All things considered, with the precarious situation and the immense danger we faced, our situation could have been far worse. The preparations Mary and I had made were now paying off. We were largely invisible, walking down the street in the company of Simon. His flesh hung loose on him, his lips parted in a permanent leer, and he limped as he walked. Yet because of him, we barely got a second look from the people around us.
The arrival of the hoity-toity types to Warrick might have played a part in that. As citizens emerged from their houses, the new arrivals made their way through the city. All were dressed in their finest, and given the status they held in society, their finest was impressive. I was more worldly than most, and I didn’t recognize some of the fabrics they wore.
Man, woman, child, and the occasional monstrous pet. They were colorful, crisp, and eerily bright as they walked through the city, gawking at those they passed, talking noisily.
Mary and I were part of the crowd at this point. Earlier, I’d observed how people spaced themselves out. Now I could see how they gathered together, trying to flee indoors and watch from the windows, clinging to the sides of the streets when and where they couldn’t. Members of the local police force were blocking them from retreating further.
The locals were a stark contrast to the upper crust types. Their heads were bent slightly, their eyes averted from making any lingering contact with anyone around them, and they were dressed in dark, drab clothing. The clothes were nice, really, without any loose threads or worn patches, but they still weren’t the sort of thing that was meant to draw attention to the wearer.
I watched, Mary close beside me, as the officers of Warrick gathered together. The uniformed men formed something of a wall, keeping the new arrivals from progressing down the street, much as they’d boxed in the locals. They were tense, I could see, and very mindful of where their pistols and swords were, pistol at the right hip, sword at the left, with exceptions for those I had to assume were left-handed.
The leader of the officers spoke to the person at the head of the group. Mary and I weren’t close enough to hear. Here and there, the people at the sidelines spoke among one another. Husband to wife, parent to child. I deemed it safe to communicate with Mary.
I murmured, “A city like this, with all the rules in place, the authoritarian control, everything so carefully poised? They don’t want the visitors to disturb things too much.”
“Whatever happens, if the firstborn are as prone to getting violent at the slightest provocation as we were told,” Mary said, glancing at Simon, “Then disasters are going to be likely. Someone’s going to make mistakes, and people are going to get hurt.”
“I would suspect,” I said, very carefully, “That this is entirely the plan.”
“People don’t tend to want trouble at their wedding,” Mary said.
“This isn’t about the wedding,” I said. I watched the aristocrats glance at each other. They seemed somewhat upset, but it wasn’t horror, it wasn’t anger, it was the look of a group of people who had hoped to have a picnic out in the sun and saw the rain arriving. “No, he doesn’t care about that. But if people get hurt as collateral, it’s very much a personal touch to the whole affair, here. If his fellow nobles die, it’s less people in his way as he asserts a position of true power. It’s very possible he doesn’t plan to be here for much longer, and he may be sacrificing a large share of the citizens of Warrick in the course of the celebrations here.”
Mary nodded. I watched her face as her eyes took in the crowd around us. Scared individuals.
He’s going to find his allies among the nobles and upper crust, then he’s going to secure their safety, assuming attack. He’s going to be especially careful, whatever happens.
“Listen!” the local police chief raised his voice. “These people are the guests of the Lord Baron Richmond, and they are not the last that will arrive! For the time being they will be confined to the city center! Many have accommodations to arrange and errands to run. Outside of the city center, they will abide by the same rules you do! To facilitate this, each group of guests will be joined by you and your firstborn! You will do as you are asked and help them wherever possible!”
There were murmurs in the crowd.
“Remain outdoors, make yourselves available, and accompany anyone who asks! Spread the word to your neighbors. We will be checking homes!”
As if to demonstrate the power the visiting members of the upper class held over Warrick’s people, someone in the crowd pointed at a man, a wicked smile on his face, and made a beckoning gesture.
A hundred sets of eyes watched as the man who had been beckoned lowered his head and started to walk. His son, about ten, held his hand, walking at his side, while his firstborn acted like his shadow, following behind. The thing would have been about eight feet tall if it could stand straight, but its back arched high and then swooped down, putting its head at a lower level than its shoulders. All down the spine, insect-like limbs moved and twitched incessantly. Its arms were held close to its chest, wrists bent, fingers curled.
Following the aristocrat’s move, other visitors began picking out those families that would be part of their retinues. I saw a woman with elbow-length gloves and a long dress reach up to touch a firstborn’s porcine face. From the look on the face of the man that belonged to the firstborn, he fully expected it to snap and kill both the woman and his family.
The stark horror in his eyes, it struck a chord with me. He was someone who was having to willingly and obediently face down his worst nightmare.
I saw the chief of the local police say something to the woman, and she pulled her hand back and away. The expression on her face was anything but apologetic. She smiled like she was in on a joke, and the police chief didn’t smile back.
Accidents were going to happen. Days and lives were going to be ruined before this was over. Lives would be cut short, and families would mourn the dead. The energy around us was one of tension, everything wound so tight it could almost start humming.
The most obvious members of the group had been picked out. Those who remained were those with the sense to evade notice and avoid eye contact. They couldn’t be summoned if they couldn’t see the points or gestures of the aristocrats. This, in turn, led to the visitors walking further down the street, until they got close enough to call out.
Being small had its advantages. At the back of our particular little cluster of crowd, Mary and I were hard to make out compared to the adults around us. My hopes that we wouldn’t be targeted grew fainter as the aristocrats made their way further down the street. They were treating this as a game, now. To find the more attractive people, the people who least wanted to be picked out.
A woman near me started shaking. She looked as if she’d been the nervous type well before she had come to Warrick. She was petite in the same way that some of the older mice I’d known were. Someone who hadn’t been well nourished in her formative years. Her husband put an arm around her, but his comforting gesture went with an expression that seemed like it had run out of patience long ago.
“You,” one of the aristocrats said, targeting her. The woman jumped as if she’d been poked with something sharp. The aristocrat was a man, dark haired with a dark beard and a mean smile. His jacket was embossed black wool with gold leaf.
“I have a daughter to get back to, we left her at home alone to watch over the fire, and our firstborn is-”
From the look of the man’s smile, it wasn’t going to work. He was the sort that would get along with the Baron. The sort that took a perverse joy in the suffering of others.
“I said you,” the man said. “I’ve been instructed to gather flowers. You will show me where I can do that.”
The woman’s husband took the lead, pulling her along with him. The firstborn was a scrawny one, with a face not unlike the younger Twins had had, bone with skin stretched over it, and no muscle or fat to pad it. It wore clothes too large for it. It moved very slowly.
We needed a plan. We needed to get as close to where the Baron was likely to be as we could, and in an ideal world, we would need to do it sooner than later. How would this unfold? He would come down from the house in a show of strength and panache, he would show off his wife, who was likely in the process of being dressed up and having her physical modifications removed, and he would meet the Crown nobles and aristocrats.
If Fray or Mauer made a move then, he would be ready to retreat. The opportunity would be lost, and he likely wouldn’t show his face until all was over and done with. Even with a small army at their disposal, I doubted Fray or Mauer would have an easy time attacking the noble in his home. With a large army, well, I doubted they could easily manage a large army without attracting attention.
If the enemies weren’t here, then the Baron would socialize with the visitors, make a show of demonstrating just how much control he had over the locals, very probably by killing quite a few of them, and then retreat. The wedding would happen tomorrow or the day after.
We needed to relocate to the city center, where all of the aristocrats were being corralled. That was the place where the Baron would meet and greet, and where he would make his announcements.
But simply walking there would be a problem. We would be picked out and made victim to some aristocrat’s whim.
We weren’t being scouted just yet, but the crowd wasn’t budging, much as rabbits might freeze as they noticed a predator. They averted their eyes and waited until the nobles drew near enough to pick them at random.
If they could only get through this part of things, then they would be able to stay in the background, tend to their yards or stay away from where the aristocrats were, and avoid too much trouble. If they got picked, however, and they were at the whim of whatever rich asshole chose them, and they would be plunged into a volatile situation where they might run into noble, or where some idiot might cause enough of a stir to disturb the firstborn.
I peered over the visiting members of the aristocracy. Some that were new to money, akin to the Gages, and they clearly had something to prove. There were others I could recognize as older money, there were families, businessmen who wore their trades on their sleeves, and politicians.
New money would be too worried about ruining what they had. Old money would be too inflexible. Families with influence were hard to wrangle, but doable. Businessmen, I wasn’t sure I could get the leverage. Politicians were used to being manipulated, and often frustrated with the status quo, given how they would always be second to the Crown in authority, but the ones that were good enough to be here knew how subterfuge worked and how it worked against them. Manipulation would be possible, but it would require too much effort.
My eye fell on a young man, no older than sixteen. He wore a black wool coat that he left open, and a fine scarf. The boots he wore suggested he rode, though they had been shined to a glossy black and there were no telltale scuff marks suggesting a recent ride. A hunter, if I had to guess, and a scion of a noble family.
He was in the company of a pretty red-haired girl, a touch younger than him, who had clearly had her face altered. Nothing jumped out at me as bad handiwork, but the fact that I noticed she’d been altered and wasn’t a born beauty meant that there were subtle signs. Given enough years, I expected she would go down the same road that Mrs. Gage had. The little signs would add up and she would be something regrettable. A wannabe noble. The girl wore a dress that was just far enough away from being white and had just enough of a blue tint added that she wouldn’t steal the spotlight from the bride. It was close enough to be dangerous, considering the volatility of the nobles, however.
I touched Mary’s hand. She glanced down, and I gestured.
Dutifully, Mary shifted her weight from one foot to another, a slight movement, but enough to draw notice, when half of the crowd around us wasn’t daring to breathe. She met the boy’s eyes, then looked away. She did a good job of acting, shrinking down and back.
It really didn’t take much at all.
“You,” the hunter said, without any hesitation. Mary looked at him, and he spoke again, “Yes, you. Come on, now.”
Mary and I stepped out of the crowd, followed by Simon. Eyes were on us as we joined the pair. The red haired girl looked me over and looked somewhat disgusted. The young hunter’s attention was wholly on Mary.
“Walk with us,” he said.
He turned to go back the way he’d come, but he paused. “When I or Lanie tell you to do something, I expect you to respond much as you would to a noble, but call me sir. Call her miss.”
“Yes sir,” Mary said.
“Yes sir,” I echoed her.
“Why did you come?” he asked. “Are you related?”
“No sir,” I said. “Not by blood. But our parents were paired together, and we were made to come with. I have to go where the family firstborn goes.”
“Hmph,” he made a dismissive sound. He resumed walking, and we followed. The red haired girl, Mary and I made three people that were all walking side by side behind the young hunter. Simon followed us, limping.
My mind was working to come up with answers well in advance of any questions he might ask, so I could sound natural and normal.
Useless, in the end. Neither he nor the girl in his company seemed to care about us.
The girl spoke, “What do you do to amuse yourselves in a place like this?”
I had to fight not to give her an incredulous look. Did she not really understand what this city was?
“Individually, we read, miss,” I said, “We pursue hobbies like painting and wood carving that can take place in the home.”
“I like needlework, miss,” Mary said. She was still playing the mouse, and in doing so, she reminded me of Lillian to the point that I wondered if she was specifically copying her best friend’s mannerisms. “I am very good with a thread.”
Behind us, Simon made a small spitting sound, a sputter cut short.
“But what do you actually do?” the girl asked. “I understand this nonsense with the monsters, but no self respecting person our age grows up and stays entirely out of trouble.”
“Miss,” Mary said, “This place affords us no respect at all. We do our best in the day to day, we stay out of sight and out of trouble, and that has to be good enough.”
“I don’t believe it,” the girl said.
“Enough, Lanie,” the young hunter said. “Let it be.”
“I just spent three hours on a train, I was up when it was still dark out so we could catch the train on time, and now I’m supposed to sit on my hands and do nothing while our parents make bad jokes and try to look important? There has to be a pond where people sneak off to go skinny dipping, or a spot in the woods where the boys and girls stow booze they’ve managed to sneak from their parents.”
“Monsters lurk in the woods, to guard Richmond House, miss,” I said. “And if we were to try skinny dipping, we would have to bring our firstborn, and they would watch.”
I had to look past Mary to see, but I could see a frown cross Lanie’s face.
“So?” she asked, defiant, as if she were so brave that she wouldn’t care if a monster leered at her. I didn’t believe it in the slightest.
“Here,” the young hunter said, indicating a nearby building. He’d led us off the main street. There were people around, but not many, and they seemed eager to avoid the young aristocrat’s attentions.
“It’s a stable,” Lanie said.
He tried the door and opened it. I could smell the rich smells of the horse, the shit, and the hay.
“I just finished my first half-year at Whorrel’s, and I thought I’d have a nice time, but no. I have to sit on the train for three hours, and now I get to watch you ride? Chance, you’re taking a dull, terrible day and making it even worse.”
“Come on,” Chance said.
The stable had windows, and light made its way through, but it wasn’t much. We made our way inside as ordered. The light inside dimmed considerably as the sliding door was closed behind us.
Chance turned his attention to Mary. He approached her, and she backed up. He moved more quickly, eager now, herding her to control where she moved, until she bumped up with her back to a wooden pillar.
“Move over, this way, so you’re in the light,” he told her.
Mary averted eye contact and moved over.
“Really, Chance?” Lanie asked. “This is even duller than watching you ride.”
He waved dismissively in her direction and mine. “Amuse yourself with the boy.”
Her eyes locked onto mine. She made a face. “Not interested.”
Already twisted, tormented and badly abused by the paces I had put it through in the last few days, my ego took another hit.
Chance performed his dismissive wave again, with less enthusiasm or care behind the gesture. His attention was wholly consumed by Mary. He was well in her personal space now.
“You’re not bad looking,” he said.
Mary is a damn sight better than ‘not bad looking’, I thought, affronted.
My flare of annoyance coincided with Lanie’s eye roll. She met my eyes and nodded, as if we were suddenly entirely on the same page.
“What do you think?” he asked Mary.
Mary twisted around, glancing at me. I gave her nothing. Better to let Chance wind himself up a little more before we let him down.
“My boyfriend recently died,” Mary said, her voice quiet. “No offense to you, sir, but I don’t think my heart would be in it, whatever happened.”
“I won’t press you, even though I know you’re under orders to do exactly as I say,” Chance said. He seemed to like the position of power, even if he wasn’t quite exercising it. “I’m a gentleman. I will say that I’m a wealthy gentleman. I imagine you’re looking for a way out of this town. I could give you that way.”
“Except it’s not your money, Chance,” Lanie said. “It’s your parents’.”
“Shut your mouth, Lanie.”
The red haired girl shot me a smile, as if the fact that she’d given Chance some trouble was a great bit of fun.
“I don’t know, sir,” Mary said, shrinking back, her head down.
“I can be convincing,” he said.
It was my turn to roll my eyes, now. This was painful to watch and to listen to, and his complete lack of tact or ability to manipulate offended me.
“Marcy,” I said.
“Is that your name?” Chance asked. The hunter, on the prowl, single minded in his pursuit. “Marcy is a good name. A lot of girls are calling themselves that, now that Mary has fallen out of fashion, what with the church and all.”
“Are you giving me permission?” she asked.
“Permission?” Chance asked.
“Yes,” I said.
Chance didn’t get another word out as Mary pounced on him. She’d managed to draw two blades before she made contact with him, and as she landed astride his chest, she brought both blades down.
Lanie’s hands went to her mouth. She wasn’t quick to connect the dots, and by the time she’d turned to look at me, I’d drawn the pistol. She raised her white-gloved hands.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Chance asked. “This-”
Mary did something to make him stop talking. A knife to his throat, perhaps.
Lanie, meanwhile, stared at me, her eyes glittering with excitement, hands raised.
“His clothes are too large for you,” Mary remarked.
“I know,” I said. “We could put you in Lanie’s clothes, though. Simon and I could be your Warrick-born accompaniment.”
Mary moved the points of her knives, turning to look Lanie up and down.
“One young noble, though?” Mary asked. “Hard to sell.”
It was. Mary, alone, with a single boy and a monster in tow, based on the demographics I’d seen earlier, it wasn’t an easy image to pull off. People would glance her way and remember the scene. I trusted Mary to play the aristocrat, she’d been a Mothmont girl, but that wasn’t the concern.
“Firstborn!” Chance managed, voice strangled. Mary’s distraction had given him the chance to speak.
“I’m not a firstborn,” Simon said, sounding tired, his words slurred. “I’m a doctor. Yesterday evening, my friends and I were in the same situation as you two, except they carved into my face as part of that, and they stabbed my lady-friend in the back. When they were done, they made us use our talents to modify me. I would suggest that you do what they say.”
Good man, Simon, I thought.
“Do you do this sort of thing a great deal?” Lanie asked me. Simon’s little speech had put new fear into her eyes, but her voice was breathy.
She was pretty, though not so pretty as Mary, because it wasn’t a real sort of prettiness. Her red hair was tidy and her clothes flattered her figure. The look in her eyes was intense, suggesting she was wholly caught up in the moment. It would be so easy to get a reaction out of her, to say one thing or another and toy with her emotions, to excite her, to devastate her.
Yet all I found myself feeling was a profound sense of how much I missed Lillian.
I put a sly, wicked smile on my face as I touched the nose of the pistol against her sternum. “I think that now that the tables have turned, it’s my turn to ask the questions. Miss.”
Just a little bit of play, to get her reeled in just a touch more.
“Am I supposed to call you sir?” she asked. Fear and excitement mingled as she gave me a smile with just a hint of a falter to it.
“Not at all,” I said. “We’re going to walk out of this stable. Possibly with and possibly without Chance over there, depending on how cooperative he is. I’m thinking you’ll be cooperative, won’t you?”
The smile was no longer faltering. She’d wanted excitement, and she’d gotten possibly more excitement than she’d had in her life to date. I suspected that particular well was bottomless.
“We are going to leave as a group,” I told her. “You’re going to act like you were before. You’ll tell me and Mary there to do things, but the most important thing is that you get us to the town center, in the thick of things. What do you think about that?”
“I think… can I be honest?”
I nodded once.
“I planned to avoid my parents and my aunt as much as possible today. They know I planned to, and they’ll be surprised to see me.”
“Well then,” I said. “Would they be less surprised if Chance was ordering us about and being something of a stubborn ass?”
Chance squirmed a bit, clearly offended.
“I think they would find that a perfectly good reason for me to be back there,” she said. She licked her lips, as if they were dry.
And for Chance to be alive.
The girl wasn’t dumb.
“Mary,” I said. “I’m thinking along the lines of a razor-wire slipknot. Put it around his neck, run it through his sleeve. Tug, and you slice his throat? It should keep him obedient.”
“Give me two minutes,” Mary said.
I nodded. “And you, miss, I assume you don’t need razor wire to stay complacent? Knowing I have the gun should be enough?”
Her head moved, signaling I was right. I suspected I could have handed her the gun and she would have still been obedient.
I also suspected that, at the first sign of trouble, she would prove to be a problem.
“What will we do in the meantime?” Lanie asked.
There was a change in the tenor of things outside. The citizens of Warrick were captive prey, and they were sensitive to changes in their environment. There was a great deal of tension, and the smallest movements could make things reverberate through the streets and buildings.
This wasn’t a small movement.
“You could pat me down,” Lanie said.
For all that she’d said she wasn’t interested before, she sure seemed to find me interesting now.
“Shut up,” I said. “I’m listening.”
“For?” she asked.
I raised the gun, and I pressed it between her eyes. Obediently, she shut her mouth, pursing her lips.
I listened, and I heard distant horses. A procession, not dissimilar to the arrival of the first trainload of aristocrats, but heavier, weightier.
“The Baron is here,” I said, voicing my observations aloud. “At the town center.”
This is it.