Mauer ended up giving the order to retreat. Even from our vantage point, looking at things from the rear of the fight, I could see people at the very front line of the battle who weren’t able to disengage. The bravest and most aggressive would die.
I looked at Jamie, “Feel brave? We need to make a move.”
“I don’t-” Jamie paused to wince as an explosion struck Mauer’s retreating forces. “I don’t think we’re in fighting shape.”
“I’m not in fighting shape when I’m in perfect shape,” I said. “Don’t worry. The last thing I want to do is to pick a fight, here.”
Mauer’s fighting forces could likely be counted with four digits, very possibly a three digit number, down from tens of thousands to start. As the Crown had pushed the people of Lugh back, the fallen had been recovered. The rate of conversion wouldn’t be fast, but the first fallen on either side might be returning to the battlefield as stitched, sometime around now. They would be quick work, simple riggings, with clumsy movements, too much of their brains cut away, their heads barely put back together. Most would be too uncoordinated to reliably aim at people and then pull a trigger.
But more bodies were more bodies. The illusion was that the Crown’s forces didn’t seem to have dwindled. Mauer had had his opportunity to try and win this battle, and things had passed a point where I could see him winning a military victory.
I formed something of a huddle with the other Lambs. Lillian put one hand on me to steady herself.
Some of the handpicked group were standing near. Candy was tending to Adam.
“The Baron is a problem,” I said. “The Duke is the Duke, he understands the greater picture. The Crown craves control above all else, and he exemplifies that. Control, control, control. It can’t be said enough, when it comes to the nobles. It’s what he’s doing with the primordial, and it’s what he’s going to try to do with Mauer if he can. Exert pressure and make Mauer bend the knee and admit defeat. So long as he can control us and he can use us? I think he could see us actively murdering the Baron or the Twins and he wouldn’t kill us.”
“Not right away,” Jamie said. “Killing a noble? He wouldn’t forgive it in the long run. Rules have to be maintained, for one thing, and knowing we were capable of killing his kin would make him wonder if he could really control us.”
“Not right away,” I admitted.
“Okay. So you want to focus on the Baron. To take away control? To give it?”
“The Baron craves control, but he also craves power. He’s so far back in line for the Crown that he won’t ever have a chance to reach even the Duke’s tier of power. In that desperate, fucked up craving for power and control, he’s mingled the two and that’s manifested as… barbarism. Sadism. Inflicting pain. Having someone captured and making them bleed as you choose is control and power at the basest level, something even small animals understand. So I want you to tell me, the power he does have, what form does it take?”
“The twins,” Lillian said.
“Yes, the twins. At least two of the twins are dead. One more is injured and hurting. They’ve been declawed or outright killed. He’s going to be pissed, and he’ll retaliate. Whatever Mauer accomplishes, whatever we accomplish, however the rest of this battle goes, we don’t stand a chance unless we deal with that noble.”
“How?” Lillian asked.
“This ugly little rock of a city does its fair share of fishing. Seems appropriate that we bait him,” I said. “He craves power and control, and losing his sisters meant he loses both. We don’t have them with us, but if we paint the right sort of picture, I think we can lure him out.”
One of the soldiers who was stationed nearby spoke, “Mauer said to stay where he could find you.”
He wasn’t one of Mauer’s top men, and was doing his best to avoid getting swept up in the tide of retreating bodies, one of his eyes on the battle further ahead, but he meant business, and he conveyed it without a shred of doubt. Had Mauer’s charisma bled over to his men? The guy was young enough I could imagine he’d been a rookie working alongside or under Mauer at one point, and had been raised and cultivated as a soldier by years in Mauer’s company.
“We won’t have to go far. You can stay with us the whole time,” I said. “Mauer will absolutely approve of what I’m aiming to do here.”
The man frowned, looking at one of his colleagues. A silent exchange seemed to pass between them, or else they were staring each other down in an attempt on either’s part to get the other to agree or to tell me to fuck off, with all the consequences that went with a given decision.
“Picture?” Jamie asked, cutting into that silence, “How would we paint the right sort of picture?”
“We’re going to need a body, and I think there are enough around here. We’ll need a skull, one we can paint black or paint black enough, and we’ll need that…”
I pointed at the claw of the twin I’d salvaged.
“I can make something to paint bone with what I have in my bag,” Lillian said. “And I’ll need soot, but I think there’s enough soot around.”
“Good,” I said.
“Not good. He’s going to have a small army with him,” Jamie said. “You think, what, we get a body, as petite and thin as possible, we get a skull, we prop it up to look like it’s his sister, he’ll leave the army behind, waltz out of cover, in the direction of whatever hurt or killed that sister, and we close a trap around him?”
“Along those lines,” I said. “But I thought it through just a step further than that.”
“Do you remember when-” I started, then paused, thinking.
“No,” I said. “It was before the siege in Brechwell. You weren’t with us yet. Helen was talking to Petey. Explaining how the Ghosts talk.”
“Ghosts?” Adam asked. He was listening in.
“Doesn’t matter. Listen, the Twins did a lot of chattering. We heard other clues. The elder twins did that whistling thing.”
“I remember that,” Jamie said.
“Only about five people probably understood it on any level. The four Twins, and the Baron.”
“Probably,” Jamie said.
I reached into my pocket and retrieved the whistle. “If he hears that, even if he knows his sisters don’t whistle like that, what’s he going to think? Is he going to think an enemy somehow figured out their language, or is he going to think his sister somehow can’t communicate properly?”
“He might remember that our group has me in it,” Jamie said. “He seemed to know what I was capable of.”
I thought back to the conversation with the twin, around the time she had wrenched my arm out. She’d mentioned that she’d had orders not to touch Jamie. I could remember the Baron’s reluctance to send Jamie with our group. Not a strong reluctance.
My thought that they wanted to preserve Jamie seemed to have only been validated by recent events.
“If he remembers, that’s still something we can use,” I said. Except in this case, Jamie becomes the bait. “You might be what he comes for, instead of the twin, but I don’t think that’s the worst eventuality.”
“If you’re sure,” Jamie said.
Lillian was milling about. When she struggled to pick up her bag from the floor, stopping to hold her stomach, it was Lookout who bent down and collected the satchel and lifted it up to the counter where Lillian had been lying down as she’d been stitched together.
The stretchers were rapidly being vacated. People were leaving, and there were more soldiers making a fighting retreat in the midst of the hospital than there were patients or medics. A few stragglers had stayed behind with us. The faces I recognized were Lookout, Glasses, Adam, Emily, a patched-up Drake, and the asshole with the face-armor who had been leading their group, something starting with H. A scattered few soldiers had been left with us, to make sure we didn’t go rogue.
Glassblower was gone, as was Salt. Fled with the rest.
I turned toward one of the soldiers who was with us, “We need something to lay the trap with. Guns. Explosives.”
“You’re to stay put!” the younger of Mauer’s soldier said, raising his voice. To avoid letting the retreating group move between himself and us, he stepped closer to our group.
“I want to blow up a noble, and you’re saying no?”
“No, I’m saying Mauer has reasons for wanting you to stay put, and if he says-”
“Either we’re out of his hair, or we blow up a noble,” I said. “Why is this so hard a decision to make!?”
“He might not want you to-” the young soldier started.
But one of the other soldiers put a hand on his arm.
My heart pounded. I wanted to lash out, to get the last hit in while I still could. In an ideal world, I wanted to resolve the crisis that the Baron posed. Not for this battle – battlefields could be survived, and they rarely had neat resolutions. But if he lived, he was a mortal risk to Lillian’s family, to me, to the others. He would go berserk over his sisters’ deaths and he would lash out.
In terms of people who I did not want to see lashing out, the Baron was a scary sort. He specialized in hurting people in the worst ways. It was how he passed his afternoons, and the little territory he controlled was notorious for it.
I just had to keep that anger cold. Stay focused.
“You really think you can do this?” the man asked.
“I have no idea,” I said. “Worst case scenario, it’s a distraction.”
“Worst case scenario is that we die,” Lillian said, just behind me.
Probably not something she would normally have said. Still drunk, in a way. She might have fine-tuned her altered inhibitions, but there were side effects, or things that slipped the net. Fatalistic commentary included.
“Worst case scenario is that we die, right. More likely worst-case is we put the Baron off his game, buy Mauer some time for whatever it is he has planned. Best case scenario, a noble dies, and the attack on your rear ranks and your flank falters.”
“How much explosive?” the soldier asked me.
“Not a lot,” I said. “And we need a body, and a skull, with some soot and a minute’s time. Then we need to find the Baron Richmond’s general location.”
“Then go that way. Stop at the base of the tower with the lights. We’ll catch up,” the soldier said.
“You’re serious about this,” Adam said. “You got hurt, you threw yourself into that last fight, and it was bad-”
“About what I expected,” I said. “Sorry, it was less of a coordinated attack on our parts than I’d hoped. Mauer gave us so few of you guys and shitty weapons. It went bad, and then it went really bad.”
“That boy I talked to in the quarry, who so desperately wanted to help his friend, to find contacts and get her a job, not even a glimmer of that was true, was it?” Adam asked.
“It was absolutely true,” I told him, with conviction. I reached out to take Lillian’s hand, and she leaned heavy against my side. “Absolutely. It’s just the… particulars are a lot different than I led you to believe.”
“We should go,” Jamie murmured.
“Do you-” Adam started. He didn’t finish the sentence, cutting himself off. His eyes were so tired, dirt smeared on black skin. I saw fear in his eyes, more raw than any fear I’d felt since my first days as a Lamb.
“No,” I said. “No, don’t help. Go, look after these two.” Look after Candy and Drake.
“I want to come,” Lookout said. “What I did before, where I come from, people who get knifed for that shit. I gotta make it up, or it’s not going to sit right.”
“Good,” I said. “It shouldn’t. But don’t go and think it’s worse than it is. It was a shitty, terrifying situation. You did what you had to. Let it sit wrong, carry that, but don’t let it eat you up. Any friend or family member of yours probably would have done the same.”
Lookout looked away.
“Take care of Glasses here. Get her out of the city.”
Once we got moving, Lillian wasn’t that slow, the pain only apparent when she bent over too far or didn’t watch her footing. We kept to where we had cover, zig-zagging in the direction we’d been pointed. A block away from the medical tents, around a corner, we found the building with lights at every window, a brazier with open flame set over the door, and we stopped there, waiting.
Mauer’s lines were giving way. The large numbers he’d collected were a detriment as those numbers tried to flee and the Crown’s stitched soldiers fired volley after volley into the air, punching into people who weren’t behind cover.
I hoped my advice would save more lives than it cost.
The soldiers caught up with us, a corpse slung over one shoulder, another two soldiers carrying a skull and canvas bags that looked heavy.
“Those are the explosives?” I asked. A lot.
“Mauer said yes, and if we’re walking away from this, we’re not bringing all of this with us, so we might as well be thorough. Brought someone who knows this stuff.”
Mauer, sometimes I feel a peculiar sort of fondness and respect for you.
“That way?” Jamie asked, pointing.
A soldier uttered a one word response, drowned out by a surge in the noise around us, as he indicated the same direction with a tilt of his head.
There’s still the danger that he brings his army with him. We have to be careful how we do this.
“That building’s front door is open,” I said, pointing at what looked to be a store in the middle of a residential area. The building was more ramshackle than some, with three floors and an open roof. Tattered lengths of cloth with the ends tied bound together were draped over the roof, poked up into a point above by a long pole, a tent-like arrangement to keep water off the roof itself. “We’ll set up up top.”
We headed inside, found the stairs, and made our way up.
“Put the body where he can see her,” I said, indicating an edge of the roof. “Positioned so it’s not a clear view from the street.”
The body belonged to a citizen that had been fighting for Lugh. It wasn’t skeletal, but it was burned, and it hadn’t had much meat on the bone before. It had a bit of a weird belly, in the way that people who were chronically starved grew distended with gas or organ problems. There was a head, but it wasn’t skeletal enough.
One soldier held the head, two more cut ruthlessly with large knives.
My finger touched the ring at my thumb.
“She fought?” I asked, while they worked.
“She fought,” one soldier said.
“Then I hope she would have forgiven us. Whatever drove her to fight, I hope this would be a good answer or final step to that. That it’s enough wrath and violence to answer any rage in her breast, that it stops someone who hurts others, if she fought to protect.”
“That’s sweet,” Lillian said, behind me. Her hand touched my back.
One of the soldiers, still cutting, said, “You’re allowed to say you pray.”
I was silent.
“No Crown to watch your words around, here,” the man said. “All of us believe, some a little, some a lot. At a certain point, when the enemy you’re fighting is big enough, you’re not just hoping for a win, for a little bit of luck. You’re praying for it. And that’s allowed. Nobody will tell you not to.”
“Unless you’re Timothy Wadd,” another soldier said.
“Unless you’re a protruding asshole about the prayer thing, yeah,” the first soldier said. “You’re supposed to be a smart kid. I think you get what I mean.”
I nodded, still silent. Lillian rubbed my back for a bit as we watched them butcher the body, tearing the head from the body itself. Odd. Usually I would be the one reassuring her through the gruesome bits.
Then, as they got closer to done, she picked up the skull, and rubbed it down, painting it a matte black.
The fighting elsewhere was getting so much more intense. I could feel the ground rumbling as warbeasts and people moved, several streets away.
Once they were more or less ready, I gave the instruction to arrange the body. Lillian provided wire from her satchel to bind the head to the body, and one hand to the bone spike. Everything else was about positioning her so there were no obvious giveaways.
When the position was right, I surveyed the work. “Let’s set up a fire on the roof, behind her. It’ll create a silhouette effect. He’ll see the skull, the limb, propped up and very visible, but details will be harder to make out.”
While others handled that job, I looked out over the distance, trying to look at a city lit by fires and third-hand light those fires created, reflected off of the dark clouds and smoke overhead and back down to the city itself. The topography, the parts of the city that would be hard to move through, easier to move through, I tried to get a sense of where the Baron could be. The Baron could have flanked and attacked by now. In a way, it might have been ideal. Our bait would pull him away from forces that were already engaged, possibly alone, possibly with a reduced squad, or with the Baron leaving people he trusted in charge, bringing his second choice of Crown soldiers.
He hadn’t attacked, which meant he was waiting for a signal. A final, decisive attack, likely designed to break Mauer.
Mauer’s soldiers set the bags at the roof. One unwound a coil of wire, an electric fuse, and led it down the stairs, tucking it in along a wooden strut that ran down the stairwell.
With a prybar, he freed one step from the surrounding boards and wall, lifting it straight out. Placing it back down, he put something metal between the step and the nearest board. When a foot came down on the step, it would compress the metal, create a connection, and in that same moment, the explosives in the bags would blow.
“Head outside,” he said. “I have to attach the wire. If a mistake happens at any point, it’s here.”
Nobody in our group wasted any time in getting out of the building and across the street.
The following two minutes were tense, as we sat with snow and ash falling around us. I was waiting for the building to go.
But it didn’t go.
“The call, if I use the whistle and try to copy the twins, I’m thinking it should be the sound the creature made when you were wrestling with it?”
“Wrestling? With the younger twins!?” Lillian asked. She punched my arm. “Sy! Idiot!”
“Yes!” I said. “In answer to both of your questions.”
Blades poised, ready to strike, I thought. All night, I had been struggling to find an avenue from which to attack. One by one, I’d been able to create opportunities to attack the younger twins. The others had found ways to get the elder ones out of our hair.
But that wasn’t me. Well, it was, but the stark, panicked improvisation wasn’t the me I wanted to be. I wanted to calculate my moves. To use my knowledge of the enemy, to make plays that left them stunned and bewildered, in awe, even.
I would settle for a half-second of realization as that foot came down on the loose stair, clicked the mechanism, set off the explosive, and brought fire and violence down on his own head.
The bomb expert opened the door. One of the soldiers in our squad flashed a light at him, giving him our location. He crossed the street.
All the rest of us crammed into an alley. Jamie, just beside me, was careful not to get pushed into my arm, which was still in the sling. Lillian, surrounded by soldiers who were invading her personal space, hurried to the side with my good arm, taking my hand.
“I’m not going to get this right at first,” Jamie said. “I might not get it right at all.”
“Close as you can to what you remember,” I said, giving him the whistle.
Whistle to mouth. He blew, shrill, long, with lungfuls of air through a Crown-manufactured whistle that was designed to be heard over long distances.
After roughly a minute of ear-splitting whistles, he figured out the modulation of it, how to make it higher or lower.
Imagine, I thought. The Baron’s face. He hears the whistles. What are they? Then the cadence becomes familiar. His men are set up and ready to attack. He’s reluctant to pull them away, but it’s his sister. Someone he relies on, as much as any swordsman relies on their sword.
As if I was dreaming, I could see him moving, imagine his expressions, based on what I knew of him. I didn’t know his mind, but it wasn’t a complex one. Power and control, with an undercurrent of fear and deep, black-in-the-heart resentment.
I could imagine the ground he covered, from the likely positions he’d chosen to set up his small army, how far away he was, the instructions he would have given his men. What if the signal came while he was away, looking for that sound, which sounded so much like his sister crying for help or screeching in rage?
One of Mauer’s men spoke, “He’s here.”
I wasn’t surprised in the slightest.
You took my eye, you bastard. Let’s see how much of you this takes out.
A whistle cut through the air. Not Jamie’s.
It was the Baron, calling out to his sister. Crown soldiers spoke, calling out to each other. The door banged against the wall as they shoved their way through.
I heard the whispered words, “He’s not going inside.”
I closed my eyes. I listened, and I heard the Baron call out. “Sisters!”
His voice rang through the night.
I prayed, not because I truly believed, but because in this moment, I really would have liked it if there was a bloody, vengeful sort of god looking down on us.
The explosion was a rollicking walloping series of hits, one after another, building on each other to rip away all my hearing and most of my breath. As my hearing returned, my vision went, dust rolling out to blanket everything and choke the air.
“Move!” one soldier called out. A hand shoved me. The soldiers ran, and the Lambs were dragged with them. “That hit him!”
“He’s dead!?” Lillian cried out.
“No, but that’s going to hurt ‘im!”
“We should go back, finish him, pick through-”
“No!” was the one word response.
“If we can damn well finish him off-”
“He’s a noble! If he needs finishing off, he’s too dangerous to get near! Only noble that’s safe to be near is a dead one!”
Frustration welled up in me.
“If he’s hurt, he’s not going to be attacking! It’s good, it’s good!” A hand clapped on my back.
He’d tried to call out to his sister twice, and when he hadn’t gotten a response, he’d been suspicious.
We were letting him live, and I knew for an absolute fact that the man would recover and he would plague us.
We made our way toward Mauer’s lines, and as we sighted Crown soldiers, we were forced to make a detour. The retreat had been more significant and more severe than I’d anticipated. The retreat was becoming a rout.
Yet in the midst of that, the sound of gunfire and the regular noise of explosives was quickly dwindling.
It became almost silent, but for the periodic sound of a building crumbling as fires rose too high.
I heard a voice.
“…dangers the primordial poses.”
“A primordial you created,” was the reply.
My heartbeat was intense enough to rock my body and make swallowing hard. We drew nearer, and took cover, looking in from a side street.
Mauer stood atop a ruined wagon, staring down the length of the street.
One bullet, well placed, might have finished him. It would have needed to be a high-quality weapon, but the Crown did have those.
“What will it take to save the lives of the people in this city?” Mauer called out. “My own life? My surrender?”
His voice carried so well. He’d always been at his best on the stage, addressing a group. Now he addressed the Crown forces. The Duke was near enough to respond with his own powerful voice.
One voice natural, the other artificial.
“I don’t think you have any plan to surrender,” the Duke responded. “To give your own life? Perhaps. With the explosives you planted on either side of the street? Did you hope to take me with you? Or just to take me? Because you won’t have either of those things.”
Mauer reacted. He backed away a step.
“When you rule over rabble, Reverend,” the Duke said, “You lose sight of who the individuals are. There is no organization, the people in command do not know the people who are subservient to them. Clever, talented individuals can blend in with the rabble. They can fan out through the area, they can watch your men, and they can surreptitiously disarm those explosives.”
Mauer took another step back. When he raised his good hand to his head, it moved in a jittery way. He clenched his bad hand, the same one he had used to hold me over the fire.
“You’ve lost,” the Duke said. His voice had changed slightly. “And now I’m going to kill you, and I’m going to kill everyone in that army of yours.”
I heard the sound of a sword leaving its sheath.
Mauer sank to his knees. Head bowed.
“The Crown wins,” the Duke said. “It is a constant in this universe, understand?”
Mauer reached out with his monstrous limb, as if supplicating, then let it drop, heavy.
I heard the gunshots, loud, crystal clear, and high. So many of Mauer’s guns had been lower quality, older. The Crown’s good quality but in such a way that it could be mass produced.
These shots were different, and the sound was oddly disconnected from the Duke’s reaction, as he took a step back, staggering.
My right hand found Lillian’s, squeezing it. I would have held Jamie’s too, but my arm was in the sling. When I looked at him, his eyes were as wide as mine were.
Fray and Mauer hadn’t just been working on the primordial. I thought of the Engineer, and the others they’d had with them. Powerful people, ones with resources and connections. Mauer, all this while, knowing that spies might be looking, had been holding this card up his sleeve.
One shot sounded after another. And as the Crown forces heard and saw what was happening, they began to open fire as well. Mauer was already retreating, taking cover behind the wagon he’d been using as his stage.
Through the chaos that quickly billowed out of the silence, the sweet song of those guns could be heard.
I wasn’t sure if it was because he’d sensed us somehow, or if it was sheer luck, as bullets punched through him and tore out the other side, casting out sprays of blood and bone as they exited, but the Duke looked our way.
A bullet passed through his skull. Fragments of metal joined bone and brain on making a messy exit.
I heard Mauer’s forces cheering. To them, Mauer had won, proven the lie. That the Crown didn’t always win.
I wasn’t so sure it was about to play out that way, and from Mauer’s body language, as he strode through the lines of his people, he wasn’t so sure either.
The Duke might still be in play. The primordial almost certainly was. Together, they were disaster, but either one alone was a problem, a chance this fight might still continue.
The Duke’s last words might prove true yet.