“I like when you hold me,” Lillian said. “And when you pull my hair, and pinch me.”
“I’m not sure this is the time or place for that, Lil,” I said.
“I know you overthink sometimes, and I worry that you’ll stay up nights thinking, and you’ll second-guess yourself, and I really don’t want you to second guess yourself when it comes to me, okay?”
“I don’t and I won’t,” I said. “Because you’ll communicate the good and bad to me, and you’ll keep me pointed in the right direction.”
“That’s not what I mean,” she said.
“I know what you mean,” I said. “I’m deftly avoiding that particular subject and denying the possibility.”
On the other side of Lillian, Jamie shot me a look.
“I might die, Sy,” Lillian said. “And it really scares me that I might fade away when I’m not in my right mind. And it scares me more that you might be upset and get everything twisted around in that head of yours, and it scares me most of all that you might not even care at all.”
“I’d care, and you’re not going to die,” I told her.
“You’re so lovely when you’re being lovely,” she said, “And when you’re being mean that’s still lovely in its little way, but I think that’s because I’m twisted, myself. When you’re pinching and poking fun at me the bad isn’t as bad as the attention is nice. I get all mixed up in you like that, don’t you understand?”
“I understand,” I said, “I understood it well before you admitted it to yourself.”
She lowered her voice, like she was saying something confidential, “The only reason I’m not screaming and wailing about Gordon and- and about Hubris, and about this hole in my middle and about dying, I’m playing tricks with myself. I’m reminding myself of the bittersweet moments you’re so good at, putting myself in that frame of mind.”
“That makes sense,” I said, very gently.
“But- but if I start to go, shake me out of it? Please? I don’t want to-” she said, stopping.
“You don’t even need to ask, Lil, okay?” I said. “I’ve looked Death in the eye and I politely asked people who were going to kill me for the exact same thing, okay? Not to let the poison be what takes me down into oblivion. Not letting it be my passenger, or the horse I ride on.”
She reached up to touch my cheek.
“Mary told me. At a sleepover, sharing a pillow, foreheads touching, whispering about things only best friends can talk about. She said she pointed a gun at your head, and you asked her. That was the moment she saw you as something more complicated than an enemy.”
“If and when the time comes, and it’s not coming today, I’ll make sure that you don’t even have to worry, okay? I’d be there for you.”
I wasn’t sure if it was the blood loss or the fact that she was deliberately disconnecting herself, but she had a sleepy look on her face and the movements of her head. Her eyes retained the intensity from before, but it was turned inward.
“It’s not even a concern today, because you’re going to be fine, got it?”
“Mm,” she said. “Keep lying to me, Sy. I have Jamie over here to tell me straight, when I need the blunt truth.”
I looked Jamie in the eye.
“You’re going to live, Lillian,” Jamie said.
She looked surprised at that. The surprise gave way to a sudden, sharp change in emotion, her face twisting up, before she pulled herself together.
“Now I don’t know what to think,” she whispered.
Jamie indicated a turn. I shook my head. It would put us too close to the fighting.
“I’m so sorry,” Lillian said, still whispering.
“You’ve nothing to be sorry about,” I said.
“I asked for this job, I talked to Hayle, I asked to come here, I thought it would be such a good thing, and then it wasn’t, and then it really wasn’t.”
“None of that is your fault.”
Again, that flicker of emotion, pushed away.
“Your mom?” I asked, gently.
“She was saying, I didn’t need to hurry. I didn’t have to work so hard. I’m too young to be so focused on my career, she said. I should live a little, stop and smell the roses. I told her that I hadn’t ever seen a proper, real, grown-in-a-garden rose since I came to Radham. The ones you do see are altered, or they’re weaponized, or everything looks normal, but the origins aren’t. Everything’s moving and everything’s turned on its head, and if you stop to smell the roses in a place like Radham, then you’ll only make yourself look like a fool. The look on her face… I think she thought I was calling her a fool. I didn’t mean to.”
“There are real roses in Radham,” Jamie said.
“Are there?” Lillian said.
“I’ll show you sometime,” Jamie said. “After we get through this.”
I felt an immense gratitude toward him, not for the first time in these couple of days, that he was so willing to play along.
“I just-” Lillian said, halting. “Before we left, before I even went to talk to Professor Hayle about doing this and bringing the Lambs, I thought, this is my chance. Just stop. Things have been so hard, the other Lambs are gone, I miss Mary, and it would be nice to spend time with Sylvester. Wouldn’t it be nice to get milkshakes and do something together, and be at Radham when the other Lambs finished and got back? Talk to Mary about everything stupid and minor and lovely that happened? But I made the choice, for my career. Now Gordon is dead and Hubris is dead, and I might die.”
“You took too much wyvern, you crybaby. You definitely got the pathological lying thing down,” I said. “It’s not your fault, and you’re not going to die today.”
She offered a halfhearted, one-note laugh.
“If I die-”
“You’re not going to die, you dunce.”
“-then pay a visit to my mom and dad? You’d have to do it, Sy. Lie to her face, about how things went.”
“If I say yes, will you shut up about dying and focus on the living part?”
“Then sure. I promise. Jamie will hold me to it.”
Lillian nodded slowly, her eyes drifting shut.
I jostled her. Her eyes popped open.
“I wasn’t-” she said. “It wasn’t that. I just felt very peaceful and at ease. I like being able to put all of my trust into your hands, Sy.”
Her head was hanging. Above and over her field of view, Jamie raised a hand, gesturing.
It was true, now that I paid attention. Lillian had one arm over my shoulder, one over Jamie’s. I had one arm around her back, a hand on her chest, so I could maybe stop her from falling forward if she stumbled. She was leaning on us more, her feet were dragging and scuffing the ground, and we were moving slower than we had been a matter of minutes ago.
Could we muscle our way to victory? Were there any hostages we could take that would matter, enabling us to turn Mauer to our ends, or at least getting him to the point where he might listen to us for long enough for me to say what mattered?
Evasion. Could we make our way through and to the other end of his camp and somehow trip up the Twins, ensuring they tangled?
Deception, misleading? Instead of moving ourselves in a better way, could we lead the Twins in the wrong direction?
Draw on any of our individual talents? We had Jamie’s memory, but I wasn’t sure how we could use that. Gordon was dead, or we might have been able to use his sense of tactics. Not necessarily to put together a plan, but to at least feel better about whatever plan he chose. Hubris was a defensive tool, able to let us know when the Twins were coming, and we didn’t have him either.
I could hear the noise of the crowd, mingled with gunfire and noise. The crowd had a light, too, and further down the street, two hundred and fifty metres down, past two intersections, that glow was bleeding out into the road ahead of us.
We were close to Mauer’s camp.
If we found a way past the perimeter and mingled with the people in the crowd…
No. Every idea I came up with met with a firm ‘no’. I was sharper on Wyvern, but I couldn’t see a solution.
I had emulated Jamie in the past, and I’d done a shitty job. Could I be a Mary, and rig an ambush that would buy Lillian time to perform surgery on herself? I would have to emphasize the ambush over the actual fighting to accomplish anything, because I couldn’t fight.
Could I play Helen, and act? Or be the Helen behind the mask, the monster, and catch my enemy in a position where they couldn’t fight back?
My mind was pulling the characters into existence, so real in my mind’s eye I could almost see them. Gordon, standing in my peripheral vision, the light from a side street catching the moisture in the corner of one eye. The movement of Lillian’s dress was Hubris, at our feet. A shadow atop the fence was Helen, the blade of the bayonet Jamie had across his back was Mary’s, as she walked beside us, on the far side of Jamie, stretching her arms over her head.
It would be so easy to lose my mind. To give the images a power they don’t yet have.
I stared into the light, further down the street. I imagined a copper-haired Mauer, staring me down. Staring us down. Just Mauer, as an abstract picture, without particular weapons or clothing, just the intense eyes, the sharp nose, the hair, the fire and light and noises of the crowd around him. A lopsided silhouette.
No actual crowd, however. The mental image stood alone.
“Jamie,” I said.
“What is it?”
“If the Twins have any sense of smell, they’ll go for the most obvious scent. Blood. Lillian’s. You back off, stay on the periphery. If there’s a way to do this, maybe we can disappear into the crowd. In the chaos of Mauer’s camp, two kids, maybe she and I can find a way to get her medical attention. Get to a place where we’re safe enough to get her surgery. An added body is a chance we get noticed. If we fail, it’s another dead Lamb. You, at least, you could live through this, let the others know how it happened.”
“Vital organs,” Lillian said, voice soft. “Need a transplant. Nobody in that camp is going to be good enough to do it. This isn’t going to work.”
Frustration welled, with that same wild wanting-to-hit-something rage. I swallowed it and buried it.
“We’ll figure it out,” I said.
“I’ll come,” Jamie said. “Even if it means a higher chance we get spotted, I think I have to come.”
“No,” I said.
“Yes,” Lillian said. “If I pass out, maybe he can finish. But I’ve got to do the surgery myself. At least at the start.”
That doesn’t work at all!
Jamie added his argument to hers, “And if I leave you, then I feel like either I won’t make it, or you two won’t.”
I shook my head.
He wasn’t wrong, but he was one hundred percent wrong. I knew I was contradicting myself, and I knew the contradiction was because a small, dark corner of my mind had turned itself to the task of cutting losses.
“Okay,” I finally said.
“Not okay,” Lillian said. She was slurring her words a little. I didn’t need gestures from Jamie to notice that. “Remember the rule? Can’t sacrifice one Lamb for one. Have to save two. Definitely most definitely can’t sacrifice three for a chance of saving one of the three. Dumb.”
I didn’t answer her, and she didn’t resist. As we drew closer, she didn’t even add more words of protest.
The lights of the fires were bright. Torches, lanterns, stacks of crates and pallets that had been set off to the sides and set on fire, to better shed light on the surroundings.
The people milled this way and that. In Mauer’s orbit, they were focused, moving with purpose, gathering together in groups. Mauer’s lieutenants were organizing them, giving direction where there wasn’t any.
Now that we were here, I was feeling how slow Lillian was moving.
For every minute we spend moving, she loses three.
We weren’t going to be able to make it through the entire camp. We weren’t going to make it, waiting at the periphery until the Twins came for us.
Maybe this is better.
I gestured, then led Lillian over to the corner of one building, near a fire. The three of us leaned against a wall, my shoulders tense and knotted with the work of bearing a share of her weight.
A burly man with a gun and arms black from fingertip to elbow looked our way, concern etched on his face.
I extended an arm, hand pointed at him, then, using my whole arm, gestured. I closed my eye, willing him to listen, willing this to work, to all come together. The wrong person at the wrong time, the attention of bystanders moving faster than this man and words could, it could end us.
But the alternative was seeing another Lamb die, and very possibly dying myself.
He approached, wary, slow. I opened my eye, watched as his eyes moved. He saw the blood on Lillian’s shirtfront, dripping down her dress and stockings, and picked up the pace.
His voice was inaudible in the commotion that was Mauer’s army.
I had to raise my own voice. “The nobles are here! Spread the word!”
Confusion crossed his features. He indicated Lillian.
I thought the words he uttered were something like, “What about her?” but I couldn’t be sure.
“Spread the word!” I repeated, clenching my fist. My other fist held Lillian’s hand. “Nobles!”
Jamie was looking at me like I was crazy.
When I’d imagined Mauer, I’d imagined him standing alone. That was the trick. To frame things in such a way that I was confronting him, not his army. There were other hurdles to cross, to actually attempt to communicate with a man who we had attempted to burn alive just hours ago, before he communicated with us by way of gun and bullet.
We’d sicced the Brechwell Beast on him too. I wasn’t sure if he knew enough to blame us for that.
We’d killed his buddy and ally Percy. We’d dismantled his plans in Radham.
He was a good orator, but a gun was louder and better at getting the last word in.
In this, I was using his army to reach out to him, to communicate the message I so dearly wanted him to recognize before he could pull that trigger.
I clenched Lillian’s hand harder. I was aware of the attention we were getting.
Putting a hand out, I gestured. Eyes. Dark.
Close your eyes.
I closed my eye and bowed my head.
Lillian had talked about this. About liking it. Surrender.
I detested it.
My eye closed, my other eye blinded, I relied on my hearing, listening to what Mauer must hear so often. The ebb and flow, the nuance, the sentiments, the directions that people were moving, even when they stood still.
I could hear the quiet as if it were a physical thing, as voices lowered, as attention shifted away from dialogues and to him, to Mauer, or to his lieutenants.
If he was placed differently, if the lieutenants were faster to arrive, they might well obey his orders and put bullets in us.
The lowered volume was more powerful in this climate than any roar of an explosion or dull crack of a rifle could be. I listened, my altered awareness moving to my senses, drawing a complete picture of the crowd. I could feel the chill as wet snowflakes settled on my forehead and nose.
He was standing in front of us, watching. The crowd watched both us and the man who led them.
“You tried to burn me alive,” he said, his voice carrying. “Good soldiers died in that fire. Good work was undone.”
I opened my eye. I met his gaze.
Every inch of me wanted to reply, to retort, to engage him in a duel of words.
Silence, though, had its own power.
“Every time I see you, people die, things fall to pieces, and the old order falls back into place,” he said.
Silence. I couldn’t reply now. If it came down to an exchange of words, I would lose. I knew that.
“The manipulative snake, the boy with the perfect memory, and the Academy’s pet who keeps the monsters alive. There are more, I know. Are they circling around, trying to free the primordial warbeasts?”
His voice had such power to it, it sounded like it belonged here, amid the noise of the crowd, the distant shouts, the crackle of fire, the gunshots.
“Dead,” I said. My voice had none of that power. “My friend and brother. The dog that worked with him. The others are in another city.”
He stared me down, trying to find the lie.
“The blond one,” he said.
I nodded once.
I couldn’t maintain the eye contact, hearing that word from his lips. I clenched one hand.
“The nobles, you said?”
“Yes,” I said.
“They’re out there. They’re probably even listening to this dialogue between us. They’re that close.”
“And you want to work with us to stop them? Shall I commit some of my best soldiers to hunting down this phantom enemy and expect them to return alive with the heads of the nobles? Or should I learn from past mistakes and assume this is a trap?”
There were so many loaded guns pointed in our direction, but they were Mauer’s men. The civilians were watching, taking it in. So many of them were altered. Framed by the fires, they looked like the legions of hell, in raincoats and the thick, coarse clothing of sailors and laborers.
I felt Lillian’s grip get weaker by the moment.
“I’m expecting that you’ll kill me. I’m hoping, I’m- I’m counting on the fact that you’ll spare her, spare Lillian because she’s human, because she has parents to go back to. Take her, keep her prisoner, but let her live.”
“And the other one?”
“The other one, Jamie, the Nobles let him live. They took my damn eye. They killed our dog. They left her dying and almost killed me, but they didn’t act against him. When he was going to come with us, they tried to keep him. You can probably keep him prisoner and barter him back to the Academy. Or use him against them. Me? I’m not that valuable.”
“And the blond one? You left that out.”
“The Academy killed him,” I said. “Not the nobles. In the midst of all of this, his heart gave out.”
There were distant shouts. Mauer turned to a lieutenant, giving a set of short orders that I couldn’t make out with the distance between us.
“You’re willing to die, but you want me to save those two,” he said, returning his focus to me.
Again, there was no answer as good as silence. Surrender.
“It doesn’t add up,” he said.
Still, silence. I couldn’t respond.
Mauer approached, gun in hand.
“Let’s hear from you, instead. The one with the glasses. You, be quiet.”
I shut my mouth.
“Yes, sir,” Jamie said. His voice sounded hollow.
“When I kill him, am I supposed to believe you’ll be okay with it?” Mauer’s words had such a ring of finality to them. That you’ll cooperate?”
“Okay? No, never. But that’s the deal we made. That we can only sacrifice ourselves if it saves two others. I know our history, Reverend. I won’t hold a grudge if you do it. It’ll hurt, I’ll remember it all perfectly, but I won’t hold a grudge.”
Mauer drew closer to me, pressing the gun to my chest.
The situation was so desperate that he could shoot all three of us, and the crowd would forgive it, because Mauer gave them a chance.
He was weighing the odds, trying to discern the ruse.
Yet I’d never been more honest.
“It doesn’t add up,” Mauer said, to me, not to the crowd. I wasn’t sure they could even hear.
“They took my eye, they killed our dog, they hurt her. I don’t have a way to save her. I don’t have a means of retaliating against them. Standing here with you and your army pointing guns at us gives us better odds than being out there, free, not a gun in sight, with them. Shoot me, seal our blood pact so you get your justice and I get to save those two, Jamie will tell you the particulars of the enemy you’re facing.”
“The twins,” Jamie said. “The Baron Richmond, too. The Duke is your enemy on this battlefield.”
“I knew that already,” Mauer said. His eyes were so dark, with the angle of his head keeping the light of the fires from reaching them.
My voice was keyed low, for Mauer to hear, not for the crowd. “Hurt them. Make it bad. Unleash the primordials if you have to, to make it as vicious and costly a fight as you can.”
“What changed?” Mauer asked.
“If I told you, it would sound manipulative,” I told him. “It would hurt my cause more than it helped. Please save her. We’re running out of time.”
“I know you’re running out of time,” Mauer said. “If she expires naturally, I don’t have to shoot her.”
A full-body chill took me.
He went on, voice a purr, “It makes the remainder palatable. Doesn’t this move the conversation along, add to the pressure? I want you to tell me the truth. Tell me why you’re really here.”
I couldn’t answer. If I told him, he would laugh in my face. Too transparent, too obvious a manipulation. Worse, it was honest, and honesty was the shovel I used to dig my own grave, every time.
I clenched my jaw and averted my eyes.
I’d made a bad gamble. This was it. Maybe the other Lambs would find out from rumor and hearsay, piece together our history.
“She’s dying,” he said.
My eye inadvertently went to Lillian. She was leaning against the wall, nodding off. She’d stopped talking some time ago. Only Jamie’s support kept her from collapsing altogether.
The barrel still pressed against my chest, over my heart.
Shoot me, I willed him. The crowd will see. Then, at least, there’s a chance you’ll spare the others. You have reasons to. The others have heard those reasons, and the danger they pose is so minor, the possible advantages to be gained too great.
Be a hero, save the dying girl. Use Jamie to get information on the enemy.
With that final thought, I reached for the gun he held to my heart, for the finger on the trigger.
He was faster than I was. The gun pulled away, then struck me in the eye socket that was still swollen from the loss of one eye.
I fell, my wits dashed, and he took advantage of me being stunned to reach down with his monstrous hand.
It was supposed to be useless, but I supposed he’d surrounded himself with doctors, giving him some limited mobility and strength.
He lifted me clear off the ground, my legs dangling. Like that, he held me so the bonfire was a matter of feet behind me.
“The truth,” he said.
“I can’t,” I managed, voice straining with the pressure on my throat.
“The truth,” he said again.
“Please. Save her. Spare him.”
“I can’t,” I said, again, working to get the words out. With the words, I felt all of the thoughts and emotions I’d been burying emerging, tumbling out, too real and too sharp. “Can’t watch another Lamb die.”
His grip shifted so I could breathe. His eyes stared through me, now reflecting the flames where they’d been so dark. The heat of the fire roasted my legs, made the cut in my calf prickle, my shoes too hot. Literally held over the fire.
I went on, “And I know it sounds manipulative, because I know you saw your comrades die and it’s why you fight now. I know it sounds bad, to say it’s about faith, that I believe in your humanity more than I believe in them, now, when you used to call yourself the Reverend.”
“Fray said you were almost ready to turn on the Academy that made you,” Mauer said. The people closest to us in the crowd could hear. “Are you?”
Say yes. One word.
I turned to silence instead.
He stared at me, uncomprehending.
“Why not?” he asked. “The leash has been loosened, the people at the top have betrayed you, taken your eye and your pet, wounded your teammate and are now actively after your life. The people who made you have thrown away your lives for the sake of advancement. They perverted you, made you something dark and twisted. Why wouldn’t you turn your back to them?”
The fire burned hotter beneath me.
“Take away what they gave me, what they made me into, every place I really know, the people I love and the people I hate, and I’m not sure what’s left,” I said.
He moved me to the side, and let go, dropping me to the ground by the bonfire.
He could have said so many things, explaining the decision, driving a poignant word home. He had the ability to control what he said and how he said in so many masterful ways.
He chose the damning silence instead.