I looked over grown and not-yet grown men and women, my mind leaning into a perspective where I could focus more on details, the little clues.
The man who sat close to me had longer hair and a scruffy beard, hands bearing a mix of fresh blisters and new calluses, his nose red and running, his face padded at the edges and features creased like someone five years older than he was. A drunk. He likely worked whatever job he could find to earn money and then subsisted off of that money as he slumped off into long binges. The way he sat against the wall suggested he had no plans of standing up and rejoining the fight. Any light I saw in his eyes was because of the potential money. He would work only as hard as he had to in order to get that money. A surly and tractable character otherwise.
A young woman with decorative bony ridges at the cheekbones and the bridge of her nose was staring at me with yellow eyes. Her arms and legs had been both tattooed and modified to be a half-foot longer each. Lean with muscle, I could put her in the same mental box as the ‘Brunos’. Where they were loaded to bear with muscle and sheer mass, she was lean. I could imagine her crawling on the outside of a ship in construction or up the face of a building.
But as I searched her, I could see her expression shift a fraction. The bony ridges at her nose hid the wrinkling there, but her upper lip pulled up. A snarl, or an indication of disgust. The tension in her shoulders gave the rest away: she wouldn’t listen to me. I had no idea why she seemed to instinctively react that way to me, but I did know that I could pick her, get her a gun, and we would effectively be two Lambs and nine individuals, with her as a tenth individual doing her own thing.
I took a few seconds for everyone in the alleyway. Throughout, I was trying to look for the balance. She has kids. He’s a fighter with a mean streak. He’s unhinged. That one won’t stop shaking long enough to hold a gun without dropping it, let alone aim it.
If I picked the decent, cooperative, competent individuals, and I was potentially killing them. If I picked the dregs and the useless assholes, I would be going into the fight with only what Jamie and I brought to the table and ten liabilities with guns.
“I get to pick them, right?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Gene said. “Don’t take too long.”
Mauer’s timeline, I reminded myself. In a matter of minutes, the front line could give way. He had a strategy, and Jamie and I were now cogs in a machine comprised of people.
“Hands up again, let’s see everyone who’s interested,” I said. I had to raise my voice to be heard over the chaos in the street behind us. The fighting at the front line wasn’t all that far away.
In the space of the alleyway and the people in the street just behind Gene, Jamie and I, a good forty hands went up.
“If you could describe yourself as a bastard, keep your hand up!” I said, “Otherwise, put it down!”
I saw confusion. Only a very small few hands went down. Adam, the Bruno who had helped me out yesterday, wasn’t among them. Surprising.
Didn’t help to narrow down the numbers, not really.
I ran my hand under my hood and over the top of my head, damp hair running between the fingers. My scalp still hurt where the Baron had picked me up by my hair.
“If you’ve ever killed, stand up,” I said.
Four people stood. The drunk I’d observed earlier was among them, joined by a man with a broad belly and tattoos covering his exposed skin, a scrawny man who sported a tattoo at the neck that was obviously a gang identifier, likely from prison, and a surly looking bastard with an obvious untreated medical condition at the neck, akin to a goiter.
“You two sit down,” I said, pointing at the drunk and the scrawny gang member. I then indicated Tattoo Belly and Goiter, “You two, come stand behind me.”
Gang member has the same issue as the nose-ridge. He won’t cooperate, or he’ll cooperate in the wrong way. The drunk won’t give me anything.
“Making us stand up, sit down, who do you think you are?” the gang member asked.
There it is.
“The man who is in charge of this,” I said, extending a hand back behind me, indicating the crowd, “Put me in charge of this, right here. Think about why.”
I watched the assembled people as I said it, searching expressions, watching for eye contact. Adam, unfortunately, was among the people who met my eye, looking at me with more apparent respect than confusion or annoyance.
“You,” I pointed to a young woman with what I could only describe as a bat nose, turned up so the nostrils pointed out, the tip and edges separating and forking out like the petals of a flower. A scar ran up the bridge of her nose, between two very large, dark brown eyes, up to her hairline.
“You.” A Bruno who wasn’t Adam. Unlike most Brunos I’d seen, he had no tattoos. A brawler, going by the state of his knuckles, and a drinker, though not so much it would impair his faculties. It caught me off guard that he’d look at me like he was listening, and I took that to be a sign.
“You,” An older, forty-something man with weathered skin. His beard wasn’t long, but it was so wiry I suspected he could use it to dry-scrub rust from steel without any harm to his chin. The gun he held was his own.
“And you.” I indicated a woman. She wore glasses, didn’t look to be a laborer, didn’t sport any physical modifications more severe than multiple physical piercings in one ear, and at some point recently had pulled her hair back up into a ponytail and rolled up her sleeves. Ink smears at one side of her pinky suggested a job with a lot of writing.
“You going to give any rationale for your choices?” a boy asked, annoyed. Younger, a teenager, only a year older than me at most. The ends of his pant legs and his boots were crusted with salt from wading in the shallows of the harbor. He was wearing multiple layers, but one sleeve was partially rolled up, exposing a tattoo he was proud of.
“No,” I said. I watched for a second, attention on his expression, “But I’ll take you.”
He considered for a moment, then stood, moving to join the group that was gradually finding their way behind me. Gene said something and got a gun from someone at the periphery of the street, handing it to Glasses.
“If you can make something, hand up,” I said. “Not construction work. Tools, clothes, art…”
Some hands went up.
“You,” I said. The woman worked with glass, by my best guess. She still wore her leather apron, though she didn’t have any tools with her. Her face and clothes were darkened by the smoke of fire in a more enclosed space.
I didn’t like any of the other options.
A man was perched on a stack of crates, skinny, with a mean look in his eye and a knife at his hip, hidden by clothes. One lanky leg was up near his chest, his foot propped up on the crate he sat on, his lanky arms wrapped around the leg, hands dangling limp. He looked like the surly sort, more troublesome than nose-ridge or the gang member would be, but I really liked how he sat there. I liked where he’d chosen to sit, and knew it had to be deliberate. I could imagine Jamie or Helen picking the same spot as a vantage point.
Attitude problem, experience sitting watch. A gang’s lookout?
“You,” I told him, pointing.
“Didn’t put my hand up,” he said.
“You thought about it,” I told him. “Come on.”
A second passed as he considered. He hopped down from the crates.
My eye fell on Adam. I’d really hoped a better option would appear. “Adam. We’ve talked. I lied to you, and I’m sorry about that.”
“I figured that much out,” he said, voice deep.
“You don’t want to come with.”
“I want to protect my damn city,” he said. “Earn money if I can while doing it.”
I looked over the others, trying to see if anyone caught my eye, willing them to impress me, to show me some clue or some hint that there was more to them than the flaws I could so readily see.
“I’d feel better taking him along,” Jamie said.
Adam had his flaws. I had little doubt. He’d even called himself a bastard. But he’d been kind, pointed us in the right direction, even offered proper help if we found ourselves in a bad spot. A person like him in Radham would’ve earned the respect and loyalty of the mice. An etching in the wood near where he could most frequently be found.
It didn’t feel right to lead him to his death.
I held up a hand, communicating that last part to Jamie. He. Death.
“Maybe,” Jamie said, using speech instead of signs. “But you can say that about anyone.”
“You sound just like him, now. Who’s getting to who, now?” I asked.
“I think I’m free of influence,” Jamie said.
“Come on, then, Adam,” I told the Bruno.
The look he gave me was a peculiar one, but he stood, and made his way over to us. He had to turn sideways to fit through a gap between Bat and Tattoo Belly.
I glanced back past the crowd of people, looking at Gene.
“Everyone has a gun?” Gene asked.
The glassblower raised a hand. Gene turned, claimed a rifle from a bystander, and threw it with both hands, so it flew over heads, mine included. The glassblower caught the weapon.
Jamie and I raised our hands as well. He handed me a rifle, first. I looked at what he’d given me and wondered if he’d deliberately chosen the shittiest looking piece of work he could.
“Ammunition?” Scrub-brush asked. His voice sounded like he looked, like it had been through a sandstorm and only the hard parts hadn’t been scraped away.
It took only a moment – Mauer’s lieutenant had ammunition on him. Boxes flew through the air and were caught. Three boxes for ten people.
“If you need more than that and what you already have, you’ve done something wrong,” he said, there was a sneer in his tone, though I might have been imagining the weight of that sneer.
I didn’t like him. Stanley gave off the vibe of someone who did good work and focused on the job. Gene, by contrast, gave me the impression of someone with a mean streak.
“I’ll let Mauer know you’re on your way,” he said.
Meaning I should go. No time to waste.
I raised a hand, gesturing. Jamie followed, and the rest had the sense to take his cue.
We’d been at the periphery of Mauer’s lines, and I’d expected to travel a block and be out of earshot of the crowd, but as we progressed further, I could see how his front line was widening, people moving out to the side.
My eye traveled over the surroundings, searching for any sign of the Twins. They would choose a location where they could be near their soldiers, but one where they had a view, and where the wind would carry scents. It wasn’t a sense I had a lot of awareness of, but I kept it in mind as I looked for them.
After we’d disappeared into Mauer’s camp, they would have decided to hang back for a while, watching, finding victims, perhaps looking for a way in.
Knowing that they were possessed of a particular kind of bloodlust, I didn’t think they would see us disappear into Mauer’s camp, turn around, and simply go back to the Baron, a few kills under their belt.
No. They had something to prove, just as much as the Baron wanted to make a point to the Duke.
“Jamie,” I said.
“Do me a favor? Keep an eye out? I need to turn around.”
“Got it,” he said.
I turned to face the assembled group.
I could see doubt on their faces. No words had been spoken, but they shared a sentiment – none of them really understood or agreed with being led by a child.
“I’m Sylvester. That’s Jamie. As far as you’re concerned, we’re mercenaries who were working for the Crown and are now working for Mauer.”
“You’re teenage boys,” Bat said, “If you’re even teenagers.”
“We’re experiments that look like young teenagers,” I said. “Problem solvers. Sometimes we’re assassins. Sometimes we’re thieves. Tonight, we’re hunting monsters.”
Their guns weren’t very good. I could see splintered wood on the side of one, where it had been left exposed to weather. Others were the lowest quality gun that could shoot – if only sometimes.
I could have pressed for better, but I wasn’t sure guns were the way to go, here.
“There are rules to this hunt,” I said. “What Jamie over there says is true. Always. What I say is important.”
I had their attention. I had questions about their loyalty. I’d need to establish that at some point.
“Mauer gave us less resources and less men because he doesn’t think the nobles are still here,” I lied. I had to justify the low count of ammo and Gene’s attitude, without hurting morale. “I believe they are here. Two women, taller than you’d think, wearing robes with white fur. They stand out. They have two pets, which they keep attached to them half the time. The pets are black, hard to see, and very fast.”
I watched the group, searching their expressions.
Adam was going to be a problem. So was Lookout. I could see the unspoken questions on the former’s face, and the dismissive attitude in the latter’s body language. Neither were listening as much as they needed to.
“If they attack and you run, you will get maimed, maybe killed. It’s what they specialize in,” I said. Again, a lie, but I needed to shape the group’s behavior. Start with the key thing. Technically, if any of them ran, we could die. “If you’re supposed to be watching a flank or stand guard, or if you’re given any task where I’m asking you to watch or listen, there’s a reason for it. If you have to look away, tie your shoe, piss, or anything else, you do what I just did with Jamie. Let someone know, let them take over.”
I was approaching this in terms of couldn’ts. If we broke ranks, we died. If someone wasn’t thinking and looked the wrong way for long enough, we died.
I needed coulds.
“We can make a lot of money if all of you follow my instructions for the next thirty minutes. If nothing happens, we go home empty handed, with each of you getting a little money for your trouble. But if you see them, signal us. Raise your hand, fist clenched, tap a shoulder if you need to, spread the message. We all benefit. We all get money. No competition, you don’t get more money if you screw over the person standing next to you.”
Jamie raised a hand. I turned, rifle at the ready, but by the time I finished turning around, he was lowering his hand.
“Cat?” I asked.
“Warbeast. Mauer’s, not the Crown’s.”
“Why us?” Adam asked. “You picked carefully.”
And here were the questions.
“It’s what I do,” I said, facing him, meeting his eyes. “I figure people out.”
“Is that what you were doing when you came by the yard and told me a story about your friend, and how you needed to meet the right people to get started out in this city?”
“No,” I said. “That was one step among many. We were trying to find someone that was in trouble. We found her, but not fast enough to get her out of here before this happened.”
“You knew the army was coming to attack this city?” the glassblower asked me.
“I expected a different disaster,” I told her. “Still do. But that’s for later. For now, let’s focus on the task at hand.”
“Why us?” Adam asked, again.
I ran my fingers through my hair again.
“Bat-nose there is an artist. Not a great artist, though. She gets by in a trade and a medium that isn’t what she wants to do. I’d guess she likes putting images down on paper, and she’s stuck working in textiles, probably putting rugs or something together.”
All eyes were on Bat. I was mixing cold reads with observed details. She had a flair to the way she presented herself and dressed that suggested she had a very individual style and creative edge. The nose was part of that, as was the black clothing and the shawl and the scarf she wore over her shoulders and around her neck. Her hands and sleeves were stained with dyes, the skin at the knuckles and pads of the hands broken. The textile-making, with too much work going into that to be a hobby or interest. It would have to be an obsession, and nobody was that obsessed with rug-making. Not in a city like this.
I pretended to guess at things I knew with near-certainty, and I made specific statements about vague things that people could fill in their own details with, or that were true for virtually anyone.
“She’s good with her hands. I’m thinking we might need a net or something, and having her could be very useful. Someone hurt her, before. She got away, which makes her a survivor. Best of all, I think she respects individuals. She’ll listen to me so long as I don’t give her reason not to. I think she’s the type to absolutely despise people who don’t show her the respect she’s due. I’m not going to make that mistake.”
Just about everyone had been hurt by someone in their past. The ‘survivor’ bit was the weakest argument, so I put it toward the middle, and I doubted anyone would speak up and declare themselves anything but. The rest, well, she had enough substance to her to be willing to fight, she’d been alone, sitting in that alley, and she was between seventeen and twenty-three years old, at a glance. Saying someone her age despised being disrespected was like saying rain was wet. True of everyone, yes, but especially true of an independent individual her age. The memory of what it was to be a child and be condescended to was fresh on her mind.
Saying she would listen to me as long as I didn’t fuck up, conversely, was a self-fulfilling prophecy. It was much more likely to be the case now that I’d said it, because she wanted to prove all of the good things I said were true, and that loyalty to people worth being loyal to was the only one she could, right now.
Those large eyes of hers stared me down, a little wider than they had been.
“How wrong am I?” I challenged her. I already knew the answer.
“That’s a little scary,” she told me.
“I know each of you,” I lied. “I know our enemy. I know that we, with a little luck, can kill two damn nobles and their pets. Allow me to do this. Allow me to make you this money.”
Lookout didn’t seem as dismissive as he had a minute ago. In fact, he was paying more attention to Bat, now.
“So long as you don’t shit yourself and run, or do something stupid like let your guard down, we can do this,” I lied. “Twenty or thirty minutes of absolute focus, like your life depends on it.”
I saw some nods.
“Keep an eye out for any cloth, rope, or light chain. Anything that could serve as a cord or be turned into one. If we happen by on any fishing net, this far from the harbor, let me know. Like I said, our enemy is fast. A fishing net will slow them down. With luck, so can the cord.”
I turned, looking over the surroundings. Jamie’s eyes were good, but that was a side effect of his memory. He was good at taking in details and processing them. I could steer my brain in a direction that let me see past spots in my vision and the shifting nature of the darkness. Jamie took all of it in and processed it for what it was.
Every rooftop I looked at, I could envision the twins just on the other side, out of sight. Every chimney was cover. Every window was a place they could leap from. I saw a light briefly flare in the distance, an explosion so distant the sound didn’t quite reach us, and imagined the Twins using that momentary distraction as an excuse to lunge at us.
A master chess player thought a hundred moves in advance.
I was thinking about ten thousand different opening moves.
“You can hear me, can’t you?” I asked, not going to any effort to raise my voice. “The two of you are there.”
I heard uncomfortable shuffling from behind me.
“Every single one of these people standing behind me are going to live,” I said.
Another blatant lie.
I gestured. Jamie moved to follow, the rest followed suit.
“They can really hear you?” a man asked. It might have been the Brawler.
“Keen hearing. The best the Academy can provide,” I said. “They probably heard everything I said. Which reminds me, Bat-nose-”
“I have a name, you know.”
“Does that nose of yours do anything special?”
“No. It’s decorative, not functional.”
Jamie and I led the group. The group of ten moved behind us.
My pledge to keep people alive had been a ploy. I had a sense of who the Twins were, and I doubted they would turn down the challenge. No, they would seek to prove me wrong to an extraordinary degree.
If they got that far we would be done for, and the broken promise wouldn’t do anything.
By making the oath to save the ten and putting the pair in the position where they sought to make me break it, I curtailed the Twins’ options. They had to show me, really. That meant they couldn’t lead off by taking me out. It reduced the chances they would take out Jamie.
“Watch from every direction,” I said, my voice low. “They move fast, they’re hard to see, and they’ll deliberately attack from a direction we’re not looking.”
“You survived, didn’t you?” Lookout asked.
Shit. I’d hoped the doe eyes he’d been making toward Bat meant he was distracted. Just the opposite. He wanted to prove something.
“One of my teammates didn’t,” I said. “Another is still getting patched up-”
I tried to figure out a good angle to drive the point home. One that didn’t make him look so bad he would resent me, but curtailed further challenges.
“-You have talents, I picked you for your ability to watch our backs. Pay less attention to me, and more attention to spotting them.”
I wasn’t sure his eyes were even good. But he’d had a good lookout spot, and if we had to stop for any reason, I would trust him watching for trouble before I trusted the drunk, the drug-addled merchant or the sunburned idiot.
I paused, gestured to Jamie to look out, and then turned.
“Clothesline,” she said. “You wanted cord?
At the porch at the back of one house, a clothesline was strung up over the porch railing. Accessing it would mean climbing the fence to get into the backyard, crossing the yard, climbing the short three stairs up to the porch, and then taking it down.
I had a pit in my stomach.
“Is that not what you wanted?” she asked. I’d paused too long, taking the situation in.
“It’s a thing of beauty,” I told her. “Good eye.”
“You’re hesitating,” Jamie said. “You think the twins are here?”
There were so many angles they could attack from.
“They’re here,” I said. Prey instinct.
I touched the fence that bounded the yard. They would attack. It was an opening, too blatant a weakness. If they’d heard everything I said, they knew I wanted cord and they didn’t wholly know why, and that would be reason enough to get in the way of this simple act of crossing the fifteen foot distance and then returning.
I climbed up the fence, propping a foot on the top, the other hanging off the back of the fence, ready to touch ground if I needed to retreat backward.
If I outlined the strategy aloud, they would counter.
Instead, I raised a hand, gesturing.
Me. Small protect. Group. Radiance- all directions. Protect. Group.
I lacked full peripheral vision. I had to turn my head to see Jamie at work, touching people, getting them to raise their guns, pointing them in various directions.
“I don’t understand,” Lookout said.
“Keep an eye out,” I said. I was tense, and it carried over to my voice.
Hand up, I gestured. Purple, blue, green, yellow, orange, red.
Red was aggression. Movement, the forward assault.
I kicked myself forward over the fence. A short four-foot drop, and I was stepping foot on wet, frozen lawn, the ground simultaneously harder than it should be for soil, but giving under my weight, as the sodden ground beneath the frozen layer caved in. I gripped my rifle, holding it in both hands, ready.
One running step. Two.
Like a stone three times her weight, and with just as much impact, the Twin dropped onto the porch stairs in front of me, all four limbs meeting the frozen slats and boards.
Placing herself so that my body was between her and the group of ten. Not enough that I was guaranteed to block the shot, but enough to raise the question.
Someone shot anyway. It missed.
“Eyes forward!” Jamie shouted, voice high with alarm. “Look in the direction I-”
More gunshots, not aimed at me.
I threw myself to the right. She threw herself to her left, almost faster than I did, matching me and keeping me positioned between her and the group. She had to extend a spike out to slam it into the wall of the house and arrest her sideways movement.
Right. She wouldn’t kill me, but she could maim me and then leave me to watch her decimate the group.
I raised my rifle, aiming. In much the way Jamie had dealt with, she hurled herself away, leg strength allowing her to dive to one side, her profile narrow, spikes extended out in front of her, so she could slip through the gap between the railing and the short set of stairs at the base of the porch.
Spikes caught the ground, and I could see as they punched through the harder, colder layer and sank into the yet-unfrozen mush beneath. I could hear it.
A part of me expected the other Lambs to be there, to capitalize on it.
But the group of Lambs had dwindled. There was no Gordon, no Mary, no Helen to capitalize on that moment of weakness. There was only me.
Mary was at my shoulder and Gordon stood in front of me, pushing the barrel of my rifle, as I swiveled to point it at the Twin, already squeezing the trigger a moment before I had her in my sights.
Forelimbs caught in the ground, she used her forward momentum to bring her legs over, forward, setting them on the ground, and hauling her spikes up and out. It took a moment for her to reassert her balance, to bend her legs in preparation for another bounding leap, directly at the group.
The rifle fired, violent, bucking in my hands and kicking back against my shoulder where I hadn’t positioned it perfectly.
I caught her, right across the back. A dark fleck of something flew off. I didn’t see what, and I didn’t see the full extent of the damage as she spun in a half circle, caught her balance, and hopped over the fence.
Then she and the other twin were gone.
I could hear the gasps and the shouts of the ten. The disbelief.
I didn’t turn to face them, and I didn’t speak, instead focusing on ignoring the pain in my shoulder and the ringing in my ears as I brought the rifle up, using the battered bayonet blade to slice at the clothesline. I grabbed it with a numb hand and hauled it down.
“I hit one,” I said, as I hopped over the fence, rifle in one hand, cord in the other. “I’m pretty sure that gets me a reward.”
They looked at me like I was crazy. But that wasn’t exactly right. I was sane, and I’d been talking crazy, up until this point.
This was real for them, now.
I handed the cord to the glassblower. “Cut it into lengths. Do you know what a bola is?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Make bolas. Improvised ones. Anything we can do to limit their movement.”
I saw her glance back in the direction of Mauer’s camp.
Having second thoughts about all of this?
“They’ll attack again before we get back to the main force,” I said. “Not making the bolas isn’t going to make that next fight any easier.”
I met Jamie’s eyes, and I gave him a nod.
This was suddenly very real for our recruited group, yes, but I’d just made one of the Twins bleed.
Up until now, they had been playing with us, in a sense. Now they were going to take this seriously.