I might have said that both sides of the battlefield were as tense as the strings of a violin, but the reality was that both sides were composed more or less of dead men. Stitched on one side, inanimate corpses on the other. Too many deaths, too much blood.
Our approach to the battlefield meant that I could smell that thick odor of blood in the air, the shit that had leaked from rectums that opened in death, the sharper tang of fear, and, as I’d smelled from the beginning, the smoke.
The eyes of the living were on us as we approached, while the dead on both sides stared off into space.
Mauer walked with a contingent of his soldiers at his back, his good hand on Emily’s shoulder. More soldiers surrounded Lillian, Jamie and me. I was walking right behind Emily.
“If I say anything, trust that I’m doing it to help. The worst thing you can do here is to second guess yourself. He’ll see it as the wrong kind of weakness and capitalize on it.”
Emily nodded, though she didn’t look back at me.
“The right kind of weakness would be to let him know just how reluctant you are. You don’t want this, you don’t like it, you can detest him, and let that show, but don’t waver. If you show doubt, fear, give him any excuse to say no, then he’ll take you up on that, say no, and watch as you try to backpedal. He’ll go out of his way to murder people in a way that punishes you for wasting his time and for backing down. Kids, elderly, he’ll make it ugly.”
Emily was breathing harder. She was getting scared, now that I was painting a picture of who the Baron was.
Time to give her some stability. “You have power here. Something he wants, the ability to steer this entire battle to a better place. I’m going to give you some tips on how to successfully negotiate this with him, but I think you’re smart enough to choose the right course on your own. Before that, I want to tell you some stuff that’s not going to seem important right now, but which might save your life and save your sanity later. You’re going to have to marry him.”
She turned her head a little, glancing back at me. Mauer reaffirmed his grip on her shoulder, as if he thought she’d tear away and run.
“What he wants to do is to break you down and rebuild you into a pawn he can use. As a noble, he’s grown up around two kinds of couple. There are the husband-wife pair who are together for the sake of alliances, who bicker and who exist as entirely disconnected entities that just happen to share the same living space and last name. Some of them utterly hated each other, they fought a constant war with words and subtle sabotage. He’s anticipating that relationship, and he thinks he’d win. He probably would.
I went on, “There are also the pairs who make each other stronger overall. If you’re going to be his wife, you need to start right off selling yourself as someone with composure, someone who could be a person that makes him stronger.”
“I’m not a politician.”
“Don’t try to be. But don’t be weak. When he tortures someone in front of you, to see if there’s a chink in your armor, you can’t break, and you can’t beg him to spare them. When he says he wants his doctors to alter your body, and he will, don’t argue it. Plot it out, make it a negotiation, something tactical. Make him work every step of the way. Whatever they do to the exterior, it can be undone.”
I was in exactly the right position to see Emily clench her fist, hard.
“If you can argue a point or engage him, then do it. If it’s not a battle worth fighting, or if you think he’s found a way to break you, your best defense is to be boring, or feign boredom. Sell him on the idea that you’re someone he can take with him to functions, an almost-noble.”
She wasn’t listening. She wasn’t hearing me.
“You’re going to be scared at first. Keep your spine straight. I know you’re a fighter. Fight. If you have to cry, cry in as private a place as you can, but don’t ever tell him what you’re crying about, or you’ll pay for it a hundredfold. The start of all of this will be easier. He’ll be preoccupied with the deaths of his sisters and the change to the status quo. You might go days without seeing him. By the time he gets bored with that and turns his full attention to you, you need to be a rock. Give him nothing.”
“Alright,” Emily said.
We reached the front line. The soldiers had backed away from each other and were staring each other down. The stitched stared well past us, as if they were looking but didn’t really see.
The Baron’s men pointed. We took a side street, leaving the battle behind.
“The deal… marriage is essential. You hate the idea, I know, but don’t take the bait if he offers a compromise that doesn’t include it. If he does, it’s probably a ruse, and he plans to kill us all at the next opportunity. Nobles only marry once, usually, and if he’s not willing to look you in the eye and agree to the idea of marrying for the tidbit of knowledge you can offer him, then he’s not really staking anything on the deal. If he takes the offer, then he thinks you have something, and you have leverage. Not a lot, but some.”
Immortality. Rendered immortal, the Baron could move more slowly, make plays for positions, and negotiate a path to power.
“Don’t push him for an answer. Put the idea on the table, lay it out in the best way you can, emphasize the things you heard me talk about, power, time, control, and then leave it on the table for him to pick up. He’ll think about it, and he’ll sell himself on the idea. Keep your chin up, don’t flinch no matter what he says or does.”
She nodded. Her fists hadn’t unclenched. She let out a heavy breath, and her breath formed a cloud in the cold air.
“Trust your instincts,” I said.
She nodded again.
Lillian looked so hurt, as she looked at me, as if every piece of advice was a betrayal. She didn’t have a better answer than this, but she was willing to condemn me for making this a reality.
“Mauer?” Jamie asked.
“If this goes south, or if the Baron decides to attack, do we have options?”
“I do, and through me, my men do,” Mauer said. “You? I don’t know.”
His patience seemed to be pretty worn-through by now. I knew he was still soaring, in a sense, from his victory over the Duke. By allowing this to happen, he was giving up the reins. He hoped this would work out, because showing his face to the Baron was a danger.
Was the Baron emotional enough to ignore the called truce and use the negotiations as a pretext to attack?
We were about to see.
Jamie was looking after Lillian, helping her to stand. I was tired, battered, bruised, and I was utterly, completely alone. The Lambs had been reduced to three, and that number was now divided. I didn’t have any friends here, not with my team and not with Emily, who had to hate me for the advice I was giving her, however well-intentioned it was.
Play the bastard for all your life, being alone in the end is an inevitability.
Crown soldiers stood on either side of the door, the building was one of the sturdier ones, probably one of the original buildings set on the rocks here, before Lugh was established as a city. The lower half was stone, the upper half consisted of logs sheared in half, stacked up to a total of four stories.
Mauer gestured for the guards at the door to move, and indicated a few of his own men. The Crown soldiers didn’t budge until Mauer’s men crowded nearer. It ended up with Crown soldiers on one side and Mauer’s men on the other. More even.
Mauer was the one who pushed the door open. We made our way inside.
The Baron was seated, one of his sisters seated behind him. He didn’t stand as we made our approach. He’d donned a cloak, and wore it over his head and shoulders. A metal brace had been fit over one arm, screws puncturing flesh, and his exposed flesh was alternately bandaged and scalded. The eyes behind the bandages were open so wide that I had to wonder if his eyelids had been burned away. That illusion was broken as he blinked.
But it wasn’t all burns. There was an awful lot of damage that seemed like there had been more tearing and ripping of the skin, connective tissue, and the flesh. I could study the wounds and try to envision how they had come about, telling myself a story in reverse, and the mental image that came to mind was of the Baron half-buried by rubble, tearing himself free, with such force that skin came off. Things had been put back into a roughly approximate position and held there with the bandage, then covered with fresh clothes, primarily black and green.
His sister looked almost pristine, wearing a more concealing change of clothes that masked the fact that much of her body was missing. Only one side of her cleavage was laid bare for eyes to settle on. She would be the one who had screamed at me, losing her composure.
I had a very hard time thinking of her as a human. In the Shims, hanging there with Gordon, I had seen people turn neglected strays into neglected, kicked, abused strays, who attacked anything they could. Used for keeping people away, nothing more. Animals that had never seen kindness and wouldn’t recognize that kindness if it was offered.
I would sooner believe that any one of those mad beasts could be made a good house pet than believe the Twin could act like a proper person again. She fidgeted, black-bone fingers taking the barely-repressed hostility out on the fabric of her coat, fidgeting, scratching, already wearing a hole in the material and damaging the flesh beneath enough that blood was welling out. All the while, while she scratched, dug, tore, her eyes were fixated on us.
“Not even bowing as you meet me?” the Baron asked. His tone was incredulous, “I’m insulted enough I might declare this meeting over, right now. Convince me not to.”
Those last four words were an order, a demand, like one might expect from a petulant child. He was taunting us, implying he held all of the power.
“I’m not going to try to convince you,” Mauer said.
The Baron lurched to his feet before Mauer could say another word. The noble extended a hand toward his sister, who took it, standing.
“But I think you want what we’re offering. I’d be happier if you walked away right now,” Mauer said. “Missed out on this.”
“If you’re offering Lambs, you’ll have to try harder. I intend to win this war, for the Lambs to escape and flee, or to defect to your side. I’ll hurt them through others they care about. I’ve already been thinking about how,” the Baron said. “The lovely little blonde will be cut up. Leave her without arms and legs and put her in the bottom of a hole with her creator and feeding tubes rammed down their throats and locked to their faces.”
If he wasn’t saying what he was saying, I could have thanked him. He was showing his true colors to Emily already.
“As for the orphanage those children call home, all the children they grew up with, and their caretaker, I think we’ll cut their heads open, carve away until they’re little better than grunting animals. I can think of a few people who need to be reminded that what the nobles say is law. So I will declare that the lobotomized children are dogs, and I’ll give them out as gifts for people who need those reminders. Or perhaps we’ll put little Susan or Frances in a dog fighting ring and see how she fares without claws or teeth.”
“Your point being that you don’t want the Lambs, because in your eyes, you already have them,” Mauer said.
“Exactly,” the Baron said, extending a finger, wagging it at Mauer while he let a ghastly smile unfold across his torn, burned face. “Exactly.”
“I’m not offering you the Lambs,” Mauer said. “I arranged this because I was asked to. By that girl there.”
The Baron fixed his bulging eyes on Emily. She didn’t flinch. She was steel, from head to toe. Too rigid, but it was better than backing down. I looked at her as he saw her: a girl, horned, clawed, teeth sharpened, eyes altered, her muscles changed to make her faster, more powerful, her skin marked with tattoos.
“Trash,” the Baron said.
She reacted slightly, surprised. I saw the Baron’s eyes taking that in. She would pay for that tiny reaction in spades, because he would know he could demean her. I hated him a little more for that. Emily had earned my respect in the time I’d spent with her. But the Baron was a monster, one that fed on weakness and created weaknesses where they didn’t exist. He’d cut straight to my core, and I’d been fighting monsters since I could remember.
Emily… well, I supposed she had fought her own monsters, on a smaller scale. Her parents were the whole reason she was here right now.
“My lord, My name is Candida Anne Gage. Two years ago my parents and other sponsors gathered and pooled funds to hire a Professor specializing in extension-of-life. Professor Easterbrook. He-”
“I know the Gages. They approached me, and they tried to woo me, talking about you, hinting that you were something special, like every spawn-besotted parent seems to believe. I know Easterbrook too,” the Baron said. “That man is a hack. He had his shot at a standing position in Wolfers, and he didn’t survive the first round of cuts.”
If Emily reacted, I didn’t see it.
“My lord, Professor Easterbrook failed because he couldn’t weaponize his work, and Wolfers needed weapons. He succeeded, and I am that success.”
“You are, to all appearances, a disgusting specimen of common humanity,” the Baron said. His eyes were still wild, too wide, the pupils too small. The hate in his words was clear. “And I don’t hold common humanity in much regard.”
“I know the formulas, my lord. I’ve got enough knowledge of Academy science to create primordials like the ones you fought tonight.”
“But not the ones I captured,” the Baron said, without missing a beat. “Like the ones I encountered. Yours wasn’t among them? Then it was a failure.”
“Mine, I buried, because it was too dangerous. The… Lambs orchestrated that.”
The Baron smiled as he turned our way.
I should have told her not to mention us.
She tried to recover, but pulling his attention away from us was hard. “I- my lord, my parents intended to offer me to you in marriage, so they could gain prestige, and I would make you immortal as part of the exchange, using what I have in my veins and what I know. They hoped to benefit from your ascent as the years passed. Immortal, you could watch your cousins and fellows die, and trade up to better positions. The landscape of politics changes when you have centuries to make your move, instead of decades.”
Pushing a little too hard.
“And in exchange, you want this war to end,” the Baron said, still staring me down. “Save all the rest of them.”
“No, my lord,” Emily said.
There wasn’t a single head or eye on our side of the room that didn’t immediately turn to give all focus to the young woman. Even the Baron looked at her again.
“What did you hope for, then?”
“I don’t care about Mauer. He lied to me. He didn’t tell us what the primordials were. I had to learn the details from that girl there.”
She was pointing at Lillian.
Emily continued, her voice raising. “He started this stupid war that got my boyfriend killed!”
So that was what she was doing.
“Your boyfriend, I have to assume it was the lad with the scales, was very much alive,” Mauer said. “He hugged you goodbye.”
“I don’t care what happens to Mauer,” Emily said. “My lord.”
“And the Lambs?”
She looked back at us. She still looked like an animal, tense, ready to act at any moment. So many primitive defenses placed on her body, as if to give her the tools she needed to ward off the ugliness of the outside world.
But the real ugliness wasn’t the sort that could be fought with claw and fang.
“I would rather you left them alone,” she said. “But if you didn’t… I’d still hold to my end of the deal.”
Damn. Damn, damn, damn.
“Emily!” Lillian called out.
Emily twisted her head away, avoiding eye contact, making a face. She spoke, “Leave the people of Lugh alone. The failure to eradicate them is on the Duke’s shoulders. From what I’ve heard, you’re shrewd enough to do that. Paint the Duke in a negative light, my lord.”
“It would reflect poorly on me, that I couldn’t take over and finish a war that was already over.”
“Let it, my lord. You have the resources and I have knowledge, and if you will take my hand in marriage, like my parents wanted, and then spite them, spit in their faces and give them nothing at all, if you’ll spare Lugh, I’ll give you the time you need to be great. If you spare the Lambs as well, I’ll do it with a smile.”
The Baron stared at me. He was still standing, he had been since Mauer had first spoken. Now he sat, looking at my makeshift eyepatch.
“I don’t care much for smiles,” the noble said, “and revenge is in order. They took members of my family away from me. It’s only fair that I take their whole worlds from them.”
“Then do it for their tears, not my smiles, my lord,” Emily said. “Two of them, I think, desperately didn’t want me to do this. They told me what kind of a person you are, they warned me, and I insisted on going along with it. It would break the heart of that girl there.”
I’d wondered if she was listening as I described the Baron. She was as keen as a new razor when it came to speaking a language he responded to.
“Is that so?” the Baron asked, looking at Lillian.
Lillian didn’t respond, only breaking eye contact.
“It’s a subtle victory, my lord,” Emily said.
“Perhaps… a middle ground,” he said. “If you’re obedient and do exactly as I say, as a fiancee and as a wife, I’ll stay my hand. Every time you disobey, I’ll take one of their loved ones from them. They’ll have no forewarning, they’ll have to trust you to listen and be good.”
Say no, say no.
“No, my lord,” Emily said. “That’s worse than no middle ground at all.”
“And here I was, trying to be fair,” the Baron said. Eyelids appeared around the bulging orbs and then narrowed, giving him a sudden, sly look. His facial features had been altered to give him finer control over them. The bulging look up to this point had been at least partially intentional – the other part would be the sheer damage to his face.
“If that’s the kind of relationship you’re asking for, then the negotiation is over,” she said.
Damn it! She had been doing so well. But she’d given him an out, and he would take it, and he would punish her for it. It was very possible he would go after her family, and try to find an angle with which he could reclaim her. Then she would be tortured until she provided the knowledge she offered.
Not that that wasn’t in the cards as it stood.
“I see,” the Baron said, smiling. He looked at Mauer, as if Emily no longer even existed. “You’ve been quiet all this while. Even as the girl talked about throwing you beneath the wagon-cart, you kept your mouth shut.”
“That was between you and her,” Mauer said, voice calm and calming. It was well modulated, quiet and relaxed enough that it contrasted the Baron’s voice, made any shouts sound too loud, any emotion sound too emotional.
But the Baron seemed oblivious or he simply didn’t care. His voice was a sneer, “Very pragmatic. Just so it’s clear, I’m using pragmatism as a code-phrase for the weak-bellied. You hoped she would solve this problem and you could swoop in at the end and save your own skin.”
“She came to you with an offer to save the people of this city. I came with an offer to save my men, to spare the Lambs’ loved ones the worst of your attention, and to give the primordial back to my people for us to dispose of.”
I looked up at Mauer, surprised. Spare the Lambs?
“What offer?” the Baron asked.
“You’ve heard mention of the new guns, made for killing nobles. Play fair with me, and I’ll swear that any man who points one of those guns at you will be executed. Other nobles will come to fill the void the Duke left. They’ll stare down the barrels of the new guns, and they will die.”
“The girl offers me protection from old age, and you say I won’t die in battle, is it?”
“Yes,” Mauer said. “Roughly speaking.”
I could see that the Baron was now giving serious consideration to the offer. He would have the freedom to move, the ability to show his face and act in public without fear of reprisal. To give him time, and to remove people in his way, it would give him a fast track to a better station.
“I have no guarantees you’ll keep your end of the bargain,” the Baron said. “If you shoot me, I’ll hardly be in a position to complain.”
“That’s true,” Mauer said. “But understand my rationale, and you might believe me. I think you’re dangerous, even deranged. You’re poison to all you touch, and you’re incapable of building, only destroying. Sylvester told me that, and I believed him. I want you alive, a poisonous thorn in the side of the aristocracy. Take the power you can, take territories for yourself and know that any sibling or cousin who arrives to try and seize those things is liable to meet a bullet. Tell all the others a lie that you can hear the bullets and move in time. Every last one who lets their guard down will be one less obstacle in your way.”
“You want to cooperate?” the Baron asked. He leaned back. The edge of madness was gone, now. He was interested enough that he might have forgotten his dead sister in the moment. Even the Twin that stood behind him had gone still.
“I want to… not stop each other to work to ends that serve the other,” Mauer said, voice smooth. “That is, I’ll stress, something that is a lot easier to do if you don’t prey on citizens so much that it upsets me.”
“And the Lambs?”
“That’s between me and them.”
“Mmm,” the Baron mused.
Now Mauer was taking my advice. Leaving the offer on the table.
The Baron found his feet. “A productive discussion.”
The attention of the entire room seemed to hang on him.
“Candida, was it?” he asked.
“Yes, my lord.”
“Stop with the ‘my lords’. If you’re going to be my fiancee, then stop mewling and start listening carefully. Else I’ll kill you out of irritation before we reach Richmond House.”
Candida nodded, very quickly. Then she turned, and she bent low, giving Lillian a quick hug.
A mistake. A weakness, showing vulnerability.
The road ahead of her was as hard as they got. It would be harder, as she turned the back on her new fiance, said goodbye to us. He would find ways to punish her for that. Even now, he walked to the door on the far end of the room, his sister at his side. If Candida didn’t catch up before he passed through, I could imagine he’d give the order to resume the war, the deal and everything else forgotten. Spite defined him.
But for Lillian, who wasn’t seeing that far ahead, even elemental Lillian, altered with wyvern, it was reason to cry. She’d put so much of herself into this mission. The hug was meaningful.
For both of them, I whispered, “I will personally kill the Baron within the next three months.”
Candida turned, looking at me.
“Go,” I said. “Hurry!”
She looked, and she saw the Baron’s sister passing through the door. She ran, and it was only by virtue of the enhanced physique that she reached the door just as he was letting it swing closed. She caught it, and disappeared outside.
Lillian met my eyes. “Did you really-”
I put my fingers out, against her lips. Not the time or the place.
She threw her arms around me, careless of the arm in the sling, careless that her face was rubbing against my eyepatch and swollen face, a tight, emotional hug.
“Why?” I heard Jamie ask Mauer.
Mauer didn’t give a response. He gathered himself up, fixed his coat, and turned to say something to one of his soldiers. He turned, meeting my eye, and then made his exit, not a word spoken.
For a man so good at using his voice, it was eerie how much he could say by uttering nothing at all.
Restless, I sat on the stairs outside Lambsbridge. It didn’t feel like home. Lambsbridge felt haunted, every child I looked at was a lobotomized creature, reduced to a mere animal in status by the word of a noble.
Then they spoke, mostly like normal, and the illusion fell away. Only a mental picture so distinct I could barely distinguish it from reality.
Gordon’s room was empty. The dog no longer slept at the front of the fire while the kettle was on for evening tea with the older kids and Mrs. Earles. We’d shared the news hours ago, and the children had cried. Some were still crying now, up on the second floor, their voices coming through the window.
In the dark, head on the pillow, only our own thoughts for company, it was especially lonely. As it had been when I’d lost Jamie, it was the same now. I couldn’t even think of sleep.
The old Jamie was gone. The new Jamie was distant. He had barely talked, the entire ride back. We had volunteered what we could to the Gages, and then we’d caught our train.
I stood from the stairs, and I walked up the long road.
The Academy loomed, dusted with falling snow that would be an inch thick by morning. Windows here and there glowed orange-yellow.
I’d thought once of the Lambs as being at odds. One Lamb complementary with some, at odds with others. It was getting to be less the case, now, as our group changed. But somehow, we weren’t any closer together.
Men at the gate let me through. I headed to the dormitories. It was a trip I’d made before.
Faculty and guards walked around the dormitory, protecting the youths and young adults who slept within. I was justifying the reason for their existence at this very moment, a boy in the girl’s dormitories.
I found Lillian’s window, and I found it locked, sealed shut against the cold air. I picked up the lockpick that I’d left by the latch the last time around, and flicked it. I was quick to open the window, slide in, and close the window, before too much cold air could flow inside or the lantern of a nearby guard could wash over me. With care, I shut the window and locked it, before turning.
Mary was still awake, her face streaked with tears. Lillian was curled up next to her, her face mashed up against Mary’s chest, clutching tight, like she might fall away into oblivion if she were to loosen her grip any.
Mary had seen me, of course, and nodded with unspoken understanding as I approached. There was more room on Mary’s side of the bed, but I took the foot-wide gap behind Lillian, kicking off my shoes and climbing under the covers, curling tight in much the same way Lillian had, so I wouldn’t fall off. Lillian seemed to relax with a weight behind her, as if oblivion had less of a hold on her.
“Hi, Sy,” she mumbled into Mary’s chest.
Mary’s hand reached past Lillian to take mine, holding it.
Jamie hadn’t had much to say, but he’d asked me a question before he left for his appointment.
“Are you leaving?”
As if, like Mauer, he saw it as a foregone conclusion.
Sitting on those steps, I hadn’t been sure.
But this, listening to Mary’s snuffles and Lillian’s soft breaths… knowing that this was one place I was accepted… the one warm place in all the world? It had helped with Jamie. It let me sleep. It let me put the fear and the loss and the cold aside.
The hours wound on, and I didn’t find sleep, even as I found that acceptance and warmth.
I thought about Jamie’s question, and I wasn’t sure.