The pair gestured, indicating the back door of the place. I winced as I started moving, shirt still held to my side, and then followed them out.
There was a porch overlooking a spacious backyard, filled with young trees. I could identify the types as fruit trees and some Academy-treated trees that would produce other things. Moving toward something sustainable for their small tribe, if I had to guess.
I cursed under my breath, seeing the investment they’d already made. Jamie and I had been busy plotting the major moves, and I’d made assumptions about the local mice.
We stopped at the railing of the porch. The king leaned forward over it, while the queen leaned back against it, beside him.
“Noreen,” the rat king indicated the queen. He touched his chest, “Maurice.”
“Sylvester Lambsbridge,” I said. Would be nice to talk to them one-on-one, and if I separated them, I might get some inklings into the group’s power structure. I gave it a shot, saying, “I’m still bleeding. Do you have anything for it?”
My heart sank as Maurice drew a small kit from a back pocket. “I haven’t done stitches since my second year. We’re supposed to do some at year end, for our refresher. Always nice to get some practice in with the basics.”
“I agree with you on that,” I said. “I could use some. I’ll do my own, if that’s alright.”
Maurice raised an eyebrow. “You’re sure?”
I nodded, and took the kit as he handed it over. I opened it up, threaded a needle, soaked it and the thread, and then pulled part of the shirt away from the slices at my ribs. I began stitching myself up.
“Cigarette?” Maurice asked me.
I considered for a moment, then decided it was necessary if I was going to get any traction with the group. I nodded.
He had to walk around Noreen to give it to me. My hands were occupied, so he placed it in my mouth, then struck a match to light it. I put the cigarette on my tongue so I could move it aside and puff to blow out the match he’d given me.
The experience of smoking was unpleasant, I found. It reminded me of things like fighting the Baron and high tension moments like being at the prison as it filled with faintly noxious gas. It made me anxious.
“Lords, you’re better at that than I am, and you’re not even keeping an eye on your work,” Maurice observed. Noreen leaned forward to look, but gave no indicators of approval or disapproval.
“I was in the plague-stricken area for a few months. I’m mostly immune. Got a few spots, cut them out, that was that. Gave care to others.”
Was that a glimmer of respect I saw in Maurice’s eye? Good. He was someone I could work with.
Noreen being quiet was even better.
“Being a fugitive, breaking into the prison, flirting with the plague, and now attempting something with West Corinth as a whole? Sounds like you lead a busy life,” Maurice said. “A dangerous one, at that.”
“As far back as I can remember, I’ve been challenged and tested. But for a year and a half at the start and a few months here and there, there haven’t been many breaks from the danger, either,” I said. “If I don’t make trouble of my own, then it tends to find me. I’d rather have the initiative, and I’m taking the initiative here.”
“Facing down the local criminal element?” Maurice asked.
I nodded. “I need to know who they are and where they are.”
“And you’ll take the names of our enemies, taking revenge on our behalf,” Noreen said.
“That was part of the plan,” I said. “But it might not be as straightforward as all that. You should be happy with my results.”
“We’ll see,” she said. Cold, detached, with a threat maybe implied? It really, really bothered me that I couldn’t get a solid read on her. She reminded me of deadpan Helen, except even deadpan Helen had attachments and preferences that I could keep track of.
Maurice watched my work instead of my face. “I can give you the details you need. Three groups hold power, but the third has had his hands full with two groups of ‘visitors’. Assuming you’re not visitors, given that you don’t know particulars-”
“I’m not. I know some names, I know some faces, and I know some of the lieutenants of the groups. I didn’t know about the visitors, though.”
“There’s a man we go to talk to if we have a grievance. He runs the premier group around here. Colby. He’s normally content to have his slice of West Corinth, be the man in charge, and let others fight over their slices of the pie while he focuses on business elsewhere. He’s not happy with the quarantines and travel restrictions. I’m not sure what he’s doing or planning right now. Rather than hunting down the people you want to talk to and arranging individual meetings, I’d try to get him to tell you where to find them.”
“I know of him,” I said. My new recruit, Samuel, had been working for John Colby’s faction.
“I can tell you where he is. Down by the tributary, they used to have a school. There was a side building for assemblies and services. The school got pulled down, but the assembly hall stayed. It’s sort of being used as a warehouse, but it’s main purpose-”
“A meeting place,” I finished.
I pushed open the doors. Pierre, Samuel, and the bounty hunters followed behind me. A bit of a show of power, and a touch of provocation.
The assembly hall had once had rows upon rows of seats, but the seats had been torn out, and the holes where they’d been set into the floor had been filled in. The floor gently sloped as it moved toward the stage at the end, but stacks of crates and pallets of goods still sat on that gentle slope. It felt precarious, like a landslide waiting for a push to start it on its way, or so many dominoes poised on their edges instead of on their ends.
Mr Colby took the position of prominence by the stage. Unassuming from a distance, his blond hair slicked back, face clean-shaven but for a pale mustache on his upper lip, and a suit coat placed over his shoulders but without his arms through the sleeves. Those arms were in front of him, hands clasped around the head of a cane.
As I drew nearer, I could see that the softer flesh of his throat, his nose, and his ears was faintly translucent, riddled with what looked like varicose veins.
He was a substance abuser, I knew.
His bloodshot eyes tracked Samuel, and with a slight turn of my head, I could see Samuel shrink a little under the look.
Be strong, I thought.
Mr. Colby was a man with a firm grip on this city. He’d held what he could for a long time, and extended his reach to nearby cities with organizations there. He was about the logistics of things, supply and demand, availability, supporting structures. But his grip had slipped recently. He couldn’t move things to where they were best placed when Crown law was restricting movement. He had to be feeling some insecurity right now.
I knew exactly what he was going to do. I’d told Samuel how it would unfold. Now success depended on me being right, both for confronting Mr. Colby and for winning Samuel’s confidence.
Three… two… one…
Mr. Colby remained silent.
One and a half, one and three quarters…
“How good of you, Sylvester, to rescue Samuel there and bring him back to me,” Mr. Colby said. “A good opening to negotiations.”
There we go. And, as we rehearsed…
“I’m not coming back to you, sir,” Samuel said, out loud.
Mr. Colby didn’t flinch visibly at that, but I knew I’d needled him.
“I released him for me, not for you,” I said. I allowed a very deliberate pause before saying, “Sir.”
Every head present, including the four other gang leaders, turned to look at Mr. Colby. Two of the leaders there were as visitors, relatively new to the city. Even they seemed to have a good sense of how things were here, because they were tense, as if expecting the man to snap and order me killed. He had his bodyguards with him, so it wasn’t out of the question.
Mr. Colby smiled.
“My mistake,” he said. “I’ve made an embarrassing assumption. Of course he’s yours.”
“You made him promises about getting him free and appealing his sentence that you hadn’t taken any steps to follow through on. I looked into it. Samuel was stuck in jail for a while, so he looked like fair game.”
Mr. Colby chuckled, shaking his head a little, he raised a hand to wag a finger at me. It was almost striped, red at the knuckle and pale at the finger between knuckles. The fingernail was bruised. “You got me there.”
The tension hadn’t left the other four leaders in the room. If anything, they looked even more spooked.
“If you do a shitty job of looking after your people,” I pronounced, thoroughly enjoying myself, “Then you can’t be surprised if someone more competent steps in and poaches them.”
Seeing the expressions and body language of the other leaders, it struck me that one of my biggest concerns right now was that one of them might come after me to stop me from saying anything further.
Mr. Colby, meanwhile, only laughed. He shook his finger at me again. “You’re downright impudent! I like you, Sylvester. You’re courageous. You’ve got balls, young man.”
I was silent. I finished walking down the long path that ran between the groupings of seats. I stopped, thumbs hooked into my pockets, my backup just behind me.
“I thought you were here to negotiate, or to try for something to spite the Academy, going by your wanted poster and the stories I’ve heard about you. Which reminds me. My condolences for the loss of your friend.”
“The condolences are appreciated,” I said.
“You’re not here to negotiate, are you? Are you here to poach? To carve out a section of the city for yourself?”
“None of that,” I said. “Not really.”
He smiled genially. His teeth were bad. Damaged. “We’ve got a rebellion group here, a religious man, and now you, young sir. Trust me when I say we’re very open minded, whatever it is you’re looking to achieve.”
“I’m laying down the law,” I said. I looked everyone in the eye as I spoke. “The children of this city are, from here on out, untouchable.”
“Mildly inconvenient, that,” Mr. Colby said, still smiling. “All of us traffic or work with children to some extent. Sometimes they get in the way, and need some correction. But if you want to talk it out, I’m sure we can come to an understanding.”
“That might not be good enough. Not that you’re not being awfully accommodating, all things considered,” I said.
“Like I said, I’ve seen the wanted poster, and I reached out to some people, asking about you. I even have a file in my possession, detailing things about you that even you might not know.”
I raised my eyebrows. “I’m fairly certain I’ve seen it.”
“What was it the poster said?” the man asked me. The smile never left his lips, even as he talked, giving the illusion this was all some kind of joke he was in on, “Devastatingly intelligent? I dare say you’re smarter and more capable than I am. I respect that.”
“And I respect you for respecting that,” I said.
“But you’re not willing to work toward an understanding?” Mr. Colby asked. “That’s disappointing.”
“Like I said, there’s no negotiation here,” I told him. “I’m telling you how things are, now that I’m here. No trafficking in children, no selling them to the Academies. If one insults you, you let the insult pass. And to drive the point home, I’ve got a list of grievances. Past incidents and their culprits. Amends will be made and will be made promptly, or steps will be taken.”
The folded paper I’d drawn out of my pocket as I spoke flapped as I gestured.
“Well,” Mr. Colby said. He spread his hands, one hand holding the cane, before he brought it down to the floor again. “We’ll have to hear those grievances, won’t we?”
“You have the most,” I said. “Seven grievances. Three cases of willfully hurting a child in the recent past. One of separating a sister from her brother, sending her to parts unknown. Two of introducing children to drugs. One incident of killing a child.”
He nodded, as if all of this was matter of fact. No argument given.
“One thousand dollars owed for the murder of the one child and the sale of the other. Five hundred dollars owed for each of the other offenses. Four thousand and five hundred thousand dollars total, to be paid by this time tomorrow.”
“Business is slow these days. I don’t think that’s a price I can pay,” he said, his eyes crinkling with the smile that went with the words.
“I don’t expect you to pay it. I expect you to fail to pay it, and then I’ll have to destroy you as an example to the others.”
He chuckled, shaking his head, and wagged his finger at me.
“They call John Colby the ‘Devil of Corinth’,” Maurice told me, as I continued to puff experimentally on my first cigarette.
I knew enough about the Devil of Corinth. I’d already done my research. Still, it was a good opportunity to get some more information and double check my details.
“The Devil of Corinth. People don’t like to use words like that, especially in Academy cities.”
“He deserves it. He favors a drug that doesn’t see much circulation these days. Capricorn’s kiss, mirror mirror, bloody mary, neptune. It played off of ‘fight or flight’. People took it for the rush of adrenaline, for confidence, for strength when they needed it. But there are long term effects. It destroys every part of the body, for one thing. The biggest concern, however, is how it polarizes the person’s humanity, makes them a binary person, and both sides suffer.”
“Polarizes how?” I asked. I was genuinely interested – details had been hard to come by, and Maurice was a student.
“Sometimes mania and depression. Sometimes passivity and aggression. Dominance and submission. Sadism and masochism. Caring and dispassionate killing. One aspect of the personality magnified under the influence of the drug, its opposite magnified in the times between doses. A man can be a sniveling baby who does nothing but cry for days at a time, then he becomes a bloodthirsty warlord after a dosage.”
I nodded, thinking about how that worked. “And the Devil of Corinth?”
“Gracious, soft, weak. But from what they say, every smile that John Colby gives you today is a tragedy the Devil brings you tomorrow. He’s unpredictable. Sometimes comes after people two weeks after some perceived insult they don’t even remember making. Sometimes that night. Sometimes he takes that capsule he keeps tucked between his gums and his cheek and bites into it, and then it’s seconds or minutes.”
That would be ideal, I thought, visualizing the scenario. “Bottles the feelings up, then takes his drug and delivers the punishment?”
“Many times more punishment than is warranted,” the mouse king told me. “Murder, mutilation, death.”
“Noted,” I said. “The Academy doesn’t deal with him?”
“The less said about that, the better,” Maurice said.
“They clean up after his messes,” Noreen said.
Maurice shot her an annoyed look. “I said the less said, the better.”
“Is he in their pocket, or are they in his?” I asked.
“No clue. I don’t like thinking about it too much,” Maurice said. He fidgeted, then reached out and plucked the nearly-done cigarette from Noreen’s lips. “Give over. I’m antsy now.”
“The Devil killed one of ours,” Noreen said, in a very conversational tone, with no emotion to her words. “Disappeared another.”
“Think about it for a minute,” I said. “Then give me as full a list as you can manage. If that’s alright?”
She hesitated, and I wondered if I’d slighted her somehow or if she was going to turn on me as suddenly as she had earlier. She nodded, instead.
“Meanwhile, Maurice, tell me about the other gang leaders,” I said.
He made a face, hunching over further, his stub of a cigarette between his fingers. “The next one to watch out for is the Apostle.”
“Jesus fist-fucking Christ,” the Apostle said. “No.”
The criminals of West Corinth were very irreverent, it seemed. I’d never heard so many religious epithets in a short amount of time.
“Two thousand dollars,” I repeated. The man was big, muscular, and well armed. He postured, making use of his height to loom over me. I didn’t move. “Two children harmed. Thirty-six hours to pay.”
“I’ll note you gave me twenty-four hours,” Mr. Colby said.
“I know. Either you pay and you lead the others by example, which you won’t, or you won’t pay, and I’ll make you an example,” I said.
Mr. Colby smiled. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
The Apostle leaned over, staring me down. “Or I could grab your tongue and tear it out by the root.”
Scale, standing behind me, took a step forward, arms folded. He was of a stature to match the Apostle, but where Scale was covered in, well, scales, the Apostle was marked with tattoos, none of which were religious, oddly enough.
The Apostle straightened up some, facing Scale head on. There was some energy between the two. It looked as though a fight was about to happen. I wasn’t sure if that was good or bad, but I was already thinking about what to do when it happened.
“No fighting,” Mr. Colby said. “Not here.”
He stood straight, but there was no energy to the words, no threat behind them. It was disconcerting that the Apostle listened, backing down.
“Thank you,” Mr. Colby said.
“Christ’s tits,” the Apostle said. “You give the Devil less time, but you give me a higher fee when I didn’t kill or sell anyone. Are you expecting me to refuse to pay too?”
“You might not have killed any of the children, but you hurt them badly enough,” I said. “And no, I expect you to pay.”
“Do you, now?”
“You’ll have twelve hours from the time I deal with him to make up your mind,” I said.
“Or I could pound your face in now,” the Apostle said, his temper flaring once again.
Mr. Colby drew in a deep breath, then huffed it out. “If there was a confrontation, I would feel obliged to step in.”
The Apostle made a fist, clenching it, as if working up the courage or considering the options, then relaxed it. He relented.
“You realize you’re just playing into the fetus-fucker’s hands, don’t you?” the Apostle asked. “He’s saying all of this because he knows he can get away with it.”
“I’m not concerned with that sort of thing,” Mr. Colby said. “I believe that things will work out.”
I could tell that the Apostle was doing everything in his power to hold back from coming after me. He was close enough to the edge that I had to hold back myself, to keep from smirking at him and testing his limits.
“Next in line, the Witch.”
The third of the local leaders smiled. The woman was dressed in a very conservative costume, years out of date. A hood covered her hair. “No contest.”
“Where the Apostle is the local weapons dealer and heavy hitter,” Maurice told me. “the Witch is the second most powerful drug dealer around, after the Devil. Or she was.”
“They all have titles,” I noted.
“The practice started around the time of the war for the Crown States. There are other cities nearby like that. It might be an Academy city now, but it was on the fence during the war. The major players sold their services and support, sometimes with whole sections of the city backing them.”
“I can sort of see how it unfolds, then. Names are hard to keep track of, titles are easier, especially when you’re talking about a half-dozen to a dozen figures and what they individually bring to the table.”
“Never really thought about it,” Maurice admitted. “Maybe? I don’t know. But they started using the names back then. After the war ended, a quarter of them came home, set up shop, and maintained some of the power and clout they had. That’s changed over the years, but the tradition remained. The name ‘the Witch’ has been around for a while. Five or six generations.”
“She collects the students that fail out, I assume?”
“Yep. Puts them to work producing for her. She’s not a bad doctor in her own right, I hear. Not a fantastic one either, not at professor level, but respectable.”
“And she’s the one that,” I said, snapping my fingers as I tried to remember. “She’s getting crushed by the new arrivals.”
“Yes,” Maurice said.
I saw Noreen shift position. She brought her hands together, using her left hand to crack a joint on her right.
“Is there more?” I asked.
“More?” Maurice asked.
“Noreen is more agitated as you talk about the Witch than I’ve seen her during this entire conversation. It’s the one time I’ve been able to get something of a read on her.”
Maurice glanced at Noreen. “It’s nothing.”
“If you say so,” I said. “I’m willing to move on to the next person if you are. The two visiting gangs?”
“The Witch dies,” Noreen said, ignoring what I’d said.
“She dies?” I asked.
Noreen met my eyes, staring me down. “Or we cut you more.”
“No,” I said. “I’m just wondering what she did to deserve it.”
Noreen didn’t volunteer an answer. Maurice looked between Noreen and I before sighing. “You won’t be upset if I say?”
Noreen didn’t give any indicator, positive or negative.
He reached out, fingers running through the hair at the side of her head, fixing some hair that had fallen out of the bristling ponytail.
“The Witch took six children by our last count,” Maurice said.
I frowned. I could draw conclusions, going by Maurice’s body language and the context. “Noreen was one of them.”
“She dies, or we have no deal,” Noreen said.
“No contest?” I asked. “You’re cooperating?”
The Witch shook her head. “Thirty-six hours might be hard to manage, but I’ll scrape together whatever I can and if you’re still standing when the deadline arrives, I’ll give it to you. I’ll have the remainder when I can get it.”
“Three thousand,” I said. “And you’ll need to have all of it.”
She winced. “So much?”
“Six children, taken and used for testing. That we’re aware of.”
“They were itinerant.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Itinerant.”
“It means they roam. Their parents were often poor, moving from city to city where they could be given drugs or have procedures tested on them in exchange for money. The roaming groups have a way of leaving the itinerants behind. We offered them shelter, gave them food. Sent those we could on their way to places we knew they would find longer term accommodations.”
“You tested drugs on them. For weeks or months, sometimes.”
“Compared to dying on the street, I think it’s merciful,” the Witch said.
“Some of the victims disagree about that mercy,” I said. “It’s already been decided. Three thousand.”
I could see the cogs moving behind her eyes, the thoughts going a mile a minute. She wasn’t dumb, and she was in a bad position, with two groups looking to eliminate her on one side, me demanding grotesque sums on the other.
It was a shame I had to play hardball. This would have gone a lot better if I had one of the leaders being cooperative.
She gave me a tight smile, by way of answer to my statement, and I was left to wonder just how much she’d learned from the Devil during her tenure in West Corinth.
I had to leave it at that.
I turned my attention to the other two gangs.
“The final two gangs, then?”
“No issue with the one. They deal from within Bergewall,” Maurice said. “Clever guys, but the only reason they’re worth talking about is they’ve banded together with the other group.”
“Rebels,” I guessed.
“Ex-rebels. After the sterilization drug with the leashing chemicals hit the city, they up and joined the rebellion side. They were gone for a year, only just came back.”
“The rebellion split into two factions a ways in. Brands or Spears?”
“Uh, they called themselves the Barren. But they worked for the woman?”
“Her. Aggressive, militant, young men and women. A few came back injured, some with missing limbs, but they’ve gotten themselves patched up since.”
“I got it,” I said. I sighed. This couldn’t be easy.
“No grudges against the Bergewall delinquents. But the Barren have four marks against them, when it comes to preying on the local youth. Two thousand.”
“Fuck yourself,” the Barren leader said. It was a woman. Something about the features on her right side didn’t match the features on the left.
“Alright,” I said. I looked at Mr. Colby. “I’ve said my piece.”
“You have. Thank you for coming, Sylvester,” the man said, smiling at me. “I’m not one for strong words, but I must say this is a silly thing to do.”
“We’ll see,” I said. One could question your habit of holding back today so you can lash out tomorrow. “You don’t think you’ll be paying, then?”
“You said it yourself, Sylvester,” Mr. Colby said. “You don’t expect me to pay any more than I do. You don’t want to negotiate. Confrontation seems inevitable.”
“It does,” I said.
“Thank you for coming,” he said, for the second time.
My cue to leave. The groups would talk this out and work against me, devising a plan and strategy.
I turned, and I walked up the gentle incline to the doors to the auditorium hall. The three bounty hunters, Pierre the Rabbit and Samuel followed me out the door.
None of them spoke until the exterior doors of the auditorium had shut behind us.
I reached into a pocket, and I withdrew an envelope with bills inside. I handed them over to Scale.
“Thank you, sir,” Scale said. He began counting the money.
I glanced at Magda and Agnes. “You don’t have any interest in looking after children, do you? There’s an opening at the orphanage, and from my experiences with the local kids, we need someone with a firm hand.”
Magda scoffed. Agnes just frowned at me.
“Yeah,” I said. “It wouldn’t really work.”
“You’re insane,” Samuel commented. “You’re badly underestimating the Devil of West Corinth.”
“Probably,” I said. “I’m holding out hope he’s relying on a share of undeserved reputation and bluster to scare off his worst enemies.”
“He’s really not,” Samuel said.
“Count is good,” Scale said, cutting into the conversation. He extended a hand to shake. I shook it as he added, “Goes a long way to covering the dry patch.”
“Hopefully the plague gets dealt with and you’ll be able to get back to your regular bounties,” I said. “There’s a position with me if you ever want it.”
“Make it through the next two days, and I might begin to consider it,” Scale said. “A chance.”
The three walked one direction in the relatively unpopulated street. Samuel, Pierre and I walked another.
After a block, we met up with Jamie.
“How did it go?”
“About as well as can be expected,” I said. “Gut feelings were right. Nobody’s biting just yet. We’ll make our move.”
“The mice are evacuated, and we’ve spread word as best as we could.”
Youths hung out with other youths, and sometimes social classes and boundaries crossed. Whether the weather was hot or cold, children from all the neighborhoods gathered at the lakes to cool off. They knew which doors to knock on, and word would hopefully get out.
I had no expectation that the Devil would stay his hand from hurting children. Just the opposite. Knowing he was easily riled, and giving him few indicators on how to come after me, I’d planted that seed.
He was the one I’d focused on as I’d been scheming what to do here, the man I’d researched. My discussion with Maurice and Noreen had only confirmed much of what I’d already known.
Now I had to put it in action. He would look for children, and he wouldn’t find any. There was a chance he would flounder, but I wasn’t staking much on that. He would lash out.
“Pierre,” I said. “It’s your turn to do something. Get across town. Ten minutes from the time you see fire, you set fire to the mayor’s house.”
Jamie handed Pierre the slip of paper with the address. Pierre already had the bag with the incendiaries.
“The mayor. Got it.”
“After that, the head of Corinth Crown Academy. Then the head of Bergewall-“
Jamie handed over papers with addresses.
I continued, “We’ll flush them out. Watch their movements, but don’t report back right away. The next step is to go to the fourth address…”
“And burn it too. None of the fires should hurt the residents, but this one least of all. Then you come to us at the fifth location and let us know what the mayor and headmasters are doing. The faster you move, the better.”
“I can outrun a horse,” Pierre said. Not boasting, just stating fact.
“I know. But move as fast as you can. Timing is essential.”
The eerily tall rabbit headed man gave me a mock salute, walking backward as he did so. Then he turned, teetering slightly as he did so, and broke into a run, dashing off into the evening.
“How do you feel?” Jamie asked.
“Troubled,” I said. “Even if taken in the best possible light, they’ll be disgruntled.”
“Yeah,” Jamie said.
“But it’s the best way to approach things. With luck, we won’t even be here for them to be disgruntled at.”
“With luck,” he said, in a very grim way.
The fourth address, after the mayor’s house and the headmaster’s houses, was the headquarters of the mouse king and the mouse queen.
As long as they had that place, they wouldn’t leave, and there would be mice left out in the cold with nowhere to go.
“We’ll arrange to have some trees planted in the backyard before we go,” I said.
“Sure,” Jamie said, without even asking why. “But that’s a topic for later.”
“I’m telling you now so you’ll remember, because I might not.”
“Fair,” Jamie said. He put a hand on my shoulder. “But let’s focus on this war we’ve picked with the Devil, now, okay?”