My grip on Lainie’s wrist was so tight that when she crashed to the ground, I could see the imprint of my hand, distinct and white, the skin around the finger-marks crimson. I’d been pulling her along so we could get to the church as quickly as possible, and she’d hit her limit, stumbling, then being pulled down to the road, skinning her knees through her stockings.
Ahead of us, Mary and Chance remained where they were, looking back.
“Lainie?” Chance asked.
I looked from Lainie to the end of the street. The largest church hadn’t been far from the train station. That little detail mattered.
I was tense, and all of the emotions I’d been bundling up until now were binding together in that tension. I had to hold back to keep from lashing out at Lainie. I’d studied her as an individual, I’d known that she couldn’t run this far or this fast, that she didn’t have it in her to face the situations we were dragging her through. I knew it wasn’t fair, and I wanted to tear into her and shout her down all the same. I wanted to backhand her and drive some sense into her, or draw the gun and use it to provide incentive.
There were too many important things hinging on this. We were close and a matter of seconds could make things very, very difficult.
“Please stand up, Lainie,” I said, and the soft, gentle, almost pleading tone I gave my words was as great a job of acting as I’d ever done.
“I can’t,” she said, between gasps for breath. The words were almost a mewl. If I hadn’t been expecting words, I might have interpreted it as a whimpering sound. She wouldn’t look up at me.
“You can, and you have to,” I said, very patiently. “Right now we’re about a ten minute walk or a five minute run from the train station, the same train station that the aristocrats and some nobles just left. There’s a chance, a real one, that some people might turn the corner at the end of the street up there. People who want to keep their distance from the noble, men with guns scouting the area to protect the people they’re assigned to guard, people assigned tasks or told to prepare accommodations. If they turn the corner and see us, it’s going to make things very complicated.”
“I can’t,” she said, again. There was a kind of defeat to the words. The mewl was gone. She was working on catching her breath, and the emotion was slipping away from her words.
I’d predicted she would be a problem. I’d expected hysteria, not catatonia. I suspected I had a very good idea of what her family and circle of friends were like, now.
Every second counted.
“Earlier, you were excited to be a part of this. When all of this is done, with luck, you’re going to go back to your friends and family. A bit wiser in what goes on in the background, maybe, more grown up in an unhappy sense,” I said.
I had no indication she was even listening to me at this point.
I dropped down so I sat on my heels. I couldn’t quite mirror her posture or actions to get more on her level and find a way to communicate with body language, but being closer to her would help.
“Do you want this to be something you look back on with shame? A black mark, something that sits with you for years, every time you face a bad situation? The omnipresent knowledge that you broke the first time it really counted? Because that’s a lie, and I want you to help me prove that’s a lie,” I said. “I read people. I’ve read you, and I know you have it in you.”
“Don’t fall into this trap of fear and self-doubt,” I urged her.
There wasn’t a response. No sound, no movement.
I was so focused on her I missed the first part of what Mary said.
“I’ve never seen her like this,” I heard Chance say.
I looked up at Mary. “Go ahead. Scout the area.”
“Are you sure?” Mary asked me.
“No,” I said. I put a hand on my knee for balance, and I made a gesture. “But it’s better than all four of us being out here.”
Agree, was her gestured response. She wasn’t agreeing to my statement. She was simply accepting the fact that I might have to do something Chance wouldn’t want to see.
She and Chance ran.
I turned to Lainie, studying her, watching for the slightest movement, of head or fingertip. I looked at her clothes, trying to see if there wasn’t some clue to her personality that would give me a way in.
“At this point,” Gordon murmured in my ear, “You want to consider putting a bullet in her.”
The blunt, simple solution.
You always were a ruthless bastard deep down inside, Gordon, I thought. When they put your brain together, how did they do it? Did they include someone who was very good and enthusiastic about hurting others? Someone you could tap into when the situation called for it, who lurked deep inside you the rest of the time, half-asleep?
Who else was there to ask? Lillian? She wasn’t talking to me. A mental block was firmly in place, making it too difficult for me to pull a complete profile on her together, maybe. Or I simply didn’t want to think too much about Lillian.
Jamie, then. In the absence of Lillian, Jamie was perhaps the most moral of the Lambs. I supposed it was because he remembered everything, including the blood on his hands. It made for quite a burden, I imagined.
I closed my eyes a moment, thinking about him, that feeling when he lurked, as if he was always in the corner of my vision, not quite the new Jamie or the old, haunting me as he straddled the line between the two. It was a recurring theme that came with him. That feeling that he was always there. When I had a question, he had an answer.
But he wasn’t here, and I wasn’t sure he would be, after. With Gordon gone, Jamie was the one Lamb who depended most on his treatments to continue functioning. Without going in and reorganizing his memories, depositing them and taking them back in, or whatever it was he did, he would fly swiftly towards a breaking point. The result would probably be more horrific than the simple blank slate that had followed the loss of my best friend.
That was likely why I hadn’t jumped straight to Jamie, and why he didn’t emerge as frequently as some of the others might. Jamie’s presence went hand in hand with a feeling of loneliness and loss. It was hard to bear for long periods of time. It left me feeling like I needed to get away, to surface for air, but it wasn’t air I gasped for.
In my mind’s eye, so vivid he was almost there, he crouched beside me.
I need to figure out how to get through to her. I need a counterpoint to what Gordon is saying.
I heard Jamie’s matter-of-fact voice. “What you’re telling her, about how she’d regret this for a long time? That it would be a black stain in her memories, coloring things for a long time? You might as well have been talking to yourself, Sy. You hate hurting the young.”
“There’s a reason you didn’t immediately take Gordon’s suggestion. You don’t want to be that person. Not if it isn’t absolutely necessary.”
There was another reason I hadn’t jumped to thinking about Jamie. His presence tended to coincide with uncomfortably penetrating analyses of myself.
I stared at the top of Lainie’s head. I waited, thinking fast, half of my thoughts preoccupied with the Baron and the upcoming confrontation. I had to find a way to disable the man, and that was a hard thing to do. I needed to get the drop on him, if that was even possible.
But I couldn’t do that without leaving Lainie behind. Leaving her behind would mean someone could grill her and find out about Mary.
I saw as her fingers moved, lifting off of the road, then curled up, her hands twisting so she could make them into fists, the sides of each hand still against the ground to help hold her head and shoulders up.
It was movement, a suggestion she was interacting with the outside world.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
I could see her tense.
“No, I’m not apologizing because I’m about to hurt you,” I said. “I’m sorry because I pushed you too hard.”
I could see her relax.
“This is almost over,” I said. “You don’t even need to do or see or say anything. You just need to get somewhere safe. Then this wraps up, I’ll make all the necessary threats to ensure you won’t say a word about my existence or my friend’s, and you go back to your family.”
Slowly, I saw her work up the ability to move again. She wouldn’t look at me, and she moved at a glacial pace.
“I don’t-” she started, hesitating.
A part of me wanted to scream. A calmer part of me was already prepared for the hesitation. I finished her thought, touching her arm and hand, helping her to complete the movement with gentle assistance while I helped her continue her thought by talking it through. “You’ve never seen someone get hurt before, let alone killed.”
She shook her head from side to side, an agreement.
“You’re right. I’ve always worked to bury my thoughts about the people that people like the Baron Richmond hurt and torture. You hear about the monsters as a kid and you wonder why people don’t do anything.”
“Yeah,” I said.
Please move faster.
“Ho!” the cry came from the far end of the street, not far from the train station.
A horrible fear gripped me.
It was a soldier with a uniform that screamed ‘elite’, and that soldier had a dozen people with him.
Three of those people were nobles, an adult and two adolescents. A fourth was an experiment, head and shoulders above the adult, who was a good eight feet tall, at my best estimation. The experiment looked to be all morbid, tumorous flesh, packed into a shell of well-tended cast iron, the flesh throbbing against the shell as if the entire beast was made up of giant hearts. Digitigrade legs and a tail all styled after a bull’s, three sculpted breasts, two long, feminine arms, and a head, overlarge, gold rather than iron, with two faces, sculpted with four twisting horns. One had a mouth that yawned open, the other a serene expression. The imagery couldn’t be mistaken. The noble had a pet, a vat-grown devil.
I lightly tugged on Lainie’s wrist. I felt her resistance, and knew she was frozen in fear. There would be no moving her, and I wasn’t about to leave her behind to tell the noble about Mary.
This is where it all ends, I thought.
The adult noble was the obese one I had seen before. His body type could only be described as a cylinder. Rolls of his chin disappeared beneath a huge ruffled collar, and his clothes formed a kind of drape that extended to his ankles, with war medals on his chest. He’d chosen to look like this, or someone had chosen this aesthetic, and I immediately had an impression why. He was a giant of a man, all size, and he radiated sheer, undeniable power. He was a titan that I suspected the Duke of Francis would have felt small beside, decorated with alabaster skin and hair that was parted in the middle and curled at the sides, fine and like spun gold.
Yet for all that he made me think of an ogre, his eyes looked like they belonged on a fey trickster. Almond-shaped, bright blue, and animated, they immediately locked onto me, supposedly a Warrick local, instead of on Lainie.
The boy in the noble’s company was his son, or some close relative. The resemblance was uncanny, but the boy was not yet a giant. Five times my size, easily, but not yet of his father’s height. His eyes didn’t seem nearly so sharp. He wore a vest and jacket with a long coat.
And the young lady… about my age, and undoubtedly a noble, was leaner than her guardian and relative. Statuesque, with the man’s fey glittering eyes, yet with none of the apparent humor behind them. I wanted to despise her by default, to hate her, and I couldn’t find a flaw to pick at, to latch on to. Not overdone, but not so indistinct as to be lost amid all of the other worked beauties. Her features were soft, her almond eyes green and cold. Her costume, and I didn’t have a word for it otherwise, was black, half-dress and half-suit, with calf-length leather boots and a fine leather falconer’s glove on her right hand, though she had no bird with her. She stood with one hand on her hip, body askew, glove hanging at one side, and she made it look natural. Raven hair hung down one side of her head, exposing only the one ear, which had black jewels set into it.
She looked like the sort of noble I might have wanted to be, had I been one. Whoever had decided on her aesthetic had made good choices, ones that I suspected made a great deal of sense, with attractiveness as a byproduct. I suspected it all flowed seamlessly, in a way that made me think of the artistry behind Helen. That design was almost enough to distract me from the situation. The situation was bad.
I couldn’t run. I knew it instinctively. The devil would be on our heels. If I tried, it would mean leaving Lainie.
I dropped to my knees. Lainie was already halfway there. Her head bowed as mine did.
“Elaine Dexter?” the adult spoke. His voice was exactly as one might expect, as if the skies had opened and a higher power had spoken, words reverberating as if they rattled the walls. The fact that the syllables were as deep and slow as they were made his voice sound distorted, akin to how I’d once heard an altered baby who had a crying scream of an adult.
“Yes, Lord Infante,” Lainie said.
Infante. That put this man around the ninth, tenth, or eleventh place from the throne, though it was always hard to tell, with new births and deaths that weren’t spoken of. My memory of these things was bad to begin with, but I thought of two possibilities for who he might be. Either the Lord King’s second grandchild or husband to the youngest child of the king.
His voice boomed, “I had a glance of you once, when you were still on your mother’s breast. You became frightened at my voice and squawked, interrupting me.”
“I-I have heard the story, Lord Infante. I am dearly sorry.”
He laughed, and I imagined, had he had a normal voice, it might have sounded warm.
“Not to worry, dear child. I have a good recollection for people and events, and I don’t use it for nursing grudges. Stand, now. Look me in the eye. Let me see how you’ve grown.
“Yes, Lord Infante.” Lainie did as she’d been asked. I remained kneeling.
“Yes, Lord Infante.”
“An incident, Lord Infante. The locals have monsters assigned to watch each family, the monsters became riled. The- the-”
She stuttered. It was as if the man was so intense that weak things simply crumbled around him, and Lainie wasn’t feeling strong.
“Alright, child, alright. Shush,” the man spoke. “Now tell me, who is this rapscallion that is keeping you company?”
“Raps- my Lord Infante, I-”
“Shush, I told you, there’s no need to worry. You’re keeping the company of someone who has had droplets of blood fall on him from above, landing on his back, with very full pockets and clothes that belonged to someone else. Any of these things might be fine on their own, but they add up to quite a picture.”
I wondered if I could stab Lainie and run.
If I was going to run, it had to be now.
“Yes, Lord Infante,” I said, standing. I was very aware of how small I was compared to even the shortest of the nobles present, the falconer.
“You’re a killer,” he said.
“Yes, Lord Infante,” I said. I was growing to hate the words ‘Lord Infante’, but I was willing to take Lainie’s cue on this and say it every time I spoke, just to be safe.
My admission of being a killer had the noble son’s piggish eyes and the Falconer’s green eyes fixed on me. They were, at the risk of overstating it, mildly interested now.
“Honest, aren’t you?”
“I’m not usually, but here, yes, Lord Infante. If I didn’t tell you, I think miss Elaine Dexter here might. With all respect due to her, she is having a very poor day. With a man of your… stature, I feel it would be bad form to be caught in a lie.”
“Very wise, very wise. You don’t strike me as a very poor killer, boy. Are you an exceptional one?”
“I’m trying to be, Lord Infante. Today will decide it one way or the other.”
“Hmm. Trying is a weak word. Who is supposed to die at your hand today?”
“The Baron Richmond, Lord Infante.”
That actually seemed to surprise the man. He stopped for a moment, and then let loose a laugh so loud I worried the Baron would hear it, some distance away. It made my ears ring.
“At the poor man’s engagement announcement? I’d thought you might be one of his, hired to pick off some lesser noble. I was going to ask you which one, and buy you off if it was one I wanted to keep around. But this? This is something different.”
“Yes, Lord Infante.”
“Who hired- No, no, I don’t imagine anyone hired you. You look wrung-out enough that you might have abandoned the job if it was simply about money, and you’re too young to understand money as it stands. This is personal.”
“Why the Baron? No, hold, don’t tell me why. I don’t want to know your petty reasons, and I can imagine what the answer would be. Let’s see if you have an answer for me. This event, this narcissistic cock-wag of a show, what is he doing it for?”
I paused, thinking.
“If you take more time than it takes me to draw a breath to give me an answer, boy, I will personally twist you into two pieces and hand you over to my elite guard with instructions to put each half in a different outhouse.”
“Lord Infante, he hoped to lure in others that stand between him and the throne. In the recent skirmish in Lugh, he found out about guns designed to kill nobles, and secured an alliance with the man who made them. The Duke of Francis-”
“Is left with half of a brain. A vegetable in a pretty package. I’m aware. This neatly explains how that came about. The attack is arranged for later, then?”
“I’m not sure he anticipates it for sure, Lord Infante,” I said. It was hard to breathe around the man. I was caught now between responding as fast and concisely as I could and being crushed by his voice, while being tense and prepared to bolt for it in some dim attempt to survive if he saw reason to hurt me. “He might hope it will happen, but if it doesn’t, then he still gets to meet and greet his peers and know they’ll likely die in the months to come, as the guns see use.”
I was leaving Candida Gage out of this on purpose.
The man’s silence was imposing. Beside me, Lainie drew in a shuddering breath.
“Will I find reason to regret letting you go?” the man asked me. “Be honest.”
“Lord Infante, I can’t say for sure. But I know one thing for certain. There isn’t a person alive who wouldn’t think the world is a better place with the Baron Richmond removed from it.”
There was a momentary pause. Something felt wrong. I shifted my weight, ready to bolt-
The Infante’s son lunged. As fast as any Ghost, despite his mass. His hand hit me like a cannonball. I flew back, and I jerked short, as his fingers had grabbed my shirt-front. Lainie shrieked.
“The sound you made when you were a small child was nearly the same, Elaine Dexter,” the Infante spoke. “Boy, you almost had me, and then you had to lie to me.”
I didn’t fight. I knew it wasn’t a use. I had my gun tucked into my pants behind my shirt, but I doubted it would hurt the son of the Infante. It wasn’t worth trying.
“You’ll come with me,” he said. “You’ll work for me. Perhaps I’ll alter you. Elaine Dexter, as well. For working willingly beside someone like this, who would hurt a noble, I can’t allow you to return to your parents.”
“No! Lord Infante!”
I couldn’t breathe with the fat fist clutching my collar.
Mary was going to either try and fail to complete the mission, and the Lambs would be splintered, or she was going to miss the window of opportunity and come looking for me, before returning to the others.
Perhaps that would be best. She wouldn’t find me. Things wouldn’t lead back to her, hopefully. She could return to a more normal life as a Lamb.
“No?” the Infante asked.
“He held me hostage, Lord Infante.”
I managed a nod.
“Ah, the scoundrel agrees, then. But you could have said no, Elaine,” the Infante said. “You could have willingly gone to the grave rather than aid in a plot that put a noble’s mortal life at risk. Even a lesser man like the Baron Richmond is a higher value life than yours, you can’t deny that. You’ve wronged the natural order. That can’t go unanswered.”
I couldn’t speak. Fabric threatened to tear. I suspected that I would die the moment it did, because he would seize my actual throat instead, and crush it like a small child might squeeze gruel between his fingers.
I reached down as far as I was able, and I reached for my boot. Between the fingertip of my middle finger and the fingernail of my index finger, I caught the very pommel of the knife I’d slipped within. I hauled it out, moving my hand to catch the length of the handle against the base of my hand, and I had a grip on the knife a moment later.
The Infante’s son’s eyes moved down, looking. He smirked.
The knife plunged, digging into my thigh. I let go of it, letting it drop to the road, the clatter of it drawing a small amount of attention.
My vision was going black. I’d already been tired, hurt, and exhausted, and it wasn’t taking much.
Touching my fingertips to the blood, I brought one arm up, and I drew on the sleeve.
The darkness threatened to overwhelm me.
“Let him breathe.”
I was released. I coughed, sputtering, and dropped to my knees, where I coughed more.
“You don’t believe you lied?” the Infante asked.
I shook my head. I wondered if the lack of a proper answer would end me.
“The Baron doesn’t have anyone who cares about his existence? You forget about his sister.”
“Dead, Lord Infante.”
“One is, I know, but the other- ah.”
I nodded in agreement with his realization.
“Yes, Lord Infante. I did it alone, using my hostage and a hostage doctor dressed up as an experiment. Elaine can confirm.”
I didn’t see the look or his indication for Elaine to speak, but I heard her voice. “He did, Lord Infante. In the town hall. He killed the Baron’s doctor, and then the Twin. U- used a knife, and fire, and gas. The body burned. The Baron doesn’t know, we don’t think.”
She was talking too much, making what was largely truth sound like a lie.
“Then I sincerely apologize, little scoundrel. I gave the order too quickly. I suppose I should send you off before I make another mistake. Go, and fulfill this noble goal to make this world a better place by removing one more heartbeat from it.”
It put a bitter taste in my mouth, to hear my goal described as noble. Worse, it almost felt as though one of the few redeeming parts of this task I’d set for myself had been stripped away. The fact that it was for Lillian remained, but it no longer felt like the first mission I’d set for myself. It felt like I was doing the Infante’s bidding.
I almost turned to go, and then I glanced at Lainie.
“I think I’ll keep her with me,” the Infante said. “She’s young, and she hasn’t yet had the modifications necessary to be in my company for extended periods of time, but I’ll find other things to do with her. As I said, she committed a wrong. I may consent to the Baron’s death, but it’s not for her to say.”
I could see the emotions fly through Lainie’s eyes. The terror, the defeat, and then renewed terror as the scope of her fate sank in.
“Lord Infante,” I said.
“I already know what you’re going to ask,” the man said.
“I would like her assistance in completing the remainder of my goal, if you would be willing, my Lord.”
I’d hoped never to utter the words ‘my Lord’ again.
“Do you not think she deserves punishment?” the giant asked me in his heavy voice.
“Lord Infante,” I said, glancing at Lainie, “I think the punishment will come about on its own, with no need of your help or mine.”
She looked between me and the Infante, clearly confused. Her whole being was focused on the present and her current fate. She couldn’t see how things unfolded from here.
“Shall we make a bet of it?” the Infante asked. “If I revisit Elaine Dexter and her family some time from now, and I don’t think the punishment sufficed, I’ll remedy things then.”
“I think that is fair judgment, Lord Infante,” I said.
He nodded. “Then go about your business. I came this way to visit the Church, which I found curious, and to see what sort of town a little man like this Baron might have wrought.”
“Then we have the same destination, my Lord,” I said.
“The Baron is there?” the Infante asked, his eyebrows raising. “Then I will skip the church for now. I expect I’ll find your body or the Baron’s there when we come back this way?”
“I hope for the latter, Lord Infante,” I said. “But yes, I would expect so.”
His son and the girl gave me sideways glances as they and the Lord carried on past Lainie and me.
The moment his back was to me, I bolted, running, once again with Lainie’s wrist in my grip. There was no resistance from her. Getting away from the Infante was excuse enough to move and move quickly. Each running footstep made the stab wound on my leg throb.
“What-” Lainie started. She stumbled, as if moving and speaking required too much coordination. She was still in shock. “What- punishment?”
Punishment. The Infante had laid it out clearly enough. It would sink in, once she thought about it. If he visited her family and found that she hadn’t faced grim enough measures, then he would handle it himself with her entire family at stake. Perhaps he would check in and retaliate against her family, a scene for her to find or later hear about, and have that be the punishment.
No. She couldn’t go home again. She couldn’t look back. She couldn’t reach out. It would either be the catalyst that saw her and her family utterly destroyed, or it would mean finding out things that would destroy her. Both were equally possible.
I would have to find a way to tell her, but that time wasn’t now. I was approaching the church. My fingertips went out to brush wood where a fresh mark had been carved. I changed direction.
Now that we were close enough, I could hear shouts. I could make out the words.
“…a shadow! A flash of dark hair at the window, was it!?”
The Baron. Drunk on power and confidence.
The voice was loud. “Come to me, Lamb! Come to me! My soldiers will let you through. If you came for the Lady Gage, then come, or I’ll open her throat!”
I felt Lainie hesitate, and shifted my grip on Lainie’s wrist so I held her hand, somewhat more gently. It helped urge her forward.
The Infante had taken everything from her, and she didn’t know it yet. Hearing the Baron speak, knowing the implicit threats his words carried, facing this scene, possibly my last act as a Lamb, I knew that Lainie’s imminent situation mirrored my own.
Closely enough that I had to wonder if it was on purpose.