“Mr. Salte!” I called out. I waved the man down before he could start his wagon into motion. His stitched horse was a heavily modified one, something between horse and ox in frame, with long hair covering much of its neck, shoulders, and face. Given the man’s personality, I suspected he was secretly pleased at having that sheer muscle and presence that made other wagons and carriages get out of his way.
He put the reins down and leaned back, daubing some sweat from his forehead as he watched me approach. He was one of a horde of people who were making their way out of the market and heading home for the day. The market was set up three times a week, with rotating locations. This market location, at the east end of town, was the quietest of the three. Furthest from the railroad, nearest the small Academy.
Here, the students retired after a long week of study, stocked up for the next week, and sometimes drank. Goods included handmade notebooks, oilcakes, butchered meat, tree-grown meat, vegetables and clothing. It said a lot that a fair portion of the clothing conformed to the local Academy standards. From the way that Mr. Salte had sold off his vegetables and filled the space he’d made with bags of things, it looked like the vendors used the quieter night to stock up as well.
“Simon,” Salte greeted me. He was a man who’d been aged considerably by dint of the sun, not by time. He wore a suit on business days, but the edges were worn, not crisp, and he’d undone some buttons at the throat. “I’m still looking forward to having the owner of your orphanage over for tea, you know.”
“He’s a busy man, sir,” I said. “He might be in town next week?”
Salte frowned, but he seemed to accept that. “I like to know my neighbors, and I’m curious to see what those builders are up to. It’s a big project.”
“How are you getting by?”
“Warm, sir. Odd jobs here and there. But it sounds like children might be coming over to the orphanage. Probably a rough-and-tumble sort, but I mentioned the prospect of them heading on over to your farm to work?”
“Seems like it might be workable. Depends on who the children are, of course. But that wasn’t what I wanted to talk to you about.”
“My ears are open, boy.”
“This might sound cryptic and arcane, but… we’re looking at getting a messenger bird, one of the Academy-worked ones, smarter than the average bird. Normally the things only fly home, but these recognize several homes. It would let us be in touch when it comes to emergencies. We were hoping to make your place one of its homes. Soon, too.”
“In case of fire?”
“There’s that. But one of the children coming into our care is sick, she needs medicine, and she’s going to be here soon. We don’t have a working icebox yet, and the medicine is kept at the corner pharmacist’s.”
“What ails her? The academies can usually offer care.”
“The academies are at fault,” I said. I fidgeted, and I did it on purpose. “She grew up near Corinth Crown. She grew up drinking the water there and it disturbed her insides.”
A lie, but I’d met some people with similar stories.
I felt bad for lying to someone as genuinely decent as Mr. Salte was. I bit my tongue before continuing, “We’d drive the carriage over and back, but the carriage drivers are only around during the daytime, and if something happens at night-”
I stopped there. I dropped the false anxiety I’d injected into things, where I’d quickened my verbal pace and pitched my expression just a hair.
I acted as if I was composing myself, then said, more calmly, “If we could impose on you to be available, should the girl fall ill with no carriage present and available, we would pay you a small sum per week. It wouldn’t be much, but-”
He waved me off before I could finish.
“Bring the bird over when you have it,” he said. “No need for the money. You all just be good neighbors, you hear? And steer those rough-and-tumbles clear of my property where you can.”
“Will do, sir. Thank you,” I said.
Apparently eager to get home for dinner, he got his stitched wagon-puller moving, briefly removing his cap in farewell before replacing it.
I felt a little guilty. It wasn’t the lies so much as the risk to his person.
It should work out, I told myself. He should be fine.
A group of students who were making their way to the nearest pub obstructed my way, walking with arms around shoulders or arms linked. Boys and girls. They didn’t make room for me to pass, forcing me to stand to one side to let them pass. I mused about horrible things I might do to them, then consoled myself with a personal reminder that they were Bergewall students.
West Corinth had started out as a fort with very little surrounding it, if I remembered right. Jamie had explained it all to me, and I’d promptly forgotten half of it. After the war for the Crown States, the fort had been supplanted by larger military installations in other cities nearby. Somewhere along the line, the city had leapfrogged into being a sleepy city of summer houses forming a kind of figure eight around two lakes. People would only stay for two or three months out of the year, but something pushed a surge into a year-round existence, and then two local academies were founded.
Bergewall was the smaller of the two academies in stature and reputation only, with its size roughly matched by its brother academy Corinth Crown. Students who went to Bergewall were often said to be doomed, their careers cut short by a lackluster education punctuated by ceaseless parties. The academy maintained no particular merits, no field of specialty nor any advantages afforded to its students. One of the Academies one went to when they had to attend one. Attendance often went hand in hand with parental disappointment.
By contrast, Corinth Crown, abbreviated from Corinth Crown Academy or Corinth Crown Laboratories, was more elite. It wasn’t the top of the heap when it came to drugs and chemicals, but it was up there, and it was pretty, now located in the old fort, surrounded by a lakeside city of nice houses, only a half-hour’s ride from the ocean and beaches.
Neither academy was churning out the monsters and warbeasts to an extent that necessitated an endless chemical rain, but the city had been affected by Fray’s ploy, the people sterilized and chemically leashed, which kept Jamie and me alive. It was a wealthy enough area that many had bought their way free of the leash with treatment at Corinth Crown. It seemed to have all of the good parts of a small town and a larger city. All of the benefits of an Academy presence without the strangling control.
But there was a darker side to this sunny, lakeside town where girls could be seen sitting on rocks with their feet in the lake and male Bergewall students took off their shirts and tied them around their waists, drinking nightly. On the one hand, we had an Academy that drove itself to produce better drugs, hormones, prions, medicines and poisons, filled with a few thousand students who were as proud as any I’d met. Sitting less comfortably in the other hand was an Academy of layabouts and jokers that consumed drugs and the funner sorts of poisons.
That dynamic and power imbalance was complicated by ongoing rivalry ranging from pranks to outright brawling in back streets and by a constant need for test subjects. That reality, in turn, was complicated by the restrictions on travel and the quarantines, which meant they couldn’t load up a train car full of people willing to try a drug in exchange for ten dollars.
It meant, also, that they couldn’t easily discard the last four or five train cars worth of people.
I rolled up my sleeves as I headed down a side street. My body language shifted, to emulate the criminal elements I’d known over the course of my life. Walking with confidence, but slouching a hair. Fingers hooked in pockets, so my hands were always ready, my eyes tracking the surroundings for anyone that might step out of a recessed doorway or from around a corner.
I’d used oil to slick my hair back and part it, but it was hot enough that I was sweating and the oil was starting to make its way down my neck. A wipe with my handkerchief dealt with the sweat first, the oil second, and I ran my fingers through my hair to loosen the tidy combed hair before wiping them as well. I left the handkerchief half out of one pocket.
There were apartments here, tucked in near the small Academy, and the collection of three or four story buildings with eight to twelve rooms a floor extended all the way to Corinth Crown. It served as student housing for those who didn’t want to live in the dormitories, but most of the buildings here were hospitales. Hotels for those who didn’t want to spend more than two or three dollars a night. Test subjects would take the train in and stay the night, sometimes with the academy paying for the beds at one hospitale or another.
The people I crossed paths with were people who had been uprooted. People desperate enough for money to take a roll of the dice when it came to their physical and mental well being. It was different from the shady areas of Tynewear or Radham. The people there, at least, had been able to call those cities home.
Interesting, then, that an area like this, where everything was typically so very temporary, had adopted different customs and codes for the local mice. It took me a little while to catch on.
Here and there, adverts had been plastered to walls, or caught under garbage. They’d accumulated in places, pasted over one another in layers. The latest batch seemed to be depicting three men in suits who might have been singers or dancers, for some event at Corinth Crown.
There was a pattern. The angle of the adverts, the fact that corners were torn, and the fact that some had been defaced.
I stopped at one wall, and traced the path, touching the adverts at one wall where six had been plastered up in a configuration. I started at the most askew advert, looking at the torn corners, and traced a course, pointed by the angles the papers had been at when they went up.
This particular wall saw damage to the third, rightmost of the three singers on the advert. The other adverts drew attention to this one, and, now that I was paying attention to it, the number of papers probably stressed severity.
So, five papers, some with the third man’s face ripped off or stained, all angled so they were pointing to a central paper, near the door. Ink had removed the third man’s face in that one.
What was the interpretation? I put my hand on my chin. I looked at the smudges and tears, trying to figure out if method or the direction of the smudge or damage played a part.
“Hey!” a man barked at me. It was clearly intended to scare the wits out of me. It seemed to spook him when I didn’t jump, run, or even act scared as I turned my head to look at him. A fat man with a stained apron and stubble on his chin rolls. His demeanor shifted as he seemed to figure something out. “You drugged?”
“No sir,” I said.
“Then what the motherloving fuck are you doing, staring at my wall?”
I remained mute, staring him down.
He reached for something by the door, and I reached for the knife I’d tucked into my waistband.
He brandished a bat, and took a step toward me. “Git!”
Wasn’t worth it, and I’d gotten my answer, I was pretty sure. ‘Bad man’.
I made my way down the street, keeping my eye out. Papers partially trapped under objects were, nine times out of ten, marked in some way. Sometimes papers on walls were angled in a way that pointed to other papers, tracing a route that extended from one wall to another, across a street, or around a corner. Slathered with paste and slapped on like a kind of arrow pointing the way.
The first man tended to crop up near stores and restaurants. Often unsupported by other papers. ‘Food here’, perhaps, or ‘Good person here’.
The second man didn’t get marked out much, but I could see him more around the main streets. Process of elimination and past experience suggested it referred to the law. Places where Crown soldiers or police came through.
Interesting to note that the placement of the signs was frequently high enough to be only just barely in my arm’s reach. Placed by adults.
I walked for another five minutes, taking it in, and decided I’d more or less figured out the system, with only a few gaps I had yet to figure out. The one that had nearly snuck past me was the audience member.
Three men stood on the stage, hands on their hats, mouths open and legs raised. In the bottom right corner was an audience member, a woman, only the top three quarters of her face visible.
Once I started looking for her, I was able to start tracing a path through the streets and alleys.
The nearest ‘audience member’ was located in what had once been a bookstore, now boarded up. I approached, looking for any watching eyes, didn’t see any, and made my way to the door.
One loose board. It moved aside, fixed at only one point, giving me room to crawl through the damaged door itself.
A knife touched my throat.
“Damn it,” I said. “What did I do wrong?”
“Invite only,” a young woman said, from the other end of the room.
Ten or so youths were in the room, closer to their teen years or in their teen years, rather than childhood, though there were a few munchkins.
“Hands out in front of you,” she said. She was older than any of them. Seventeen, to look at her. Everything about her seemed to be going forward or going back. Her black hair swept back into a ponytail that stuck out like a witch’s broom, a cigarette pointed forward. The collar of her shirt, a boy’s shirt, was raised, the corners pointing forward. She stood on one foot, the other back with the toe touching the wall for balance. The oldest boy stood next to her.
The bosses of this particular gang, I took it. I put my hands out in front of me.
“Closer to the ground,” she said.
I moved them.
The second largest of the boys stepped on my fingers. Not hard enough to do damage, but enough to pin my hands to the floor.
The knife moved away from my throat. Hands roughly searched me, starting around the waist, uncovering the knife, then moving to rifle through my pockets for my wallet and two paper packets.
The boy that was searching me took the knife for himself, then tossed the wallet and packets to the boss, in that order. She didn’t move her foot from the wall as she moved her hands to catch.
“Fancy,” she observed, without moving the cigarette. “What’s the packets? Drug?”
“Poison,” I said.
“Haven’t heard that one none,” she said. “Good way to keep people from taking your shit, mm?”
She tossed the packet to a younger girl. “Toss it.”
Her eyes were on me, looking for a reaction. She gave nothing away as I failed to give her a reaction.
“Stand,” she said.
The foot moved from my fingers. I stood. When I was upright, the knife point moved to the side of my stomach.
“Who told you where to find us?”
“I figured it out. Studied the posters.”
“No you didn’t,” she said.
“Torn corner means look this direction. First man is food or good people, not sure which. Second man is law. Third man is a threat. Tear at left edge of paper means Corinth Crown, right edge means Bergewall, which seems to coincide with a lot of threat markings. Not popular around here. The audience member is the mouse marker.”
“Mouse?” she asked.
“Ah. I’m from further north. Markings are drawn or carved? We use the ‘mouse’ to represent youths. Triangle for face? Circles for ears?”
“I don’t believe you,” she said.
No you didn’t. I don’t believe you. Everything I said was being stonewalled.
I was put in mind of Rick. I’d talked with one of the Lambs about him, about something similar to this, where Rick had shut me down by being relentless and unflinching in his pressure.
I idly wondered what had come of Rick, before focusing on the subject at hand and squaring my shoulders. I couldn’t argue with her without this devolving into a childish back and forth. I would lose out, while she… she at least had a position here, and she would hardly lose it for treating me childishly.
She sucked in a breath, then puffed out a mouthful of smoke.
“Can we at least stop pretending your friend here is going to stab me if I don’t comply?” I asked.
“Cut him,” she ordered. Her hand moved, gesturing.
The boy to my left grabbed at my left arm. Ineffectual, but it was a body in my way and something in the way when I was trying to deal with the knife-wielder. He grabbed my right arm with one hand and used the knife with the other. It dragged against my shirt for a short while before it managed to part cloth, and soon after it parted skin, from a distance below my armpit to the bottom of my ribs.
“Again,” she said.
The second cut was almost in parallel. Shorter, quicker, and deeper.
I managed to pull away from the knife wielder. As I moved, half of the room seemed to tense, either retreating or advancing as if they had a plan in mind.
“Stop that!” I said, annoyed. I was wearing a nice middle-of-the-road shirt, too, one that I could dress up or play down easily. I was going to miss it. Two long cuts and an awful lot of blood marred it now.
The mouse queen raised her hand. Her gestures weren’t like the Lambs’ gestures were. It was more like a noble’s wave. As if she expected that she could wave at an enemy and people would deal with it, and there wasn’t a question of people refusing.
“You’re going to kill him,” the boy next to the mouse queen said.
He was shirtless, his dark hair longer, but his pants were nice. Not loose, but tailored. He was barefoot, but his feet were more or less clean, suggesting he was barefoot by choice, not as a way of life. He had money.
Were these mice funded? No. There had to be something bizarre at play.
“We’ve buried people before,” the mouse queen said, without a trace of emotion.
Just how dangerous were these mice?
“Love, we’ve buried people for reasons,” the boy said. “To protect, or punish. But I don’t think he’s done anything to warrant execution by exsanguination.”
“Ex-what?” a young teenager asked.
The mouse queen waved absently at him, and he abandoned the question, returning his focus to me. He had a weapon at his belt, but he was standing in a way that kept me from seeing it.
Could even be a gun, but I was imagining it was a blade.
“You’re bleeding on my floor,” the mouse queen said. As if it was a grave offense I’d committed.
My floor. Not ‘our’ floor. Why couldn’t this be easy? This was supposed to be the easiest part of what I was setting in motion in West Corinth.
“I’m terribly sorry,” I said, with a hint of sarcasm. “I’ll try to bleed less.”
“Do,” she said. “Or I’ll have them cut you again.”
“May I remove my shirt to press it against the wounds?” I asked.
She did that airy wave at me, then told her pet knife-wielder, “Stab him if he tries anything.”
Frowning, I pulled my shirt off, with it already proving sticky against my side. I moved slowly, so as not to spook the locals, and folded the shirt, pressing it against the wound with one hand and one arm.
She wasn’t even looking at me. The mouse king had a cigarette in mouth, and the two were facing each other, the cigarettes pressed against one another. He puffed, then pulled away, his cigarette lit by contact.
I decided to wait for the lunatic mouse queen before opening my mouth again.
It was the ‘king’ who spoke instead. “Someone told you about us, and where to find us. Tell us who, and the rest of this will be easier.”
“Honestly? I turned up a few months ago. I saw and talked to a few mice- a few children. None of them said anything about this, or about you.”
“Doesn’t answer the question,” the queen said. She started to move her hand.
I was prepared to jump in and distract, but the king beat me to it. “It’s okay. There’s no rush. We aren’t with the ‘mice’, as you put it. To the rest of them, we’re big brothers and sisters. We help them, we give a hand, we’ll deal with the problems, use the messages on wall and teach them to read ’em and put ’em up. But they can’t just come in here uninvited. Invites are earned.”
He fixed me with a look as he said those last bits. The queen, meanwhile, picked through my wallet.
I was starting to get the picture.This particular group had been preyed on too much. They’d banded together, and for the most part they seemed pretty willing to turn to violence. There were two younger ones who’d backed off, but I was looking at the whole group now and wondering if maybe they had older siblings who were part of the group.
Damn it. I wasn’t sure I could use them. And I wasn’t sure I could leverage the other mice without drawing on the core group.
No, more than that. The queen was dangerous and the king capable. They were a romantic pair, and they had some clout, for whatever reason. They’d found each other and then the group had formed around them. Something had clicked into place, a group of people feeling desperate, scared and lost, and two people who could soothe those concerns.
The queen dropped her cigarette and stepped on it before returning her attention to my wallet. She pocketed the cash.
There goes the remainder of my spending money.
“Most don’t know that we have a club. Which, again, raises the question of how you found out,” the king said.
The queen nodded in agreement.
“My name is Sylvester. I’m wanted by the Crown. You could send anyone here to a police station or post office and see my face on the wall. Today, I broke two men out of the prison, and I gassed the building, forcing them to evacuate. I robbed that same station on my way out,” I said.
“I don’t believe you,” the queen said.
I could throttle her.
“I do,” the king said. “I heard something about this. That name, and the thing at the station.”
“You heard because you’re a-” I almost said Corinth Crown. “Bergewall student. You’re Academy.”
“Loosely affiliated, but yes,” he said.
An academy student and a mouse queen with an attitude problem.
I’d gauged that he was academy before I’d revealed any details. I knew that I was testing my luck here. But his presence here and his reaction to what I was saying suggested that he wasn’t about to turn me in for the cash. Not that he wouldn’t, but the drive to do so wouldn’t override everything else. My gut instinct was right, and he was still listening.
Not the worst eventuality, but I’d honestly hoped for someone more like Craig, or even someone like Mc-whatshisface from Warrick.
I’d gauged him as academy. I was sticking my neck out, and he was free to bring the guillotine down.
He and others would be thinking about the wanted poster. Those came with bounties, and bounties could be collected.
I needed to offer a better deal.
“I’m working on something bigger,” I said. “I approached all of you because I wanted to see if you wanted in.”
I wasn’t sure if I wanted them as part of things, now that I’d met them. But my options were few.
“What are you doing?” the mouse king asked me.
“Well, to start with, I need to deal with whoever directs the criminal groups in the city. There have to be some faces and names to watch out for-”
I saw a change in the mouse king’s expression at that. There were.
“And there have to be people who’ve wronged you and yours that you haven’t been able to touch.”
The mouse queen moved, and a part of me leaped at that, seizing on the change in body language and demeanor as validation that I was right.
But she was simply rummaging in a pocket for a bit of candy. She undid the wrapper and put the candy in her mouth.
Couldn’t read her at all, damn it.
“There are,” the mouse king told me.
“I only need their names, and some information on the others. Then I’ll want to relocate the younger ones that are scattered around here to another place. One where they’ll have food and shelter.”
The mouse queen shifted position. One foot down, the other foot up, against the wall. She reached over to the king’s face, turned it her way, and then pulled the slobbery orb of candy from her mouth, popping it into his, and stealing his cigarette as she brought her hand back toward her face.
The mouse king made a face at that. “Candy and cigarettes don’t mix.”
“I wanted a cigarette, but had to give you something back,” she said. “Evensies.”
“Only one an hour,” the mouse king said. “We’re rationing the things, remember?”
“I remember. I just had mine. Now I’m having yours,” she said.
I waited, patient, a knife still at my side.
The mouse queen turned her eyes to me. “We have experience with that sort of thing.”
It took me a second to click as to what she meant. She was referring to me talking about giving the mice a place to stay. How many other groups had come through here, collecting unwanted and unattached children for experiments or to ship off to places unknown?
“I can imagine you do,” I said.
She nodded slowly, drawing in a lungful of smoke.
She looked at the mouse king, then gestured airily at him.
He had to tuck the candy into his cheek before he could talk unimpeded. “I think we can give some consideration to the first part. Dealing with enemies? We can name names, so long as it doesn’t come back at us. But you’re not taking anyone anywhere, or we’ll have problems.”
A starting point, that. Except I still had an orphanage without children. My center stage with no actors and agents to support it.