“I promised you an explanation,” I told Mary, as I kept my voice low.
As citizens of Warrick glanced down the length of the alleyway beside the church, Mary and I had elected to move along, making ourselves harder to track and close in on. The people of this city seemed to have been terrified into compliance, and that raised questions about who the police were, standing in the midst of intersections and on street corners, watching over everything. I couldn’t imagine anyone committing any crimes in Warrick, given the atmosphere, and that suggested the local ‘law’ was here for the likes of us.
The best thing to do was to stay moving.
I braced myself. “Lillian and I broke up.”
“Alright,” she said.
“Alright?” I asked. “That’s it? You sum up your reaction with one word?”
She turned her eyes to me, and I could see the emotion behind them. Dark things, sharp things, cold things.
“Ah,” I said, in response to the look.
“If it was Lillian standing right here and the positions were reversed, she would hit you. Several times, I think.”
“Jamie would tell you off. Gordon would too, but he’d be blunt about it. Helen… I don’t know. I imagine she would go to Lillian and cling to her, hug her to make her feel better, and shoot you spiteful looks, all in an effort to make sure you knew you were the bad guy.”
“Sounds about right.” Spiteful looks not because spite was something Helen really felt, but because it made sense.
“But you like the attention. You crave it, it validates you and gives you something to use. You can twist the anger, the frustration, or the sadness into something else,” Mary said. “I’m not going to give you fuel or anything you can use. Lillian is my friend, and she deserves better.”
Mary sure was evoking a lot of emotion for someone who’d just said she wasn’t giving me anything. Thing was, it was distilled disappointment. Her tone was what I might expect from an owner chastizing a puppy for shitting on the rug. The owner doesn’t expect much better from the puppy, but by golly and by gosh, they were going to let that puppy know they weren’t happy to be washing shit out of the rug.
“I listened in on the meeting,” I said. I kept an eye out, looking everywhere but at Mary. “They know Lillian took Wyvern. They know about me and her. If I stay, she loses her black coat. If I leave… there’s no guarantee, but there’s at least a chance. We talked about it. Lillian and me. We kind of agreed. This is what has to be done.”
“And this?” Mary asked.
A part of me had hoped for a one-eighty, a shift of attitude. Another part of me knew she wouldn’t. Her aggression, the shift of topic to press the attack, it caught me off guard.
“This… I needed to get away. The cards were right. It’s something we can use.”
“She deserves better, Sy.”
“There is no such thing as better, not here,” I said, my voice tense. I sounded hostile now. “What do you expect, Mary? It’s the Academy, it’s the nature of what I am and what she’s striving for and the fact that they can’t go hand in hand!”
We’d stopped walking. I was facing Mary. Looking her in the eye was hard. Keeping my tongue under control was harder still.
“What I expect, Sylvester,” Mary said, “That you don’t get into a relationship with her in the first place if you’re not going to bend over backwards and make things perfect. You’ve got a good head on your shoulders. Use it. Find a way to get Lillian her black coat without her heart being broken along the way.”
“You might as well ask me to make pigs fly,” I said. “That coat she wants to wear? There is not one single genuine human being out there who has done the work, met the criteria and earned it without shedding tears along the way. It’s a reality, and it’s one we ran smack-dab into in Lugh, when we were asked to retrieve Emily Gage. She’s going to have to make the tough calls and face ugly compromises. Heartbreak comes part and parcel with the job.”
“Not with this. Not with the Lambs,” Mary said. “We support each other. We make each other stronger.”
That’s my cue to ask ‘And Gordon? You’re not experiencing any heartbreak right now?’ Then you say ‘that’s different, I knew what I was getting into’, and I retort that Lillian did too. That she knew I was a bastard. I say that, and you concede the argument and you hate me a little, for a short period of time.
I didn’t want Mary to hate me for the short period of time we were about to spend together.
‘I know I could have handled the breakup ten times better, and if I were in my best frame of mind I could have even twisted the situation to our advantage or forced the committee’s hand. But I’m not doing okay. Losing Gordon hurts. I’m hurting as much as Lillian is, maybe even more. I’m just better at hiding it.’
I say that, and you remember what I said in front of Duncan. You pry, and I don’t think I have it in me to lie to your face and stay clever enough to avoid dropping any clues about the fact that I plan to leave for good.
It was like talking to the Mary I’d imagined in the train car, except this was a Mary I could look straight in the eye. The conversations played through my head, and I dismissed them all.
“You’re right,” I finally said.
“I know I’m right,” Mary said. “If you knew there was the dimmest possibility you were going to hurt her, you shouldn’t have entered into this relationship.”
I almost went with the same sort of response I had just given, agreeing, offering little resistance. Almost. Instead, I said, “That’s wrong.”
The look in her eyes was dangerous.
“It’s wrong,” I said again. “This going as badly as it did doesn’t invalidate everything that came before. I don’t regret it, even knowing what it came to. I’m not going to be ashamed of it, I’m not going to apologize. If someone gave me the opportunity to take it all back, I wouldn’t, and I don’t think Lillian would either.”
She broke eye contact, scowling a little more. She knew I was right.
“If you avoid every relationship because it could go bad-”
“That’s not what I’m saying,” she said, glowering. “I’m saying she deserves better than that. If you wanted to date Fran and then say ‘oh, well, bad things sometimes happen’, fine. But Lillian has kept us alive, she’s staked everything on this. She’s a good friend, a true Lamb, and you don’t just roll the dice. Not with her. You don’t do that, Sy.”
Again, I couldn’t challenge her with the most obvious retorts, because it brought up Gordon and it got ugly.
Did she want me to challenge her and bring up Gordon?
“You’re saying it’s fine, then, to get into relationships, to figure ourselves out and figure other people out, let hearts get broken, but only if it’s people we don’t really care about?” I asked.
She didn’t finish the statement. She didn’t have a retort. She continued to glare daggers at me.
Given her body language, I imagined that somewhere in her thought processes, a part of her brain was justifying stabbing me. She was tense, and I imagined her all coiled up, ready to strike out at the slightest provocation. Because a verbal lashing wasn’t immediately in the cards, a physical one wasn’t out of the question.
With that in mind, I touched her like I might touch a readied mousetrap. My hands touched her upper arms, near the shoulder. I hadn’t planned to, hadn’t even thought I would, but I reflexively grabbed hold, bunching the fabric of her coat in my fists.
“In a better world, Mary, I would agree with you. That at our age, we should keep things light. That a good friendship is more important than a potential relationship. But we don’t have the luxury of time, and none of us, with the exception of Lillian, get to plot out our futures that far.”
“You’re saying that like I don’t know,” Mary said. Her voice was stiff, wooden. Her arms were straight down at her sides.
“And you’re blaming me as a proxy for yourself, because you’re feeling complicated things about Gordon being gone, and the relationship you two had,” I said.
She looked down at me, frowning.
“He cared about you, you cared about him. You two were awfully private about what you had going on. I don’t know if it was mostly talking or throwing knives, or if it went way further. Knowing Gordon, I could make guesses, but that’s between you and him. The stuff Jamie told you probably covered Gordon’s perspective. How things ended doesn’t impact what you had. Don’t let it.”
“Yeah,” she said, but her voice was hollow, as if she was barely paying attention.
I grabbed her harder, twisting the fabric so it pulled tighter against her upper arms. “How things ended doesn’t impact what you had. Don’t let loss or change poison or twist your memories. Understand?”
Her focus shifted, her eyes meeting mine.
She knows. She’s just figured something out. It was a thought that flashed across my mind. In my urgency to give her a final message, to work in a plea before I left the Lambs, that she might remember after I was gone and look at in a new light, I had tipped her off.
She shook her head, smiling a bit. “And somehow you did it. I got into a discussion with you, and you turned the tables on me. Worse, you almost make sense. Just like our very first conversation, in the boiler room of Mothmont.”
The tone, the change in expression, the cadence of it, I could put that together, and I could know with near certainty that I’d been wrong, and that Mary hadn’t yet figured it out. If she had, there would have been a moment where she had to consider the implications, or the smile might have faltered, or something. She wasn’t an actress like Helen, she was a plant, a hidden weapon. She could lie and play a role as well as any of us but Helen, but Mary couldn’t bury something of that magnitude while exchanging one mask out for another.
“I left a message with Jamie, to look after Lil,” I said. “She might stay at Lambsbridge, instead of alone in the dormitory, I don’t know. But she will bounce back from this. The most important thing is that she continues her studies and takes her shot at a black coat.”
“I feel like I should be there for her,” Mary said.
“I know,” I said. “And I know it sucks, not having her be there for you.”
And there, finally, on hearing that, Mary gave me something that I didn’t have to infer or analyze to dig up. A moment of weakness.
None of us were coping well. We all buried it and dealt with it in our own individual ways.
Mary missed Gordon, and she had complicated feelings, and it was possible that Lillian was the only person who could hear her out about that.
“I can’t send you back to her, but I know the next best thing, as far as getting all of this relationship muck and mixed-up emotion out of your head,” I said.
And there, even as she waited for me to finish saying it, I could see Mary adjust, holding herself straighter, focusing more, ready.
I didn’t supply the answer. I waited for her to, instead, because it was more important that she respond, that she draw the conclusion instead of me forcing it on her. If I simply said it, then Mary would take it as manipulation.
Odd, that I was being so calculating and manipulative in trying to avoid letting things be taken that way.
“You want to kill the Baron,” she said.
“Yes. Thank you, God.”
We both turned a little away from each other. In a very practiced way, we each looked in different directions, checking the critical directions of up, north, south, east, and west, without wasting effort by having more than one person check the same direction twice. I picked up my luggage, gestured, and we started walking faster.
“You didn’t have luggage when you got on the train,” she said. “And you weren’t wearing those clothes.”
“I had all night alone in the luggage car,” I said. “I looked around. I found a suitcase that belongs to someone about my size. The clothes are a little juvenile, but it should do me.”
“Bound for here? Can you blend in?”
“No and no,” I said. I raised a hand in a signal to stop and leaned around a corner to look out toward the street. Beyond the exit of the alley and across the street, two families were talking. The monsters that lurked behind either family went without so much as a glance, but one wife that was doing less of the talking seemed to shrink under the creature’s presence. She was young. Barely out of her teen years and already a mother, by the looks of things, her child one or two years old. Her husband was old enough to be her father. “Nobody can blend in without having a black coat, police uniform, or a pet monster.”
“Then we need a pet monster,” Mary said.
“Maybe,” I said. “What we need before any pet monster is answers. I’ve got a name and a general address. I think that’s our first stop, if it’s humanly possible to get there without getting spotted.”
“We should lay low until dark,” Mary said.
“We could. But a place like this, I imagine there’s a curfew, and I hate to spend time doing nothing, when we want to minimize how long we’re gone for. At least right now, we can stash our luggage and try to get lost in the crowd,” I said.
“You tried that, not ten minutes ago,” Mary said. “You got growled at.”
“If we headed to Richmond house instead, then-”
“No,” I said. “It’s not an accident that this whole place is so hard to slip through. That stretch of woods between this city and Richmond House are going to be another puzzle altogether. Gordon was right, the-”
“Gordon?” Mary asked.
I blinked, then recovered. “I’m thinking about something he said a long while ago. Sorry, fatigued. But this turtle is too hard to crack. We need for him to poke his head out. If we can figure out his routine, then we can exploit it.”
“I’ve never imagined a target on this level who didn’t have the sense to vary his routine,” Mary said.
“He likes his trappings,” I said. We’d reached the end of this particular maze of alleyways. Going left, right, or forward would mean stepping out of the alleys and onto the street, which meant danger. Going back was backtracking, and that wasn’t good either. I gestured, Mary confirmed, and we crept along the alley. I kept my voice down so it wouldn’t be overheard beyond the general noise of horses traveling on the cobblestone road nor the babble of conversation. “The houses, the people, the church in a city where religion is discouraged, the system of this. I’d put him down as someone who enjoys a perverse routine.”
“Okay,” Mary said. “If so, that’s something we can exploit. Gordon’s right.”
It felt strange to hear her say it like that. I wasn’t sure if she was humoring me or not.
After we had lost Jamie original, I’d had several slips like that. Mary had noticed enough times. She had always been polite enough to hold her tongue, but that was Mary. She’d been a lady from the time she was a young girl.
The coast was clear enough. No officers. A quick glance suggested we were close to the river. Head up, walk with purpose, and trust others not to ask questions.
We crossed the street, my heart pounding as I expected an outcry, a howl from one of the creatures that stood by.
“Do we have a destination?” Mary asked.
I fished in a pocket for a slip of paper, I handed it to her.
“This is atrocious writing.”
“Craig’s. He’s a street kid, you’re a Mothmont girl. Don’t hold him to your standards.”
“This says… Mcormick? And water… wheel?”
“Water mill,” I said. “There are only a few places I’ve seen so far that could have one.”
Cities were living, breathing organisms, and even though Warrick was an artificial city, it needed to drink. Any city that formed would first do so around the wells, the rivers, and the coasts. A careful eye would be able to see that city’s flow. It wasn’t memorization or calculation like Jamie might be able to do, but I had seen enough cities and paid enough attention to the logic behind them that I’d developed a limited instinct for things. What made sense, what didn’t, and why.
This was a stitched city. The aesthetics of the individual pieces were of an older sort, the formation of it all relatively new. It was dead and lifeless, still, the overall system worked, but it was forced, motivated by something I didn’t yet understand. There was no will here, either. The Crown had this place fully in its grip.
But the stones that built this place had come from somewhere, the design still echoed designs that had come about naturally, and water, transportation and everything else had been prioritized in their own way.
We reached another street, closer to the woods, but it was so narrow that there was only room for one wagon to travel down it – if another were to come the opposite way, one of them would have had to stop and turn around.
Though the street was narrow, we had a vantage point to see along the length of the street. It stopped at a ‘T’-shaped intersection, the right and left branches running alongside a river. Where the river disappeared into the trees of the woods, a water mill was perched at the mouth. A wooden wheel, grown as much as it had been crafted, with branches rather than struts, was turning. The sound of it was audible even from a distance.
“Craig gave you directions, didn’t he?” Mary asked. “You didn’t find this on your own.”
The street was out of the way, the houses were less grand, but they were still nice enough, and nobody here seemed to be out and about, though I could see movements indoors. Just far enough on the outskirts that anyone with a place to be wasn’t going to be here. I felt a dozen different set of eyes on me as we made our way down the street.
I was glad that the water mill was as large a construction as it was. The aesthetic was the same as so many other buildings in Warrick, but the structure was half-again as tall as the typical house, and rather long. A short stone bridge allowed us to cross the river.
I rapped my knuckles on the door.
I heard shuffling, the scrape of wood on stone, likely a chair, and then the door swung open.
The man was tall, muscular, and healthy. His beard was full and his hair was wild, and his hands bore the callouses of someone who had been working with his hands for a very long time. Something gray-black had stained them, coloring the cracks even deeper.
His eyes, though, heavily lined, recessed, and set below bushy eyebrows that had been touched by the staining and left more bristly than they might normally have been, were filled with darkness.
“You have the wrong address,” he said.
“Mcormick,” I said.
“You might know my name, boy, and you might have a reason to be knocking on this door, but that’s a very different thing from me being willing to hear you out and hear your reasons.”
He started to slam the door – I stopped it with my foot, planting it at the foot of the door so it couldn’t move any further.
His gaze, as he looked down at me, was a dispassionate one. I didn’t flinch. I stared up at him, though he was nearly twice my height.
He reached forward, and he seized me by the throat. He started to lift, and Mary caught his wrist, adding her strength to my weight, keeping him from hauling me off my feet. If I was reading him right, going solely by the sheer lack of empathy in his eyes, he might’ve thrown me down the stone steps leading up to his door.
“Girl,” he said, “I’m far from being a gentleman. I will strike you, and I will break those pretty white teeth of yours with one good backhand. Let go of my arm.”
Mary let go of his arm.
As he lifted me up, however, he came to an abrupt stop. Mary’s other hand had produced a knife, which she now held so that the blade pressed against his wrist. Lifting me up further would have meant raising his arm into the blade.
I saw the movement as another blade appeared in her other hand. The blades had been oiled so that they wouldn’t reflect light, I realized. No flash of reflected light as they passed through the sunlight. This one she pressed into Mcormick’s inner thigh.
He lowered me, very slowly, and then released me. His arm remained extended, bent at the elbow, with the knife held against the wrist.
“Awfully close to my dangling vitals, girl.”
“Walk backwards, slowly,” she said. “We’re coming inside. Do you have any friends or family in there?”
“No, no friends or family. My wife is out with my little girl. She will be back. I’m not saying that to threaten you or try to encourage you to leave sooner, I’m just making sure you know.”
Mary nodded. “Walk.”
He didn’t walk. “You didn’t ask, but I’m going to tell you anyway. I’ve got a ‘born in there. I don’t want you to be surprised.”
“Born,” Mary said. Less of a question, more of a trying out of the word.
“Mm,” Mcormick made a sound. He started to walk backward.
“Wait,” Mary said. Mcormick stopped. “Call it off. Do whatever you need to do to make sure it won’t cause us any trouble.”
Again, that passionless look. He looked at us like he might look at a bad paint job on a house. We warranted a slight downward turn of the lips, nothing more. “He won’t cause you trouble.”
Then he walked backward. We followed, Mary staying with Mcormick, while I focused on closing the door, looking around the surroundings where Mary was unable to.
The ‘born’ was sitting in the midst of a trio of flat rocks that had been propped up to accommodate it. Normal furniture wouldn’t ever have done. Six hundred pounds, easily, all apparently in fat, not muscle. It smelled like filth had gotten trapped in the crevices and festered. That in itself wasn’t so monstrous. No, it was the face. The head was shaped like a baby’s might be, overlarge in proportion to its body, rounded, sparse in its hair, with large features. Frozen on that face was an expression of laughing glee, the open mouth exposing spaced out teeth, many of which had grown in wrong. Its mouth was open wide enough that it couldn’t swallow properly, and that left streaks of drool to accumulate and dry out on its bare, naked chest.
It watched me, its head and eyes moving fluidly as I crossed the room.
I forced myself to break eye contact with it. I took in the house. Everything was good quality. Money had been spent to buy the pots and pans, the utensils, and the dishes. There was a rug on the floor, which was stone with wood grown between the stones, both stones and wood cut to a flat surface, all the splinters and hard edges smoothed away. A fire burned low in the fireplace. From the other room, I could hear the steady grind of the mechanisms that the water wheel outside was helping to turn.
“We got your name from the mice.”
“I know more than one group of mice, boy.”
“Doesn’t matter, I don’t think,” I said. “All that matters is that you’re the friendliest face we’re going to see in Warrick.”
He smiled at me, and there was a sneer somewhere in that smile.
“We’re in town for a little while. We need answers,” I said. I took a circuitous route around the room, bending down now and again to look at shelves, and the books and knick-knacks that had accumulated on those shelves.
“The way I look at it,” Mcormick said, “I did my time.”
“Prison,” Mary said.
“That too. But I’m talking about the mice. I helped them out, I more than repaid the debt that I owed them for helping me through my younger years, for teaching me skills, for all of it,” he said. “That debt was repaid tenfold the first time I needed to lose something hot and I handed it to the mice of Bradford. It was a good score, and I got none of it, you hear what I’m saying.”
“I hear what you’re saying,” I said.
“Because the mice owe me, now. These scales aren’t balanced. They pay me back by taking in anyone I send their way. Not many, but one every five years or so, yeah? And this is how I’m imagining they got my name.”
“Maybe…” I said. I looked over the kitchen, taking note of the various knives. I opened a cupboard and bent down, looking inside. Potatoes, onions, and some strange Academy vegetable I’d never seen before, which was riddled with roots. I felt around the edges of the cabinet, and found bottles. They were glass, but they were the sort of glass that was meant to be broken. There were chemical labels glued to the faces of each bottle. The man watched as I set them on the counter. “…But I think you’re losing sight of the goal. You give us answers, and we disappear.”
“Alright,” Mcormick said. He shifted position, leaning back. Someone less keen than Mary might have been startled by the sudden change in position, been slow to keep the knife at his throat as he leaned back. “I’m listening, boy.”
It was, I noted, an extension of one of the little tricks that I knew the mice sometimes learned. When arms were being tied, the base of each palm was pressed together, the elbows held far apart. When the arm was returned to an ordinary position, there would be more slack available. He’d held one position as he was restrained, held at knifepoint in a chair, but there had been room for slack.
He was talking to me, but he was testing Mary. Had she been slow, he might have made a move. No coincidence, either, that this curmudgeon had timed the trick with his agreement to cooperate. Who would retaliate against him by cutting him, so soon after he’d agreed to answer questions?
I changed direction, heading straight for the man.
He tensed as I drew close, reaching for the table he’d seated himself behind. Mary reminded him of the knife, and he went still.
On the underside of the table, less than a foot from his hand. I had to work for a second to figure out the right way to pull it free. A loaded pistol.
“Answers,” I said. I tucked the pistol into my pants, under my jacket and behind my shirt. “Let’s start with the general stuff. Tell me about Warrick.”
“A lovely town. Quaint,” Mcormick said.
I knelt by the chair, felt the underside, and freed the hatchet that was there.
The way he looked at me like he hated me a little suggested I’d found the last weapon in arm’s reach.
“A quaint town where the people are scared to death,” I said. “And where you feel the need to have weapons stowed throughout the house.”
“Mm,” he said. He smiled. Again, that sneer.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll be more specific. What the hell are those things?” I used the hatchet to point in the direction of the creature that on the far end of the room.
“The ‘born,” Mcormick said.
I really didn’t want to have to torture this guy to get a straight answer out of him. Mary shifted the knife. This time it drew a line of blood. She and I both watched as the blood congealed, formed a droplet, and traced a line down Mcormick’s neck. Mary caught it with a handkerchief before it could meet the collar of his shirt and stain it.
“We got sent here, or we volunteered to come,” Mcormick said. “Convicts, the poor, the bankrupt who didn’t want to give up the lives they’d led, slaves, injured soldiers. Get paid a small amount for nothing except living here. Nice homes, nice things.”
“But?” I asked.
“But, we’re the poor, we’re criminals, we’re bastards with demons that breathe down our necks, yeah? It’s a perverse sort of game, right? They expect us to fail, and most of the time, enough of us do that we don’t need to worry. Man, woman, child, whoever, they get taken up to that house in the woods, and they don’t come back. Playthings for Baron or Twin.”
“Most of the time,” Mary observed.
“Sometimes he’s in a mood. Sometimes he’s upset about something, and he takes it out on us. Good policy, should that time come up, to be the sort that keeps one’s head down, not taking visitors, and not drawing any attention.”
“And the ‘born?” I asked.
“Keep us in line, keep us from running. They remind us of the circumstance every minute of every day, like consciences given form, and I don’t think there’s many here who don’t have something ugly on their conscience, yeah? If we were to stir up something and cause a fuss, they’d rouse. The right cue or the right signal, they put us down. Meanwhile, we’re expected to feed them, keep them healthy. They’re our papers, in a manner of speaking, and getting caught without your papers is trouble.”
“I’m guessing you don’t know the exact cues or triggers,” Mary said.
“Mn,” Mcormick grunted.
“You said your wife and child were out,” I said. “Without him?”
“They are. She’s with a friend of ours. So long as that friend has a ‘born with, no problem.”
“Money, freedom from jail, in exchange for a lack of freedom here, being under their thumb. I can see where some would take the deal.”
“Most regret it. Starving on a street is better,” Mcormick said. He gave a nod in the direction of the monster at the far end of the room. “That right there, that’s hell. Leaves a stain on you.”
I saw Mary’s expression change. The knife wavered, and Mcormick winced a little, pulling his head back a fraction.
“Yeah,” Mcormick said. He seemed almost gleeful at Mary’s realization. That glee, in turn, led to me connecting the dots, seeing a faint glimmer of resemblance. “There’s another rule you might have noticed, a price that’s paid. Gotta form nice and tidy family units. Then you got to give them your firstborn.”