A noble just died in the public eye.
The nature of our vantage point meant that running out and straight toward Mauer would have put us right in the line of fire. We had to circle around to reach him.
I half-expected the Baron’s forces to have chased us, or for his unit to have moved on our back line. The explosion had done its work. The coast was largely clear.
The snow was really falling, now. I’d dismissed it as ash, and it had been easy to miss with the hot smoke and the heat in the sky dissolving snowflakes into simple rain, but we were further away now, and there were fewer fires set in the midst of Mauer’s new camp. The wind blew in over the water and up into the city, driving the heat and the smoke away and paving the way for the snow to fall. I couldn’t smell anything so much as I felt the cold air and smelled only the smoke that had invaded and polluted my sinuses.
The soldiers we were with were faster on foot. Boots tromped on a road dusted with snow and ash, and we had to work to keep up. I was slower than usual, running in time with Lillian and Jamie, instead of having to slow myself down or tug them along to get them to keep up. One soldier hung behind, likely to keep an eye on us.
The soldiers cleared the way for us to enter Mauer’s camp. By the time we caught up, they had found Mauer. They were filling him in.
“You said he would go up to the roof,” Mauer said. There was an undertone of accusation to his voice.
“That was a mistake. He communicated with the dummy we set up, she couldn’t respond. He hesitated.”
“How many soldiers were with him?” Mauer asked.
“Ten,” a soldier answered.
“Not many. Okay. Rally people for the front line. We fight as hard as we can, I want to surprise them if we can. If they don’t have anyone at the helm, then we might be able to rout them. The perches are targeting the officers in charge of the stitched, wherever they’re spotted. If we can’t decide this in the next few minutes, then we retreat again and we regroup. Either they don’t pursue and we wait and see, or they pursue and we watch to see if they stretch themselves too thin.”
“Yes sir,” the soldiers said, in near-unison.
“Jamie,” I said, under my breath. “The whistle.”
Jamie extended a hand my way, the whistle in his fist. I gestured in Mauer’s direction, and Jamie held it out for Mauer.
Frowning slightly, Mauer took it.
“Can you get your people to their back lines? Or their flanks?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“The whistle. Jamie can tell you the signals they use. Get people behind the stitched, use the whistles to signal retreat. Even if the stitched don’t respond to that specific whistle, the handlers will. They’ll hear what sounds like others sounding the retreat and get worried. They’re pretty alone out there. One man surrounded by twenty dead soldiers that are following his orders, the next guy barely in earshot.”
Mauer’s eyes lit up with interest. He indicated a soldier, then looked to Jamie, “Show him?”
Jamie nodded, giving me a glance. I watched Jamie walk off to the edge of the little clearing with the soldier.
When I looked back at Mauer, he was staring me down.
“If you’d moved a finger, I would have assumed you were using one of those hand-signs Genevive Fray told me about.”
I shook my head and jostled my sling as much as I was able – and I regretted it at the pain that flared in my wounded shoulder. “Only one hand, right?”
“I wonder if you’re any closer to making the decision,” Mauer said, staring at me.
“Decision?” Lillian asked.
When he’d grilled me over the fire, Lillian had been in the process of passing out. I’d been wanting to get her help, and I’d let Mauer know too much. For a man so able to control others, it was a spooky prospect. I was used to being the one in control, pulling the strings.
“I thought helping you here would come across as decision enough,” I said.
“The whistle is more convincing than your effort against the Baron,” Mauer said. “We’ll see how things unfold.”
“If your men can get to the back line or flanks-”
“We already did, once. The guns that shot the Duke have a distinctive sound. That sound was the signal for an attack on his rear lines. Our elite soldiers have already signaled that they successfully opened fire on the Duke’s home tent.”
“So they can’t heal the Duke,” Lillian said.
“A precautionary measure, in case he was faster to react. It doesn’t matter. We hit him. The noble has been slain.”
From a range that he didn’t think guns could shoot from. Longer range, high accuracy. Something special. Still…
“I’ve seen him get shot before and survive,” I said.
“Nobles favor a layer of something like armor, an interskeletal barrier between their skin and their muscle or bone structure. Normal guns are meant to ricochet, their bullets move slowly, to pass into the subject and bounce around, doing grievous harm. Few think twice of this. But the Crown has reasons for perpetuating this standard. Those slower, bouncing bullets aren’t so effective against the nobles.” Bullets sink in and stop at the armor, or they bounce right out. The noble bleeds but doesn’t stop. They appear immortal, and enemy morale suffers. The myth that surrounds them grows.”
I nodded. I’d seen the Duke in battle.
“These bullets penetrate that layer. That armor helps strips the outer shell off as the bullet passes through, and what remains unfolds and expands as an umbrella might,” Mauer said. His hand, all fingertips and thumb meeting, tapped my chest, hard, then opened up, fingers splaying. “The final part of the projectile sometimes punches through on exit, or joins the expanded metal in complicating the efforts of doctors and staff. Especially uncareful or hasty doctors might even do further harm to themselves, if an expanding bullet finishes expanding too near a prodding finger or working hand.”
“It wouldn’t be as effective against an ordinary person,” Lillian said.
“It might, if it hit hard bone, but no, it isn’t meant for ordinary people,” Mauer said. “The guns are long range, they’re accurate, and they’re felt before they can be easily reacted to. This incident isn’t the important part of what I’m doing. Killing the Duke, it means something. But after one or two more incidents, they’ll realize what it really means.”
“That unless they find you and stop your group from manufacturing these things,” I said, “No noble can ever show their face in public again.”
“And they need to show their faces,” Mauer said. “It’s why they go to such efforts to tailor themselves and make themselves into dangerous weapons. That was why I could be sure the Duke would show himself in one way or another, when he was positive the scales were tipped and victory was in hand.”
“And you knew he’d come here because-”
“He invited him, specifically. Leaked information about the primordials,” Jamie said, returning from the other side of the clearing.
“They’ll respond,” Mauer said. “At some time in the next year, they’ll finish arguing among themselves, rally, and arrive in force. Newly augmented, so they can be more confident against these guns. Things are going to change, and they’ll fear that. That’s a fear that makes them predictable.”
I felt a mingled fear and excitement at the idea. The nobles, all here, the idea of change. The pain in my shoulder and my eye, and the pain in my heart at the loss of Gordon, it fed into that fear and excitement.
That’s a fear that makes them predictable. It didn’t sound like Mauer talking. It sounded like me.
Had Mauer gotten a read on me? Had I allowed him enough of an idea of my vulnerabilities, that he now understood who I was and how I operated? Because it damn well sounded like he was tailoring his words to evoke that fear and excitement. To manipulate me.
The soldier Jamie had been talking to exchanged murmured words with Mauer, who nodded, gesturing with his good hand. The man left, pointing to others in the clearing, beckoning. Well oiled. Men who understood how they each operated, no questioning, no debate. Everyone had a role and they carried it out like the experts they were.
It was Lillian who spoke up to Mauer. “What happens next?”
“Next?” Mauer asked.
“With the Lambs. To the Lambs. I was hurt before, I didn’t hear everything, and then I was busy trying to get ready to help Sy and Jamie. Maybe you made an agreement and I didn’t hear, but… are we your prisoners?”
Mauer didn’t have a ready response to that.
“Sy?” Lillian asked, a little more emotional than she’d been when she had addressed Mauer.
“He thinks I’m going to defect,” I said. “That you guys will come with me, or you’ll join me in defecting.”
“We can’t,” Lillian said, without a heartbeat’s pause. “You can’t. No.”
There was that lack of inhibition again. I glanced up at Mauer, who seemed to be studiously ignoring us, his attention apparently on other things, who was moving where, getting the attention of soldiers and giving them the go-ahead.
The people who Mauer was sending to the front line now were people who had clearly already been in combat. Tired, now fully aware of the realities of fighting, their reluctance was clear, and it was a reluctance tempered only by the fact that the Duke had died before their very eyes.
“I want to see my parents,” Lillian said. “Please. Jamie- Jamie said we were doing this so the Baron and the Twins wouldn’t hurt my parents or the other Lambs.”
“We are,” I said. “We did. I don’t know.”
If the Baron lives…
She clutched my hand, revealing the emotion she was keeping bottled up within, squeezing so hard her hands shook. She mouthed words, but they didn’t pass through her lips. Please.
Things are going to change, Mauer’s words echoed in my head.
I knew I could easily approach Mauer, trying to give him reasons to let us go. I could promise service and help like we’d given with the whistle, or further interference vs. the enemy forces, or I could tell him that we would be best positioned to spread the word in such a way that the nobles would get the message and feel that fear he and Fray wanted them to feel.
But if I asked, if I even tried, then the man would say no. He’d just had his moment of triumph. He was soaring, even as he stood in place, intense, taking in the battlefield. I knew what he wanted in this moment: to preserve the moment and hold on to it.
To have that annoyance, that snarl of the young servants of the Academy getting him to do something he hadn’t planned? It would spoil the victory.
The clearest path to freedom was one where I didn’t push or didn’t try.
If he kept us with him, that wasn’t so bad either.
I put my arm around Lillian. She had no interest in watching the battle, so she wrapped her arms around me and buried her head in my shoulder, her back to the fighting. I looked over her shoulder to watch things progress.
Mauer stayed busy, but there were only so many orders to give. He would talk to people, organize support for one side or the other, call for people to retreat- It almost looked as if it was working, as the Academy gave ground.
The fires were dying out. Less explosions, more bullets.
The distant, dim shape of the primordial continued its struggle. There was no Duke to constrain it or decide how much firepower was necessary to keep it down and out. I could see it carry on fighting, refusing to die or not being allowed to die, and I could see Mauer. The movements of the primordial seemed to concern the man more than the ebb and flow of the battle, the human beings who were dying and who had died as part of his ploy, spent like coin to bring about his greater strategy.
He hadn’t just feigned a loss to bring the Duke out of hiding. He’d intentionally lost, after rallying these people to fight.
And now, what? He was trying to put up an actual fight? No.
To create room for him and his people to disappear, maybe. To slip out of the city with his soldiers and a sufficient number of people to spread the word. If he lacked those people, then he could at least trust the Crown soldiers to do it, or he could bide his time, pick out another noble, and repeat the process.
One way or another, the message would get out.
Pull the weary back, send in fresh men, pummel the Crown’s front lines, time flank attacks with squads moving out through streets and setting up in buildings… I could only understand Mauer’s moves in abstract. Gordon would have had a better sense of how Mauer was actively bullying the Crown. With careful, methodical steps, Mauer seemed to be driving the Crown back.
It wouldn’t last. The people of Lugh were too few in number. The Crown forces retreated and their ranks grew denser as they did so, making it harder and harder to keep pushing, morale-wise.
Still, it created space.
Mauer’s body language was changing. He was getting ready to leave. To let this battle be the small victory and the ominous note for the future that it was. He wasn’t sending his soldiers out as much as he had been, and he made a point of talking to people who had distinguished themselves, instead. They were in charge.
I could feel Lillian’s heartbeat against my chest. So very alive and focused with wyvern coursing through her brain, she had withdrawn entirely into a different space, here. She clung to me, inuring herself against the outside world.
Lillian was still Lillian, even like this.
The tone of the battle shifted imperceptibly. I noticed it almost immediately, in the rate of gunfire, the movement of distant forces. It took me almost a minute of observation to work out if it was my imagination or not.
After five minutes, I realized that the people fighting on the front line weren’t rotating out properly.
Because Mauer’s side is winning that decisively? Or because they’re under so much pressure they can’t step away?
“Something changed,” Jamie said.
“The Baron,” I said. “I’m pretty sure.”
Lillian lifted her head, pulling away to look up and at the battle.
Mauer’s orders were getting more heated, his voice was just a touch sharper. He worked to reinforce the front.
I could have gone to Mauer, offered our services, but I wasn’t sure what we could do. If there was an opportunity for the Lambs to strike, there was an opportunity for Mauer’s gunmen to get in position and shoot.
Was the Baron craven enough to simply stay out of sight? To work to rally the Crown forces but not to take the glory or the credit?
Or was it possible that he wasn’t willing to show his face because he’d heard about the Duke, or because injuries from the explosion made him reluctant to be seen?
There was another reason I didn’t offer our services. I knew the Lambs would go if I suggested it, but we were hurt and tired, or hurt and inexperienced, in Jamie’s case. If I asked and we went, it reduced the chances that Mauer would let us go. If we swore to cooperate and threw ourselves into the thick of things once again, there was a chance the Shepherd would see it as threatening, something to be wary about, another drop in a bucket that tipped the scales in favor of removing the Lambs from his equation.
He certainly wouldn’t see it as a reason to let us go.
No, our best chance of Lillian seeing her parents, of me seeing Mary and Helen and Ashton, it was if I played the part Mauer wanted me to play. Of someone on the fence, paralyzed by doubt.
“I’m scared,” Lillian said, her voice eerie, lacking in any trace of fear at all.
“Yeah,” I said.
The tide of the battle changed. The people at the front were losing. The momentum was lost, the Crown was pushing back, and this game of tug-of-war looked to be lost, one side with their feet trying to find traction and failing.
Stay quiet, and Mauer would leave, and he would likely leave us here to fend for ourselves. It would be hairy, a particularly dangerous environment, more dangerous if we tried and failed to help anyone on the way. But it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. There would be time to think before we rejoined the Academy. We could even stagger our approach, feel things out before we revealed ourselves, stepping through that front gate.
If we knew what rumors had passed, we could concoct stories.
Not easy, but doable.
Doable, I thought. The word sounded hollow in my ears.
I heard shrieks. Shouts, a commotion nearby.
At the edge of the clearing that was Mauer’s base camp, soldiers and wounded had gathered. At that perimeter, a figure was fighting her way through.
Her forward progress was hampered by three of Mauer’s men, but she was strong, and she had Drake at her back.
No, scratch that. Drake was actively holding her back.
Something told me that whatever unfolded next wasn’t going to be so doable as what I’d had in mind.
“Mauer!” Candy shrieked.
“Bring her here,” Mauer called out. “You. Stop fighting, let them escort you!”
Drake, the boy with the black scales, reached out, grabbing Candy’s arm, trying to hold her back. He said something plaintive.
Lillian clutched my arm.
“Mauer,” Candy said, as she drew closer, two men holding on to her arms. She seemed genuinely surprised to see me and the other Lambs, but she found her voice, “I know the Baron. Let me talk to him. I think- I might be able to end this.”
“His sisters are dead, he knows that by now,” Mauer said, voice cold. “He’s mad with rage and bloodlust, and he’s winning. How and why would I send you in, when everything seems to suggest a full retreat is in order?”
Candy shook her head, and then she looked at me. She stuttered as she started to speak. “I-I think I might have what he really wants.”
She’d heard. As I’d explained everything to the others before setting out to hunt the Baron, she’d heard me talk about the nobles and their motivations. About who the Baron was.
I felt an ugly pit in my stomach.
Stay quiet. Let things unfold like this, and things stay doable.
“No, Emily,” Lillian said, quiet.
Emily? Right. I kept forgetting the girl’s name. It was something long and overcomplicated, and she’d changed it.
I could see the fear and the doubt in Emily’s eyes. She was shaking.
“People are dying. If there’s even a chance-”
Mauer was going to say no. It was a diversion of resources, a distraction that cost time he now needed to successfully slip out of the city.
My finger touched the ring at my thumb. Conscience. I couldn’t be like Mauer, and so casually spend those lives that were currently fighting at the front, just to get the optimal results. Lives were more than that.
“There’s a chance,” I said. “What Can- What Emily wants to do, there’s a chance it works.”
I felt Lillian’s hands drop away from my arm.
That pit in my stomach yawned wider. So strange, that acting in accordance with my conscience would create this divide between me and the member of our group who cared most about people.
Emily spoke, so fast she stumbled over her words, “You said- Sylvester said that the Baron, what he wants is power and control. He’s- um, he’s not a powerful noble, he’s too far out of line for the throne. He won’t achieve power in any reasonable span of time. I can give him that time, it’s in my blood. If I offer that, and ask him to back down, to leave Lugh alone, maybe-”
“He’s not that sort of man,” Mauer said. “He’d capture you and take your blood, and he’d do nothing different.”
“I know the formula. I studied the science they injected me with. I know things that they wouldn’t be able to pull from my blood. So long as-”
“Torture,” Mauer said. “He would torture you for whatever you have in your head.”
She paused, hesitating. I could see Lillian visibly relax at that hesitation. Glad that Mauer was successfully arguing against Emily’s plan.
“I’ve experienced torture, being made the way I am,” Emily said, her voice low. “If he kills everyone here and then tries to torture me for what I know, I won’t give him what he wants.”
“Even if I believed you,” Mauer said, “I just killed one noble. Why would I want this one alive?”
“Because…” I said, pausing.
Lillian’s expression didn’t change. She was still that focused, intense Lillian. But I could see the unfathomable sense of betrayal in her eyes. She so wanted Emily to live, she had justified much of this as being for Emily, in part, and now I was working against her.
I tore my eyes off her, and looked at Mauer. “…Because he will do more damage to the nobles alive than dead. You know it. He’s a loose cannon, a mad element, more prone to backstabbing than anything else, and he’s mad. It’ll be a madness without direction, at least for the next short while. With the Duke removed, he’s the local power. What he does in the meantime will shape how people react to any of those nobles you say are going to turn up in months or a year. A mad king. I know you can see what you’ll be able to do with the citizens of the Crown States if they’re living with fear and anger directed toward that madman.”
“You want to spare him?”
“No,” I said. “He took my damn eye, and threatened me to never get a replacement. I want to slit his throat and piss through the wound. But for this, for what Candy is talking about, I can tell her what to say, I think there’s a chance he’ll pull back. To you, he’s more of an asset than a danger.”
“We may have very different estimations of the man,” Mauer said.
“And I’ve actually met him,” I said, getting more heated. “He wants a win. Remember? The Crown always wins? Give him a shot at true power, a chance to ascend a hill crowned by the Duke’s corpse… he might bite.”
One life offered up in exchange for the hundreds here.
I looked at Emily. I hadn’t assuaged her fears with my description of the man. Still, her jaw was clenched, as were her fists. She was steeling herself. She would give herself over to the madman in exchange for Lugh’s continued survival.
Mauer turned to the soldier next to him. “Sound the horns. Cessation of hostilities. We’ll see if the noble listens. If he doesn’t respond and give this girl a chance to talk, then we continue with things as planned.”
Lillian shook her head, hugging her arms to her body. “Emily!”
“Don’t try to talk me out of this, please.”
“You’ve lived your whole life trying to avoid being a pawn of your parents, you spent the last few years living your own life, and you’ve been happy, haven’t you?”
“Part of the reason all of this even happened was because of me,” Emily said. “Our projects, those monsters.”
“This war started because of him,” Lillian said, pointing at Mauer. “He didn’t give you all of the details! He was the one who rallied everyone for this slaughter!”
“The slaughter was inevitable,” Mauer said, voice quiet and hard. “Lugh was marked. Sooner or later, it would have been wiped clean, as part of the Crown’s agenda. I decided the when and where, and gave this battle a different sort of meaning. If this girl can somehow bring about a situation where Lugh still stands after all of this? That will have meaning. It’s worth trying.”
“No,” Lillian said.
The horns sounded on Mauer’s side. Stop firing. It was a sound that went hand in hand with requests for a meeting, a truce without being a truce, so often used as a prelude to surrender.
I’d read about it in books, and never dreamed of it coming to pass.
“No!” Lillian raised her voice. She wheeled on me. “Sy, please, stop this!”
“It’s the best way forward,” I said.
“It’s not! We can’t choose to sacrifice one person because-”
“Because so many more are dying?”
“He won’t listen!” she said, raising her voice further. Wyvern had suppressed her fear, and now it made her demonstrate it more. She looked at me like she didn’t even know me. “You’re throwing her life away for a chance! We were going to help her!”
“I made this choice myself,” Emily said, putting a hand on Lillian’s shoulder. Lillian flinched and stepped back.
Then, turning to Jamie, she hugged him.
“Don’t talk,” she told him. “Please. Don’t agree with Sy. Don’t try to make this okay.”
All night, she’d been on the verge of breaking. Having wyvern didn’t make any of this easier.
“Please,” she said. “The Baron won’t listen, he won’t okay the negotiation, he-”
On the other end of the battlefield, trumpets sounded their response.
All across the battlefield, the sound of guns died down. People hunkered down in cover.
I met Jamie’s eyes. “I’m going to have to go. I’m betting he’ll want to meet indoors.”
“You have to go?” Emily asked.
“Or I do,” I said, “We have to at least be visible enough to catch his attention. He must think Mauer is going to trade him us.”