I walked over to a chair on the far end of the table, plopped myself down, and felt underneath the seat. I found another hatchet, the metal scarred with use in a way the other one hadn’t been. I gave Mcormick a look and set it down on the table.
He was still enjoying our shock.
Best to change the topic. I couldn’t let him take the conversational upper hand.
“How old is your child?” I asked. I glanced at the monster on the far end of the room. “Your second child, the one who’s out with your wife.”
“She’s six,” Mcormick said. His expression seemed to harden as his daughter came up in conversation.
“And you just keep guns and sharp tools under every other surface at her eye level? I don’t know how you cope. I’ve spent a lot of time around kids, and it’s full time work as is, just keeping the littlest blighters from finding inventive ways to murder themselves without sticking weapons everywhere.”
“A strong hand and a careful eye,” Mcormick said. “If the weapons are needed, she knows to go for the gun, and she knows how and when to use it.”
“On herself or on the enemy?” Mary asked.
Mcormick leaned back in his seat. Mary kept the knife near his throat. “Herself, for now. Later, when she can shoot without the gun jumping out of her hand, I’ll teach her to shoot the people coming in the doors.”
I nodded, taking it in. I was starting to wrap my head around Mcormick, and I could appreciate that even if he was a crotchety bastard, with an emphasis on the ‘crotch’ and ‘bastard’ parts, he was at least a good dad to his daughter, willing to do what it took to raise his kid with the skills she needed. I hoped that it was a trend among the mice.
Calling him a ‘good dad’ in general might be taking things too far. I glanced again at the monster on the far end of the room. Fat, drooling, its eyes were blank while its expression was frozen, forever caught in the midst of raucous laughter.
“Daniel,” Mcormick said. He was staring at the monster too.
Daniel. I could see the monster react as its name was spoken.
“Judge me all you want,” Mcormick said. “Won’t be more than a drop in the bucket compared to what I do to myself.”
“You’ve been helping children escape, you said,” Mary spoke.
“The wrongs of the parent shouldn’t become the burden of the child,” Mcormick said. “But if they stay, that means getting enmeshed in the town, keeping to the rules, being the Baron’s.”
“You help them leave, and point them to the mice,” I said.
“When I can. But every time I do, they get closer to me. It’s a matter of time before the Academy comes calling.”
“Weapons won’t be enough,” I said.
“I have more than just weapons prepared. Before I make another move, I’ll set some more things up, too.”
“It sounds as if you’re expecting to get caught,” Mary said.
“Wouldn’t you?” Mcormick asked. He twisted around to ask the question, briefly glancing at the knife. He couldn’t even hide the resentment and disdain on his expression. So much ugly emotion pent up inside that it had turned his personality sour. “I have to expect it. What else am I supposed to do, girl?”
“I don’t know,” Mary said.
“I don’t know either,” I said. “But I get the impression you care about your daughter as more than another set of hands to shoot the Crown’s people when they come for you. It seems odd, to do what you’re doing as if you expect to keep your daughter alive, yet also act like you’re doomed.”
“Maybe…” he paused, giving the word emphasis for the sentence that would follow, “…you should ask what you came to ask, then get out of my hair before my wife comes in. She does have a gun and the sense to use it. I don’t want me or her getting hurt in the skirmish as she lets herself in. Especially not if she’s going to come in and invite her friend inside with. That’s enough people that none of us walk away unscathed or happy. You don’t want my wife’s friend dropping her shopping bag and calling for help, and I don’t want that attention either. Yeah?”
I put my elbows on the table, staring across its length. “We intend to kill the Baron, Mr. Mcormick. Maybe you should consider giving us what we need without fighting us every step of the way, so we can make a serious attempt at pulling it off.”
“Up until you get caught, interrogated, and you tell them about me.”
Mary glanced at me.
“It’s not out of the question,” I admitted.
“But,” Mary said, her eyes on the knife and Mcormick’s throat, “We know very well how the Academy works. We know how good their interrogation is, and that very few people earn the academy’s wrath and escape it.”
“Do you, now?”
“Sy has your gun. I have knives. If it comes down to it, we’ll take the same route you’ve offered your daughter.”
“You’ll try,” Mcormick said. His scowl become something painful to look at, a twisted expression. Was he imagining a scenario where his daughter had to go for the gun?
“Look me in the eye, Mcormick,” I said. “I’m not a mouse. You’ve had a weird feeling about us for a while now, probably. That girl who is holding a knife to your throat is better than you expected, right? As good as people three times her age who’ve been doing this sort of thing for a while now. You’ve been trying to get a read on us and failing, because you don’t understand what we are.”
“What are you?” the man asked. He met my eye.
“Within the last week, I had the Baron Richmond take one of my eyes out with a sword,” I said. “Me and my team killed three of his sisters and injured the other.”
I watched him carefully, trying to read the emotions that crossed his face. Eyebrows moved up, then together, the jowl-lines between cheek and mouth went up, deepened, and finally disappeared as his mouth widened in a frown. Muscles stood out at the corner of his jaw as he stopped looking at me and started staring through me, his thoughts caught up in drawing connections.
Initial surprise and disgust at the outrageous nature of the story, then realization as he thought of something, and consideration going hand in hand with concentration as he pondered the implications.
“You know that the twins are four people,” he said.
“Two monsters nested in their elder sisters. Only one of the elder sisters remain, now.”
“And this talk of marriage?” he asked. “No, don’t tell me, I don’t want to know.”
“Okay,” I said. “I won’t tell you. I will tell you that we are very good. This won’t be the first or even the fifth job we’ve handled where I’ll have to be prepared and ready to put a bullet in my own skull in a timely way. You’re looking me in the eye, you’re hearing what I’m saying, and now you need to admit to me that you believe what I’m saying.”
A bit of a trick, that last sentence. It was something that worked well on people in trances, or people who were drunk or who had otherwise taken leave of their senses. Hit them with a series of facts that would get them nodding their heads and agreeing, and then drop a vague statement they might agree with. You see me. You hear me. You believe.
Dealing with a man like him, who was lost in thought and a small storm of complex emotions, no longer rationally and logically working his way through the conversation, this little trick had a chance of working.
And, to tie it together, because it was bad form to leave something like that hanging without tying it up, giving him something believable that makes the whole picture come together.
“There’s a reason we knocked on your door,” I said. “A reason your name came up. People out there believe in us, and a lot of people believe the Baron needs to die.”
Believe believe believe. Repeating the word to hammer it in.
I watched as he gave that statement its fair share of thought, drew in a deep breath, and then huffed it out.
“Alright,” he said. “Put that knife away? I’ll deal fairly with you.”
Mary glanced at me. I nodded.
After dealing with a recalcitrant Jamie and a Lillian who had transitioned from terrified to being drunk on Wyvern, I was happy to be dealing with a Lamb who required far less work to work with.
“I can throw these,” she said. “I prefer throwing them to stabbing with them. It keeps my clothes cleaner. Don’t try anything.”
“Mm,” Mcormick grunted.
Mary stepped away, moving around the table until she stood just behind my chair.
“What do you need to know?”
“The ‘firstborn’. In what context are they a danger?”
“Don’t rightly know,” Mcormick drawled. “They don’t tell us. Daniel there, he’s not so much of a problem. My wife and I worked together to cut off his oxygen, early on, before he was completely grown. As a consequence, he’s less active, slower to think. The less fuss he makes, the freer we are.”
“They pair you up, expect you to marry and have a child, to act like a good couple? What do you do while the child is growing up?”
“There are enclosed areas here and there around the town. Prisons that aren’t prisons. The drunks get used to living without drink, the criminals get watched. We can find our own partners there, and if we don’t by the time our stay is up, they’ll give us one. I found my wife.”
“Was she a mouse too?” I asked.
A single slow nod of acknowledgement. “From Boggin. They didn’t call themselves mice Same idea. Kids band together, look after each other. I’d just got out of prison, she’d got out of a bad relationship that her husband didn’t survive, didn’t take long for us to have Daniel. They gave us the house and told us that if we wanted to leave for anything, we needed to go with a neighbor. It builds a perverse kind of community, don’it?”
He turned and spat. Well aimed, placed in the coals of the fireplace, where it sizzled.
“Accelerated growth?” I asked. “I didn’t see any baby Firstborn.”
“You’ll have seen the doctors out there. They’re Academy students who showed more aptitude for the kind of art that the Baron likes than they had aptitude for science. I don’t know what treatment they get, but they’re usually big enough when they show up. At one year old, Daniel was seven and a half stone, easy. Stronger than you’d think, for his age.”
The more he talked about Daniel, the more unhappy he seemed to get.
A change of topic was in order.
“The Baron? His behavior,” I said.
“Stays in Richmond House, most days. The house is guarded by leftover Academy projects, warbeasts and weapons that don’t crowd the place up too bad. The ones that aren’t housetrained, bigger and nastier, they lurk in the woods between here and there. The screw-ups go to him in wagons that get checked at three different places, near start, middle, and end. When there haven’t been enough or when Baron or Twin get in a mood, they get in their wagons and come down here in a procession. About twice a year, at unpredictable times, there’ll be other nobles with them. Those are the worst times. Nobody’s safe, and they usually want a lot of people.”
“Twice a year?” Mary asked. “Special events?”
I could see Mary’s line of thinking. “Special events like a wedding.”
“That would make the Baron harder to access,” she said.
“Maybe,” I said. “But he also knows about the rifles, that nobles are on the hitlist.”
That got Mcormick’s attention.
“Encouragement more than discouragement,” Mary said.
“Probably,” I said. I looked at Mcormick, “Recently. His behavior recently. Last day or two.”
“Holed up at the house. He came in on a train with a guard. Everyone kept out of sight, and when people started talking, word was that only one of his sisters was with him, she looked hurt, and he had a woman. Hasn’t set foot outside, and it’s rare he’d do that. Come home and not immediately collect some people.”
His sister is hurt and he’s got a fiancee to torture, I thought. He wouldn’t hurt Emily this soon, however. We had time before things got really bad for her, I hoped.
“When and if he comes into town, it’ll be with a guard? How many?” Mary asked.
“Varies. Fifty soldiers. Plus some beasts his doctors have put together. Four or so wagons, they’re nearly identical, each with soldiers standing on the outside, one hand on a railing, another on their gun. I’d give you particulars, but they don’t come down this road often enough for me to have seen ’em. They’ll park, soldiers get out, so they’re all ready with guns up, some protecting the Baron, some going after the family he’s targeting. He’ll emerge only sometimes, protected by circled wagons and by a squadron of soldiers, and if he doesn’t leave someone behind with their Firstborn, the house will be left alone for a few days before the neighborhood gathers, assigns duties, and work together to clean up. Once the house is scrubbed and the things moved out, someone else gets moved in.”
“He’s been doing this for years?” I asked.
“The pattern changes now and again, but he’s been at it since he was a child. His aunts and uncle used to look after Richmond House, but they took over a territory somewhere and left him behind.”
“Darn it,” I said. I drummed fingers on the table. “Most people, when they get into a routine, they get sloppy. Weaknesses emerge, or they stop caring about covering their backs. This is an ugly combination of a spree killer and a ritual killer. You can’t predict who he’ll target, but when he does target someone, he does it with practiced ease. He covers his back and he’s backed by the entire infrastructure and setup he’s created here.”
“Soldiers, police…” Mary echoed my thoughts.
“And the Firstborn,” I said. “This is something more than a perverse joke. This is… I don’t know, it’s a trump card he’s been holding up his sleeve for a while. If we could just watch him at work, then we could find a weakness, see if he’s using these trump cards and how. But that means letting him have his victims, it means hoping we can be in position to spy on them somehow, without knowing for sure where they’ll be, and it means we’re hoping he makes two visits to town, so we could learn from the first and apply what we’ve learned to the second.”
“You’re rambling a little,” Mary murmured.
“Okay,” I said. I brought a finger to my mouth and bit it, so I wouldn’t keep talking.
Fatigue was affecting me. Not the lack of sleep, though it was a factor, but the emotional fatigue. Talking and throwing myself into this task was keeping me from thinking about things I really didn’t want to think about. I’d just gone a step too far down that road.
While I gathered my thoughts, thinking silently instead of thinking aloud, there was a rattle at the doorknob.
I was out of the chair in the next heartbeat, sweeping up the two hatchets without a sound.
“-there might be more trains coming. We’re expecting guests, and there’s nobody to ask if we’re supposed to keep the store open or if we should shut down,” a woman’s voice spoke.
“How much of an interruption could it be?” another woman’s voice.
Mary and I ducked into the kitchen, which wasn’t in direct view of the front door. I opened one of the cupboards I’d checked earlier and ushered Mary into it. She was able to slip in amid pots and cooking racks without making a sound. She couldn’t stand up, but with two hands and one leg out, she could poise herself over the things. I shut it, lifting the handle so there would be less weight on the hinges.
I opened the cupboard where I’d seen the vegetables earlier, and climbed in, careful to move my feet so I wouldn’t kick them. I eased the door shut behind me, and peered out through the gap between the hinge and the cupboard door itself.
“I keep hearing it’s going to be incessant. Good afternoon, Daryl.”
“Good afternoon, Bethy,” Mcormick replied. “Nance, do you need help with your shoes?”
“No, father,” was the reply. The little girl.
A short pause, as the conversation between the women continued.
“I know I promised you tea, but I just remembered-” Mcormick’s wife started. She stopped.
“You remembered?” Bethy asked.
“I’ve been putting off a job of clearing up the upstairs,” Mcormick’s wife said. “I found reasons not to do it three times already. If this next week is like what you’re talking about, if I don’t do it today, while things are quiet…”
“I understand. Take care, deary.”
“You too, Bethy.”
Kissy-kiss sounds. Cheek-smooches, like the ladies did across the ocean in the central Crown kingdoms.
I heard the door close.
“You’re scaring me, Daryl. Tell me this isn’t in my head.”
“It’s alright, it’s alright,” Mcormick soothed.
“Your hand is under the table. The look in your eyes?”
“It’s alright. We have guests.”
That was our cue to exit the cupboards. I opened the cupboard door and straightened, giving Mary a hand in getting to her feet. She had enough spatial awareness to avoid kicking any pots or pans as she got out of the enclosed space.
“Nance!” Mcormick barked out the word. Then, more gently, he said, “No need.”
Assuming she’d been by the door and thus out of sight at the time I’d climbed out of the cupboard, the little girl had covered a surprising distance while I’d been focused on Mary. She’d gone from the door to the corner of the room that was just past the family’s ‘firstborn’. Very thin books with colorful covers and small baskets all sharing a shelf suggested it was her corner, where her things were kept.
Given the tension I saw, I had to assume that there were guns hidden there that required more than a cursory look to find.
The lady Mcormick was younger than I’d expected. Where Mcormick was thirty-something and parts of him looked twice that, with the creases and lines in his face and hands etched in by the work he did here in the mill, the woman looked eighteen and had parts of her that looked thirty. A tiny scar at one lip added a surprising degree of character to her face, and her eyes- heavily lined, they looked more dangerous than Mcormick’s.
“You told me,” she said. “You told me, right off the bat, the first time you pulled this, that I would always know. I would always be consulted.”
“This isn’t that,” Mcormick said. “They aren’t-”
“This is reckless, especially when things are this uncertain. They’re talking about trainloads of guests. There’s even a rumor that the Baron is going to move elsewhere, now that he’s married, and there’ll be another son of the Richmond line taking up residence in the house, if Warrick is even standing by the time the festivities are done.”
“Lower your voice. Bethy doesn’t like not knowing things, and she might be dragging her heels as she leaves, in hopes of hearing something. These two aren’t mine. They let themselves in and held me at knifepoint. They did some talking, I did some listening. Now they’re just about ready to leave and stop disturbing us, I’m hoping.”
“Just about,” I said.
The wife was young, but she was one hundred percent momma bear. She was strong, healthy, and looked especially dangerous in the midst of her family. The kid, though, she had my attention. She was a stick, with arms I could almost encircle with middle finger and thumb, not because of a lack of food, but because she was starting to grow, with a mind to her father’s tall stature. Her dark hair was straight, her eyes large, wary, and angry. So many of the things common to children, even some of the younger mice and the more damaged children of Lamsbridge, they weren’t there. Warmth, innocence, dependency… She was the product of her environment, a reflection of her parents, of the Baron’s control and darkness seeping into this town, and of her father’s training, whatever it had been up to this point.
Given a few more years, I expected he would teach her how to fight. Not pretty fighting with stances, but how to really hurt a person in a brawl, how to go for the weak points. She would learn to use knives and guns.
So many of the mice learned some of these skills because they were bored, or because they were scared, and the oldest boy or girl at the time didn’t know how to make the fear go away, except by equipping them against the fear. Few went about learning or being categorically taught every dirty trick in the playbook. Most of the ones that tried lost heart or weren’t healthy enough to go about that much vigorous exercise. Gordon was one of the few who’d been healthy and determined enough. This girl, by virtue of who her parents were, could well be another one.
I could see something Lamblike about her, and I felt a kind of pity mixed with relief at the thought. The former I understood, but the latter took me a few moments to figure out.
Even in a dark place like this town, people are finding ways to fight back, to struggle, and make themselves strong.
Mary moved, getting my attention, reminding me that we needed to do something here.
“Three questions, then we’ll go,” I said.
“Alright,” Mcormick said.
“There are others? You don’t work alone.”
“You can’t honestly expect me to answer that,” he said.
You just did, through your body language. It wasn’t essential to our mission, but it helped me to know that there was something of a push back against the Baron’s influence on this town. “Can you point me to someone who was left behind as a survivor, after the Baron visited? Someone angry who could be convinced to talk?”
He looked at his wife.
“There are too many problems if we try to wait for him to attack someone. We could be in the perfect position with the perfect timing, and we might not be able to spy on him and spot a weakness. But if we ask a survivor…”
“You might get a clue,” Mcormick said.
“I still want answers, Dar,” his wife said.
“You’ll get ’em. Let me get rid of these two peckerwarts first. At the foot of Cricker’s street, there’s a fountain. Three statues in that fountain that look in the four cardinal directions. Go to the house the fish pointing at. The old woman there, she lost her family, and she’s been emotional enough about it we’re all thinking she’s going to do something and get herself dragged off to Richmond house. Can’t even get involved to help without getting ourselves hurt. Be wary of the firstborn that family left behind for her. It’s irritable and dangerous.”
“Noted,” I said. “Final question, then. The church?”
“What about it?”
“A church with no religion. It doesn’t have any apparent purpose, all the symbols are stripped away. It’s bothering me, not knowing.”
“Seems to me that you answered your own question, boy,” Mcormick said, sneering a little in disdain as he said it.
“Answered-?” I started to ask it, then cut myself short. “Of course. Right.”
Mary gave me a curious look.
“Church with no symbols. It’s a symbol unto itself, isn’t it? A slap in the face of people who are most in need of the church as a refuge. Hollow, empty, bastardized.”
“Something like that,” Mcormick said. His daughter had walked over to him, where he still sat in the chair. He put his forearm across her narrow shoulders. “Some used to make a habit of dropping flowers in front of the door, as surreptitiously as they could. The Baron’s doctors invented a beast that could sniff people out by the oils their fingers left on the flowers or something. It’s not the first time that something has happened with one of the churches that are around town. They’re there to tempt us, to bait us. All of this, it’s a game to that noble, a farce.”
“It’s something of a game to me too,” Mary said. She seemed to be focusing on the little girl more than Mcormick or his wife. “I’m competitive. I don’t like losing. My friends killed three nobles, and I didn’t even get to participate. I want this one, and now that I’m this close, I want it so badly I can’t keep my fingers still. If he thinks it’s a farce, then I want to see if I can make him laugh while I put the last few knives in him.”
“Yeah?” Mcormick drawled out the word. He looked at her with what might have been renewed respect. “You let me know when you’re done, why don’tcha?”
Mary gave him a single nod.
We took our leave from the mill, checking out the windows that the coast was clear enough, then moving quickly.
“You alright?” I asked Mary.
“I’m good,” Mary said. I could see in her eyes that she was playing through the permutations in her head. Where I considered the plans, she was considering the fight. Full-on bloodthirst, now, stoked by what she’d heard from Mcormick. She had enough details that she could start to visualize how things might play out when we went for the Baron.
“If you’re good, then it’s all good,” I said.
“I like having a mission, a destination,” she said, simply.
I nodded. Her focus was on watching our surroundings and on anticipating the fight. I could give her a minute, then bring her out of it, get her thinking about what we needed to do to prepare. I was distracted in my own way. If we didn’t need to talk, then that was fine. I could use the time to think. To consider the problem.
The two of us became three of us. ‘Nance’ had been so similar to the girl I’d seen in the train car that I’d started thinking about the Lamb that never was. The features remained alien. Evette, with eyes too large, a doll in hand.
Is that the only reason you brought me along, Sylvester? the question echoed in my mind.
Evette, she’d been the problem solver. The plan had been for her to be the one who devised the solutions, serving in an additional role as a medic. Lillian had taken up the medic part. I’d become the problem solver in a very different way. Now she lurked, taunting me with the question. Why had I been thinking of Evette? What kernel of subconscious was now nagging at me, begging to be recognized.
Pieces fell into place, like the tumblers of a lock I was picking. A half-dozen questions I’d been asking myself were answered in one fell stroke.
Evette smiled at me, hugging her doll.
Where were we going to stay when we weren’t working, when the streets were so hostile and the hiding places so few? Everyone moved in groups, practically. The citizens, the local law…
Where could we get information?
Was it possible to get a firstborn of our own, without the prices that usually needed to be paid? The ‘papers’ we needed to travel this city without drawing second glances and possible legal attention.
“We’re not going straight to that street with the fountain,” I said.
Mary gave me a surprised look. “You have an idea?”
“We’re already committing the worst crime one can commit in the Crown States,” I said. “What’s another capital breach of the law? You can get some practice in for whatever it is you plan to do to the Baron, and I can see if I can’t indulge in some problem solving.”
“Do tell, Sy,” Mary said. She had a light smile on her face. She knew I was toying with her at this point, trying to work her up.
“I feel like it’s time I started learning some Academy Science. Let’s take over a lab and see if you can’t get the doctor in charge to teach me something or other.”
Evette cackled, and I was the only one who heard her.