Three doctors were walking down the street. Each of them were young, no older than twenty-five, two men and a woman. The men had thick sideburns, one with tinted spectacles and a mustache curling up into the sideburns, the other with no facial hair or glasses, but a sharp nose and arching eyebrows. The young woman wore her hair in a style more like a man’s, but with over-styled curls at the front and ears. Helen had worn her hair in a similar style, once. She looked younger than the men, her doctor’s coat large on her and probably intentionally so. There were creases in the sleeves from how she’d habitually rolled them up.
Artists as much as they are doctors, I thought. They seemed to combine the most annoying traits of both groups. They walked while talking, and they expected others to get out of their way. The idea of moving out of the way for a citizen of Warrick didn’t seem to cross their minds. They gesticulated wildly, and though I couldn’t hear complete sentences, I could make out the cadence of those words, the emphasis and the inherent expectations that went with the language. I was put in mind of theater jockeys who saw a good play and then only spoke in lines from that play for weeks afterward, and of niche groups of Academy students who had specialized in a field and ceased to be aware that there was more to the world than that one field.
Mary and I walked down the length of an alley, eyeing the trio up until they walked out of sight. Without an exchanged word or signal, we picked up the pace to get far enough ahead of them. Our suitcases and bags were stowed away under a porch a few blocks away, leaving little to nothing to weigh us down. We had only the essentials. Mary had her weapons, I had the most basic tools
One of those three individuals was about to have a very bad day.
It was strange to follow them like this, seeing them so jovial with one another, so unaware that it was essentially a roll of the dice that determined their fates. My recent lack of sleep might have been coloring my observations with a surreal tint about the edges, but I felt like this might be how Death felt, tracking the ones whose fates had already been determined.
We got far enough ahead and waited at a corner, watching up until a trio of law enforcement officers and their dog walked by the alley. Once we were fairly sure they had passed, we stuck our heads out again, watching and waiting for the trio of doctors to pass.
I changed position, head tilted, my ear extended to the side. I listened, my brain working to pick through the sounds of hooves and feet on the road and the babble of conversation to listen for the conversation of the three doctors.
Had they stopped in the middle of the street? If they had, what were they doing?
Mary straightened, stepping back and away from the corner. I looked her way, and she gestured at the building we were crouching beside.
I looked for the nearest window. Mary moved to the base of the window and held out her hands.
Two striding steps, a hop, my feet meeting her hands, and then she straightened her hands as I straightened my legs. I caught the windowsill, still standing on Mary’s upstretched hands.
I missed working with her. We had always walked in step, in a manner of speaking. When we were on a job and we could work together, it took so little communication for her to convey to me what she needed or wanted, and vice-versa. It was like dancing, intimate, close, two naturally gifted partners moving in sync, able to use the movement of an eye or a change in how tightly a hand was held to suggest something.
The trust was there, when it came to the job. Saddening, that it wasn’t there otherwise. The betrayal loomed.
Mary backed away from the wall, then approached at a run. I shifted to a one-handed hold on the windowsill, bracing the edges of my feet in the gaps between bricks, and extended a hand out and down.
Mary was a flurry of fur-lined coat, lace, hair and ribbons as she climbed the wall with a running start, hands barely touching it before reaching up. Her hands seized my wrist, and my hand seized her wrist. My white-knuckle grip on the latch at the bottom of the window was just barely enough to keep her weight from pulling me down and away from the wall.
She looked up and over.
She didn’t want to share a window with me. No, she wanted to move to the next window over.
I reasserted my grip, then nodded, swinging her away from the window in question. Using me as a rope of a sort, finding the scarce footholds in the mortared sections between bricks, Mary moved away, then used the backswing and her own running footsteps to help cover the distance between the windows. She let go, lunged, and grabbed the other windowsill.
Together, we climbed up, folded arms wrapped around sills as we peered over and in. Mary had more upper-body strength than I, and she was faster to arrive. I stared into an empty hallway and sitting room. There was a great deal of art on the walls, including some very large advertisements, which seemed like a very weird thing to have indoors. The one in plainest view featured a clown in the French styles. The silhouettes of the audience that sat around the clown each had crowns. Some stage production that targeted nobles and the upper-class.
Two, she gestured. One. Gone.
Two of the three, then. Her instincts had been right, or she’d caught a clue I hadn’t.
Wood-water. The two gestures flowed into one another. Wood-water would be tea. Mary’s view was probably of the kitchen. They’d just stepped indoors, they were putting a kettle on, and it would be a while before they stopped moving long enough for us to find our way in.
I settled in, shifting my grip and footholds to prepare for a longer stay, clinging to the outside of the wall. Quick glances confirmed that nobody really had a good view of us. That could swiftly change.
Mary held up a hand, no gesture in place, and then signaled me. You.
I hunkered down just a bit as the pair came into my view. The woman and the man with the arched eyebrows. She was being playful, teasing and affectionate. She kept touching his arm with her hands, then when he finally responded to her, she stepped back and out of his halfhearted attempt at reaching out, giving him a coy smile.
I gestured the general details to Mary, making the relationship between the two targets clear.
The man with the sharp nose and the eyebrows that had been plucked to a jaunty angle took his turn at pursuing the young woman, saying something, moving closer. She dodged out of the way, still flirting and smiling as she did it. She picked up a piece of paper from a desk at the center of the room, holding it at arm’s length. It was a sketched portrait not unlike the mugshots of criminals that sometimes appeared in post offices, but it was of a firstborn.
She used the pretense of work to deflect her beau’s advances.
I communicated this too.
I watched and we waited as the scene progressed. Given the excess of flirting, I expected them to get to the point where they were distracted and we could slip inside. As is, they maintained a strange dance of their own. Never drawing too close, never getting too far away, it was as if they wanted the to-and-fro more than they wanted resolution. They backed off too easily when the other ceased teasing or when any displeasure or change of focus was apparent, and they traded roles on the regular.
There were connections I could draw from that, ideas I could put together about who they were. People who had known each other for too long. They had turned the pursuit into the objective, let things fall into habit. In short, they were what I might have been with Mary and/or Lillian, had I not bitten the bullet and decided to direct Mary to Gordon and pursue Lil.
I could smell the faint flowery waft of girl that had accompanied Mary’s leap in my general direction and her grip on my hand. I knew that she dabbed perfume on her wrist, and I had grabbed her there for the best possible hold.
But I could also, if I turned my imagination to the task, do much the same with Lillian.
It was a lonely thing to do, devoting so much attention and focus to wisps and imaginings. To let myself imagine that the shapes reflected in the mirror put Lillian’s face a few inches from my own.
I made a mental note, that I needed a night’s sleep before I tackled the Baron. It was too easy to let things get fuzzy around the edges.
The kettle whistled, the shriek of it audible even from outside. The man stepped away, leaving the woman to look down at her notes while he prepared the tea.
Clear? I gestured at Mary’s window.
She shook her head.
A moment later, a gesture from her. Three.
All three people were in the house we were spying on. I was able to see as the young man with the tinted glasses and bristling mustache stepped into the living room. The flirting was in full effect with him and the young woman, much as it had been with the other man. They, too, flipped between roles of pursuer and pursued, never settling on a role.
I was used to holding strange positions, but lurking at the outside of the building made us obvious if and when anyone happened across us, and there were officers out there with dogs, sniffing for trouble. I was anxious to get inside and get to work, but, somehow, the trio proved to be a hard nut. They were too active, moving between rooms without ever settling down. Their attention was all over the place.
Lillian, I thought.
It was a conscious decision, to step further away from grounded reality and let my mind use one of the strongest points of reference I had available to dredge up memories and details, and to see things in a different light.
Lillian wasn’t talking to me, but I could make out hints of her expression, where the upper half of her face was reflected in the window. Contempt. These three walked in circles that Lillian went out of her way to avoid. In a way, they were her antithesis. They weren’t healers, they weren’t interested in the people, and they hadn’t taken this position out of a hope for something better. No, they were indolent.
There were clues there, but it wasn’t enough.
Gordon? I thought. Then I remembered that Mary was here. She was already thinking about the attack, how to hit these people where it hurt. No need to be redundant.
“You know they’re using stimulants of some kind, right?” Helen murmured. “You can’t wait for them to sit still because they’re not going to sit still for hours.”
“Yeah,” I murmured back. “I had an idea.”
Mary’s head snapped around to glance at me.
Drug, I gestured at her. Agitate.
Attack? Agitate enemy mess scare? Mary’s hand moved through the gestures in a rapid way, touching on ideas in abstract. I had to turn it over in my head once or twice until I thought I knew what she meant.
Attack, shake them up. Disturb them, scare them. Would the stimulants and altered mental state hurt their reactions and reaction times, create windows of opportunity where there weren’t any?
I thought of the analysis thus far, of how they had acted like they were invulnerable and untouchable when they walked down the street. If we shattered that illusion-
Go, I gestured.
She moved one hand to the window, lifting. It resisted. Locked.
A moment later, she was climbing up, each hand on one side of the window frame. She stood in plain sight of anyone in the kitchen, knife jammed down between the lower window and the upper one, forcing the latch.
“What the-” was the initial statement, as she hauled the window open, ducking through to step inside. There was the sound of something very large and heavy tumbling to the ground.
From my vantage point, I could see the woman and the man with tinted glasses standing, the woman doing so with such force that she slopped tea on the ground.
“Aaaaah!” was the strangled cry from the kitchen. The woman, in the process of putting her tea down, practically dropped cup and saucer in her hurry to go help.
It meant Mary was alone, dealing with three grown but addled adults who presumably had little experience in fighting. I trusted her to hold her ground, but in the spirit of being a good teammate, I hurried to open my window, which had been left unlocked, and climbed inside. The short haired woman turned to face me.
She had a letter opener in hand, an improvised weapon she had grabbed in the time it took me to slip through the window. I had a gun and a proper knife, but I wasn’t wholly sure this was a fight I’d win. Stimulants and fear meant she was unpredictable and possibly aggressive enough to lunge at me, and I wouldn’t win a contest of strength against a twenty-something woman, even a sprite of a woman like this.
I glanced at Mary’s prey. The man was down on one knee, arms flailing. Loops of razor wire had encircled his head and neck, with a line of wire drawing blood at the corners of his eye sockets and bridge of his nose, pressing in close enough to the eye that the eyelid couldn’t completely shut. Another loop encircled his mouth, cutting in at the corners, while a third had him at the throat. Mary stood several feet behind him, one foot out and in the small of his back, one of her hands holding a knife, using the weapon’s handle to control the wire like a kite flier might manage the kite-strings. Her other hand held a throwing knife by the pommel, ready to take the bespectacled man out of the fight.
“Eyes, mouth, throat. That’s going to end gruesomely,” I said. “I’m just not sure which is going to go first.”
The woman with the letter opener glanced back at her friend.
Good. She was suggestible.
“If the wire slips down, he’ll lose the skin of his nose and a lower eyelid, it looks like,” I said. I touched my eyepatch. I was careful to modulate my voice, to sound more bored and calm to make the scene more dissonant and terrifying to our panicked guests. “I’ve traveled down a similar road, and it is far from pretty.”
“Shut up,” she said.
“But the mouth?” I said. “Once that wire properly breaks the skin, if my friend isn’t careful, or if eyebrows there jerks the wrong way in reaction to the pain, it’s just going to slide back, cut through both cheeks like a hot knife through butter, until it reaches the back teeth or the muscles of the jaw. Then there’s the throat. I don’t know if you’ve ever cut a throat, but I gotta say-”
“-there’s a lot of blood.”
She made a movement toward me with the letter opener. Mary managed the wire, and her victim gargled out a low warning scream. Like he was a puppet and Mary the puppeteer. The low scream was enough to distract the woman from her imminent attack. She hesitated.
Weapon, I gestured.
“Drop the weapon,” Mary said. She moved her weapon a little to one side. The wire slid, all three lengths sawing lightly against flesh. Her victim’s shuddering breath was staccato, broken by the intensity of his shudders.
The letter opener dropped to the ground. I extended the toe of my shoe, touched it, and dragged it back and away. I picked it up.
“Take over?” Mary asked me.
I had to walk past the woman, spectacles, and Mary’s puppet before I was at Mary’s side, able to take hold of the knife with the wire. My hand brushed against Mary’s as we transferred the grip.
All three of our targets were frozen. The two that weren’t in the embrace of Mary’s wire could have made a break for the door while Mary and I were preoccupied and one or both of them might have made it. As far as they were aware, I didn’t have a pistol, and if they rounded the corner, Mary couldn’t give chase without risking releasing her current victim.
If they’d thought about it rationally, staying was a very bad idea. But they weren’t in rational states of mind.
Was it loyalty that drove them to stay? Stupid, self-destructive loyalty? My gaze lingered on Mary as she worked, guiding the two others to chairs, making them sit down.
“We only really need two,” I said.
My victim gurgled. I had to lean forward, keeping my hand in place, to make sure I hadn’t accidentally pulled back too hard. He was fine. A bead of blood where his eyelid had been lacerated had to be making his eye sting something fierce. The lid that was caught by the wire and being stung by the blood fluttered like the wing of a butterfly that was in the midst of being electrocuted.
The other two didn’t look or sound happy about what I’d just said, but they at least had the sense to stay quiet.
“We only really need one,” Mary said. “But I’m interested to hear what you’re thinking.”
“Having two means we can threaten the welfare of one to get the other to do what we want,” I said. “If we take out a third, we let them know we’re serious.”
“Point conceded,” Mary said.
“You, eyebrows,” I said, giving my puppet a light kick in the back of one knee, upsetting his balance without quite tipping him over and shredding his face, “Who should we spare?”
His eye rolled back and to one side until he could almost look at me. “Uhr.”
“Then you, mustache,” I addressed the man with tinted glasses. “Who do we spare?”
He seemed horrified at the question. His eyes widened.
But, like any gentleman would, he said, “Her.”
Three friends, two men who were after the same girl, they never made anything of it because they respected the friendship more than matters of the heart. They flirted with each other and with drink and drugs, but never crossed the line.
I asked the questions, but I already knew what the answers would be. I urged things in that direction with the phrasing, ‘who do we spare?’ Even if they weren’t the Academy’s top scientists, they were educated sorts, and the wrong phrasing might lead one to try to play my game instead of falling into my trap. Making them focus on who most needed rescue enabled me to prey on their good breeding.
“Tie-breaker,” I addressed the woman. “Which one do we kill?”
She looked between the two, startled, wide-eyed. The sense of invulnerability had been stripped away.
This makes a good test-run for going after the Baron, I mused.
“Me,” she said. She was defiant, her jaw set.
I met Mary’s eyes. She stood behind the woman, who had twisted around in her seat in hopes of keeping both Mary and me in her field of view. Mary’s thumb hooked past the bottom of her skirt, to the top of her stocking, and I saw the hard line of a blade there.
She drew the knife and drove it home in one motion. With a kind of cough and sputter, too forceful and swift to seem real, the woman collapsed in one direction, tumbling out of the chair and onto the ground.
Her mouth gaped, opening and closing, to little avail, as she lay there, eyes open, unable to draw the breath she wanted to. She coughed, and flecks of blood painted her already crimson lips.
The spectacled man who had been made to sit on the other side of the little coffee table leaped out of his seat, going for Mary. He didn’t make it. A blade was flung down at an angle, piercing the top of his foot and pinning the sole briefly to the hardwood floor. He twisted on the spot, then sprawled, howling in mixed pain and grief.
You could’ve run. You could’ve gone for help, sought a solution on your own, I thought. If you’d been a real gentleman, you could have saved your girlfriend. But you remained stuck where you were, and you doomed yourself.
“Do you have a lab in-house?” I asked.
As the most able to move and act, my puppet spoke, “Yahs.”
“You’re going to take me to the lab,” I said.
The ‘yes’ was a little slow in coming. The man with a knife in his foot looked up at my puppet. A message seemed to pass between them. Nothing too vital, only an awareness of what their reality was.
“I punctured her lung,” Mary said, in a matter of fact way. “Can you save her?”
Spectacles looked up, each gasping breath serving dual purpose as a little moan of pain. He managed the word, “Yes.”
“Then try. While you do that, your friend is going to take my friend to your lab.”
Another exchanged look. It took a kind of bravery, with razor wire digging into face and neck, but my puppet managed the slightest of head nods.
“Okay,” the man on the floor said. “I’ll need my kit. It’s upstairs.”
“Go. Crawl if you have to,” Mary said. Her voice was utterly without empathy. She looked down at the woman, who was still struggling to breathe. “I’d hurry.”
I watched as Mary escorted the man, walking behind him as he hobbled his way down the hallway.
There was an edge of viciousness and ruthlessness to her actions that seemed unusual for Mary. For someone so straightforward, Mary required a lot of reading between the lines, and I was left to guess as to why she was acting like this. She had always been a cold-blooded killer, but the trick with the wire and the man’s face, while evocative, wasn’t the methodology of that efficient killer I’d met at Mothmont years ago.
Was it her finding an outlet for other emotions? For her frustration about Lillian and the loss of Lillian’s black coat? About Gordon’s death?
A part of me hoped that it was an insight that might lead to Mary making the decision to come with me. That our coordinated dance might continue beyond this one mission.
I knew how Mary worked, the things that made her tick. I knew that there were manipulations I could use that would get the results I was so heartsick for. I could have done it with Lillian, so easily, given her a push at a moment of weakness, when she was telling me that she would give up on the black coat and choose me instead.
I could get Helen on my side. I could even convince Jamie, who I struggled to understand and predict, so much of the time.
But it wouldn’t be their decisions. It was a coward’s way out, even if it seemed sensible in the moment. Forgiveness would be found wanting in the days and weeks that followed.
I looked up and met Mary’s eyes.
I might as well ask directly.
“Where does this new anger come from?” I murmured.
“Uhrm!?” my puppet managed.
I watched as she raised a finger to her lips. Silence.
A matter of seconds later, the real Mary made her way down the stairs with her injured subject, a medicine bag in one hand. Like Lillian’s bag, it was one of the newer ones, expensive, the contents very up to date.
“I’ll need to take her to the lab to give her proper treatment,” spectacles said. The woman was managing gasping breaths, but it was as if she was trying to breathe with a hundred-pound stone on her chest. Each intake of breath was an uphill battle, a strain.
“Then drag her,” Mary said. The man wasted no time. I had to pull my puppet back to keep the way clear, as we let the man drag his patient, hobbling as he used one heel instead of his whole injured foot to move. Mary spoke to his back as she followed, “I hope you know, each time your friend doesn’t cooperate, I’m going to put a knife through one of your hands. That’s going to have a big impact on your ability to practice medicine and on this woman’s future.”
“We understand,” the man said, his voice strained and trembling.
In a procession of sorts, we made our way to the lab, which was on the lowest floor of the house. Except for the fact that it was better-lit than any room in the house, it very much had a dungeon aesthetic. Stone walls, stone floor, metal counters and tables, and countless tools. Papers and books were set up everywhere, filled with more sketches than proper medical terminology. Along one side of the room, incomplete bodies floated in tanks. Skin without the flesh, fetuses the size of grown men, and homonculi, vat babies of a far cruder sort than Helen, Ashton, or Evette.
The man laid the woman on one counter, and Mary wasted no time in tying the woman to the rails at the edge of the table, using lengths of razor wire. The man with the spectacles and mustache watched but didn’t protest as she tied a length of wire around one of his ankles, binding it to the same table, restricting his movement.
“I don’t see any of the babies,” Mary spoke.
Spectacles’ expression was an interesting one. His hands busy, he still looked to his friends, as if for confirmation. Neither was in any shape to tell him what to say or do.
“No babies,” I said. “Not here, not like that.”
Another look at the mustache man confirmed my statement. The children weren’t being made into firstborn. A test of the firstborn’s blood would likely reveal that there was no relation between the monster and the family they had been assigned to. At best, the similarities had been designed, added for the psychological impact.
Mary’s expression was an interesting one, as she realized the same, staring at the cases where the monsters were obviously being designed from scratch. Disappointment?
“You’re thinking of Mary Cobourn, aren’t you?” I asked. “The real one. That’s where the extra viciousness is coming from. At least in part. You were the same way with Percy, when you shot him.”
“Ruthless,” I said. “More so than usual.”
“They always go straight after the children,” she said. “Not even using them as resources, but discarding them. Percy, he went after children and he used them to make the Ghosts, but the Crown…”
“Discards children. Treats them as something expendable,” I said. For a moment, I felt a flare of hope, that maybe Mary could be convinced. Then I remembered Lillian. My breath caught in my throat as I started to speak, forcing me to swallow and try again. “That bothers you?”
“No. Not really. But I feel like it should, so I act like it should,” Mary said. She hopped up to sit on a counter, knife in her hands. “I feel like I should want it to stop, and at the same time, I owe my existence to it.”
Me too, probably, I thought. I had no idea where I came from. We kept hearing about children disappearing or being cast away. I’d seen the slaves in Lugh, the non-clone counterparts of the Bad Seeds, and disappeared mice. Each and every one could have pointed to my origins.
I would likely never have the answer.
I think you’re a terribly dishonest person, Mary, I thought. Maybe that’s why we get along so well, when left to our own devices. But you’re not dishonest to the rest of us, or to our enemies. Only yourself. How many times have you said that now, that you aren’t acting because you feel or believe a certain way, you say you’re doing it because you think you should. Killing Percy, wanting to track down the ghosts…
You just wanted Percy to die. Lillian didn’t factor into it.
This… this bothers you. And you won’t ask, leaving me to.
“Where do you send the firstborn babies?” I asked.
“To the nobles,” the man with the mustache said.
“We don’t ask,” he said. He was busy using a set of modified hand-bellows to get the woman to breathe. Her eyes were open and staring.
I nodded. I allowed some slack in the wire that wrapped around the face of my puppet.
“Do you really think you deserve any mercy at all from us?” I asked, of all three of our victims. “After what you’ve done to those families? To those children?”
From the looks in their eyes and on their faces, I imagined it was the first time they had really considered the question, or if they had faced the morality of what they were doing before, it had been long ago, a question that was easily glossed over as they studied texts and focused on advancing, finishing projects, and succeeding in their careers.
I looked at Mary, who was so close and yet so far away, sitting on the other end of the room. I knew I could convince her to come with me, that I just had to ask in the right ways, raise the right ideas. I knew also that I couldn’t.
It was a very lonely experience.
In the midst of that, I turned to another Lamb for consolation. Evette lurked, agitated, far too eager to get to work.
My puppet leaned over a metal counter, gripping the railing that bounded the edge. He didn’t seem willing to move, except to gingerly dab at his wounded, twitching eyelid, and blood dripped down his face from the myriad cuts and lacerations, pooling on the counter.
Tying their fates to those of their friends had been part of my goal. To break them, challenge them, to satisfy some internal craving I had to validate how stupid it was to stay in a bad situation out of loyalty.
“I have a laundry list of projects I’m wanting you to complete,” I said. “You three can take turns getting them done, I don’t care. But you are going to have to make an ugly decision. My friend and I were going to force whoever we conscripted to modify themselves to look like a proper Firstborn, so we can move freely through the city. That’s a hard thing to do to yourself, so someone’s going to have to volunteer, or they’re going to have to choose one of their friends as their patient.”
I could see the looks of horror on their faces. It was my turn to be cold.
Mary and I hadn’t actually discussed this. I’d only thought about it in terms of getting someone else’s Firstborn fresh from the shop and using that.
This was more poetic justice.
“Don’t worry,” I said. My voice was dark. “They’ll be able to return you most of the way to your original appearance. That’s one project. Project two, are you all familiar with the studying drug? Wyvern?”
Mary’s eyebrows went up.
“I’ll explain the reasoning later,” I told Mary, lying through my teeth, before I turned back to my puppet, “I’m going to need a batch of that to start. Then, let’s see, while I’m thinking about it-”
“Poison gas,” Evette said, grinning.
“Poison gas,” I said. “Three things, as a starting point. I’ll come up with more as the night wears on. And I want to see you do every step. Let’s see what sticks.”