“This is going to take all of us,” I murmured.
The train car was dark, without any interior lights. It wasn’t meant for passengers, though it clearly had been, once upon a time. The windows were layered with dust, cracked, and the light that came through was scant, though it grew stronger as we approached dawn. The floor had been removed and retrofitted, the benches and seats pulled out. Now it was only for luggage, a hundred passengers worth of baggage stacked within and kept in place with straps.
Mary was sitting across from me. I was unwilling to look her in the face, but I knew her glare was hard as she fixated on me. I was poised to roll backward and hide behind a stack of bags if anyone came in, but Mary seemed eminently at ease.
“The more of us there are in play, the bigger the chance for mistakes,” she said. “You have to pay attention to whether you’re involving us because you value what we bring to the table or if you’re doing it because you want our company.”
“Right,” I said, staring down at the floor. “We’re killing a noble on his home turf. If that isn’t cause for ordering all hands on deck, then I don’t know what is.”
“We’re all with you, Sy. This is too important to be anything but,” Helen said. She was off to one side, excited in that very still way that Helen so often was. It was reminiscent of a cat, fixated on prey, a reptile poised to strike, and it went with an easy smile that would linger for days in the memory of any male who was of an age to like girls. In the gloom I could only see the smile.
I smiled back at her, but it was a sad smile. “You’re with me, but only for now.”
“I think…” Mary said, “The less you talk about that, the easier this will be.”
“Yeah,” I said. I ached in an emotional way. I was hungry in a way that had nothing to do with food, but it remained that nagging, persistent feeling that consumed me from the inside and reached toward the out.
“When this is done,” she said, “I’m going back to the Academy.”
I winced at the words.
“Lillian can’t leave,” Mary said. “But even if she went… I don’t know that I would.”
“You would,” I said, with conviction.
“I like being useful,” she said. “Having a mission, a destination. The idea of cutting myself free, running, not knowing what happens tomorrow, besides trying to survive? I don’t know. I think of being the mission and I think back to when I was with Percy and the Bad Seeds. When you interrogated me, when I talked to Percy and he didn’t say the things I needed to hear, of the headmistress and the other students, and feeling like I couldn’t catch my balance?”
“What if we went to Fray?” I suggested. I sounded desperate, which was perhaps fitting, because I was desperate. “She could give you a purpose.”
“Probably,” Mary said. I saw her touch her hair, moving it out of the way before she shifted position. “But is that any better than working for the Academy? Do you think we can work for her like we worked for them, and that you won’t have to watch the rest of us die?”
It was a rhetorical question.
No, I told myself.
“Sy, you can’t keep fooling yourself. You know what you’re doing by walking away. You know what happened last time, when you ran.”
Saying I had repressed the memory wasn’t exactly right. I simply hadn’t preserved it. I had to work to decide what was important enough to keep stored in my head, as other things crowded it out and took up property. I’d only retained a glimmer of those miserable days, and now that I was running again, I had to dredge it up, the details eroded by time and by Wyvern injections, and I had to mine those memories for details.
“You weren’t even there,” I said.
“I was,” Helen said. “Jamie was.”
Jamie, off to the side, nodded. All of the Lambs were present, and of them, Jamie was perched nearest to me, but it was an uncomfortable sort of nearness. Lillian was just a little further away. Silent, unwilling to talk, unwilling to even face my general direction.
I could smell her, taste her sweat, even now, separated by well over an hour.
I couldn’t look at anyone. Things were so twisted up and messy, it was largely my fault, and that was only half of why.
“Do you remember?” Jamie asked. “I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t.”
“The Lambs hunted me,” I said. “Nothing came of it, beyond the first one or two times we crossed paths. I got away.”
“We got close. You used your knowledge of the Lambs to anticipate us, then turned yourself in before we got close, toward the end.”
I nodded to myself.
“The Lambs are going to have to hunt you again. We’ll have to, to prove our loyalty,” Mary said. “I don’t want to put too fine a point on things-”
You love your fine points, I thought.
“-But this time the Lambs have me. We have Ashton, and I don’t think Ashton is coming with you.”
I looked at Ashton, who was still, staring out the window.
“Helen?” I asked.
Helen was silent. The smile remained.
No, I hadn’t expected an answer.
“Let’s change the subject,” I said. My voice was tense. “Please.”
The train car was silent, but for the wheels bumping as they passed over less even bits of track or areas where snow had dropped off branches and onto the rail. The entire car thrummed, the bags jostling.
“The mission,” I said, into the dark space. “Strategy.”
The seventh member of our group spoke up. Her doll clacked as she moved it. “Without knowing exactly what we’re facing, it’s hard to come up with answers, Sylvester.”
“We know we’re facing one lesser noble, one who might have taken on some of the Duke’s staff for the time being,” I said. “We’re facing his sister, who we have to figure out how to deal with. The staff of their home, the security countermeasures…”
“Sy,” Gordon said, interrupting her, because she never stopped talking on her own, “I think what Evette is getting at is that you don’t know anything specific. The resources of the staff, the nature of those countermeasures, the nature of any weapons the Baron might have at his disposal. Without that, you can’t devise counter-strategies.”
“Exactly,” Evette said. She held up her posable doll, so it and her hands covered the lower half of her face, and stuck one of its fists in my direction. Looking at her face was easier, even if the features were less consistent than anyone else’s. I could even tell myself that those inconsistencies were part of her. A vat-baby, large eyes, snub nose, wide mouth, everything spaced out slightly wrong, so that she made people uncomfortable if they looked at her. The features changed, the spacing, but she was never attractive. Her skin was smooth, her bone structure fine, but no, too alien to be a beauty. She spoke, moving the doll as if it were the one speaking. “This is Gordon’s domain, not mine.”
“Plan of attack,” Gordon said. I made the mistake of trying to recognize his face. It stung to know I was already losing the particular details and placement. “Don’t respond to them. Set up a situation, determine the nature of the engagement.”
“Which requires information,” I said. Jamie nodded.
“Lay in wait,” Helen said. “Carefully. Even if we’re playing the spider, this is his web. His city.”
“The note you sent back to Lambsbridge for me to read. You set a time limit for yourself. Four days,” Jamie said. He was the new Jamie now. He’d replaced the old Jamie, who had swapped places, now occupying the faint reflection in the dusty glass window.
“Three,” I said, to myself. “Three days. One more day to travel.”
The train slowed down. Approaching a stop.
Yet no whistle, no horn.
I knew what that meant, there was a reason.
“They don’t blow the whistles when they arrive in an area where the nobles live,” Jamie said.
“We’re here,” Mary said.
It was like waking up from a vivid dream, but it was a dream where I hadn’t slept, and it was one where things had almost been okay.
I put them away one by one, in a very deliberate way.
“You don’t have the luxury of fighting them in their home. Watch their routine, and decide when and how to fight,” Gordon said.
He didn’t quite leave at that. “You did alright, you know, looking after Lillian.”
“Doesn’t feel like it.”
“It’s what I was asking you to do, when I made that request one of my last words.”
“I know,” I said, staring at the ground. “I knew.”
The movement over less even rails and between segments of track felt more pronounced now that the train was slowing.
Gordon was neatly put away.
“Trust me,” Mary said. “But don’t you dare tell me the truth. If you tip me off, I’m going to start thinking about what to do, and you won’t like how that ends. I’m your only real ally for the next three days. But on the fourth-”
I didn’t want to sound it out. Mary, put aside. I would be interacting with the real Mary soon enough.
Then Lillian, without any interaction, without any words or anything else. My heart might have broken if I’d tried it. The emotions were still too raw to stir up for amusement or for some abstract way of organizing my thoughts.
“Four days,” New Jamie said. Not the deadline for this mission. The deadline for what came immediately after.
Ashton gave the suitcase he’d been sitting on a pat, and then he was gone, that rudimentary mental image of him boxed up and set on a very rickety shelf in the mind of Sy. I lurched to my feet, feeling surprisingly stiff, and I blinked. My eye was as dry as a bone, as if I hadn’t blinked in a very long time. It stung, and with that stinging, it started to tear up.
“You’ve got a role to play, Sy,” Helen said. I could imagine her hands at my shoulders, the kiss at my forehead. “You know Mary. You know that a failure or a mistake here will cost the other Lambs, and it might put Mary at risk. You decided to move now, so pay attention, put your face on. Play that role.”
Then she licked my hair.
I brought my hand up to touch the moist spot at my hairline. There was no Helen there for my arms to bump into as I raised them. Sweat, nothing more.
I looked at Evette. The doll, much like her face, like all of their faces, seemed to change in ways I couldn’t put my finger on. The details were too hard to remember, for the others, wyvern left me without that, but with Evette, well, she had never been real. An aborted project.
“We would have gotten along, Sylvester,” she said.
“We would have despised each other,” I countered. I stumbled a little as the train came to a stop. “Too much overlap in the same role.”
“You would have adapted your role, like you did with the others,” she said, hugging the doll. In that moment, she seemed very young, no older than Ashton was now. With that lack of age came an odd lack of inflection and exaggeration, as if a lack of age meant more maturity. But it was just the way Ashton was, even the way Helen was. The unrestrained, childlike manner wasn’t there because the personalities wouldn’t be.
“I would have resented you, because you got the big moments, the flourishes, the problem solving, like I resent Helen when she can get someone wrapped around her finger, or Gordon for kicking ass. We would have been oil and water, rivals of the bitterest sort.”
“But it would have been fun,” she said, extending her arms to thrust the doll out, gesticulating with it. “You would have loved me like you love them.”
“A ton of fun, and I would have.”
She was more stubborn than the others, in a way. My musings of what she would have been like were vivid enough to be a hallucination, but I wasn’t sure how to compartmentalize it, how to process her and what she meant, or the message I was supposed to take away.
“…I brought you along because I worried I might get lost,” I said. The explanation was for myself, a thought spoken aloud so it might help me answer my own questions and shake the image of her.
“Is that the only reason you brought me along, Sylvester?” she asked.
The side of the train car made horrific snapping sounds as clasps came undone. The lower half of the outside wall folded out and down, and light streamed in, clearer than the light that came through the windows. The men on the outside began to pull out the luggage down and out for the passengers.
I was alone in the car. I made sure to grab hold of my suitcase. Well, not my suitcase.
I double checked the location of Mary’s suitcase. I’d removed a tag from another case and attached it to hers, with a short note attached. I left it where it was.
Pressing my ear to the door that connected this luggage car to the adjoining passenger car, I could hear the babble of conversation. I reached up to the handle and opened it.
There was a small crowd of people packed in the short pathway that led to the stairs down from the train car. I got weird looks and some resistance as I worked to put myself in the midst of the crowd. Still, I found a bit of space in front of a slower elderly woman, and hauled the small case of luggage into the space with me.
I moved with the crowd, onto the train platform and beyond it.
The Baron Richmond had retired to Warrick after the fighting in Lugh. Named after his family’s territory overseas, the city was small, contained, and existed at his behest. It was a place I’d never been, and I’d never known anyone from the city. I’d heard rumors, however. Richmond House was on the outskirts of the town, and with that one detail, it was easy to give the rumors some merit. Monsters lived here, of the type that resembled humans and of the type that didn’t.
The houses and buildings were new, but the style was old. The houses were riddled with details, with highlights of quality, pleasant touches and signs that people had attempted to make themselves at home here, but in other ways, I felt as though it was too restrained, too ‘safe’. There was a lack of authenticity that pervaded everything. It was early in the morning, and there were far too few people around – a twentieth of what I’d seen in Radham, the morning I’d left to visit Craig. It was considerably earlier, true, but even with that in mind, a mere twentieth?
The houses, now that I paid closer attention, were individually different, but it was a posed sort of difference, as if a singular designer had decided that this house needed a porch, and that house needed a fancy chimney, and the next house couldn’t have either because it would be too similar… Yet there was a signal that something was wrong or odd in how that similarity had been avoided, the angles the houses had been placed at, and the palette chosen.
I thought of it as a singular designer because the palette and the suite of options seemed so lacking in imagination or breadth. Either the designer had been working with a very limited set of options, or their sense for design was a limited one. Alone, given one house or three houses, it would have made for beautiful work. Held to the sword and told to set the standard for a city? It made for a city without enough soul to go around. Every construction a variation on the same theme, layered with snow.
I looked for the tallest building around and headed in that direction, taking a longer, winding route as I aimed to get the lay of the land and separate myself from Mary. It was a church, the religious symbol sawed off of the tower on top of it.
No, wait, had to remember. This was his city. The nobles and the churches didn’t get along, and the nobles had won that particular war a long time ago, well before this city had appeared. Interesting, then, that the Baron would have this city built up around him with an aesthetic he liked, and that he would include a church among it all. A church without the religion, judging by the nondescript stained glass and the lack of any symbol.
The city was framed by flat terrain and by thick collections of pine trees. Richmond House peeked out through it, looking over the city. What drove the Baron or his predecessor to include a church here? Did it lend authenticity to Warrick, when and if Warrick was viewed from a distance, or was it something else? I made a mental note and hoped I would remember to make use of it.
The train was slow to depart, and but for a hiss of steam, it made almost no noise in the process. I imagined it would creep away until it was out of earshot, and only then would it pick up speed as it normally would.
I had a bad feeling. The city was so quiet it left my heart pounding, the thump of my heartbeat seeming to grow louder as I dwelt on it. I felt like I was being watched, and the dim lighting of Warrick in sunrise wasn’t quite enough for me to see beyond the frost-touched glass of kitchen or living room windows. In other places, the curtains blocked the view.
My uneasiness swelled, and it took me a little while to put a finger to why. I could hear something, but it was indistinct, a low sound just below my threshold of hearing. Talking, movement, shuffling, muffled by intervening walls, but all throughout the city, it was taking place. A rumble of thunder without any lightning, muffled by snow, stone, and dense woods.
The people on the street didn’t seem to care. Three out of four of them seemed to stare at me. They were men and women of varying ethnicity, all in dark, nice clothing, their hair neat, and just like the houses, they were individual but restrained. The personal touches were there, but nobody stood out from the pack. Faces were heavily lined, skin bore the marks of hard living, despite the apparent peace and class of the area. They walked with their heads down.
I saw a pale man with coarse blond hair and stubble, both of which were turning white with age. He wore a fine suit jacket and shirt with slacks and shined boots, but he walked with a slave’s hobble. No chains bound him now, but once upon a time they had, and they had pressed hard against his ankles, doing permanent damage, so that he now limped slightly with both feet. He walked with both hands in front of him. When his footing was sure, he walked with his hands clasped in front of him. When he was unsure, he held his arms further apart, and walked with wrists up and hands limp and close to one another. A man who had been in chains so long that habit was impossible to break, a permanent scowl etched in his face.
Except now he wore clothes nice enough that they wouldn’t look out of place in the upper-class dining area of Claret Hall.
The rumble in the background intensified. I stopped taking the long way around and headed straight for the ‘church’, cutting through a path between buildings. Too late.
Doors opened. People emerged in clusters. I stayed between the buildings, the church and Mary now in view, but a growing crowd was between us.
The groups were made up of men and women, sometimes with a child or children, and each group accompanied by a monster. All were dressed well, including many of the more human-shaped creatures. Other humanoid experiments were left naked. A man without any eyes, nose or lips bared his teeth as he walked alongside a family of four. His skin seemed unnaturally thick, and was tough enough to let him walk barefoot in snow, his member swinging as he walked. Another had two and a half legs and tried to walk with each of them, moving forward with the help of an overlong arm riddled in old scars and stitches from surgery.
Here and there, a man in a doctor’s coat or a professor’s coat walked alone. Here and there, again, the monsters walked alone, emerging from the larger buildings. There were more exceptions to the rule, men and women in uniform, stern looking, spreading out and standing at street corners. I could see one, a thug of a man with sleeves left too long, raising his nose to rub snot from the bottom of it with one extended finger, and I saw tattoos at his hand. An ex-prisoner.
Prisoner, slave, working girls, beggar, people who had gone hungry for their entire lives and who wore that history on their bodies, even now that they ate well. I could see the signs, the scars, the marks of old diseases that coin and Academy science hadn’t erased, the sallow skin and premature aging. The picture was becoming clearer, but the monsters didn’t.
As if it was a rule of law that none dared disobey, the monsters went without any acknowledgement at all. Not a word, not a gesture, nor a moment’s eye contact. Watching the scene, I genuinely wondered if I was imagining it all, if I’d put my mind to the wrong ends back at the train and somehow broke something.
All of the families with children were headed in the same general direction, the men and women in other directions, off to find work or manage errands for the early morning.
They can only go out with the monsters, and the monsters can’t come out while the train is here, I thought. Life under a strict schedule, a rule that was obeyed without question.
They had been staring out the windows, watching for the train to depart, and eyes had fallen on me. It was security, the city laid out as a tableau, such that a stranger with a bag in hand stood out. That stranger might very well get reported on.
I grit my teeth. If we’d failed before we’d even started-
No, I couldn’t think that way. They were frightened people, and the one thing they were frightened of above all else was the Baron. Would they speak out and speak up, if it drew his attention, when they had plausible deniability? Probably not.
If I interacted with any one of them individually, however, they might feel compelled to pass on word to more important people. The police force, too, would be something to watch out for. They had a personal stake in reporting anything unusual.
I looked at the thick copse of trees between the city and Richmond House.
More security that way.
I shook my head, turned my attention to the street of people that separated Mary and I, and timed my exit, joining the rear of a family with a four legged, hunchbacked thing at the head of the pack. A wagon that was making its way up the street would block the view of the nearest police officers.
No sooner did I join the group than the hunchbacked thing turned, lunging past the two parents and one child. I hurled myself back, and I landed on my rear end, case of clothes falling free of my hand as I stared up at the hissing thing, my other hand near my jacket, where I had a knife stowed. Drool that had leaked from the corners of its mouth had frozen.
A warning to stay away, nothing more, thankfully.
The parents of the family didn’t look at me. Averted eyes, discomfort, disquiet. The child gave me a confused look, but didn’t speak.
Looking back, I could see that the pair of women and little girls with a long-haired creature in a dress looming behind them had stopped in their tracks. They were waiting for things to move along, keeping a distance that went so far into the realm of ‘respectful’ that it veered straight into ‘terrified’.
I picked myself up and collected my luggage. I mimed the body language of others, hurrying to the side of the wagon I’d been hoping to use for cover. I timed my movement past the rear of the passing wagon so groups of people would obscure others’ view of me. One of the officers further down the street was craning his head, hoping to see what had caused the brief commotion.
Before he made it a point of interest, I hurried across the rest of the road and into the alleyway that I had last seen Mary in. I had to round a corner before I found her.
“You made it,” she said, her voice quiet.
She leaned forward to peer around the corner and watch the procession of people.
“I don’t even know,” I said, in answer to a question she hadn’t asked.
“I was worried you wouldn’t show up,” she said. “Was it so important that we couldn’t be seen together? Plausible deniability if one of us gets caught?”
“Something like that,” I said.
“You look like a ghoul, Sy,” she said. “Dark circles under your eyes. You didn’t sleep?”
I shook my head.
“I was able to, just a bit,” she said. “I spent the rest of my time worrying and feeling lonely. I’m glad you’re here.”
“You’ve said as much three times now,” I said. “I’m glad you’re here.”
“You stayed in the luggage car?” she asked. When I nodded, she asked, “You don’t usually spend nights by yourself anymore. Was it lonely?”
“No,” I said. I glanced around the corner to see the tide of families and their monsters. “No, it wasn’t too bad, except for the lack of sleep. My imagination kept me entertained.”