going. Another took a hit to the forehead, head rocking back, and didn’t die or stop shooting.
They weren’t invulnerable, however. One did fall. It took twenty or so bullets before it collapsed, but it did fall.
Meanwhile, every other bullet the stitched fired into the crowd brought a living, breathing person down. A handful of those people weren’t even able to collapse to the ground, the crowd was so thick around them that they didn’t have room. The shouts, the sound of guns both distant and near, the patter of rain, and the shrill squeal of commander’s whistles became a singular noise.
I could see the effect, though. Seeing people die was having an impact on morale.
Mauer had to know this would happen. He accounted for it. Even if I tried to take advantage of it, I wouldn’t be changing the course of events here.
I could imagine Mauer’s invisible hand moving. He would make a play here soon, to balance out the losses, and keep this sort of attack from becoming a rout.
Stitched soldiers had a weak point. The people who were throwing lanterns and waving torches toward the attackers were years out of date. I gestured at Jamie, then ducked into an alleyway, leaping and skipping over the people who were laid out there, past wounded men who were grabbing for guns, looking in the direction of the new, deafening flurry of gunfire.
Mauer’s people were at the far end of the alley, huddled there, with crates and bags of trash piled in front of them. The stitched had had to have come from somewhere, and Mauer’s people on the next street over were losing the fight. The Crown’s forces were now flanking Mauer’s. This group at the alley’s end were defending the wounded and trying to hold ground against the flank.
I hurried up to the makeshift fortifications, peering over it, shoulder to elbow with the soldiers on either side of me. The men looked to be Lugh citizens, and looked to be familiar with their guns, even if they didn’t have the jackets so many of the ex-military soldiers did.
I could see down the length of the street, where the Crown’s soldiers were taking every position that even resembled defensive cover. The stitched alternated between taking cover or brazenly walking toward the defending forces, absorbing bullets without hesitation.
Someone grabbed my shoulder.
“We need to cut through!” I raised my voice.
The noise around us was so bad I couldn’t even make myself heard. The man beside me forced me to turn to face him.
He shouted a question at me.
I didn’t have the physical strength to free myself from his grip. I didn’t need it. I kept my expression stern, raising one hand to backhand his wrist, striking it. Emotion, conviction, and the aura of someone who knew what he was doing was what loosened the man’s grip.
As part of that same motion, I grabbed a lantern from behind the cover the men had taken. I hurled it further down the street. Glass shattered and a pool of fire spread between us and the enemy. Smoke billowed out.
Everyone at our defensive position had to duck down as the enemy opened fire, a bark of a response to our action.
“Idiot!” the man shouted, seizing me again. His hand forced me down closer to the ground. “You’ve denied us any chance of a clear shot!”
Undeterred, I looked at Jamie, who’d hung a bit further back, standing flush against the wall of the alley. He was cleaning his glasses with a handkerchief.
I signaled, very clear, obvious gestures. Soon. Run. Forward.
He hurried to put his glasses on, then stepped close, ducking to keep his head out of the line of fire. He put a hand on the militia man’s wrist.
The man eased up. Again, I gestured at Jamie. Not for his benefit, but for the man.
Conveying that we had a plan, that we knew what we were doing better than he did. Jamie’s nod seemed to cinch the deal.
He gestured back to me. Soldier. Four. Attack. Wait. Four. Attack. Wait. Us. Go.
I tried to listen for what he was talking about. The gunfire so close to my ears made it so hard to hear. If the wyvern formula was at full strength, I might have been okay with processing it all. It wasn’t, and I wasn’t. The listening was hard.
They weren’t firing like the regimental squads of old had, all firing in the same burst, then reloading as a unit. There was an ebb and flow, though. They fired as fast as they could empty their rifles, then paused. To reload, or to back up and let others take up their position and fire.
The wyvern formula wasn’t at full strength, but it wasn’t absent either. My mind shifted gears. I could focus on the noise, envision the soldiers on the far end of the street, ninety or so paces away. I wouldn’t be acting to take advantage of a moment where they weren’t shooting at all, but I could take advantage of a moment where they were shooting less.
I gestured to Jamie, my body tensing. He nodded.
I moved a fraction after the worst of the barrage was unleashed, so fast that I momentarily worried I’d be flinging myself headlong into that same barrage.
Over the cover the soldiers had positioned at the end of the alley, up the street, moving along the edge at the base of one building, keeping to where the smoke and fire from the lantern masked our movements.
We were exposed to potential enemy fire throughout. We were exposed to the enemy’s eye for only a moment, as we moved beyond where I’d thrown the lantern, and then turned a sharp corner, circling around the building. To the back of the alley the stitched had come from.
There were two men and ten stitched within.
My hand flew out behind me, gesturing.
In that same moment, I shifted how I ran, stumbling, staggering.
“Help him!” Jamie shrieked, the cry ragged and desperate.
Not as convincing as I might have been, had the roles been reversed, but it wasn’t that bad, either.
The men with the stitched were the dogs, the ones who directed the stitched in the field of battle and kept them operational. They were the weak point.
It could be said that a stitched was too dumb to be manipulated. That my talents didn’t lend themselves well to dealing with one, let alone twenty.
The man hurried to my side, gun at the ready. He aimed at Jamie, who raised his hands.
Paranoid. Worried about the local forces using children to deliver a surprise attack. Which they probably would.
I writhed on the ground, gasping for breath, hands on my stomach. Crouching beside me, the soldier took hold of my arm, forcing me to flip over.
He was, as one who tended to the stitched, at least somewhat qualified in field medicine.
The one at the far end of the alley peeked out in the direction of the fighting, keeping only one eye on the situation here.
I reached for my would-be savior, who was still trying to puzzle out what was the matter. Then I brought my armpit down on his rifle, my heels pressing down against the ground as I forced all of my body weight down on it. It brought the weapon down and away from Jamie while pulling the soldier down toward me.
My free hand went to his waist, failed to grab the pistol there, but found a knife. Almost as good.
The man froze as I put the blade to his throat. I looked up at the situation with Jamie and the other soldier, and saw the man there doubled over. A knife stuck out of his gun arm.
He looked as though he might give the order for the stitched in the alleyway to come after us. Then he saw the knife at his buddy’s throat and froze.
Jamie hurried to my side, bent down, and took the pistol I’d failed to grab.
I extricated myself from the man who had tried to help me, reached to his collar, and found a cord.
I pulled the cord free, and tugged the object on the end free where it snagged on his jacket.
A commander’s whistle. I rubbed it on my pant’s leg.
I blew twice, sharp, and the stitched in the alleyway turned to look at me.
Jamie said something, but the noise around us was deafening. He extended his free hand, signaling. A flash of palm, a flash of palm, then hand out, extended, for a long moment.
I blew. Tweet. Tweet. Tweeeeeeeeeeee-
The stitched in the alley shuffled, uncomfortable, some standing at attention.
The noise of the fighting beyond took on a different tone.
The order to retreat had been given. The stitched that were mowing through the crowd was now turning tail.
Different squads would have different signals, and for most orders, the stitched would look for their commander. They wouldn’t recognize a pair of young teenaged boys as such. If it was that easy to throw them for a loop, then every army would pack whistles.
But they were listening for an order from here, at least. I could help turn the tide here. Other opportunities could be created.
Jamie held the distant soldier at gunpoint, and divested him of his rifle, pistol and knife. He handed me the pistol. Once we both had guns, it was easy enough to make the two stitched overseers retreat to the other end of the alley, further from the people they’d been attacking.
They turned and ran out into the street we’d approached from, toward their friendly forces. We let them.
Once they were gone, I turned my attention to a window. Lugh didn’t have high security. I opened the latch in a matter of a minute, let myself in, and we made our way through, out into the next alleyway, deeper into the midst of crown forces.
We were just in time for Mauer’s Plague Men to make their move. Unfortunate.