We entered the city center as a quintet: two Lambs, two aristocrats, and a man turned monster. The layout of the town made this the space where festivals would be held, if Warrick was the sort of place to hold festivals. If Warrick had farmer’s markets, where everyone gathered to sell produce and trade goods from the professional to the homespun, then this was where the people would set up their stalls. It would be where friendships were made and rekindled, where gossip was exchanged and conversations were had. But Warrick wasn’t that sort of city.
No, the heart of this city didn’t beat. It, like the Baron Richmond’s church, was symbolic, and it was a symbol designed to be false and discouraging.
Now the man had his gloved hand around that heart, gripping it, forcing it to beat to his tune. The resulting life and animation was a stricken sort, one driven by fear and ungainly, unpracticed movements.
Our group wasn’t dissimilar, but it was dangerously lopsided in how awkward things were. Chance held himself too rigid, Mary’s dog on a leash, his collar little more than a slip of razor wire. Mary was doing a good job of playing the meek Warrick girl, but Chance looked too concerned with his own mortality and our immediate surroundings. I wondered if people would have taken notice of his nervousness if he wasn’t sixteen or so. Just a little bit older, and he might have looked like an adult.
Lainie had seemed normal, but was swiftly moving away from thinking of this as a little game. As if we were invisible, we passed through the gauntlet of soldiers and guards that were watching all entrances to the city center. Lainie seemed to lose the light in her eyes and the bounce in her step as we left the men with guns behind and entered the broader crowd.
The adults around us that weren’t desperately trying to fade into the background were of Lainie’s social class, her parents, aunts, uncles, people her father might do business with, people she might interact with in a few years, when she was grown. She understood them, and she knew the good it could do to be on their good side, and the ruin it could bring to be on their bad side.
Which was a very complicated way of saying that the familiar faces might be bringing matters home for her.
“The Baron isn’t here yet,” Mary commented.
“He’s coming,” I said. I could track the shift in the tone of things and in the crowd’s attitudes. Anticipation mingled with fear. Even the aristocracy of the western Crown States had a healthy fear of the nobles.
“The Baron?” Chance asked. “Whatever you’re doing, I don’t think you want to cross him.”
“You’re right,” I said. “We really don’t want to cross the man.”
Mary made a point of briefly meeting my eyes. She looked away, giving me a fractional nod of the head by way of agreement. The statement that we didn’t want to get on the Baron’s bad side seemed to put our hostages at ease. Simon knew more than the kids did, but apparently I sounded convincing, and the tension in his shoulders eased somewhat.
There were so many people, and it was getting increasingly clear that this wasn’t a good battlefield, be it for the overt attack or the subtle one. The street was level, all stone and the stone-gripping wood, with mortar where the fast-growing wood hadn’t extended far enough. A town hall, a smaller church, and several large houses blocked in the area, which formed something of a plaza, capable of holding perhaps a thousand people, if I had to guess. If and when the population here exceeded capacity, the guards that stood between the buildings at the plaza’s edge could move further down the streets, increasing the number by two hundred or five hundred people. Anything more than that, and I suspected that holes would appear in security, with too many access points to cover.
A third of the way down the plaza, pale stone had been laid out in some shallow, long steps, leading up to a raised section. Two-thirds of the way down, the steps and raised portion reoccurred, with a stage overlooking the entire affair, and a fountain behind that stage, the statues added a kind of presence to it and framed it. A soldier, a doctor, and what I assumed to be an aristocrat, all in modern Crown style.
By no accident, I was guessing, the construction of the stage had passing resemblance to a hangman’s gallows. It was fancier, with more trim and style to it and carvings etched into the wood, but the breadth of it and the overall dimensions were evocative.
“You suck at fighting,” Gordon said. “So I think you’re on the right track. If you actually find yourself at odds with the Baron, on his turf, surrounded by his friends, you’re going to lose. Even if you have Mary with you.”
I nodded. I took note of a cluster of tables, and more tables were being added. Tables were being carried by the people of Warrick at the order of the aristocrats that were taking a hand in the event. Dining room tables plucked from houses, very probably with the assumption that the tables were free for the taking. Entitlement.
“I know you like shaking the box, but this is a situation where you get one shake at most. The houses and town hall around the town center are occupied. Soldiers, stitched, bodyguards, and all of the warbeasts you noticed before, they’re camped out in there.”
Our group had to stop as a cluster of adults walked in front of us, cutting us off. Entitlement, again, was in full display. They were adults, well-to-do adults, and they wouldn’t pause or make way for children. Mary and I drew closer together, and Lainie became part of the huddle. Chance stumbled a little as he fought to stay close. Not that Mary would ever make a mistake and let that wire draw closed. Chance’s bloody demise was too dangerous a possibility here.
“There’s no nooks or crannies,” I shared the observations that ‘Gordon’ had given me. “The buildings are all occupied.”
“We can come and go as we need to, so long as we have these three with us,” Mary murmured.
“True,” I responded, keeping my voice down. I looked around again. The way was clear, but talking strategy was important enough that I was willing to stop roaming and start figuring out the next few steps. I was content to stay where we were, at the southern end of the plaza, on the lowest tier. “Leaving and camping out in a nearby building makes for a break from opportunity, though. Too far away, and we can’t act on anything we need to act on.”
“With everything that follows, we’ll want an escape route, or a place to hide. I can’t move without knowing where I’m retreating afterward, Sy.”
“Wow,” Lainie chimed in. She’d overheard, which I’d intended, and her attention was fully on us, which I had also intended. “This is real, isn’t? The wire, the things you’re talking about, like you’re so used to it. What are you actually here to do?”
“Don’t ask questions, Lainie,” Chance said. He was tense, his voice lower than was necessary, given the surroundings and the lack of anyone special in earshot.
“If you find out, it’ll be later, when the time comes, and that’ll only be if you’re paying attention and only if my friend and I think you’ll be useful,” I said.
Hook set. It served to pull her attention away from the people around us.
Ironic, given that my attention was now fixated on them. For now, the battlefield consisted of people, the well-to-do, movers and shakers in the militaristic, political, commercial, and scientific spheres of the Crown States.
“What are you thinking?” Mary asked me.
I shook my head a little. “I’m trying not to think. Do me a favor? Give me a minute?”
We were all outside, but the surrounding buildings blocked the cold, and the sun was overhead. All things considered, the cold wasn’t bad. It looked like fires were being prepared, for people to gather around. Heated pots were being set up under tables. Not the flammable kind, unfortunately. Nothing I could make explode.
The crowd moved this way and that across the plaza. We were hunkered under the eaves of the town hall at the southern end, forming a cluster that huddled together as people moved around us. I leaned against the wall, using my one good eye to watch what was going on.
Going by the speech patterns I could overhear, the fashion, and the way they seemed to be close-knit, I was guessing the party guests were all from the same overall area, the western or the north-western Crown States.
That close knit was like a spider’s web. Invisible threads connected each person. Family ties, profession, old relationships, interests. My wyvern injection was still fresh, and my brain hadn’t slept recently. I was slightly detached from reality, which wasn’t a bad thing when I needed to break my focus and take in the greater picture in abstract. I’d already been studying the crowd and now I could push myself to take it in like those soldiers and bodyguards on the perimeter were. They, men who had stood by during events like these for years or decades, watched the crowd in a practiced way, with skill. They knew the particulars of what to watch for. I could watch with instinct, by pushing my brain into another sort of space.
The crowd was a blur. I didn’t think about or look at anyone in particular. I looked at the collections of people, how they clustered, who stood further from who. I looked at how some people shared a closer personal space, tuned my ear for the pitch of the conversations, the degree of ease with which they talked.
It was something I had done since I had first started taking the wyvern formula, taking in the bigger picture and using it to inform myself in a way I couldn’t put word or label to. Now I pushed it in another direction.
I knew I was taking longer than I’d told Mary I needed, but I took the time to follow people as they broke away from one conversation, then moved over to other groups, the differences in how they talked, the space they shared with others.
I wondered for a moment if Mauer made use of this social instinct on a regular basis. If he pitched his voice and shifted his body language to capitalize on these same sorts of signal.
Mary was talking to Chance and Lainie. I tuned it out.
Everyone was connected to everyone, threads tying one person to the others around them. Continued observation let me see how strong and how intimate some of those connections were.
As if all of this was a spider’s web. Push on one point, and strands would break or collapse in to cling to the offending fingertip. In this blurry landscape of bodies, some figures seemed to become more distinct, while others faded away, unimportant, not useful.
I was aware as the entire web shifted. My vision came into focus, and I touched Mary’s arm.
“He’s here,” Mary said.
The Baron arrived in the far corner of the Plaza from where we stood, and that was partially my intent. He stood taller than the last time I’d seen him, which suggested modifications, and he looked positively regal. In any other circumstance, the man might have been laughed at for dressing up to the extent that he was, but he had several advantages here. The crowd was his, and he had the opportunity to meet and greet the important people before his enemies did. This event, too, was all about him, and few would attack a man who was celebrating a wedding or engagement, whichever this was.
He was tall, like the figures in myth were tall, pale, with sly eyes and straight golden hair. The colors of Richmond were worked into his clothes, black intermingled with yellow for the lining, and emerald for the draping jacket and slacks. He wore high boots, I noted, and I imagined that people would see that as reason to adopt the fashion.
Provided the night went well for the Baron and the noble still lived. No need to curry favor with a dead man, of course.
His expectations of how the night would go clearly differed from mine; he wore a gold circlet. It was a ballsy move, wearing something so close to being a crown or coronet, especially with other nobles due to show up. It signaled ambition, and his confidence moving forward. I could imagine five or ten different ways that he could use that one simple detail of what he wore on his head to shape the coming narrative. Whether Fray or Mauer attacked or not, the relationships he sought to make or capitalize on with other lesser nobles, if he wanted to actually provoke someone…
I turned my mind away from the subject, lest I get caught up in it.
Beside the man, meek and miles different from the woman I had met, was Candida Gage. Her dress included a draping hood. Where the Baron wore emerald, the woman wore white. The gold-leaf and black checked trim was much the same, lining the hood and detailing the dress. She hid it well, but she moved like someone blind. As the hood hid the marks from where her horns had been removed, she wore new eyes just like I did, replacing the altered eyes she’d had before. They held up for the sake of appearances, but they didn’t let her see, or they didn’t let her see well.
He hadn’t had her for a day before he’d seen her put under the knife. It fit his mentality, to show her the power he had over her, without being so vulgar that he might lose his shot at plucking immortality from her brain.
I saw the Baron’s doctors, all as a group, and I watched as certain heads turned at their arrival. Other doctors in the crowd, almost universally wearing long coats, like stylized lab coats, dressed up in five kinds of flourish for high society.
And I could see the Baron’s sister. The sole surviving Twin. A giantess compared to the crowd she walked through, a monster that, even more than the Baron, made the citizens of Warrick shrink down and away. That she’d arrived alone stirred faint murmurs from the crowd, and a sharp look from her immediately silenced those same murmurs.
This, for the time being, was the arena. The Baron and his sister would reach out, mingling, and Mary and I would be the mice that avoided the prowling cats. We’d seized the artist doctor Simon to put ourselves in a position to seize Chance and Lainie, and we’d used them to put ourselves here.
All other things set aside, crowd removed, battlefield disregarded, Baron left unarmed and blithely unaware of potential danger, we stood only the slimmest chance of success in taking him out of the picture. All those things in consideration… it was harder than that.
Which meant I had to turn my focus back to the people I’d been paying attention to as I’d studied the flow and intimacy of the crowd.
“Chance. Lainie. Simon, too, if you think you won’t be heard,” I said, and I described what I was looking at even as I noticed the details, “Over there by the table with the bread. There’s a man wearing two swords at his belt, a decorated military type, with hair in bad need of a trim.”
“I don’t recognize him,” Lainie said.
“Me either,” Chance said.
“Why?” Mary asked.
“Because people are giving him a wider berth. The only people talking to him have been military people of his rank who have a duty to talk to him, some are maybe old comrades, and even they moved slightly further away from him as the Baron arrived. He’s on at least his second glass of alcohol, and it’s not even that late in the day. He doesn’t want to be here, and I want to know why.”
“There’s a contingent of soldiers stationed in Warrick,” Simon murmured, speaking without moving his misshapen lips. “He leads them, and he led them in Lugh. He didn’t do well there, and he came back at the same time as the Baron.”
“In disgrace?” I asked. I got a slight nod. “Why?”
“I’ve heard differing versions of what unfolded.”
Not very helpful, but the less Simon talked, the better. I moved on. “Over there. A woman in a silver-blue dress and the white-fur jacket, with a flowery blue decoration in her hair. She’s not very old, but women twice her age are paying her special attention, old hens flocking to a young peacock.”
“Female peacocks are drab,” Mary commented.
“Work with me,” I said.
“That’s Ruth Bloxham,” Lainie said, standing on her toes to see. “There are people in the aristocracy that really want to get an in with the nobility, even marry into the lower ranks. She’s one of them.”
“I know the type,” I said, glancing at Candida. She was keeping her eyes on the ground as if she was shy, her hand on the Baron’s arm, to hide the fact that she was mostly blind. She reacted to movement around her, which was better than I could do with my eye. The benefits of having better doctors. Still, she didn’t focus on anything or anyone in particular. She couldn’t.
“There are families that have been working for generations to curry the favor and prestige that would get them an in with the Crown. Then there’s Ruth. She’s done it singlehandedly. Since she was sixteen, she’s been connecting with the right people, earning and using favors to meet even more powerful people she can earn favors from… there’s at least one minor fashion trend and two musicians who owe their success to Ruth.”
“The hair thing?” Chance asked. Lainie nodded.
A natural-born socialite and political player, then, someone with a sharp eye and a sharp mind.
“When the Baron arrived with Candida on his arm, eyes turned her way,” I said. “Based on what you said, she was a contender to be his wife?”
“Yes,” Lainie said. “There was talk on the train here that she must be upset. That she might even snap. There’s some resentment in some circles, my older cousins are about her age and they hate her so. They say her success so far has been luck, and they’re hoping this is the event that breaks her and leads to her ruin.”
I studied the woman, watching her.
Ruth seemed so at ease. The Baron looked her way, smiling, and she smiled back, though her attention was more on Candida, as if Ruth wanted to catch Candida’s eye, should she look up from the ground. I saw her tall heels momentarily rise up off the ground as she stood on her very tiptoes, trying to get a glance.
“She doesn’t give me the impression of someone that’s about to break,” Mary said.
I shook my head. “She wants to talk to Candida very badly. I’m just not sure if she wants to because she’s a fantastically good actress who can hide her ill-intent from me, and plans to sabotage Candida, or if it’s for genuine reasons. Maybe she sees Candida as someone who can be a peer and a real friend. A genuine non-threat, in a way, compared to people like Lainie’s cousins, who want to tear her down, and others, who are only stepping stones to better things?”
“When you started theorizing, the first place my mind went was if she pursued the Baron, once, and learned how dangerous he was,” Mary said.
“And her primary interest is to warn the fiancee? That’s a dangerous game to be playing,” I said.
“Yeaaah,” Lainie drew out the word, her expression caught up in something akin to awe, like she couldn’t even comprehend the idea.
Whichever of the three options it was, Ruth Bloxham was insanely brave and insanely confident in her ability to navigate this political stage, considering how approaching Candida meant being in proximity to the Baron. Emphasis on the ‘insane’ part of things.
“There was someone else,” I murmured. I scoured the crowd, watching, looking past the hundreds of people who were only one or two steps down from being dressed for a costume party, all color and flamboyance, their masks ones of surgical alteration, hiding the faces they’d been born with under the prettier and more handsome ones the doctors had given them.
We’d leapfrogged from being nobodies to having a firstborn, then from having a firstborn to having a firstborn and two aristocrats in hand. Getting near enough to the Baron would take another leap. I needed someone or something to capitalize on. An enemy of the Baron, like the decorated general, or someone close to him.
From there, I could find a way to deal with the Twin, potentially, and any of the Baron’s doctors who might be able to save the man from the fates I had in store for him.
“Ah,” I said, as my eye found my target. The last two people who’d formed a critical point in this spider’s web. A very dangerous pair. I’d seen the whole ebb and flow of the crowd focus around one point, with people leaving like they were on a mission. When Candida had arrived, the crowd had moved to let these people be a part of it. They beamed with happiness.
Mr. and Mrs. Gage. Candida’s parents. Next to the Baron, this was their day.
“The Gages,” I told Mary, who had never seen them. “They cannot, whatever happens, see me.”
Mary nodded. She fully understood. Or so she thought.
The Gages knew me. Not letting them see me was critical, but more critical was the need to avoid letting anyone critical see me with Mary. Should that happen, she would become culpable. I could be seen, targeted, and run away a fugitive. Mary had to return to Lillian and the others.
This was the other hitch in the plan. I needed to remain in a position to tie up loose ends. Mary had to escape alive. Witnesses would need to die, most likely. The thought made me look at Lainie, Simon, and Chance.
Lainie’s face was flushed with excitement and fear. She looked giddy.
She was such a different personality from Lillian, but she kept reminding me of her all the same. I’d seen Lillian giddy, before. Before I’d said goodbye to her, even.
I would have to say goodbye to Lainie too, very soon. I wished very dearly that there wasn’t a glimmer of innocence and goodness in her, beneath the surface. I wished that I didn’t like her just a little bit, that Chance had been a bit more of a bastard to Mary.
“Focus on the job,” Evette reminded me. “I won’t ever forgive you if you slip up and mess this up.”
“Okay,” I said. “We move now.”
I had Mary, Lainie, Chance and Simon’s full attention now.
“You only get one chance to shake things up,” Gordon’s voice cut through the crowd. “After that, they tighten security, they start looking for you, or for the instigators. The Baron will be more careful. Make sure it’s worth it.”
“Simon,” I said. I drew the stimulant drug out of my pocket. It was a packet of powder. I could see him react as he saw it. Eager. “How many doses are in this?”
“For someone your size? Four.”
“For someone like you? Not counting tolerance?”
“Two if I assumed some tolerance? I’m also assuming that this is the in-vogue drug for the upper crust.”
“You would be right in those assumptions, I suppose,” Simon said, voice a whisper. He flinched as someone walked past him.
“If I gave you the whole packet, a double dose or so, what would happen?”
I held up a hand to keep him from answering. A group of slower moving elderly women walked past us.
I lowered my hand, and he spoke, “I would die, thrashing, convulsing, and frothing at the mouth. If I didn’t kill myself by beating my skull against the cobblestones, I would choke on my own vomit, most likely.”
“Good,” I said. I’d had a gut instinct, based on what it was, but every drug was different. I knew what to expect from this, above and beyond what Simon had shared with me. I looked at Mary. “Feel up to it?”
“You want her to take it?” Lainie whispered, horrified.
She had a shred of empathy for others, it seemed. Damn it.
“He wants me to give it to someone,” Mary said, her eyes locking to mine. “Who?”
“Ruth Bloxham. The whole packet.”
She didn’t wait for further orders, but she knew me well enough to read my expression, tone, and body language, and knew from that that I had none. She pressed Chance’s leash into my hand, as I’d pressed the packet into hers, and then walked into the crowd, graceful, skirt swishing. Virtually anyone else might have stumbled, trying to navigate the people who moved this way and that, unpredictably and suddenly. She had no trouble at all.
My hands shook with anticipation and suppressed emotion.
I glanced at Chance, who had turned white with shock, then turned my head the other direction to look at Lainie. There was horror in her eyes.
There would be more horror etched into her face before the day was through.