Every bridge had soldiers camped out on or in front of it, and portcullis gates had been lowered to bar passage by way of water. The execution was so practiced that I suspected they had regular drills on the subject.
Tynewear was a scattered sort of city. Cohesive designs held true for each individual district, but it was a city built with invasions in mind. Chokepoints abounded, and a full third of the city rested on islands that could easily be isolated and cut off from the rest of the city.
The perimeter had been secured, and they were now working at securing sections of the city, blocking off districts to limit travel between areas.
“For a rash?” I asked.
“If it has hallmarks of something weaponized, then it might have more to it,” Jamie said.
We made our way to the highest point of a bridge, the two of us looking out over the city. Going clockwise from the north end of the city, there were the nicer homes and apartments at high noon, the theater district, the commercial district, the local Academy at three to four o’clock, the military district from five o’clock to seven o’clock, the Marina, the Boatyards and islands to the general west, and cliffs as things moved higher north. The high rise of cliffs put the theater district and the nicer buildings on higher ground, looking down on the rest, and formed a high barrier of sorts that separated the less-rich areas from the wealthier ones. Walled-off rail tracks and rivers slashed this way and that through the center-body of Tynewear.
“North end is going to be hard to access,” I said. “Too much money and power there, they’ll make the extra investment to ensure they’re secured, and the landscape favors that.”
I frowned, taking it all in. Off in the distance, someone had gotten off their wagon and approached the rear of one of the perimeter squads. A chain of three covered wagons with crates in the back were backed up behind him. A caravan or a group of traders, if I had to guess.
“Are we going to try and exit?” Jamie asked.
“How strong is your swimming?” I asked, eyeing the churning river.
“Not very. It’s cold out, too. If the temperature dropped just a few degrees, we’d be seeing our breath,” Jamie said. “I don’t fancy a swim.”
The soldiers parted the way. The caravan was being allowed in. Warned of the dangers, and they still decided to enter?
Well, it was only a rash. Supposedly.
“Hole up and wait it out?” Jamie asked. “Or at least wait until we see a hole in the perimeter we can exploit?”
I made a face.
“Careful, your face will get stuck that way.”
“Sorry dad,” I said.
“One of us has to be serious,” he said. “We can keep a low profile, maybe tap Candida to bring us groceries?”
When I didn’t reply, Jamie glanced at me, then snorted in surprise. I’d made the second-most horrendous face I could, using some fingers to fold my lips back and bare my teeth, while my index fingers hooked beneath my lower eyelids, with my eyes rolled back into my skull.
His hand covered his nose as his other hand reached for a handkerchief.
I laughed, maintaining the face, which almost made him snort again. He leaned over the railing, forehead against his forearm, handkerchief at his nose, and laughed with me.
“Hey!” a voice cried out from the foot of the bridge.
Jamie wiped as his nose as we looked. It was one of Tynewear’s soldiers. They wore gray uniforms with silver trim, and some nice looking guns with some design along the sides where the barrel joined the butt.
“Quarantine in effect! Low-risk, but we’re sectioning off the town to limit vectors! Where do you live!?”
Jamie and I simultaneously pointed in the direction of Candida’s place. Our place wasn’t far away, but if we happened to get cut off from it, it was better to be close to allies.
“Get on this side of the bridge, then,” the soldier said.
We hurried to oblige, keeping our heads down. We were a few paces away when Jamie started snickering again.
“I got you going,” I said. “Now you’re going to chuckle at random times for the next hour.”
“I’ll always remember it fresh,” I said, pitching my voice to Jamie’s quiet, confident tone. “A year from now I might remember it and laugh, damn you.”
“I have never ever said anything remotely like that,” Jamie said.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“One of these days, I’m going to find a weakness to exploit, and I’ll twist that knife every single time you ask me if I’m sure of something.”
“I look forward to it,” I said.
“Your plan was a good one, by the way,” I said. “Candida’s place, see if they can help a bit.”
It wasn’t too bad of a walk to Candida’s place. I could sense a general buzz of discontent around the city, but it wasn’t the sort of discontent that lent itself to riots. People were having to miss work or were facing difficulty in getting to where they were going, and the problem looked like it was going to get worse before it got better.
The boathouse was in good shape, as such things went, with a flared roof of slate blue and black speckled shingles. A full quarter of the building hung over the water of the river, with a dock sticking out.
I banged my fist on the door, paused for two seconds, banged again, paused for another two seconds, and finally banged twice in close succession.
“Did I miss something?” Jamie asked. “Coded knock?”
“I just wanted to try an interesting knock,” I said.
“You need more intellectual stimulation,” Jamie said, dry.
“What are you talking about?” I asked. I could hear footsteps. “I’ve got you! Wait.”
His mouth dropped open in mock offense. He didn’t get a chance to retort, because the door opened.
Drake, now relieved of many of the black scales he’d decorated himself with, keeping only a few around the eyebrows, stood in the doorway.
In the background, I saw a very different Lainie crane her head to see me, then suddenly turn to Chance, saying something I couldn’t hear.
“If you’re looking for Em, she’s out,” Drake said.
“How far away?” Jamie asked.
“Not far. Two doors down? She’s doing the heavy lifting for someone’s project.”
“What do you need?”
“Nothing to do with Candida, or Em, not really. Can we have a word?” I asked.
Drake stepped inside, using his body to help hold the door open for us, hand extended.
“Sorry to intrude,” I said. “I saw Elaine flinch when she saw me. I guess we’re not the most welcome visitors?”
“You’re not exactly unwelcome, Sylvester,” Lainie said. “But when you come, so does bad news.”
“Twice,” Jamie said. “Out of our nine visits so far, we’ve come with one warning and one parcel of bad news.”
“That’s not a good record,” Chance said.
“It’s what, slightly over one in four chance?” I asked, defensive.
“It’s two too many,” Lainie said.
“You’re better off for knowing what’s going on,” I retorted.
She’d changed her appearance. The changes were more minor than I might have pushed for, focusing on her hair color, eye color and eyebrows. She’d gone from red hair to blonde, and her eyes had turned a dark blue. The eyebrows had been reshaped and changed in color to match the hair. I’d had to urge her not to go with eyebrows that exactly matched the hair. That never looked right.
Chance had changed his clothing, more closely matching the young men who worked on the docks. Black boots, dark slacks, and a thick dark sweater pulled over a collared shirt. He had actually made the leap to altering his chin and nose, styling his hair differently, slicking it back instead of parting it. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but something about him still seemed very upper class. Was he too clean-shaven? He wasn’t old enough to have to shave every day, but it might have been it. Something about his eyes- it was hard to shake the mental image of someone sitting ramrod straight atop a fine horse, wearing a hunting jacket with a gun in hand. Something needed to be added to the complete package, or taken away. I suspected it would have more to do with experiences than appearance. Either way, the transformation wasn’t yet complete.
Not that I was in a position to judge. I’d put off changing my face and hair. It felt too final, cutting myself off from the Sylvester that was. I wanted to see the Lambs again, and I wanted them to see me as me, not have to pause, connect the dots, and realize who I was. I wanted to look Mauer and Fray in the eyes when I dealt with them.
I had bigger plots in mind, I’d weighed the odds and decided that keeping my face had currency with key people that was worth having to keep my head down from time to time.
Drake took his time walking across the room, before seating himself by the fireplace. He looked so comfortable. Lanky, lean but eminently comfortable in his own skin. Very tranquil, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, which were spaced far apart. The lizard image he’d cultivated earlier stuck with me, as I imagined a lizard sunning itself.
The fireplace was built almost like a forge, and sat on a recessed area that would contain any spills or debris, with a semi-circle of steps leading up to the surrounding area. Iron forged to look like a tree with branches embraced the fireplace like builder’s wood might embrace a key part of a building or a quickly repaired wall. Kitchen stuff surrounded the fireplace, poised on tables and counters.
A ladder led up to the upper half of the building were where Emily and Drake’s bedroom was, but I couldn’t know for sure what their setup was as I’d never been invited up there. I’d only ever been here, in the expansive, open-concept kitchen, workshop, and living space.
“What’s going on?” Drake asked, cutting off the conversation as it stood.
“You’ve seen the soldiers?” I asked.
A single nod.
“Quarantine,” I said. “The timing is bad. We were going to skip town in the next few days. There’s heat. Not dangerous heat, but left alone, someone’s going to recognize us, a few days are going to pass, and then people are going to start arriving, actively hunting us down.”
“Three out of ten visits, then,” Lainie said.
“Except this is good news!” I said, smiling. “We’re offering work.”
Lainie looked even unhappier at that idea.
In a way, she reminded me of Lillian the way that she’d been at the very beginning. Someone who had seen too much of what lay beneath the tidy-ish surface and realized that there was a lot to fear about the world. The key difference in play, however, was that Lillian had had a dream, something to focus on, that drove her forward and through.
“I’m not sure,” Drake said.
“We’re looking to lie low. We won’t be spending much time outdoors, and hitting the grocery stores is a bit too much exposure,” I said. “Regular, semi-scheduled visits, pick up a grocery list, maybe some other supplies, deliver, maybe keep us up to date on any trouble. We pay generously.”
“I’ll ask Em,” Drake said.
“No, it’s alright,” Chance said. “I’ll handle it.”
“You sure?” I asked.
“I’m only working to cover some other guys. It’s not reliable pay. Not bad, but not reliable. Lainie and I are trying to get our own space. We’ve been renting a room to sleep in and staying here, but…”
“But you want your own place,” Jamie said. Chance nodded. I glanced at Drake, but it looked like he liked the idea too.
Drake and Candida were a couple, the kids were friends, but yeah, there had to be friction. The more I thought about it, the more easily I could imagine why the kids would have wanted a separate place to sleep. Given the circumstances Drake and Candida had been in the first time I’d seen them…
Yeahhhh. Privacy and individual spaces probably made sense.
“I gave you money,” I said.
“We’ve got half left, after the faces, Lainie’s hair, and paying our way for the past while. We’re holding on to the rest,” Chance said, very seriously. “We need to figure out how to get by for now, and I’d rather scrape by now and make mistakes while we have that to fall back on, then have to learn how to do it later, when we don’t.”
“Good for you, then,” I said. I felt like advice was warranted, but it wasn’t something I really understood. I’d always had a stipend from the Academy to pay my way, if I needed something like a nice set of clothes, I had to wait until the next handout at most. Now that I was free and clear, things weren’t that different. If I needed money, I went out and got some. “You know where to find us?”
“‘Kay,” I said. I glanced at Jamie, who gave me a quick nod. “We’re going to duck out of here before there are too many soldiers looking around. Stop by when it’s convenient.”
That was one thing handled. Jamie and I ducked out, heading back toward our place.
“I’m guessing you’re going to want some books,” I said.
“Paper to write on?”
“And some knives for me, with some lockpicks, a lock or two… it feels like a prison sentence.”
“A week at a minimum, maybe two, maybe three,” Jamie said.
I nodded. I exhaled slowly. “I wanted more elbow room to act, get things ready.”
“For the Lambs. For Fray, and Mauer, the Crown, and the Academy.”
“Mm,” Jamie said.
“Let’s see. I’ve wanted to try learning to juggle. Something for that. We’ve got cards in case we actually want to interact on some level-”
“Please no. Have mercy,” Jamie said. “You cheat.”
“Ha,” I said. “Um. You’ll want something to write on, right?”
“Yes Sy. That would be nice.”
Oh, I’d said that already. I could tell from his tone.
“And we’ll need stuff for Wyvern,” I said. I stopped talking aloud and started mentally trying to lay out the individual categories of things. There would be things Chance couldn’t get easily, and we’d need to grab those. I could go out for a nightly excursion.
Jamie raised his hands to rub his eyes.
Something about the movement-
I looked his way. His face was all scrunched up, fingers pressing eyebrows down and the corners of his mouth up, while he contorted the rest of it.
“That’s pretty good!” I said, smiling.
“You could have the decency to be shocked,” Jamie said.
“Egads, gasp. My heart,” I said, in the best bored monotone I could manage.
“One day, I’ll find your knife, Sy,” he said. “Twist it.”
“Did you forget that you said that already?” I asked, mocking. He just shook his head, smiling, and glanced over his shoulder to make sure we weren’t being followed.
I dearly missed the old Jamie in that moment. The old Jamie would have tackled me, or punched my arm. There would have been the interplay, the contest.
But even if this Jamie became the old Jamie, somehow, if a light flashed behind his eyes and the unrecoverable was somehow recovered and pulled back from oblivion, that kind of moment wouldn’t unfold again. The close physical contact would be complicated by my knowledge that Jamie liked boys, and that he liked me. The roughhousing would never happen again.
In a way, it was a piece of my childhood. I had to make peace with it being behind me. Like so many things.
Jamie shot me a sidelong glance. I realized how I must have looked in the moment. The shadow falling over my expression. I cleared my throat, “Sorry.”
“It’s okay, Sy,” he said. There was no need for him to ask or for me to explain.
“Stop by our place first?” I asked, injecting something lighter into my tone.
“Sure,” he said.
I looked away, taking in the surroundings. I was trying to judge the degree of commotion based on what I could make out of the rest of the city. Things seemed busy, with an undercurrent of nervous energy. People were trying to get settled.
It was only a few minutes of walking. We arrived at the apartment. I glanced down the length of the street, judged the coast clear, and unlocked the door. I opened it a crack, then bent down low. I checked for the long blond hair that I’d wedged into place there, wound to a nail in the bottom of the door and a gap in the wood on the frame.
“Clear,” I said, opening the door so the hair came free. I stepped on it and opened the door the rest of the way.
“You’ve been using that one too much,” Jamie said.
“More than half the times we’ve gone out this week.”
“Remind me later,” I said.
“I reminded you this time, but you were lazy,” he said.
I pulled off my raincoat and kicked off my boots.
The apartment was well furnished. We hadn’t executed much logic in how we arranged things. My bed was set under the largest window, while Jamie’s was in a back corner, partially sectioned off from the room by a bookcase. We’d put furniture where we found it convenient, negotiating for pieces here and there. Custom wood grain with metal edging it, all square, blocky, and modern, and all of it matching. It had been expensive, but expense wasn’t a problem. What I hadn’t been able to buy with borrowed money had been easy enough to take on its own, like the artwork on the walls, strategically placed so it wasn’t easily visible from the outside.
I headed straight for the kitchen to light the fire and take the damp out of the air, moving the kettle from counter to stove before the fire was even underway. Jamie took his time getting his coat off, his eyes on the window.
“There are warbeasts in the water,” Jamie remarked. “Same ones that were in Lugh’s harbor. They must have verified they were healthy and wanted to put them somewhere that they weren’t going to get exposed to the rash.”
I walked over to the window, grabbing a knife and a long loaf of bread. I opened the icebox and got some cheese. I peered out the window in the general direction Jamie was looking. I cut the bread and cheese by feel alone, watching.
Roughly a minute in, tentacles briefly rose up higher than the three story houses were tall, then disappeared into the cityscape.
“Man, I hate this town sometimes,” I said.
“You sure seemed to like it an hour ago,” Jamie said, from the other side of the room.
“An hour ago? That was- wait, what was special about an hour ago?”
“Ohh. Eh, no big deal, that.”
“You sound like you don’t believe me.”
“I believe the spirit of the words, but not the letter.”
The focus it took to wrap my head around what he’d said nearly led to me cutting my fingers with the knife. I raked it across my fingernails instead, and resolved to focus more on what I was doing, taking my eyes off the window.
I heard a violent clicking sound, and then music started playing.
I looked over at Jamie. He was at our very expensive, borrowed-and-not-paid-for scrollphone. The delicate scroll had been placed in the machine, and was now rotating, the music playing from it. It was a violin-focused piece, and the scratchy nature of the device’s sound gave it a quality I almost preferred over ordinary violins.
“You don’t mind?” Jamie asked.
I shook my head.
I finished with the bread and cheese and prepared the tea, carrying a plate and cup of tea over to Jamie.
“Thank you,” he said. “You know, we’re going to end up wanting to kill each other by the end of this.”
“Lies,” I said. “You might end up wanting to kill me, but the reverse won’t ever be true.”
“I don’t go a straight week without a moment of wanting to kill you,” Jamie said, lightly. He arranged the cup and saucer of bread and cheese so they rested on the edge of the bed, and then set himself up with a book in his lap. “But you’re good enough company the rest of the time, I don’t even mind.”
I took a seat on the wide windowsill above my bed, one leg tucked under me, my back to the window frame, my left side pressed against the cold window, and set everything down. I used the space available to lay out some cards.
“Solitaire?” Jamie asked.
“Kind of,” I said.
The thoughts of Lainie and Shirley had probably spurred my decision to go ahead with Lillian.
She sat on the far end of the long, wide windowsill.
Seven card handicap, I thought. I saw her nod.
No cheating. A more dramatic nod. A smile on a face I couldn’t quite put together the way it was supposed to be.
Then I drew our hands.
How are you doing? I wondered. I made my play.
“I’m throwing myself into my studies,” she said. “I don’t get to see the others as much as I’d like, and it helps. I’ve been thinking about my project. The suit you told me to work on. I might be wearing an early version the next time you see me.”
I made her choice of card to play, and then divorced it from my mind so I wouldn’t use it to inform my play and decisions. In a way, I was letting her peek at my hands, while refusing to do the same for myself.
“I know. I don’t mean I know because I’m a figment of your imagination, in your brain. I mean I know. The other, real me. She knows,” Lillian told me, stumbling over her words as she tried to convey something very simple, simply because of the emotional gravity behind what she was trying to express. “Are you sleeping, Sy?”
I’d spent more time sitting on the windowsill watching the world outside of the window than I’d spent lying in bed.
“You need to sleep, Sy,” she said, very gently.
I made my play. She was quick to respond.
“Sleep, and when you’re done your tea, get yourself a tall glass of water. The wyvern formula Jamie is giving you isn’t perfect, so the downsides will be harsher. You need to be rested and hydrated,” she said.
I played two cards.
“That’s really eerie,” Jamie said, from the other side of the room.
I looked up from the cards.
“Who?” he asked.
“Lillian,” I said. “I kind of want some lesser explosives, really?”
“The thoughts don’t connect, Sy.”
“She’s going to wear that meat-suit she was thinking about. They’re going to blitz us, you know. Nothing held back. The only time they’ll take before coming at us full bore will be to get Ashton to recruit someone or something he can use. Then meat-suit Lillian, maybe with Wyvern, maybe, and Mary, of course, and Helen looking to flank? I can see it playing out.”
“You’re smiling,” Jamie said.
I smiled wider, realizing.
“Who’s winning?” he asked.
“She is,” I said, looking down at the cards. “Guilt, I think. I feel bad about how I left things, so I went easy on her, I think. That’s something to watch out for too. For the altercation with the Lambs, further down the road. See how this sort of thing is useful?”
“If you say so, Sylvester,” he said, very patiently.
I finished out the match, then switched out the participants, pitting myself against Gordon.
Feeling the cold on one side, the heat on the other, listening to music, with only one interruption as Jamie changed out the scroll, the cooling cup of tea held in both hands, I managed to doze off.
A sharp rapping disturbed me. I remembered the tea as I jerked to wakefulness, and found the cup gone from my hand. I looked down at the bed, checking, and found it devoid of both tea and cup.
“I got it, Sy,” Jamie said. He indicated the front door.
Still bewildered, I nodded.
Together, we moved to the front door, Jamie collecting and cocking a pistol, me with a knife in the hand that gripped the door handle, my other hand on the improvised trap I’d set beside the door, in case someone came charging in.
“Who?” I asked.
“Chance,” was the reply.
“With Elaine,” he said. He was using Elaine’s full name when in the company of others.
I opened the door, one hand still on the trap. I relaxed when I verified that they really were alone.
“I’m here for the list, and I have a bit of news,” he said.
“Sure,” I said. “News is welcome.”
“Some faces have turned up in Tynewear,” Chance said. “I heard from some others. Academy experiments, I guess? But they’re mercenaries? I thought you’d want to know, since you said you were being tracked.”
I glanced at Jamie. “Looking for us?”
“I don’t know,” Chance said. “There’s seven of ’em. Most are human-shaped, though some are clearly augmented. There’s one, they say it’s the size of a carriage. Metal and flesh, nothing to protect it from the winter, four legged, long hair or mane, metal jaw and legs, tubes at the side.”
“Metal-” I started.
Jamie turned around, hurrying across the room to his bed. He picked up some paper and walked back to us, scribbling.
He’d never been an artist, unless he was drawing from memory. With the speed at which he’d drawn it out, it was shaky at best. “Like this?”
“Maybe? We didn’t see it,” Chance said.
“There was that other guy, with the claws,” Lainie said.
“Mancatcher?” Jamie asked.
“Don’t know what that is,” Chance said.
“Like a stick, with a hinge-controlled collar fixed to the end, it closes around a neck, has spikes pointing inward? Would look like…”
“That’s it,” Chance said. “The thing that Paul said looked like a staff.”
I looked at Jamie.
“Old friends?” I asked, hopefully.
“If they’re even friendly,” Jamie said. “Something pushed them to move through quarantines.”
“But this fast? If they were enemies, shouldn’t it have taken them longer?”
“It’s Dog and Catcher,” Jamie said.
“I guess we’d better hope they’re friendly,” I said.