I prayed for the forces of Lugh to attack. A timely assault, a good bombing. Best if it hit the front lines, mostly stitched, but it would be an excuse to go, to run.
That meant the Duke was running the show on the Crown’s side. It was the equivalent of me trying to deal with plague men instead of ordinary soldiers. Elite, better at what they did, and very, very dangerous.
The Baron had less clout than the Duke did, but he had less reason to keep up appearances. It wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that he could take issue with someone and then slap them down.
Could we just run? Bolt for safety? I doubted it. It would buy our survival in the short term, but end it in the long term.
I stayed where I was, waiting. Off to the side, Jamie was peeling off the bandages and mask.
The camp was set where wagons with warbeasts could maneuver, at the crossroads of two major roads at the north end of Lugh. The long streets provided little to nothing to break the wind as it swept through, stirring up the meager, wet snowflakes. Actual human soldiers were few and far between, with the bulk of the army formed of stitched, with a small fraction being the handlers for those same stitched.
Dead wood made up the wagons, snow and darkness covered and dimmed any color in the surroundings. The only lights were artificial ones, white, glaring, and flickering, aimed out toward the city. The gathered soldiers didn’t talk and play cards, and were little different from the stitched. It didn’t give me the sense that morale was low, so much as it gave me the sense that there wasn’t any emotion at all. The living soldiers and handlers were little different from the stitched, especially with the hooded coats they wore. They weren’t as vulnerable to the wet snow as the stitched were, but they were just as unwilling to get wet, given the climate.
A stark contrast to Mauer’s camp, which was all life, fire, and energy.
Jamie blew on his hands before rubbing them together, and gestured in the process, giving me a sidelong glance. Plan. Question.
Wary, I gestured back.
I didn’t have a better answer. Nobles weren’t to be messed with, there weren’t many games I could play without risking my life and that of the Lambs.
Better to ground myself and be ready to play the more diplomatic games that came with any dealing with nobles.
They were people. Very strange, unpredictable, powerful people, but people. The usual truisms held.
He made his approach, and I had to steel myself. The Baron Richmond didn’t look like a person at all. Too tall, his features alien, but not in a way I could pin down. His hair was too fine, perhaps, moving like gossamer rather than hair, moving in a very ethereal way in the wind.
He was dressed for battle, with a cape and pauldrons that wrapped around his upper body, concealing torso and arms, a helmet with gold tracing, and boots with the same. The end of a scabbard was visible below the end of the cape.
He moved with a retinue, as if he wasn’t imposing enough on his own. On either side of him were the twins. His bastard sisters. I had nothing against bastards, I was probably one myself, but for the nobles, those things mattered. The Baron Richmond was disenfranchised by virtue of his lower status. Too powerful to deal with the common people on any level, too low in status to wield any meaningful power. The bastard twins were below him in status. Were it not for their brother’s continued hard work, they might have found an early grave to assassins or other subtleties.
They were beautiful, I had to admit, wrapped in heavy coats, though theirs had albino wolf pelts around their otherwise bare shoulders, and were a stark, startling white. Pale skin, pale fur, and white cloth that surrounded them and with the bare shoulders, suggested they weren’t even dressed beneath the overcoats.
They reminded me of Helen, if I imagined a Helen with more bloodlust, and the inability or an unwillingness to suppress it. Their hands were all over their brother.
“Lambs,” Richmond said.
The alarm bells in my head were already ringing, but something about the look in Richmond’s eyes and voice struck at those bells with force enough to dash them to pieces. The prey instinct, that part of my mind that unconsciously picked up on the little details, was screaming at me.
I wanted to hear gunshots behind me, an explosion, for bullets to start flying. It would be reason enough to take leave.
“Lord Baron,” I said. I bowed, being very mindful of position and decorum. Not too far, not too exaggerated. I couldn’t give him a reason. He wants to hurt the Duke, and the Duke doesn’t dislike us. If he can destroy us here and come up with any excuse at all, he will.
The prey instinct was probably picking up on signals from the Baron’s retinue. The doctors that tended to the Baron and his sisters seemed to be bracing themselves, the sisters seemed too eager, their hands active as they each ran gloved fingers up and down the Baron’s arms, watching us with unblinking eyes.
The Baron spoke, “Straighten. What are you doing here?”
“Errand for a friend of the Academy,” I said. “We were looking for someone in the city when Mauer showed. We tried to burn him alive, and he got away. We caught wind of what he was doing, but by the time we had enough to report on, things were underway.”
“You failed to kill him,” the Baron said. The word choice was weighty, ‘fail’ and ‘kill’, not emphasizing but putting them out there, leaving them to float about like snowflakes, for later perhaps, or to seize on at a later moment.
“My lord, we tried to position against Mauer while he escaped the fire and made his initial moves, we lost our teammates, and made our way in this direction, because we couldn’t reach him. We ran into some plague men, picked off what we could between the two of us, Jamie got hurt, and that hobbled us further. We came looking for you to report what we know about Mauer’s weapons.”
The Baron held up a finger. I shut my mouth.
“Two things,” he said. “You. How hurt?”
“I’m recovering, my lord,” Jamie said. “I’ve been treated, I’m unsteady on my feet, but I’m ready to serve the Crown if needed.”
The silence that lingered after Jamie’s statement was an ominous one. The Baron still held his finger up. He moved his arm, and both sisters pulled their hands away.
In an easy, practiced motion that suggested he had performed it several times a day since he was able, he drew his sword. A saber, the blade patterned like damascus steel.
He pointed it at me.
“Second of all, when I say something, Lamb, I don’t expect to be ignored. Mauers lived, I said, and you went on talking.”
“My apologies, my lord,” I said. “I meant to expand on my answers, not to ignore you.”
“You failed to kill Mauer. Because of that, he was able to gather people together under his banner, was it? He is the man in charge?”
Multiple yes or no questions, and I couldn’t answer one without answering them all, I doubted the Baron Richmond would let me give a lengthy answer.
“Yes, my lord.”
He nodded, took one step to bridge the distance between us, and seized me by the hair. When he lifted, my feet left the ground.
“They don’t value you very highly, Lamb,” he hissed in my ear. “Not you.”
I fought to avoid struggling, even as it felt like my scalp might rip off. A struggle could mean accidentally striking the man, which would earn me a less merciful death.
Not that mercy was what I wanted either. Mercy was too close to peace, and ever since that run-in with Sub Rosa, I’d been terrified at the idea of a peaceful death. It was worse than even a painful, fit-wracked death as the poison took my mind.
I wanted to accomplish something as I died, but I didn’t want the other Lambs to suffer for it. If I struck the Baron, then Jamie would die too.
Even if it wasn’t my Jamie, I couldn’t let that happen.
I’d never felt more like a child, faced with authority, unable to act. I hated it, and that hate stirred all of the anger and frustration of earlier, of Jamie, of Gordon and Lillian being missing and the other Lambs being so far away.
“I don’t like the look in your eyes,” the Baron said, his voice quiet.
The sword pressed against my lips, and the blade stung me as it cut. I felt hot blood run down my chin.
“Shh,” he said.
My head throbbed like it was being hit with a hammer from within, with the combined pain in my scalp and the tension.
He moved the sword away from my lips, and raised it to my eye. I could see down the length of it to the guard.
I didn’t see it move so much as my ability to see it was destroyed in a flash of pain, red, and darkness, and the tears that ran down my cheek were overlarge, too thick. Vitreous fluid.
My pain tolerance wasn’t helping as much as I might have liked. The whole of my focus was on keeping my eye focused straight ahead, at the handle of the weapon. The less I moved my eye, the less damage that would be done. Not that I was sure it mattered. A small sound left my lips, despite me.
“Shh, I said,” the Baron murmured, “A child unseeing and unheard, is it?”
“You’re having all of the fun,” one of the Twins said. It was all I could do not to look at her.
“My prerogative as the older sibling,” the Baron said. He turned his attention back to me. “How deep do I need to push this blade in, Lamb, before you look at me with the respect that I am due? With your one remaining eye, I mean?”
“My lord,” I said. My voice quavered, and I would have dearly liked to call it an act, but there was so much at stake, and it was already jeopardized by the loss of one eye- the quaver was real. He’d shaken me to my core.
Pain and quick thinking went hand in hand where Wyvern was concerned. In the midst of this situation, hurting in a way that counted, I found the words I needed to give him, “My lord, I’m yours.”
He pulled the blade out of my eye, then dropped me. I landed in a heap, hands and legs on the wet ground, staring with my one eye at the toes of his boots. I could see the fluids slowly trickling free of the eye. Blood and other humors.
I remained where I was, prostrate, arms and shoulders tense.
“You’re ours, I suppose,” the Baron said, his voice calm. “I did promise my sisters some amusement.”
“Yes, my lord,” I said, without looking up. My lips were wet with my own blood.
I wanted to fight, I wanted to run, and I knew I couldn’t do either.
Damn him, I could run and never stop or return, if it wasn’t for Jamie and the other Lambs.
“Here,” he said. “Let’s see.”
The tip of the sword, freshly wiped clean, appeared in front of me. It touched my chin, then changed angle, lifting my chin up and turning my face up toward him.
“Shall I take your other eye?” he asked.
“As you will, my lord,” I said. Don’t. Please don’t. Please.
Maybe he saw the fear. He smiled.
“I’ll leave it be. But that comes with conditions.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“If you dare to replace that eye, I will have you killed. Don’t think you can sneak behind my back. I’ll be sure to have others check on you, and servants passing through will pay their visits.”
“Yes, my lord,” I said.
“If anyone asks what happened to that eye – and I’ll be sure to have my servants and friends ask, I want you to tell them that you lost it because you’re an imbecile, understand? No jokes or sarcastic wit, no trickery, none of that… nonsense that you Lambs seem to busy yourself with, over killing men like Mauer. Make them believe in the utter stupidity that it took to try to gloss over your failure to perform your duties and then dare to look me in the eye afterward.”
“Yes, my lord,” I said. The sword went to its sheath, and my eye went to his boot.
I could hear the distant battle. Gunshots, explosions, and the horns in the harbor.
“He’s ours, you said?” one of the twins asked.
“Did you mean it?” the other asked.
“I meant it,” the Baron said. “Do what you will with him. I’m taking the other one back to my tent to question. Don’t kill him, my orders about his eye have to stand for at least a few years more. Break him, or take him apart, so long as he can be unbroken and put back together. The doctors are good enough that anything short of plunging a knife into his heart will be fine, I imagine.”
“What a shame that we have to share. I had my hopes up that we could have one each.”
In the haze of pain, my head still throbbing, I drew a vague series of connections between the thought of the heart, what the twins were saying, the blood that still dripped and trickled from my eye, and the sound of battle.
“My lord,” I said.
“A brave lad, you are,” the Baron answered, so quick to utter the words that it was as if he was pouncing on me. “Don’t tell me you dare to ask for mercy.”
“We know where the other Lambs might be, my lord. Or the general area. We can signal them. But we need soldiers to get that far in. I’d say they might have other information, but I’m not sure. It would, at least…”
“I’ve been a member of the courts long enough to know when someone is trying to manipulate me.”
“My lord, It would mean that your noble sisters, miladies, would not have to share.”
“Let’s pretend you’re not spinning a web of deceit in front of me. What do you want for this? Again, little Lamb, I stress that we’re pretending you’re not being canny.”
He was speaking through grit teeth, not because of any emotion, but more as if he was holding himself back. I could imagine him plunging that sword into my back, just for the satisfaction of the act.
And all of the stitched soldiers in the area would watch it happen with dead eyes, and the soldiers would look away and tell themselves that I’d done something to deserve it, because that made life easier to live.
The Crown and the Academy made monsters like this, and it made rules and hid things that kept these monsters from seeing true justice.
“Mercy, my lord. Less, in any event, if you would be so kind. I lost my best friend a year ago, and I just lost my eye. I’m not a fighter, I’m a manipulator who seems to be surrounded more and more by people he can’t manipulate, and I manage, I do good work when I’m able, but the drugs I take, I pay for them in agony. I’m so tired of hurting, my lord, please.”
He didn’t answer.
“Brother,” the Twins spoke in unison.
“I know what you’re going to say. He’s play-acting, at least in part. I hope you realize that, you two.”
“I realize,” one of the twins said. The other added, “But he’s clever enough to make a good offer all the same.”
Something in the distance screeched.
“I think attempting to manipulate a noble warrants the worst sort of punishment,” the Baron said. “The Duke of Francis thinks this child’s manipulative play is entertaining, and it reminds him of home… but when I’m reminded of home I want to spit.”
“Do you know what else warrants punishment, dear brother?” one twin asked.
“Underestimating a noble. If he thinks he can try something against us, exhausted, soaked through, bleeding and missing an eye, then why don’t we oblige him? If he’s asking, he doesn’t even know what the two of us are.”
That last sentence sounded so amused that it alarmed me. Despite myself, I looked up, shooting a look at the twins.
It was, perhaps, that glance that won the Baron over. He smiled.
“You two, a regiment of soldiers, and the boy in cuffs. If you two die despite that, I get your estates and holdings,” he said.
“They were yours to begin with, brother.”
He made a sound, dismissive. “I’ll keep this one. You take that one, let him try what he will, then round up the other Lambs if you can.”
The twins smiled.
“I can’t find the place on my own, my lord,” I said. I looked at Jamie. “I need him.”
The group turned their eyes to Jamie.
“You’re the one with memory,” the Baron said.
“Yes, my lord. I know the area and the layout. I remember where we last saw them and know the locations they might be in.”
“Then he stays, and you go,” the Baron said.
That caught me off guard. With the pain and distraction, I wasn’t thinking straight, and I’d let myself fall into an obvious trap. Baron Richmond wasn’t a great contender in the political arena, but he didn’t miss anything.
I didn’t have a ready answer, and I couldn’t have voiced it anyway, without it being more manipulation and weaker footing for me and for us.
I looked at Jamie. Hesitating too long could-
“When he said we know where they are, my lord, he was telling the truth,” Jamie said. “I know the landscape, but he knows the other Lambs better than I do. He knows where they’ll be, inside that area, how they’ll hide, how to signal them.”
It was a perfect answer, better than any that came readily to my mind, prompt and undeniable.
The Baron smiled. “As you wish. Both of you in shackles, then. You’ll accompany my sisters. If something happens to them, then I’ll consider it your responsibility. If one falls to a bullet, then every single orphan in that orphanage you call home, what is it called?”
“Lambsbridge, my lord,” Jamie said, without inflection.
The Baron dropped to a crouch, still looming over me.
He put out a hand, and the hand covered one side of my face. The thumb settled in the ruin of my eyeball.
“I’ll feed those orphans bullets. Try poison, I’ll answer with poison, violence with violence, a scratch with a slit throat. If you give me cause to worry for my sister’s well being, then the sweet little doctor-in-training who you want to rescue will have to sit in a chair and watch her parents die, understand? This game you’re playing with me? It’s a high stakes one. Everything and everyone you care about is now on the table.”
“Yes, my lord,” I said. How had he known about Lillian?
A lot of little things didn’t add up in what he knew. Select details, he seemed to have picked up on, like Jamie’s memory, and that we had a young lady doctor here, yet he had passed up chances to lord his knowledge of details about me or Jamie.
Because we were his eyes into seeing the group.
The letter we’d written to Mary. Jamie had asked for my input, what to say, he had done the writing…
Everything took on a different tone, in light of that.
We were doomed in an entirely different way, if he had that one damning source of information. I’d said so little and yet he had to know we knew about the situation with Mauer. I’d let myself be caught in a lie from the start.
“I think you do understand,” he said, taking my sudden understanding of the current situation to be a very different sort of enlightenment. “Give him the care he needs to keep from blacking out, but don’t give him new blood. If he’s lightheaded and stupid because of the blood he lost, it’s his own fault.”
His doctors descended on me.
Gauze, bandage, scalpel, all in the vicinity of my face. They didn’t even seem to care that I was alive, as they took turns taking away my eye, sealing it shut with something, and then putting bandage over top. A leather strap crossed my head at a diagonal, holding the pad of bandage in place.
It took perhaps two minutes. Then, in a moment, they were stepping away, picking up the bits, pieces, and tools, and retreating back into a position behind the Baron.
I picked myself up off the ground. I was lightheaded, but not so much so that I couldn’t function.
The twins had closed the distance, and stood a matter of feet away. One reached out to touch my face, around the bandage.
“Lead the way,” she said.
“Before I do, my lady,” I said, “My lord. You should know that the Reverend Mauer has four primordial beasts. He has more scattered around Lugh that are less viable. We disposed of two of the worst ones. The four-”
“I know how things stand,” the Baron interrupted me. “This is not news to us.”
I closed my mouth.
“All you’ve told me is that you failed to kill two out of three of the damn things. That kind of behavior makes it much harder to extend you any mercy or leniency at all.”
“Yes, my lord,” I said. Then, as gracefully as I could, to make it clear I wasn’t snubbing him, I bowed, segued to turn my attention to the Twins, and obeyed their instruction. Leading the way.
We were stopped at the perimeter, shackles affixed, my hands chained behind me with restraints that a Bruno couldn’t crack. A small squadron of soldiers, without any orders that I could hear, fell into step behind our group. The twins were on either side of Jamie and I.
Into the city, wading into war. The twins weren’t even dressed for a fight, and they didn’t seem worried in the slightest.
The one to my left caught me by surprise, approaching in the blind spot left by my eyepatch, reaching out, and touching my head. Her fingers seemed to find every point my scalp hurt most, where I’d been lifted by my hair.
Beside me, Jamie looked my way. The twin to his right was touching him in a similar manner. Very tactile creatures, they were. Ones I had absolutely no read on at all. All I knew about them was that they were low ranked nobles of the lowest caliber, known for their inclination for sadism, preying on the people in the fringe villages and towns where the Crown held less sway, giving the Crown control over those places using fear.
Swear yourselves to the Crown and offer yourself up to the Crown’s full control, and those nobles will never prey on you again, the unspoken promise seemed to be.
Bend the knee, stare at my boot with your one remaining eye, and perhaps we’ll leave you in one piece. Perhaps.
Jamie’s eyes flicked to one side. I followed his gaze, and looked behind him to his hand.
Calm, was the gesture. Also the gesture for tranquility, for tranquilizers, for enemies who were vulnerable because their focus was weak.
None of those last points applied to me. I was as focused as I’d ever been.
It was only in my attempt to calm myself down that I realized I was clenching my fists. Stupid, an obvious tell.
I didn’t calm down, even breathing deep and turning my thoughts to the task. The anger shifted to a cold anger instead of a hot rage.
I had no idea what my two enemies here were, exactly, but they’d alluded to being something I wouldn’t expect. All the same, I knew what I had to do.
I was going to go back to Radham with all of the Lambs I could salvage. That was priority number one. In Radham, I was going to get a new eye. That was the second priority. To make that happen, I would have to kill or destroy the Baron Richmond, the Twins, and any witnesses.