It’s not your fault. It’s not my fault. This would have happened anyway, in some form. That you pulled the trigger and the Baron didn’t doesn’t change the fact that he set this up with the hope that there would be bloodshed. He had to have.
The Twin burned behind us, the already existent flames needing only a bit of attention from an oil lamp that had fallen to the floor before they could wreath our nemesis. Fire would scorch the most telling evidence away. What lay before us would need something more.
The sheer number of soldiers in the area was keeping the firstborn from doing too much damage, but the degree of violence was shocking. The firstborn were as relentless as any stitched, just as strong, but they were alive. The way they moved was more unpredictable as a consequence, and their movements were single-mindedly focused on finding the most destructive path possible to the most recent stimulus.
The more I saw, as we moved around the fringe of the ongoing bloodshed, the more convinced I was that these firstborn had been made to hurt, not to kill. Short claws sliced through skin and left deeper tissue intact. Meaty hands broke hands, arms, and the occasional leg, but the firstborn wouldn’t kill the individual.
Which wasn’t to say that people weren’t dying.
“What do you think of your handiwork, Simon?” I asked.
There was no response. When I looked at him, all I could make out was the mask of flesh, his eyes meeting mine.
We circled the plaza, entering closer to the north end, where the stage and fountain were. Given how things were unfolding, I suspected the firstborn had been gathered here, at the fringe of the party, where anyone could look over and up at them. As the noise and chaos had reached them, they had moved en masse, crashing into the midst of standing guards and some of the braver aristocrats who carried swords on their person.
“Mother,” Chance murmured. We weren’t using the wire leash on him anymore. He touched Lainie’s shoulder. “Lainie, they’re okay.”
Their parents and loved ones. I couldn’t see which people they were referring to, exactly. All of the aristocrats looked the same to me. Lainie didn’t look nearly as enthused as Chance did, but something in her relaxed on seeing. She was cradling one arm, but it didn’t even look broken. For all that she’d cried out earlier, I wondered if the damage was somehow worse than it looked, or if she was so sheltered that it was the very first time in her life that she’d actually been hurt.
I took my attention off of our hostages and assessed the situation in short order, looking for the key people, the people the party had centered around, the Baron, the Warrick locals. I could see the trail of bodies leading away from the plaza, going further north.
The soldiers were winning the fight, but the sheer density of firstborn here was posing a problem. As our group moved around the very edge of the plaza, keeping our distance from the fighting, soldiers took note of us. Their eyes fixed on Simon.
I knew right away what their concern would be. Another Firstborn, another potential combatant.
Nothing Simon had done thus far spoke to him being interested in anything more than self preservation. He was loyal to his friends, and he’d provided help to our group, but that counted very little in the grand scheme of things, as I saw it.
As a consequence, when I saw a soldier turn, looking at Mary and I, then turning his focus to the firstborn at the tail end of our group. I did nothing, keeping my head down as much as I already had been, and let the dice fall where they were slated to fall.
It was Mary, in the end, who turned, saw, and grabbed the firstborn’s hand, tugging sharply on it so they both fell together. The rest of us stopped running, while Mary looked up at the soldier, eyes wide, half-panicked, like she was entirely unable to fend for herself.
That look was enough to give the man pause. He held out his sword.
“It’s dangerous,” he said.
I wondered if Simon would do anything.
“It’s my brother,” Mary said. “Please.”
For a long moment, I thought the soldier was going to strike, resolving the situation, so he could go back to his comrades. His sword wavered.
It would be easier if he did execute Simon. The social currency and independence the firstborn offered was dwindling. Simon remained a loose end.
The sword lowered. The man, young, no older than twenty, extended a hand to Mary, helping her stand. “You’re hurt.”
“We got attacked by some others. Her firstborn helped us,” I said, indicating Mary and Simon.
He shot a skeptical eye at Simon, then said, “They’re going crazy. You need to get out of here, the madness that’s getting to them, it’s contagious, passing from one to the other.”
“We will,” Mary said.
“The Baron,” I said. “Is he…?”
“He’s gone,” the soldier said. “He headed up that way. The first wagons passed through the hills. We’re handling the situation here, then dividing people into those who will go to the Baron and those who will stay here to clean up.”
“He’s going to be so mad,” I said. I ran my hands through my hair, as if I didn’t know what to do with them. “He’s- they’re going to take it out on us. They always do.”
I saw the soldier’s expression change. He couldn’t look me in the eye, but his eyes didn’t remain on any fixed point. Lost in thought. His knuckles went white as he gripped his weapon. I saw his eyebrows move. Concern, and not for me.
This didn’t sit easy for the young soldier. That was something I could use.
“Sir?” I ventured. I let my voice hitch. I had his attention.
“Our parents are at Richmond House, they’re servants. Is there- is there any way we could…” I trailed off.
“You want me to help them leave?”
“They only go once a month, and for special events. He uses us boys and girls to control them while they’re there, and scare them. Sometimes he hints that he has us in the dungeon,” I said. I was improvising, and the lie was spinning out into something convoluted. “He’ll make them wonder all day, have them work so hard to please him, because they think we’re at his mercy. He plays games with their heads, and telling them that one of us is hurt or in danger or letting them think they can escape when we’re really in the dungeon, that’s the sort of game he’d play.”
“Our parents are always so happy to see us when they get back,” Mary said.
“I don’t know,” the soldier said.
“You can’t?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. He glanced back at his companions. When he looked back at us, his focus was on Chance and Lainie.
“They’re good people,” Chance said. “We owe a lot to them. My family isn’t overly important, but if you gave your name to me and helped them out, I could-”
The soldier shook his head. “That’s not important. Okay. I’ll look into it. There will be one wagon-cart that goes back with some guards for Richmond House. I might be on it, and I could get you on it, if I explain.”
“Please,” Mary said. She reached out, touching his hand where it gripped the gun.
I imagined that moment of contact and the expression on a pretty girl’s injured face would haunt him for a long time. Much as the image of the blood-strewn plaza was liable to linger in my mind’s eye. I was cursed to a faulty memory that would only retain the bad things.
“One hour?” the man said. “Meet me here. I’ll try to be here, if orders allow, and I’ll try to arrange something. For now, just get somewhere safe.”
Then he was gone, running, back to his comrades and fellow soldiers and guards.
“No such place,” I murmured.
We made our way. I pointed the way, as best as I was able, but the same-ness of so many of the houses and the scarcity of landmarks made it easy to get lost.
“You can act,” Lainie said. “You can lie and make it sound real. You know how to fight, or she does. My throat hurts from when you used that gas and none of the stuff actually reached me, but you walked into it. Where did you come from? What’s really going on?”
“You said it earlier,” I said. “We’re monsters, aren’t we?”
“That doesn’t explain anything!”
“Have you changed your mind?” I asked. “Do you see us as something else?”
“I think you’re scary, and-”
I raised a hand, interrupting her, and then let it drop. “We’re monsters. It’s not my job to convince you of anything different. I, we, have another job. Your job is to come with us.”
Further away from the plaza, the fighting was nonexistent. People, forbidden from going indoors, had taken to hiding. It wasn’t a lame hide-and-seek sort of hiding, but it was a sustained effort to stay out of sight without looking like they were staying out of sight. They clustered in groups of three to ten, gathered in nooks and crannies with their firstborn looming over them like guillotines. They kept their heads down, hunching over with backs to us, or averting their gaze.
A broken community.
Finally sufficiently lost, I looked at Simon. “Your lab. Where is it?”
Still unwilling to talk, he pointed.
My gut instinct had been right. The house wasn’t far.
“Chance,” I said.
“What is it?”
“You helped back there with the soldier. And with the Twin.”
“The Twin? The Lady Baronet of Richmond?”
“Why?” I asked him.
“Because I saw how things were unfolding, and I remembered hearing the stories, those memories were so vivid that it was like someone was speaking in my ear. Things the Twins did. Not so different from what you told the soldier back there.”
Simon pointed, indicating a street. We changed direction.
“I… couldn’t foresee any future where the Lady Baronet won and then let us go. She would be suspicious, and she would punish us without asking questions.”
“She would,” I said.
“It wasn’t courage, if you’re thinking that,” Chance. “It wasn’t. It was a horrible sort of fear.”
“And the soldier?”
“I don’t even remember what I said to him.”
We were approaching the front door of Simon’s house. I drew the house key from my pocket and opened the door.
The stray items and blood from our earlier fight was still scattered and spattered, respectively, across the first floor. Blood marked a trail upstairs and down.
Simon was now in the lead of the group, eager. He walked with purpose to the basement door. The rest of us followed.
“You saved him from the soldier back there,” I murmured to Mary. She limped a bit as we approached the stairwell, walking just beside me, the two of us behind Lainie and Chance.
“I wasn’t sure if you had any more plans for him,” Mary said. She winced and opened her mouth to touch a tooth. Fingers still in her mouth, she glanced at me.
There were so very few people in the world who could I could communicate so much with, with only a second or two of unwavering, sustained eye contact.
I loved Mary so much. Not as a girlfriend, she never would be one. But the way we worked in concert, the communication, and the feeling that she and I were a pair, when it counted.
I wanted to say it out loud, regardless of the circumstance, much as I’d told Lillian. I wanted to speak from the heart, even while knowing that any and every time I did, it somehow became poison.
We approached the bottom of the staircase. Simon had stopped in his tracks.
Reaching the bottom of the staircase, I could see why. We’d bound Clifton and Carmen to the polished steel countertops, the crown of Clifton’s head touching Carmen’s. They both now lay in pools of congealing blood. Carmen lay contorted, the position far from the pose we’d left her in, dried froth and possibly a small amount of vomit collected around her nostrils and mouth. The act of taking her extreme pose had been violent, clearly, with razor wire hauled through flesh until it reached inflexible, unyielding bone. Here and there, the wire was so taut that it held her hands and legs in the strange positions.
Lainie stumbled into one corner, heaving in breath while making gulping sounds. Chance hurried to her side, looking for something to vomit into.
“Fits,” Simon said. His voice was hollow. “Withdrawal from the drug.”
Carmen had been the one to have fits. To keep one from struggling or chancing a cut to their arm or leg, we’d bound Clifton to Carmen and vice versa. The wires went from one individual, under the table and around to the other. The idea had been to keep each one from struggling by making their struggles dangerous to the other. It had worked, she’d struggled, and her fits had effectively killed Clifton.
Simon wheeled on us. I could see the pain in his eyes.
“You! You did this!”
I remained silent. There wasn’t anything to be said. He wouldn’t hear.
He raised his hands to his face, fingers digging in, and in the doing, he provoked the living flesh that he’d been wreathed in. It contorted and pulsed, flexing under his fingers, making his monstrous, melted expression into something bloated and even more monstrous than before. The eyes behind it all were so very human, with a terrible sort of emotion in them.
He spoke again, but the words became a cry, and the cry became a ragged, agonized scream that tore its way out of his mouth. He started to move toward us like he might throw punches and try to savagely beat us, then almost concurrently remembered the fate of the twin. He dropped to his knees.
I waited, listening at the keening cry of the man. In sound alone, it almost perfectly represented what I’d been feeling since I’d left Lillian’s. I let it go on for far too long before I raised my hand, two fingers extended. I let my hand drop.
Cold, quiet, and so fast I barely saw, Mary threw a knife underhand.
Lainie shrieked as the knife struck home and Simon toppled to the ground. Chance wrapped his arms around her.
“I want my wire,” Mary said, her eyes on the bodies on the counter.
“Get it,” I said. “I can sew up my most minor wounds and see about looking after Lainie’s arm. When we’re done, I’ll patch you up, and you patch me up?”
Mary gave me one curt nod. She stepped over Simon on her way to the bodies.
I looked for and began collecting the necessary supplies for wound treatment. I ran water in the little cast-steel sink and waited until it was sufficiently hot.
“Are you going to deal with us in the same way?” Chance asked. His arms were still around his sobbing cousin. “Tie up loose ends?”
Not a dumb guy.
“I don’t know yet,” I said.
“What decides it?” he asked. His voice was tight.
“Things like whether I can trust you to keep your word and be afraid enough of us,” I said. “And…”
I looked down at Simon. His scream lingered in my ears.
“And I asked him a question earlier. About what he thought about his handiwork. He made the monsters. He couldn’t give me an answer.”
“That doesn’t mean he didn’t feel bad!” Lainie said. She sounded as if she was panicking. Chance squeezed her, as if to compel her to stay quiet and calm.
“I act, like you said. I lie. I read people like she makes them bleed. If he’d given me one sign, one indication of remorse or pity for the people he hurt over the last few years, I would have let him live. I even asked him outright. I gave him a last chance.”
“You asked me if I thought you were a monster, just a little while ago,” Lainie said.
“I did,” I said. I set out the materials for first aid.
“Is that the same sort of question?”
“No,” I said. “I don’t care what you think about me.”
Chance was glaring at me now, his jaw set.
“But if I was in your shoes, Lainie, I would be thinking hard about what kind of answer you can give me. And I won’t necessarily ask a question before I expect that answer.”
“You said Lainie, you referred to her specifically, instead of say it to us both,” Chance said, his voice quiet. “Is that because you think I gave you an answer?”
On the far end of the room, in front of me, Mary glanced at me. She knew.
“If you want to kill her, you’ll have to kill me first,” Chance said.
I turned around so I could look at them straight. Then, instead of answering Chance, I gestured at Lainie. “Get up on the counter here, I’ll take a look at that arm.”
“Sy,” Mary said.
I stirred, realized my head was on Mary’s shoulder, her hair pulled back out of the way. I sat up straight. We were still in the basement. Chance and Lainie were sitting on a countertop. Sheets covered the corpses in the room, but neither of the young aristocrats looked at ease.
“I slept?” I asked.
“I don’t think so,” Mary said. “A minute, maybe five at most. It was fitful.”
I wasn’t surprised. I felt more tired than I had. Phantom images of other Lambs were disappearing.
After we’d handled the first aid and Mary had been given painkillers, I’d gathered up supplies I assumed I could use. Packets of paper and cloth that held powders I knew to be hard on the eyes and nose. Then, when Mary and I had run out of details to talk about, I’d filled the quiet with their voices, the dim with their faces. Somewhere in the midst of it, I’d tapped myself out.
“It hasn’t been an hour,” I said.
“No,” she agreed. “It’s not time for the rendezvous. But…”
She gestured. Ear. Sound.
A dull noise, reverberating through the town, heavy. Like weather, but not weather.
“I didn’t even hear it stop,” Mary said. “But I heard the steam vent as it started to move again. It just arrived.”
I nodded, taking it in. “Okay.”
“You like to stay ahead of things,” she said. “I thought you might want to scout it out.”
I hopped down off of the countertop. I looked around the room. I gave her a nod.
The phantom images of the Lambs were long gone, having only been halfway between dream and daydream. Still, I remembered the feelings I’d had while they were here. In the twilight of near-sleep, I’d almost let myself believe.
Chance and Lainie approached without complaint as I indicated for them to move. Chance seemed a lot more stern than before, his jaw set.
He’d drawn blood in an indirect way. He looked like a hunter, but the death he had indirectly contributed to was a far weightier one. Helping to kill a noble, of all things. He had matured by leaps and bounds. Now he was looking at me and wondering what other hard decisions he might have to make.
Lainie… I couldn’t say. She’d been forced to grow up a great deal, and I had challenged her to grow up the rest of the way and to do it fast, by demanding an answer out of her. I couldn’t make myself believe she had it in her.
“A lot of people have seen us, now,” Mary commented, as we left the house.
I gave her a singular nod in response.
“What happens if you let Chance and Lainie go? You scare them?”
“That would be the idea.”
“And the soldier who is giving us access to the Baron’s mansion?”
“Won’t talk. Others won’t ask him, and he won’t venture to say.”
“Sure enough that I’m willing to stake your life on it,” I said. “And the life of the other Lambs.”
Mary didn’t have a response to that.
“I’m not willing to stake your life on many things,” I said, my voice dropping.
“I know,” she said. “I believe you when you say he won’t talk.”
I ran my fingers through my hair. My breath fogged in the cool air.
“The soldiers in the house where the Twin died?”
“Didn’t see through the gas, and they won’t talk for similar reasons the other soldier won’t. Only they’ll be less motivated by good nature and more by fear. They were close to the Twin when she died. That failing will reflect on them.”
Not wholly the truth, that. Some had glanced through and seen me. I was sure enough that they hadn’t gotten a good look at Mary. I was alright with that end result.
The group at the train was still there. It had seemed to be a particularly slow-moving group of aristocrats, but as we made our way across the city, periodically glancing in that direction, it didn’t look like they were leaving the train station.
We headed straight for the plaza, and I could almost remember the way back without Mary prompting me.
The soldier wasn’t there. Forty or fifty minutes had passed, and the fighting had concluded. Bodies had been dragged away, and whole groups of people were bringing water, sloshing them on the cobblestones to wash the blood. Not all of the groups had firstborn with them.
I’d planned to be here as the people on the train arrived, get the lay of the land, and see if there was anything I could use. They still weren’t advancing into the city.
Fray? I wondered. Were her people here in disguise, dressed like the upper class?
No. That would be too hard to sell.
“What are you doing?” Chance asked me, “Don’t just stand around. Get water, clean.”
I could see the look in his eye. He was playing along, and I couldn’t see any guile.
“Yes, sir,” I said. Mary and I went to get buckets. I kept a close eye on the young aristocrat, collected the bucket, and used the fact that I was moving around to try and get a better sense of what was going on down at the train station.
Something about this didn’t make sense. I was surprised at how much the sense of it nagged at me.
I was so fixated on that odd scene that I needed Mary to nudge me before I saw our escort making his approach. The guard we’d pled to earlier was coming, and he had others with him. Nothing seemed duplicitous about what he was doing. Not unless he’d lost all ability to feel bad about the violence and wrongs committed against Warrick’s people.
He’d brought his superior officer and a friend, it looked like. We would have our ride.
I glanced again at the train, then back at Chance and Lainie.
There. The aristocrats were now coming. There were no less than four nobles in their company now, departing the train. I could only see them from afar, but three looked younger than the Baron and the Twins, older than fifteen, going solely by proportion and their style of dress. The fourth was older, exceptionally fat to a degree that had to have been created by academy doctors, with crimson hair, and I couldn’t even tell if they were male or female.
“Nobles,” I said. “They weren’t expected to arrive on this train, right?”
“They weren’t. What are you thinking?” Mary asked me.
“I’m thinking about the next train. All of this, it’s a play, right? A strategy. The Baron… he’s not a stupid man. The violence, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but he planned it to an extent. He anticipated Mauer or Fray coming for him, or coming for a cluster of nobles. The firstborn would or will be a distraction… and what does he do?”
“You’ve said it before. He retreats to Richmond House.”
I turned, looking past the houses at the forest, and at the expansive manor that peeked through the trees.
“And remains disconnected? What does he do when and if the soldiers can’t get things back in control? He’d want to hop in a wagon and make his way down to greet the other nobles, and he wouldn’t be able to, not gracefully. That far away, he’d be too slow to move and react. Does he really want to look that weak? That out of control?”
Power and control. The nobles have the power and can never have enough control.
“He’s here,” Mary said. “He made it look like he was going to Richmond House, which anyone would expect, and then he doubled back.”
“Not here, but close,” I said. “I think I know where.”
I looked past the tops of houses and buildings, to the spire of the godless church.