“Catcher’s friends are going to be on us any minute now,” Jamie said.
“Okay,” I said.
“Whatever this is, it looks bad.”
“Yeah,” I said. I looked around. “I’m thinking Fray.”
“How is… I don’t know. Prepared well in advance, co-opted from someone who specializes in this sort of thing, or maybe it was inspired by the primordials. Lillian said something about the primordials being a way to inspire some really out-there research.”
“That’s the how. What’s the why?”
“Forcing the nobles’ hands? They want to use the new guns to take down the nobles, and we haven’t heard anything about that. Maybe the idea is to bait them out?”
“Doesn’t seem like Fray,” Jamie said.
“Lugh was her fault,” I said. “People died. A lot more could have.”
“Yes,” Jamie said. “But it doesn’t seem like her, does it? She might justify what she did in Lugh by saying that the people would have picked a fight and gotten wiped out sooner or later. But this… I’ve never talked to her, Sy. The old Jamie did, but that was only in passing. I don’t know her, so I only have the outside context, mostly secondhand.”
“Catcher said that Fray believes in humanity. Yes, she got us awfully close to an ugly end, but… does this really feel like something that she would do in service of humanity?”
“Power and control drive the Academy and Crown, but they’re losing their grip on both of those things-”
“I’m not sure about that,” Jamie said. “Yes, they’ve lost what any other country, power, organization, whatever, would see as a grave loss, but considering what they hold and what they have, I’m not sure it’s more than a drop in the bucket.”
“Conceded,” I said. “Where was I? Power, control, Academy, Crown. Right. Mauer wants to defeat the Academy and win over the people, and, I dunno, I think back to our first move. We rallied the people in favor of the Academy, turned them against him.”
“The major players are are striving for one thing, and accomplishing the other? So Fray is striving to save humanity and is now willing to destroy it?”
“Maybe,” I said. “Maybe this is Mauer. But it’s big on a scale that seems Frayish.”
“That I’ll agree with,” Jamie said.
“I want to be a major player,” I said. I was focused now, still riding the rush from the jailbreak and the intrigue of the quarantine. I moved with energy, thinking hard while my mind’s eye and my mind’s voice were addressing Jamie, the forefront of my brain almost absentminded, speaking on impulse. “I want to have minions. People who follow my orders, look up to me, kiss my shoes and call me sir.”
“Yeahhh,” I said, drawing out the word. My detached forebrain was taking point, daydreaming aloud. “No more just picking up random Jacks and Jills from among Mauer’s expendable troops, or recruiting random prisoners and crossing my fingers. I want to hand pick. I want my enemies to go out of their way to invite me to things like the moot at Brechwell. To have to consider me as a factor in everything they do.”
I glanced at Jamie, who was giving me a bemused look.
“And we,” I said, “will be a force to be reckoned with. I don’t want to speak for you, but if you want your boots kissed-”
“Or whatever. I think you and me, we could look dapper as all-get-out with some suits and the right furnishings. Me sitting in the chair, you sitting on the edge of the desk, as Peabody the hired thug walks in. The intimidation in his eyes as we both look at him.”
I shrugged. “We’ll find a Peabody.”
“I like how your brain works, Sy.”
“Thank you, Jamie.”
“Let’s turn that brain to more effective things.”
“Already turned. We’re on course,” I said. “This is familiar territory.”
“Is it now?”
“When you’re taking your pre-sleep nap late at night, and I’m making sure we have enough for our ever-absent uncle to pay our rent to our dear landlord, I pass through this area on my way back.”
“One of my fences. It took me a few weeks to figure out which of the local fences talk to each other, so I don’t corner myself if I try to play them against each other in a bidding war over whatever I happened to help myself to, and I found out that it’s a pretty close-knit community here. I had to go pretty far afield.”
“Pretty far afield to the near-center of Tynewear?”
“Exactly,” I said.
“You told me about Jackson near the Marina, and the old man-”
I groaned aloud. “Don’t do that. Don’t pick apart things I said to you forever ago that I don’t even remember saying, and draw conclusions.”
Jamie touched my shoulder, making me stop, turn, and face him. I took a glance around for trouble before meeting his eyes. He spoke, “I’m going to assume from how you worded things that you have at least three fences you’re playing off each other. If you’d had only two, you would’ve emphasized different words.”
“I know how you approach things, Sy. There’s a third, and this one probably isn’t the old man. Have you avoided mentioning him on purpose?”
“Yes sir,” I said, adopting a hangdog look.
“Because this one is creepy,” I said.
“We’ve handled creepy.”
“He’s a different sort of creepy.”
Jamie gave me a long, stern look.
“But this is our best move right now,” I said. “He likes me.”
Jamie considered for a moment, then relented. “Okay.”
We picked up our speed, walking briskly. The streets were dotted with people who seemed completely lost. People who had routines, jobs, and roles who were being told to stay put, who didn’t know what to do with themselves.
I strongly suspected that Jamie and I were odd in that we’d forged a kind of home here, however temporary it might be. People here didn’t bake a treat in their kitchen. They went over to a fancy pants shop with crystal and wood filigree windows and they bought something. They didn’t rest or entertain at home. They sought out bars where they could tranquilize themselves with drink and shows where they could entertain themselves with dance, theater and music. Even in the less well-to-do boatyards, people went out to drink. Rich and poor, it felt like most people didn’t truly know the comfort and softness of their own beds, because they were blackout drunk when they collapsed into those beds and hung over when they rose from them.
Hyperbole, to be sure, but it was an attitude that played into how so many people were milling around as if every impulse in their brains pushed them to go somewhere and do something, and they were being expected to stay put.
We navigated our way to a house. Tall and narrow, it was made narrower still by being divided into thirds, with one third being a shop. Engravings, etchings, fittings and custom work. The ‘custom work’ would be in the capacity of a back-alley doctor unless a member of the police or the Academy stopped in, in which case the question would be met with innocent stares and talk of jewelry.
A bell jingled as I opened the door. I let Jamie go in first, looking back to make sure we weren’t being followed. I didn’t want to bring trouble to anyone’s door, not when we needed friends.
“Wow,” Jamie said, taking in the shop. Everything within was beautiful, and all put together, it was something otherworldly. Crystal, gold, fine woodwork, silver, jewels and more were arranged around us. A great deal of it was tagged, with names and no address. Even the tags had gold lettering.
Responding to the bell, a man made his way into the shop from the adjoining house. He saw me and beamed. Like Jamie, he wore his hair long, but the hair hung down one side of his face. He decorated himself not with jewelry, but with tools and kits. The breast of his jacket had a leather case with a row of fine watchmaker’s tools on display. At his collarbone, like a pendant, was a jeweler’s lens, evocative of some large gemstone. He was twenty or so and brimmed with youthful energy, yet he seemed to have all of the confidence of a much older man. Rather than an older man who’d made himself look younger, I instead deemed him a young man with a great deal of natural ability and talent.
He moved behind his counter, neatly setting things aside, so the space was clear, then rested his hands on the counter, leaning forward.
“Hello, Jer,” I said.
“Simon,” he said. He continued to smile, unable to sit still. “Quarantine, hm?”
“Looks like a plague,” I said. “A bad one.”
He made a face, the smile faltering. He glanced at Jamie, then back to me, eyebrow quirking.
“We can talk freely,” I said.
“Oh good,” he said, breathing an audible sigh of relief. “Do you have anything for me?”
“So greedy, Jer.”
“I am!” he said, without shame. “I try to indulge in every single sin that I can, and greed, obviously, is foremost among them. Do you have anything?”
“I don’t,” I said.
He deflated a little, then rallied. He smiled, and it was mischievous. “I thought perhaps you were going to offer me the… boy?”
“Boy,” Jamie confirmed.
“No,” I said, “He’s mine.”
Jer threw up his hands in surrender, as if he might be seen as wanting to put up a fight, in the wrong light. “Not that I’d be interested. My eyes are only for girls, and I like my girls perfect… and older.”
“I know, Jer,” I said. I wasn’t going to encourage him. “Listen, we’re in trouble.”
The dash of humor in his expression disappeared. Now serious, he straightened, withdrawing his hands from the midpoint of the counter to the edge, gripping it. “What sort?”
“Bounty hunters,” I said.
“You have a bounty?” he asked, surprised, then immediately changed tacks. “Of course you have a bounty, you productive little rascal. We can’t have that! It makes my evening when you pay your visits. If you were dead or captured, you’d never visit me again.”
“Which bounty hunter is it?”
“Dog,” I said, “And Catcher.”
“Two of them! Sounds vaguely familiar, and… not local?”
“And a woman with blond hair and modified hands,” I added.
“A ghost, actually,” Jamie clarified. “One of Percy’s. I remember my, uh, friend’s sketches of their faces.”
I shot him a look. “Really?”
“Or someone used one for raw materials and copied the face,” Jamie said, shrugging. “I don’t know.”
“Ghost with modified hands, then, and two Brunos, and there were others,” I said.
“There’ll be more, if Catcher wasn’t fibbing,” Jamie said. “Soon, too. Savvy ones will be keeping an eye out for where their competition is going. More bloodthirsty bounty hunters.”
I nodded my agreement.
“Ah huh,” Jer said. He frowned. “I suppose they’ve realized it’s not really two or three different burglars that are raiding homes at night, sometimes even when residents are sleeping inside?”
“Something like that,” I said. “I don’t suppose you know a quick way out of Tynewear? By water or tunnel?”
Jer shook his head.
Didn’t think so. “Then we need tools and weapons, and the jailors relieved me of my wallet, which I didn’t happen to pick up. Not that it had much in it. Whatever you’re willing to offer, I need it on credit.”
“Ah, Simon, my friend. You’re lucky I’m fond of you. I’m a little less fond of you now that I’m suspicious these people are after you for a good reason. Perhaps you got your hands on something that other people valued very highly, and that something somehow didn’t cross my counter, even for consideration?”
“Nothing like that, don’t worry,” I said. “Just murders.”
“Ah,” Jer said. He nodded, as if this was matter of fact. There was humor to his voice as he repeated, “Just murders.”
Abruptly, he turned. His hand smacked a bell that hung behind the counter. I saw Jamie tense.
“It’s fine,” I said.
“Yes,” Jer said. “Only the tea bell.”
“Ah,” Jamie said.
“I adore elegance,” Jer said. “If I were to offer you something from my personal stock, it would be along the lines of…”
He knelt behind his counter. He was just tall enough that I could see the top of his head. “This. And this. I suppose I can part with this, too.”
To say Jer was dedicated to elegance was something of an understatement. The guns he kept behind the counter, which were likely only ever seen by thugs looking to rob him, if anyone, were as ornate as any jewelry, crusted with silver leaf, engraved from the tip of the barrel to the base of the grip. The long knife was so fancy that I wondered if it would even service in combat.
Going by Jamie’s look, he might have thought the same thing.
“That’s generous of you,” I said. “But I was hoping for something a little less beautiful and something…”
“Uglier?” Jamie suggested.
“Uglier,” Jer restated, as if he needed to frame the idea in his head.
“Something that could make a mess,” I said. “Tidy and beautiful won’t work. Those pistols, I could empty both of them into Catcher, reload, empty them into him again, then take two minutes of time with that knife while he stood still and let me work on him, and once my time was up, he would arrest me and drag me off. Dog is bigger, tougher.”
The knife thing was only true because it looked so horribly inefficient. Bits curled off from the sides, which limited how deep I could get it, and the fancy handle would make it hard to swing with any force. Even the pommel was pointed, so I couldn’t press against it with one hand while thrusting with the other, to help drive it home.
“Ah,” Jer said. “There is one thing.”
“One thing would be excellent,” I said. “Whatever it is.”
“Except I promised it to someone else. It passed into my hands, and I’ve yet to tell that someone else that I have it in stock…”
Jer’s stitched servant entered the room. She reminded me of Fray’s stitched girl, whatever her name had been. Like Fray’s stitched, the seams and actual stitches were hidden, where sheer skill hadn’t hidden them entirely. She was beautiful, and dressed in a way that accented that beauty without being vulgar. She didn’t look like a lady of the evening. She looked like a woman who any man might be happy to have on his arm at some fancy event. High quality and expensive.
Relegated to serving tea. She set down the tray with the kettle and lone cup.
“Thank you, darling,” Jer said. The word got a genuine-seeming smile in response. Automatically, as if he’d forgotten we were present, he touched her chin to angle her head and kissed her.
The kiss alone might have made me uncomfortable, considering that the woman was dead, but the look in her eyes, as she stared off into points unknown, her eyes darting left and then right, as if possessed of a different sort of life than the one that controlled her mouth as she very automatically kissed her owner…
He stepped back and away and waved her off in the same moment, returning his attention to us.
“Tea?” he asked. He raised his hand from beneath the counter, holding a faintly dusty cup.
“No thank you,” Jamie said, very curt.
“No, but thank you,” I said, echoing Jamie with somewhat more courtesy. “We’re in a hurry.”
Jer nodded, using a handkerchief to clean the cup. “Lock the shop door, then come around the counter.”
I touched Jamie’s shoulder, pushing him lightly toward the counter, as I turned to go lock the door. I quickly set the locks before reversing course, joining Jamie as we went behind the counter.
Jer was dragging a hidden panel out from the base of the shelf. The glass display of jewelry and leather bits appeared to sit on a wooden base, and the wooden base had a drawer.
He stepped back to let us investigate.
Cushioned by hay, there were six different sorts of explosive packed into the box. Grenades, smoke, landmines, mines with cords, and other, heavier ones buried further down. They might, judging by the shape, have been rockets.
Jer prepared his tea, stirring by way of teaspoon as he emptied the kettle into the cup.
“I’m willing to negotiate,” I said.
“I certainly hope you are, Simon. You two can walk away with what you can carry. In exchange, should you do business in Tynewear again, you’ll come to me. I’m your fence.”
“And if I don’t do business in Tynewear again?”
“Then you’re likely dead, and you can consider this my generous contribution to your funerals.”
He was giving me a complete pass. He had to know I was leaving town, but he was handing me what had to be a nice payoff, on account of established reputation alone.
“Alright,” I said. “And if we happen to leave the city, I’ll find a way to make my gratitude known.”
“Just so,” Jer said. It was the right response. We both had a sense of how the other operated.
“A bag?” I asked, looking up at Jer.
He had messenger bags, like the ones paperboys in Tynewear used, all leather and fanciness, only it came from Jer’s custom shop, so the leather was engraved and made all the more stylish. It might have cost a whole twenty or thirty dollars to get, if I was any other customer.
I took the mines, grenades, and what I took to be smoke grenades.
“Collector’s items,” Jer said, “From the great war for the Crown States. Safe to handle, but no guarantees they’ll fire. Valuable. Try to appreciate their historical and financial value as you actively use them.”
His smile was a faintly pained one.
“I will. Goodbye, Jer,” I said.
“Goodbye, Simon,” he said.
I bumped into the door as I tried to haul it open and step outside, only belatedly realizing I’d locked it. I tried to maintain a hair of dignity as I led the way outside.
We were about ten steps away when Jamie came to a stop. I turned around to look at him.
“Do you think it would draw too much attention if I turned around and threw one of these explosives through his shop window and over that counter?” Jamie asked me, his eyes focused down at his satchel.
I didn’t respond right away. I had to take a second to study him, looking him up and down, taking in the little details.
“It’s not like you,” I said, measuring my words carefully, “To say something that vehement.”
Vehement wasn’t the right word. But it somehow fit the situation. Jamie, so very calm, was saying something so uncharacteristically violent.
“I know,” Jamie said.
“Because of the stitched?”
“There was something behind her eyes, Sy.”
“Yeah,” I said. My voice soft. “Yeah. Some of the newer models are more capable, less of the brain cut and burned away.”
“I won’t ever forget that look-”
“I know,” I said, quick, cutting him off. “I know. It’s part of the reason I didn’t invite you to come by. Even with that in mind, I didn’t think you’d react that intensely.”
“She’s a shell, Sy. They tampered with her head, they took her old identity. They emptied her out. But she still has something there, buried there. Maybe it’s trying to surface. Maybe it never will, and that idea’s horrifying. Maybe it will, and that idea is worse.”
“I know,” I said.
“I have- not nightmares, I sleep too deeply for real nightmares, but it comes to mind, I worry, I think about worst case scenarios. What might happen further down the line. Some of those scenarios look an awful lot like that woman did.”
“Yeah,” I said. I drew in a deep breath, and stood straighter. “Yeah.”
Jamie glanced back, in the direction of the shop.
There wasn’t anything new to see there. It was a little mannerism that I didn’t put my finger on until I actually saw him deviate from it, that Jamie wasn’t one to look back. He didn’t need to validate or double check things.
“It doesn’t bother you?” he asked.
“I bent my brain until it didn’t. We needed to pay our way, and it wasn’t smooth sailing, at first. And once I bent my head in the right direction… I guess I really didn’t think too much about it.”
“Except you knew it would bother me.”
“Yeah. I think I knew it bothered me,” I said. I thumbed at the ring at my finger.
“You’re not going to be able to put this behind you,” I said. “Let it go? No, that’s the wrong wording, I’m not saying you shou-”
“I know what you mean,” Jamie said. “No, I can’t put things behind me. I carry them. I don’t let anything go. I can forgive, I can change my mind, when presented with new information, but there’s nothing there I ever want to be able to forgive or change my mind about.”
“Okay,” I said.
“I know what you’re about to do,” he said. “It’s decided, just like that?”
“Yeah,” I said. I turned around, and walked back to the shop. I pushed the door open, slowly, up until the bell above the door dinged.
“Hm?” Jer made an inquisitive sound. He was kneeling behind the display, rearranging some pieces. “Simon! Did you forget something?”
I reached into the messenger bag, grabbed a grenade, and pulled a pin.
He moved without a moment’s hesitation, dashing for the house.
He reversed course as I threw the grenade past the open doorway, into the room he’d been heading into, scrambling back so fast that he fell over.
The explosion was eminently satisfying, to all of the senses, from the smell of smoke to the noise, to the tactile feeling as it cracked and then woofed through the bones of the house and shop. Jewelry and crystal throughout Jer’s shop tinkled.
That deals with any stitched servants in the kitchen.
I’d neglected to mention to Jamie that there was more than one. He didn’t need or want to know.
Jer went for his gun. I went for the next grenade, pulling the pin and lobbing it so it went high. It bounced off of the glass top of the display case, over the counter. I’d expected it to fall into the display case, where it would be harder to grab and throw back. Instead, it landed on the far side, clattering over the floor.
Jer didn’t aim his gun at me. He only stared, saying something I couldn’t make out, as I backed swiftly away, gaining more speed as I went.
The explosives we’d left in the hay-lined crate were right beside where the grenade had landed, and the resulting combination made for an explosion was a sight to behold, rolling across the ground floor and partway up through the second floor affecting the neighbor to the right of his house, and taking out at least one of the supports. The entire house buckled in the middle part, creaking, sagging, and threatening to fall. Instead, the fall seemed to be slow but insistent, like the grains of sand through an hourglass.
I stopped running as I caught up with Jamie, falling in step with him as we walked away from the scene.
“Thank you,” Jamie said.
“Of course,” I said.
“Don’t keep things from me, Sy.”
“I’ll keep a lot of things from you,” I said. I thought of the plurality of haunted stitched. “It’s how I operate.”
He gave me a very displeased look.
“But I won’t keep matters of conscience from you,” I said. “I promise.”
“Thank you,” he said, in a very perfunctory way, apparently satisfied. He glanced back at the building, as clusters of people walked past us to see what had just happened. Some shouted of fire and the need for water.
Others, I saw, were hanging back. I wondered if any were sick and hiding it.
“I know I asked for it, but this is going to draw attention. They’ll be right on top of us any second now.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Let ’em come. This is our territory, twice over. We’ve been here for months, getting the lay of the land, and, in my preferred way of doing things, the box is thoroughly shaken.”
“And we have the means of shaking it further,” Jamie said, patting the messenger bag at his side, his chin raising a notch. He pointed. “This way.”