From the point that Mary disappeared into the crowd, I didn’t see her. I knew how she moved and the habits she stuck to, and I knew how she would move through the crowd. I still didn’t see her.
I trusted Mary as I did any Lamb. But even though trust was a completely different thing from the ties that bound us to one another, the loss of those ties tested my ability to trust. Uncertainty about things bled out into uncertainty about other things.
I had to put it out of my mind as best as I was able. I couldn’t afford to hesitate or second guess Mary’s abilities; her abilities and my abilities were the only rocks in these unsteady waters. The only thing I knew and could fall back on. Everything else was in flux, and I could put all of my thoughts to the task of anticipating anything around me, only to end up surprised. The Lambs had to be a constant, or my entire world would consist of people, events and things I had to second guess.
It struck me that in a span of time ranging from the next hour to the next day, I would lose that. I would leave them behind.
The shaking in my hands got worse. Not just tension and anticipation, now.
“She’s going to die,” Lanie spoke, at a whisper. “You just made this decision and gave the order, and she’s going to die horribly?”
“Shhh,” I said. It was hard to keep my voice gentle and keep from being harsh to the hostage. “Try to keep your expression neutral. If you tip someone off, then this gets really ugly, and she might really die.”
“What are you talking about? A full dose, he said-”
“Shh,” I said. This would be so much easier with another Lamb present. Mary was seeing to her task, and there was nobody to see to the hostages while I focused on more important things. My attention was divided.
The tables that were being set up around the plaza were being set with tablecloths, and much of the conversation was taking place around the tables. Men and women who had attended a hundred parties like this one, Ruth Bloxham included, knew how the events would proceed. It was perhaps odd that things were still being prepared around them, but that might have been the status quo when the nobles were involved.
Mr. and Mrs. Gage were the organizers here, in charge of the little details for their daughter’s special event. At their behest, appetizers and tea were already being set on the tables.
The space around Ruth was about as clear as it would get as she excused herself from the conversation, smiling. She collected a saucer and a cup of tea, two cookies perched on the edge of the saucer. Probably finely crafted little things, dusted with icing sugar.
The fact that she’d collected the cookies and kept them on the saucer where they might fall off made me think of her as being more of a kid than she was. She’d started out at sixteen and she had to be in her early twenties now. This party, it was her environment, one she navigated like a fish navigated water. She let her guard down in ways that others couldn’t afford to, even with something as inane as cookies. That, in turn, gave her an allure. Youthful and playful in demeanor to appeal to the younger women, smart and adroit enough to hold her own with the older ones. That she was gorgeous covered most of the bases with the men in attendance.
“Remember how you wanted to sit down and learn from Mauer?” Helen asked me.
I nodded slowly.
“I would like to learn from her.”
“Yeah,” I said.
Chance and Lainie turned their heads to look at me.
I spotted Mary in the crowd, momentarily standing still while people moved around her. Her hands were empty. She met my eyes.
“It’s done,” I said. Mary was already gone.
“You’re a monster,” Lainie said. There was surprising emotion in her voice, as if she might start crying.
“Simon could have told you that,” I said. “You don’t look at the firstborn around here and think of the misery that surrounds them? How monstrous what Simon does is? What about what the Baron does?”
“I’m fourteen. There’s nothing I can do about it,” Lanie said.
“And when you’re older, you’ll have other reasons for not speaking up about this injustice. Ruth Bloxham, like you, like your parents, and like everyone here, condones these atrocities. You condone them by being here. Do you think I didn’t see the looks on your faces when you picked out my friend and me? You were eager to participate on their level. Don’t use age as an excuse.”
“You’re a monster,” she said, again, her expression twisting.
It wouldn’t be possible to get through to her, and it wasn’t a priority. There were too many other things in play. I searched the crowd, watching, making sure the pieces were all in place. While I did so, I simply said, “I’m a monster that knows exactly what he is. You’re three monsters who pretend not to see. When and if things get ugly, I want you to remember, the ugliness you’re seeing has been ongoing, affecting the poor, the people who you and your families stepped on to get here.”
“I think you’re a special kind of ugly,” Lainie said.
“You’re not one of those rebels, are you?” Chance asked. “The Brands?”
“No,” I said. “No, not really. I’m alone.”
Ruth Bloxham laughed, hunching over slightly, hand to her mouth. The smile touched her eye. She worked to compose herself, taking a drink of her tea.
Mary would be making her way back, and-
My thoughts were interrupted as I watched Ruth Bloxham, in the company of a young man and a young woman, turn away from the table, say something light and teasing, her voice raised to address the larger group she’d just been talking to, and then walk away. The trio of Ruth and her two new companions walked further from the hub of activity around the Baron and Candida, closer to me.
“You’re alone? You have that girl-” Chance started.
I moved my arm, raising a hand to tell him to be quiet. I felt the tension of the wire against my finger just before Chance felt the lack of tension that would come with the wire breaking the skin, only just enough reminder to keep from inadvertently killing him.
It did get him to shut up, though.
“Ruth Bloxham. Do you want her to die like Simon described?” I asked.
“No,” Lainie said, as if I was crazy for even asking. Chance, mute, shook his head.
I looked up at Simon.
“No,” he said, speaking under his breath.
I looked around. Mary wasn’t anywhere to be seen. It made sense that she’d be taking a circuitous route. It made it harder to draw a connection between what was about to happen and our little group of five.
It also made it harder for me to hand over custody of our hostages and handle the situation.
“Good,” I said. “Here.”
I pressed Chance’s razor wire leash into Simon’s hand. “Mary might be along any second. In the meantime, you look after yourselves.”
They weren’t quite able to hide the looks on their faces. Incredulity.
“If you mess around and I have to come back and take control of the situation, she’ll die. This is your test. How good are you, as people?”
I didn’t have time. I turned away, starting to walk off, the three left behind.
I got about three steps, then turned around and walked right back to them.
“Okay, nevermind that,” I said. My voice changed, switching to something a little colder and more intense. The intensity wasn’t hard to manage. I simply had to stop holding back and let the mask skip a little. “Chance, Lainie? If you try something, not only with Ruth Bloxham die, but some of my friends will die. Your parents will die. So will you. Simon knows about the poisonous gas his buddy made. Simon? You know I’ll get to your friends before you do. You will walk down into that basement, you will see their bodies, and you will know it’s your fault.”
Want to call me a monster? Then I’ll show you my ugly side.
Simon didn’t hunch over to better meet my eyes. He didn’t stoop, he stood tall, wrapped in his monstrous flesh, his face distorted. Only his eyes, but for a notch in one lower eyelid, were normal, the emotion showing through. But even as he stood tall, looming over me, I could see that I’d had an impact. That I held the power.
“Keep hold of that wire. Keep your mouths shut. I’ll be keeping an eye out, and Mary will be with you shortly.” I said. I was already turning to leave as I finished talking, walking into the crowd much as Mary had. Where she’d walked in front of people with confidence, I aimed for the voids, the wake of the larger groups, the shares of smaller ones.
Hearing Simon talk about the side effects of the drug had let me pin down what sort of drug it was. Stimulants came in a variety of forms, but I could make assumptions, based on what I knew about drugs and what I knew about stimulants of that particular style.
Going with food and drink, and I knew it was in the food and drink, I knew it would take a little bit of time to affect Ruth Bloxham’s body. She’d been dosed, and I knew I only had a minute or two before she started to succumb to the stuff. Probably two minutes at most before Lainie, Chance, or Simon reconsidered my words and reached out to someone for help.
This wasn’t how I wanted to play this. I was having to juggle too many things. The hostages, the target, keeping the Baron in my sight and the other players in my peripheral awareness.
Now I had to throw another complication into the mix.
I walked through the crowd with purpose. I reached the thicker part of it, where people stood close, husbands with arms around their wives’ waists. Children held close to keep them from getting away from their parents, people leaning together to kiss one another’s cheeks. There were people carrying tables and bundles of cloth.
In the midst of this particular hub, I found the Gages. I searched the immediate crowd for problematic faces or characters, then touched Mr. Gage’s hand. He turned to face me, and I turned away, inviting him to keep turning, to turn his back to the bulk of the group he’d just been conversing with.
“Sylvester. I didn’t know you were in attendance,” he said. He shot me a smile, brilliant and guileless. This was his day. Years of work come to fruition. Nevermind that his daughter was blind and holding hands with one of the biggest bastards I’d had the displeasure of meeting. “Are the others here?”
“I’m alone,” I said, for the second time in a matter of minutes. “I’m here for someone else, sir.”
“Busy young man,” he said. “I hope it’s nothing serious.”
I wanted to look over my shoulder to check on Ruth. I didn’t let myself. I had to remain at ease.
“You’re familiar with Ruth Bloxham, sir?” I asked.
His eyebrows knit together, momentary concern. His smile slipped a notch on his too-chiseled features. “Is she doing something?”
“She’s about to,” I said, keeping my voice low. “Very soon, she’s going to succumb to poison. It’s going to look like an overdose of a recreational drug. I’d rather remain on the down-low so I can find the culprit. Can you do me a favor? You stand to gain a great deal, even.”
I could see his eyes widen.
“You arranged Candida’s partnership with the Baron Richmond. Above and beyond what we asked for. If there’s anything I can do, then-”
“Ruth just disappeared around the side of the apartment house with the hanging plants over the door. Her friends are liable to panic or misinterpret what’s happening. Go find her. The moment you see something wrong, call for a doctor. When it makes sense to do so, insist on the best. Play your chips, Ruth will repay you tenfold.”
“Whatever you do,” I didn’t let him talk, “Don’t make a ruckus that will disturb the firstborn, and do not mention I was here. There are ears everywhere, even close to the Baron. Help me do this, like I helped you turn Lugh to your advantage, and I’ll help you make this event a success.”
I could see him draw in a breath, standing a fraction taller. He believed me.
“Go,” I hissed the word, giving it enough force that some heads turned, looking for me.
I was already slipping past waists, hips, and legs.
The stones had been thrown. Every last one was in the air, yet to hit the respective targets. The Gages would be a tool for my purposes, a massive effort and more-than-middling risk on my part to compensate for the simple fact that the lady Bloxham had walked ten or twenty feet further away from the doctors at the party.
The trio of hostages were keeping each other hostage for the moment. The Baron, his sister and Candida were talking to people, moving in the general direction of the Gages. Mr. Gage was now looking for Ruth. Ruth was a bomb with the fuse lit.
One shake of the box. There was a chance the Baron would get suspicious. A chance he wouldn’t. I was hoping for the latter, but I wasn’t counting on it.
I saw Mary before we both made our way back to the hostages. I flashed hand signs.
You. Stay. Wait. Follow.
She blended back into the flow of the crowd, moving with groups that were moving, but keeping her eyes and her shoulders squared off on another point, as if she had a task to do, so that group wouldn’t take too much notice or offense of her proximity.
I, meanwhile, headed straight for our hostages. Mr. Gage walked right past me, shooting me a momentary glance.
Too important that nobody see Mary and I together, especially now that the Gages knew I was here.
I’d finally gotten around to signing my own death warrant, in a way. The list of people who knew about me and my involvement was too long. Mary was salvageable. She had to be salvageable. But I couldn’t set her up to be hunted for the rest of her life.
Me, well, I’d anticipated being a fugitive since before we’d boarded the train.
“Come,” I told my hostages.
“Talking to me like I’m a dog?” Chance asked.
“Come, sir,” I said, taking the thread from Simon. I tugged, and I saw actual pain on Chance’s face. Perhaps a little too much of a tug. I wasn’t an artist with the wires like Mary was.
We made our way out to the side, and I had a glimpse of Ruth Bloxham and her companions. Ruth was on the ground, felled, her companions looking after her. The hostages and I carried forward onto another street, the house blocking our view of Ruth, and I saw Mr. Gage striding in the opposite direction, heading toward the doctors. He was someone people had been watching, and now that he was moving as briskly as he was, people were noticing. Conversations shifted tone, people watched, and the hostages and I could stop just shy of the perimeter with the soldiers without looking like we were doing something weird. We were watching, like everyone else was.
A murmur of concern swept over the crowd. Even as she tried to duck away for a more private conversation with what I assumed to be close friends, there were countless eyes on her, and she couldn’t hide in the plaza much more than we could.
The guards who were standing guard a matter of feet from us shifted position, a few of them venturing forward to see what was going on. We were on a street that shot off from one corner of the plaza, and they still maintained the manpower to block off the street, while making sure there wasn’t something more pressing going on. I could see through windows. The soldiers I’d noticed earlier were still occupying the buildings around the plaza, but now they were gathering, looking to get more information.
I gestured. Come.
People began to move closer to Ruth Bloxham, and as the crowd passed in front of our street, Mary emerged, hurrying to our side.
I looked at the perimeter guards, and tugged the thread twice.
“Sirs,” Chance addressed the guard. He hesitated.
Be good, I thought. With so much going on, this would be the time to try something.
“If it’s no trouble, we would like to get through.”
“There’s some funny business going on,” one of the soldiers further down the street said. He was looking around the corner, following what was happening with Ruth.
“Any reason to detain the ladies and gentlemen here?”
Deferential without any give or softness to him. The guard with his job to do and the young aristocrat that might have clout. It made for a strange balancing act, and clearly one that this man had performed before.
The guard closer to the street shook his head. “No. Miss Bloxham is ill, it seems. One of the Baron’s doctors is tending to her now.”
I tugged the wire twice more. Faint tugs, but ones he would still feel. His senses would be tied to the thread of metal.
He didn’t speak. I didn’t test him.
Long seconds passed. I was tense. There were two buildings that made sense for Ruth Bloxham to get taken to. The town hall was one. The second fake church was another. The buildings, unfortunately, were kitty-corner to one another. There was too much ground to cover to get into either building. I had to pick one, and I was picking the town hall.
If we were detained for much longer, then it would all be for naught. The soldiers in the buildings would no longer be so focused on what was going on in the plaza, and access would be next to impossible.
“Forgive me for asking, but you wouldn’t know anything about what happened to Miss Bloxham?”
Easy practice allowed me to keep from going stiff when every part of my body wanted to go rigid in the face of a worst case scenario. I could remain relatively relaxed, and put an expression of sheer confusion on my face.
They weren’t looking at my face. No, they were staring down Chance, who had a sheen of sweat on his forehead, just as rigid as I’d fought to avoid being.
“No, sirs,” Chance said.
The time window was slipping away. I could see the crowd moving, parting to make way. I wasn’t sure which building it was to. Too many guards, too. We couldn’t cut our way past them without drawing notice from the crowd that was only fifteen feet away.
“I only ask because you seem distressed.” Accusatory.
“Yes, sir,” Chance said.
Chance didn’t have a ready answer. He glanced at me.
I seriously considered if I would have to pull the noose tight and kill him. Catastrophe would follow. We would lose everything. It would be the worst case scenario for every single one of the Lambs but me.
A tiny part of me wanted him to give me the excuse. For him to glance at me again, suggesting I was the cause of his distress. I would kill him, Mary and I would slip through the perimeter, and the Baron would catch wind of our presence here. Then we would have to rescue the other Lambs before the Baron could give the order for them to die.
And in the wake of it all, one more botched job, circumstances I couldn’t control, blameless, I would be surrounded by the people I cared about most in the world.
For the price of one less-than-innocent life, and a horrible lie to those same people that I cared about. A moment of selfishness.
“I’m sorry, I’m going to need a clearer answer,” the guard said. His tone was stern enough that others took notice, stepping closer. I had to mentally revise our chances for slipping away.
One moment of selfishness. It was even his fault. He was looking at me.
I looked past Chance, and I stared at Lillian – the clearest image of her that my mind could conjure, her head hung, face hidden by short hair and shadow.
Not just one moment of selfishness. I couldn’t forget that I’d made a promise to Lillian, that the Baron would die. I would be betraying her. I couldn’t do that. Not on purpose.
One blink of my eyes, and the image was wiped away. I was staring at Lainie.
My focus and expression shifted. I looked between her and Chance before dropping my eyes to the ground.
“I think my cousin likes Miss Bloxham, sir.”
Chance turned, too fast, staring at Lainie.
“I know I said I would keep it a secret, but if you don’t tell them something they’re going to wonder.”
“Um,” Chance said.
The guard who had been questioning us shifted his grip, holding his rifle with both hands. I couldn’t see anything above that, because I was trying to be meek and to hide.
“Hurry on then, if you please,” the man said. “There’s a crowd there, and it doesn’t look like they’re going anywhere fast. If you’re coming back through, then come through here, I’ll wave you through.”
“Very gracious of you, sir,” Chance said. He’d found his voice again.
We were free, possibly too late.
We headed down to the end of the street and rounded a corner, moving around the back of the building.
“That was good, Lainie. You have promise yet,” I said.
She didn’t have it in her to be pleased. My earlier suspicion was proving correct. Lainie was willing to play along, but of the three, I suspected she was the one who would snap, cry wolf and bring trouble calling.
“What was that all about?” Mary asked me.
“I’m a step behind you, I can’t follow what you’re doing. I dosed Ruth, now she’s being looked after by the Baron’s own doctor. Which I assume you planned.”
“I was pretty sure it would unfold that way. It would look bad for someone to die on his watch, and for there to be a perception that he could do something more. If he’d gone that route, I could have exploited that, using the disgraced general. But he didn’t. He’s powerful, but there are people here he wants to curry favor with.”
“Now we need in. Medical care plus patient of high station means a need for privacy,” I said. I urged the others to keep close to the town hall, moving below the windows so that any soldier that was looking out the rear window wouldn’t see us.
It took a few seconds before we’d moved far enough along that I could see a window without much light behind it. I gestured. Mary offered her hands. A moment later, I was up and at the window. Another moment later, I had it unlocked.
The room was a lavatory, one intended for those who worked at the town hall. I imagined the building was a kind of hollow office, much as the church and plaza were. The Baron would oversee anything of importance, and this ostentatious, sprawling building would be mostly for show.
I helped Mary up, and then, because there wasn’t much room at the window, I stepped back and away, letting her help the other three get up and in.
The bathroom was complete enough that a man could shit, wash himself, and see to his morning and nightly toil. Claw-foot bath, sink, toilet, towels, and white tile that had been scrubbed in the last twelve hours. I went to the mirror, and I tidied myself up, then went to the door. A soldier glanced at me as he walked by, taking no particular notice. Dressed as a citizen of the city, I was largely invisible. The town hall would have other citizens working in the capacity of staff, looking after the soldiers and making tea.
I still felt a little sick from when I’d considered damning the Lambs for my own selfishness. I gestured to Mary, telling her to wait, and then left the lavatory. I looked into the layout of the building, and then to the distribution of the people guarding it. Most were focused on the idea of an attack from the outside, the approach of terrorists or other problem elements. There were some at the stairwells, and a great many in the front room, with growing and hissing warbeasts.
Eighty or so soldiers and their pets. Men in crisp uniforms with good weapons.
The room where Ruth Bloxham was wasn’t a hard one to find. People came and went, and no less than six soldiers stood by, not because they were strictly guarding it, but because they’d moved into the first open, available room on the ground floor, for expediency’s sake, and that was also a room that the event’s security was using. Men on relief from active guard duty, watching through the windows to make sure all was going well.
I went back to the bathroom. Mary had brought everyone inside, no doubt with Simon doing much of the lifting.
I went to the towels, and I picked up a stack. Reaching behind me, I withdrew the pistol, the syringe, and the gas-bomb, and I put them among the towels. They would escape a cursory search of my person, and they would be easily in reach if there was trouble.
“I’ll go first,” I murmured to Mary. “Keep an ear out and an eye out, watch these three. You know the usual signals. I’ll see what we can do with the Baron’s doctor.”
“The Baron’s doctor?” Simon asked.
I would let Mary deflect the questions. I turned, carrying the towels, and marched with purpose to the room where Ruth was being looked after.
The people near the door let me walk by, carrying my towels into the room.
The doctor was a young man, blond, with bone structure very clear on his face. His cheekbones weren’t very high, but the bone structure did outline the cheek in way that made him look more gaunt than he was, his thin-eyebrows set on a heavy brow, as if he was forever concerned with what was in front of him. His black coat was of the dressy sort, wearable to events. He wore a vest and tie underneath.
Ruth Bloxham lay in a state of undress on the bed, wearing only her underclothes. The doctor’s bag had been emptied, contents strewn around his patient.
“What’s this?” he asked, turning toward me.
“Towels,” I said. “I was told to bring them, sir?”
“You were not told by me! Put them down. Leave. That’s enough.”
He spoke loudly enough that the guard outside would have heard. Not ideal.
I moved to the nightstand beside him, and I set the towels down. Behind the man’s back, I withdrew the pistol.
While he bent over the bed, I put the barrel of the pistol between his butt-cheeks. He started to move, and then froze as I drew back the hammer.
We remained like that for a very long while.
“I could shoot you pretty much anywhere,” I said, my voice low, “and you could get patched up in time. But any bullet carries a possibility of longer-term damage. Putting a bullet here, it could cost you function, number one or number two. Embarrassing to get treated, too.”
“I see,” he said. “I’d like to continue treating my patient.”
He collected a needle, and pressed it into his patient’s arm. His other hand went toward a boxy case of medicine. I’d seen Lillian use the same sort of thing before. Antiseptic powder, for deeper injuries, if I remembered right.
“You don’t need that,” I said.
His hand stopped where it was.
“Well, I mean, you do need it. Loose lid, just hurl it back my way, I’m probably blind for a good few minutes. But trying won’t end well for you.”
“You’re one of the Lambs,” he said. “He took your eye.”
“Yes,” I said. “I’m here for payback. You’re going to help me kill your boss.”
“I see,” he said. He got another needle. I tensed as I watched him handle it, but it was intended for Ruth Bloxham, not me.
“Now, tell me,” I said. “If I wanted-”
There was a light knock on the door.
The doctor and I both froze.
The knock came again. There was a pattern to it. A Lamb knock.
“I’m going to let her in,” I said. “Stay put.”
He watched me out of the corner of his eye as I stepped back, keeping the gun trained on him. His hands remained where they were, frozen.
Without turning away from him, I opened the door for Mary and our three hostages to come into the room.
The words Mary spoke were just about the last ones I wanted to hear.
“She’s coming,” Mary said.
No need to say who ‘she’ was. Not when Mary’s tone was so telling, so stressed and excited in the same moment. It suggested a fight, and the only ‘she’ who posed a fight would be the sole surviving Twin.