I am a young lady of Mothmont, I am an exemplary killer. I am a step above.
With the Lambs at my back, I can handle anything this world might throw at me.
Mary stared down into the eyes of the Devil.
“I used to be a businessman,” the Devil said. “I used to be one of the best. Chemicals were my stock in trade. Chemicals and drugs. When war happens, the demand goes up. Both for the people on the ground and for the soldiers. Sometimes I sold to both sides. Sometimes one.”
His laugh bubbled out through his lips. His eyes were unfocused. Mary, straddling his chest, could feel his breaths. He was slowing down.
The blood loss was catching up with him. The laugh was delirious, and it seemed to take something out of him, because he was less as the laugh concluded.
“I thought I was ethical,” the Devil said. He chuckled to himself.
His eyes weren’t focusing on her. They weren’t focusing on anything much, now. His bare chest rose and fell against her thighs. That monstrous, tenacious strength was trickling out of him now.
The toes of each of her feet were propped against the ground, her stomach was tense. She was very aware of where her body was, and the mental exercises she’d done outlined exactly how and where she needed to move if she needed to spring off him in any direction.
“I was a businessman,” he said.
“He’s repeating himself,” Lillian said. “And Sylvester is putting distance between himself and us as we speak. We got what we need. We know where to go to rescue the hostages.”
“The escape route is upstairs,” Mary said. “Go. I’ll be right behind you, after I clean this up. Show them, Emmett.”
“Don’t take too long,” Lillian said.
“I was a businessman,” the Devil said. “Then a warmonger. I couldn’t do business without war to push it forward. I diminished. I made myself stronger, smarter, sharper.”
Mary stared down at him. The others ascended the stairs to head further up the building.
The Devil rambled. Was his life flashing before his eyes? The individual scenes spilling out of his mouth as they flickered in his mind?
“I don’t care about any of that,” Mary said. “But I know you’re the kind of man who likes to keep a card up his sleeve. You’d keep a secret, another dead man’s switch that you didn’t even tell people about, to ensure that we pay in some fashion for winning.”
The Devil stopped his rambling. His eyes rolled up into his head, then lolled over to one side. He chuckled weakly.
“You’re thinking about it now,” Mary said. “You can barely contain your glee.”
That prompted another weak chuckle. As his life leaked away, this massive figure was starting to seem more like a child.
“The letters,” the Devil said. “If I don’t send out the letters, then the house…”
Mary slapped him. He didn’t seem to feel it.
“If you don’t send the letters, then the house?”
“The house of cards. I might lose, but nobody wins.”
Taking a cue from the Academy, are we? Mary thought.
“Those letters, those letters,” Mary said. “Tell me about the letters.”
“I don’t want to tell you,” he said. He almost sounded like he was regressing in age, his tone becoming more infantile. Ashton’s influence would be part of that. So would the drugs he’d taken. “I want to keep it a seee-cret.”
“Such a good secret,” Mary said. “You could rub it in my face. You’re dying, Mr. Devil. You’re dying, John Colby. Soon the lights will go out.”
He blinked, as if trying to regain some measure of focus.
“You’re dying,” she hammered him with it. She had to push herself to be less of a Lamb, more of the Lady. It was like an old set of clothing that she was putting on after many, many months, and she was surprised it still fit, that it was still easy to move around in. More emotion in her voice, more vulnerability showing, less… combativeness. She leaned forward over him, her forearms resting against his chest, hands at his collarbone, her hair hanging down around his face.
He winced at the movement of the hair. He looked up and focused enough to see her face. The eyes that were wide and pleading, not dangerous.
“A hint,” he said. He chuckled. “All the letters. They’re people I have under my thumb. People who worked for me, some corrupt people and some people I corrupted. I knew they wouldn’t always side with me, so I prepared to destroy each and every one of them if they tried to cross me. Blackmail, and drugs that only I can supply, because only I know what they are. Now I die, and the house of cards, it all comes tumbling down.”
“Oh no!” Mary said, feigning upset.
“Oh, yes!” the Devil said, indulging in his victory. “My pawns will spread the right information if they don’t hear from me, and other people will never get the information they need. They’ll lose their minds, if they don’t die. Important people.”
“Unless someone finds your paperwork.”
“They won’t. They can’t. The letters are in a safe and the safe is in my headquarters, which the little brat burned down.”
Mary nodded. Corrupt officials, officials that had allowed themselves to be corrupt, and people who had conceded to work with this madman.
Would it really be a loss, if their lives were utterly destroyed and they were removed from the picture?
Lillian wouldn’t want to be quite so cutthroat, but there was a reason she had suggested that Lillian leave before initiating this line of questioning. If there was nothing that could be done, then Lillian would be upset over nothing. If there was an option, then she could tell Lillian after, and they would find a solution.
A cold part of her, deep inside, wondered how hard she wanted to dig to see if there was an option.
That part of her identified well with Sylvester, and the very reason it was as easily felt as it was likely because Sylvester was on her mind. When they had been in Warrick, hunting the Baron, she had known that she was influencing Sylvester, and Sylvester influencing her. They had, how had Sylvester and Nora put it? They had danced, and they had ruthlessly danced over a number of people along the way.
That wasn’t exclusive to Warrick or that mission, either. He had been an influence all along.
She had paid close attention to that from the beginning. ‘The beginning’ being the day he’d arrived in her life and had informed her that Mr. Percy held the strings that controlled her.
She had been aware when Sylvester had relinquished his control, stepping back to let the other Lambs reach out to her.
Gordon had helped her feel like less of a puppet and more like a girl.
Lillian, though. Lillian was her friend and her heart. As a stand-in for her own heart, she often thought about what Lillian would want and do.
“Unrecoverable,” she said.
“Un-re-coverable,” the Devil said. Then he smiled, “Nooo. But they would have to dig all day and all night to get it. When the seasons change and the mess gets cleared up, long after the damage has been done, they’ll find my cellar and the papers will tell of what’s inside. The story will be told all over again, rubbing salt in wounds, give truth to sus-sus-”
“Suspicion, yes. And the name of the drug that I used to control Robert, John, James, William and-”
“They’ll find it where?”
“My headquarters. I liked my headquarters. Oh, my more timid self was so upset that it burned. Book collections, tidbits and trinkets from his travels. He would be so sad to know he died like this. As the monster within.”
“Where is the headquarters?”
“The winery. It-”
He stopped as she lowered her knife to his face and started cutting.
“Oh,” he said.
Was this you, Sylvester? Did you anticipate this part of it? The Devil’s schemes, the countless measures we’d have to take into account?
Why? What are you planning? How far does this scheme go?
Since the beginning, Sylvester had manipulated her. He was kind about it, encouraging her to grow. A part of her had craved more, because it was what she knew. She had, in nascent adolescence, seeing him as a boy and herself as a girl, invited him into a closet while she’d been wearing only her underclothes, because she wanted him to pull her strings. He had refused to, in the end.
She was better for it, she knew. But now things had turned around. Sylvester was on the other side, and the manipulations were revolving around her in the form of Devils and children and a city turned upside-down.
She finished cutting, and she peeled the skin of the Devil’s face away.
The blood loss from that was enough that he was barely there by the time she was done. She doubted he was capable of seeing anything, let alone focusing on anything. With a flick of the knife, she severed the man’s jugular, then sprang to her feet.
As she made her way up the stairs, she folded the bloody mask, placed it between two pieces of paper and then put it into a small scroll case, tucking the case into a belt at her thigh.
Only a few of the Lambs were still at the top floor. As Mary arrived, Emmett put the scrap of cloth over top of the rope and jumped, sliding over and down to the next building.
Only Lillian and Lara remained.
“Can I stay?” Lara asked. “I can hide. I’ll catch up with you after. Or you can come back for me. The police will have left.”
“No, honey,” Lillian said. She spotted Mary, then returned her focus to Lara. “If you stay, you’ll spend the entire time scared and upset you aren’t with us.”
Lara stood there, anxiously processing, trying to figure out a way. Blood had soaked through much of her clothes. Luckily, little to none of it was hers.
“There’s less fear this way,” Lillian said. “It’s even kind of fun, but I understand if a fear of high places is one of your innate fears, but like the other innate fears, you have to fight past them sometimes. Like when you and Nora fought back.”
“It’s not that,” Lara said. She looked up, then winced as she got some sun in her eyes. “It’s not one of my innate fears. It’s a normal fear. That’s why I don’t want to jump. Because I might get used to it. Then it won’t be a normal fear anymore.”
“You want to be afraid?” Lillian asked.
“Yes. Sometimes. To feel what others feel.”
Lillian looked at Mary, helpless.
“Go,” Mary said. “We need to keep moving, and if the Crown police come around to look in this direction…”
She leaned over the edge. It looked like the rubble of the fallen scaffolding had left relatively few people on the ground over here. None were really looking up.
“Or if more come, they might see us.”
“We’ve been timing how we go over, so they’re less likely to spot us,” Lillian said. “You’ll bring Lara?”
Mary took on the responsibility of checking to see if anyone was looking up as Lillian got her braided scrap of cloth out and put it over the top of the rope.
Lillian slid down and over along the rope-line.
Mary turned to Lara. Lara flinched, backing away.
“You’re going to grab me and force me to go,” Lara said. “Except I might claw at you.”
“I won’t,” Mary said.
Lara looked skeptical.
“Did you know, once upon a time, I hoped to become a teacher?”
“I would have trained the next generation of the puppeteer’s clones, I would have educated and instructed them, so they could be more effective tools.”
Lara nodded. “Then you joined the Lambs.”
“I’ve been teaching Lillian things. I’ve talked to Nora, too.”
“She told me. She transcribed some. But she didn’t always transcribe all of it, and I think that’s part of why she’s becoming different.”
“One day, when things are quieter, I’ll sit you both down and go over everything. We’ll learn some self defense, we can talk about your philosophies and about mine, and I think you’ll both end up on the same page in the long run.”
Lara looked a little less unhappy at that idea.
“For now, let’s talk about fear. You want to hold on to fear to feel more like a human?”
Lara nodded. She was paying attention now.
“If you want to experience human fear, then you should experience overcoming it. What it feels like after.”
“There will be more things to be afraid of in the future. I’ll make you a promise. Come over with me, and we’ll make it our own mutual mission to find something else that scares you.”
“I don’t know if there is one,” Lara said.
Mary bent down, and she picked up Lara, who didn’t resist. “I guarantee there’s something. It’s a spooky world out there.”
“Very spooky,” Lara said, and that seemed to be the admission that helped her make the leap. She wrapped her arms and legs around Mary. Mary could feel the claws and the spikes and blades within Lara’s shoulders that still hadn’t completely receded from her assault on the Devil.
The edges pressing against her skin, some even lightly piercing or scratching it, reminded her of her early childhood, working with Percy on her concealed carry of knives, poisons, and tools, figuring out where everything went so it would be comfortable and available.
Nostalgic. She felt a twinge of fondness for Lara, in the wake of it. An odd choice for a little sister.
Mary put the cloth Lillian had provided over top of the rope, checked the coast was clear, then stepped over the edge.
She dropped, hard, before the rope was taut enough, and then she moved at a diagonal, wind rushing against her face and through her hair while she felt the sensation of her stomach continuing to plummet to the ground. They crossed the alley, then reached the rooftop on the other end. Mary set her feet down, coming to a running stop.
She set Lara down.
“Bleeah,” Quinton greeted them.
“Yes. Bleeaah. Poor little Quinton,” Lara said, quiet. She was shaking a little from the adrenaline.
“Poor Quinton?” Abby asked, sounding mildly alarmed.
“Having to spend so much time around Nora, without me near to make things better. What a wretched few minutes that must have been.”
“The only wretched thing here is you,” Nora said. “Look at you. You have half the blood on your clothes that I do. How hard did you really fight, coward weakling?”
“Hush, hush” Lillian said, intervening between the two, putting an oversized hand on each of their heads. “Play after. We still have to carry out our mission.”
“We’ve been talking while we wait,” Duncan told Mary. “The general feeling is that Sylvester isn’t going to have left yet.”
“We know about the orphanage. Even if he is planning to run for it and leave this city, maybe he’ll still be getting ready to leave?”
“He’ll have packed things to be ready at any moment, if that’s the case,” Mary said. Lillian and Helen nodded.
“But he won’t have left yet,” Mary said. “I think he’s still around. He wants to tease us. When he leaves, he’ll let us know where he’s going.”
Duncan nodded, “Alright. Then the consensus was, if we wait too long, Sylvester is going to be too prepared. It’s best to catch him off balance. My group can split up, I’ll go get my dogs, we’ll each handle one of the gates, get them to call Hayle or something to give us some legitimacy, then my group will gather together after to figure out how to rescue the nanny. Lacey can come with us, so she isn’t underfoot for you four. The twins, Emmett, Abby, Lacey and I go, while you, Lillian, Ashton, and Helen go after Sy now.”
“I can help with the nanny, I think,” Mary said. She reached under her skirt for the scroll case and handed it over. “Here. A piece of the Devil.”
“A piece?” Duncan asked. “Wait, I’m not sure I want the details… especially if it leads to me thinking about the size of that scroll case.”
“It’s recognizable,” Mary said. “If they still balk, then tell them we know where the devil keeps his secrets and notes. If they cooperate, secrets stay secret, and we’ll pass them the information the Devil has that they want to know.”
Duncan looked even less sure about his ability to handle things as she gave him the instructions, but he nodded.
“Ashton’s coming then,” Mary said.
“I’m mostly spent, but I’ll have one or two puffs ready soon,” Ashton said. “And I want to see Sylvester.”
“And when Ashton says he wants something,” Duncan observed, dryly, “He really wants it quite a bit.”
Mary nodded. The plan made a degree of sense. They’d never really planned to use the new Lambs as anything but bait, not really. The hope had been to flush Sylvester out of hiding and draw his interest.
“What about Emmett?” she asked.
“Emmett is new,” Lillian said. “He doesn’t know all of the gestures, he might interrupt our flow.”
“Interrupting our flow against Sylvester is a good thing,” Mary said. “It disrupts him too.”
“But,” Lillian said, “Remember that Sylvester could try getting the drop on Duncan or Lacey. He might want to incapacitate us, remember? To bog down the pursuit by making us drag someone with us.”
She liked Emmett. Emmett did what he was supposed to, and he was disciplined on a level that extended to his whole personality. He was the youngest, if the vat-grown weren’t counted, and yet he was amazingly mature.
She wanted to train him, to bring out the best he was capable of, and she suspected that the desire was at least partially informed by her experiences with Sylvester. She didn’t know to what extent, or even how to draw the line between what part of it was what Percy had instilled in her in nurture and nature, and what part of it was Sylvester’s hand.
“Not Emmett, then,” Mary said. “He can serve as a bodyguard.”
I’m not sure how effective a guard he’ll be for them.
“Ashton might throw Sy off,” Helen said.
“Ashton’s someone Sylvester got to know on some level,” Mary said. “But I don’t want to stand around debating. Every second we take is a second we’re giving him.”
“Good,” Lillian said. “Let’s go.”
The groups separated. They made their way down from the squat building to the road, and Duncan’s group headed northwards, while Mary led the group east, back toward the city center.
Just the Lambs, none of the last minute additions. No Duncan, no Lacey.
She could still sense that general trap in operation around her. A greater mechanism, the rows of buildings on either side of her like jaws of a blunted bear trap, waiting for her to step on the pressure plate. People were potential landmines. Sylvester’s allies, or manufactured enemies in service to the Devil.
She knew on a logical level that her knee had healed. They’d given her the best doctors, and even had a few professors that hadn’t performed surgery in ages in the lab to offer counsel. She should be as good as new, with no lasting damage, but she still felt the damage there.
We’re coming, Sylvester.
They made their way, jogging, checking constantly to make sure they wouldn’t get the attention of the local law, before Ashton pointed out a police wagon. The back portion looked it was meant to hold warbeasts, with filthy blankets within. The people who had manned it had no doubt headed to the tower.
Mary climbed up to the driver’s seat, while Helen and Lillian jumped on the sides. Mary checked they had good handholds before getting the horses moving.
The cages had been covered with black cloth, and Helen and Lillian worked to drape the cloths, to better hide the ‘police’ markings that had been painted on the sides, as well as the crowns of gold and the stripes of blue that marked it as a police vehicle.
With only the black showing, the gold and blue mostly covered, it looked more funerary. Mary intentionally took a route that would put them more out of sight, so they could lose the cages.
One by one, the cages were disconnected from the wagon, allowed to slide off the back and tumble into the street.
“Keep one,” Mary suggested.
“For Sylvester?” Lillian asked, and she laughed.
“No,” Helen said, before saying, “Careful.”
Lillian had to climb back out of the way to not be clipped by the last of the three cages.
“No need for cages,” Helen said. “You have me.”
“We do,” Lillian said. She fixed the cloth, then climbed over the divide to straddle the seat beside Mary. She breathed out the words, “I have no idea what to feel right now.”
“I know what that’s like,” Ashton said. “Try to pick a good feeling.”
“Mm,” Lillian made a sound. “I want to slap him, as part of us summarily kicking his ass and wiping the smirk off his face. Then call him names for about an hour. While he’s gagged, and can’t say anything back.”
“I said a good feeling,” Ashton said.
“That is a good feeling, hon,” Lillian said. She stroked Ashton’s head, careful not to mess with his hair.
“I want to see Jamie,” Ashton said.
“I agree,” Lillian said. “But I can understand that you grew a great deal more attached to Jamie than any of us.”
“He was my first friend. I wonder what he’s doing, and how Sylvester plans to use him.”
“He might not,” Helen said. “He has to keep the act alive.”
“But he might,” Mary said.
Too many possibilities to cover.
Heads turned as the horse galloped, pulling them behind them. The clip they were going was less sedate than was the norm, and Mary was young for a wagon driver. Perhaps not so unusual in a city where farmer’s children might take on duties, but all put together, they were attention-grabbing, a curiosity.
That came second to the mission. The hunt.
They were finally chasing him. Finally, after months of looking.
And with that in mind, every set of eyes on them felt like they belonged to Sylvester, that they might, the moment the wagon had passed, somehow communicate a message, or set something in motion.
Yet, if she focused too much on them, then there was the risk that she’d miss another trap.
She had to trust herself. That was the key. She knew how her body functioned. Her mental exercises and countless hours of practice had honed her ability to lay out a course of action and to carry them out, adapting at any step along the way.
“It feels like a trap waiting to be sprung,” Lillian said.
“Yes,” Mary said, validated that her friend was thinking along the same lines she was.
“He could try something at any moment. He’ll be looking out for us. And this… this orphanage of his, and I’m not even going to get into that because what in the King’s name is that about, but he placed it on the outskirts. Remember how he gloated about how he knew where we’d arrive in the city, because there were only so many routes to take? He mentioned it when we were talking about the places the Devil’s wagonfuls of children could come in.”
“I remember,” Mary said.
“As we get closer to this road out to the edge of town, we run more risk that he’ll try something. He can set something up there…”
“But,” Helen said, “Remember, he wants to see us. He wants us to show up.”
It wasn’t a reassuring statement.
Mary could feel her heartbeat quicken as they hit the country road. There were no ambushes, no attacks, no tricks.
Almost, she wondered if he’d simply absconded. If he’d bolted and left the city.
But then the building loomed, the top of it visible over a field of rust-red wheat.
Wooden cranes with crews, pallets, and counterweights were arranged around the building. Construction material was everywhere, and the building itself was only mostly complete. It was a manor, extensive and elaborate, with children sitting and playing in the yard out front.
“It’s a damn playground,” Lillian said. “Those pallets, the construction work. He damn well planned for the house to be in progress when we arrived.”
“I like it,” Ashton said. “It’s a very interesting house.”
The fields of rust-red wheat extended around to either side of the house, in the space behind it, and in the field opposite the house, so the road effectively cut through it. The fields offered virtually impenetrable cover, and they ensured that no matter which direction Sylvester ran, he could disappear. He had to have been thinking about the fields when he set up the house.
“Odds on there being traps in the wheat?” Mary asked.
“Oh lords,” Lillian said.
Mary slowed the horses, then brought them to a stop out front.
There he was. He stood in the front doorway, a cigarette in his hand, smoking, watching them.
Mary tied the reins, then hopped down. The other Lambs were right behind her.
The squeals, laughs, and voices of the children stopped.
There were two dozen children out front. By the time Mary, Helen, Lillian and Ashton had reached the point where the the driveway of the orphanage met the road, there was silence.
Each and every one of the children, some as young as eight, some nearly as old as Sylvester, stared, expressions blank.
Sylvester, meanwhile, only smiled, holding his cigarette.
“Cute,” Helen said. “They’re acting. He told them to act this way.”
“If we had some of the little ones with us, they’d be bothered by this,” Lillian observed. “Actually, now I’m remembering Duncan’s misadventure with the two youths that pulled a gun on him, and I’m a touch bothered.”
“I don’t see what’s so strange about the way they’re acting,” Ashton said.
Behind them, one of the horses huffed, stamping the ground with her hooves.
When you want to look one way, he’ll act elsewhere.
Mary turned, reaching under her shirt to her belly. There were two things there. One was a knife, and one was her bola.
The man at the wagon was taller than most unmodified men, wore a button-up shirt and slacks, and had modified hands, feet, and head. The head looked like an exceptionally poor taxidermy job of a very large rabbit. The mouth yawned open as if it were perpetually screaming.
Sylvester’s limber assistant.
He saw her reacting and pulled away from the seat of the carriage, knife in hand.
Almost, almost, her instinct told her to respond to the image of a knife with a knife of her own. Instead, she drew the bola.
The man twisted, turned, and bolted, while she started the bola spinning. His sheer speed caught her off guard, as he headed for the back end of the wagon. He’d be taking off down the road, or circling around the back of the wagon to head for the field, where he’d no doubt been waiting.
She threw, making the adjustments in the last fraction of a second to throw the bola.
It caught the rabbit man around the legs. The summary fall looked brutal.
“Helen,” Mary said, pointing. She followed up with gestures, hidden behind her back.
“On it,” Helen said, bouncing as she headed for the rabbit-man.
Already, Mary was striding toward the house, Lillian a step behind her.
When you want to go somewhere, he’ll upset your footing.
She deliberately stepped off of the path, nudging Lillian off the path as well. She wasn’t positive she’d seen the playing children walking on it, and that made her suspicious.
The children stood.
Sylvester raised his arm.
One of the cranes moved in response, lowering, an empty pallet descending in the direction of the front door.
The children approached, expressions still blank, reaching for Mary and Lillian.
Mary drew her knife, and the children closest to her stopped in their tracks.
“Mary!” Lillian admonished, aghast.
Ashton pushed past them, reaching out to the crowd of children.
As the wooden pallet descended to Sylvester, Mary noted that many other cranes were using ropes, but this one was using chain. She put away the knife.
With that, the children closest to her found courage and clutched at her clothes and her wrists. She was stronger than even the largest of them, but there were a number of them.
“Ow,” one child said, as they grabbed at her skirt and cut themselves. They pulled back.
She put all of her effort toward drawing closer to Ashton.
Sure enough, the grip slackened. She found the strength to push through the crowd, and there was virtually no resistance.
Sylvester stepped onto the pallet. Simultaneously, the thing began ascending.
Mary closed the distance at a full run, now. She leaped, grabbing the top of a window shutter, then hauled herself up enough to get a foothold, springing over to grab the edge of the balcony over the front porch.
“You know, using Ashton is damn unfair,” Sylvester said. “It’s practically cheating.”
She grabbed for one of the smaller posts of the balcony’s railing of the porch for a handhold, and it came free. Only in the last moment did she manage to grab the edge of the balcony. She dangled there for a moment before she began the arduous process of climbing up.
The post hadn’t been nailed, screwed, or otherwise fixed in place. Loose, and no doubt intentionally so. In frustration, she swept her hand against the remainder of the railing, knocking each and every one of the loose posts out of their housing and into the dense bushes that waited below.
“You were always the most graceful Lamb,” Sylvester taunted.
She twisted, reaching, and turned around.
When she pulled out a gun, and not a knife, the smirk dropped off of Sylvester’s face.
She didn’t shoot him. She might have, but she didn’t have a clear line of sight to his knee. Instead, dangling from one hand, aiming with the other, she shot at one corner of the pallet.
Mary fired six times in total, each shot hitting the mark and eliciting its screams from the crowd of children.
She didn’t wait to see the results. She turned around, swung her legs forward, then used the momentum to raise up her upper body, shifting her grip to climb up onto the balcony.
The sound of creaking and the eventual snap as the chain tore through the damaged wood at one corner of the pallet put a grim smile on her face.
Sylvester still ascended. The pallet was now askew, one corner very low, the other corner high, and the planks that made up the three foot by three foot wooden platform were arching a little under his weight. He gestured up to the crane operator.
Mary focused on the climb. Every piece of this building that she could use for climbing was suspect. She looked at the building face with a fresh eye. There were patches here and there that glistened in the sunlight. There were shutters that lay there, inviting.
Stay focused. The gap was growing. Where was he going?
With the help of the crane operator, he could position himself wherever he wanted around the house. He could even access the interior, through the incomplete portions. There was cloth set up to keep the wind from blowing inside, but it was easy enough for the pallet to move adjacent and for Sylvester to climb past it.
Mary took the hard route, drawing a knife and using it as leverage for climbing, to reach the overhang above the balcony.
Helen had finished tying up the rabbit and attaching the man to the wagon, and was on her way back, and the horses – damn it, the horses were only partially attached to the wagon. The rabbit had managed to cut some of the straps. Ashton and Lillian were together, dealing with the children. Ashton was handling a lot of the talking.
That was fine. Mary gestured to Helen, and Helen ran right past Lillian and Ashton to start scaling the exterior of the house.
“It’s trapped, watch your handholds!” Mary called.
The building looked to be, going by the windows, two floors tall, with a section at the middle that was three stories tall, but the ceilings were particularly high, so it was as tall as a building with twice as many floors.
The similarities between this and the Devil’s tower didn’t escape Mary.
She climbed up onto the roof. Below, Helen was grabbing at the slats of wood that lined the exterior of the house, grabbing each one from the underside and hauling herself up.
Sylvester was already out of reach. There had to be a way to do this.
The speed with which the pallet had raised and fallen- he could only descend so fast. That meant, if there was a good way to get up to him, somehow, keeping in mind that he was a solid thirty feet over her head-
“Helen!” Mary called out. “Intercept him if he comes down!”
“Okay!” Helen said, with the musical enthusiasm of a cheery student answering a beloved teacher.
Mary ran across the roof, eye out for traps and snags. She saw the odd patches of shingles and avoided them, running for the tower that held up the crane itself, while she reloaded her gun.
Did he not anticipate this? There were no traps. There was nothing complicating her climb.
Sylvester was signaling to be put down. He didn’t look concerned as he watched her climb, but that didn’t say much.
If he wasn’t concerned, that could easily be amended.
She drew her gun, and Sylvester dropped down, holding the chain where the corner of the pallet was, low down enough that the entire pallet was between him and her.
She fired at one corner of the pallet again. She might have chosen the one he was holding on to, but she was reasonably sure that would have killed him.
He didn’t deserve her being this nice, at this stage.
“Oh, come on!” Sylvester complained. He shifted his weight, trying to swing the pallet from side to side, as if it were a pendulum, to make it a harder shot. “Impolite.”
She was secretly proud of herself that all six shots landed, again.
It didn’t take any time for the corner of the pallet to fall away. Sylvester was left standing on the edge of the pallet, as it hung down, connected at only the corners along one side. His hands gripped the chain.
“Your aim is atrocious,” Sylvester commented, his voice ringing out. “The Mary I knew would have managed to hit me already. You keep on hitting the platform!”
Don’t tempt me, Mary thought, as she climbed. The tower of the crane was well constructed, rife with handholds, and it was a quick climb. She rose twice as fast as Sylvester was being lowered to the ground.
She reached the crane top, and scaled the underside, climbing up and over, to find her face to face with two Brunos, and a mess of winches and ropes.
“We don’t want any trouble,” the first of the Brunos said. His hands pulled away from the mechanism.
Meaning Sylvester was trapped, suspended in mid-air. Without the Brunos to work the winches, the crane didn’t move, and the platform remained where it was.
There was nothing below him except a very long drop to the roof or the house. A thirty-foot drop onto the roof would have been bad enough, but it was gently sloped. Mary doubted she could have landed it neatly and without injury, and she was more adroit than Sylvester.
She left the Brunos behind. Running along the length of the crane to where the chain hung from, she let herself fall prematurely, reaching out to grab the chain.
In that moment, she saw Sylvester looking up at her.
If a path seems too easy, it’s a trap.
He was grinning like the duchess-fucked-cat with the canary.
He spread his arms, letting go from the chain, and leaped backward off of the platform.
“Helen!” Mary called out.
Helen, standing at the peak of the roof, was already running in Sylvester’s direction.
Mary wished dearly for a strong gust of wind to blow him off course. It would be satisfying. Tragic, of course, but satisfying.
As it was, he landed almost directly in the center of the cloth that covered the unfinished portion of the one wing of the house.
A blade glinted in his hand as he slashed it, allowing himself access into the house proper, while denying her the use of the same ‘net’ to drop down onto. Helen followed him, just a few paces behind.
She was the one who was stuck.
“Lower me!” she called up to the Brunos.
They didn’t move.
She pointed the gun, which got them moving. The chain began clicking as she was slowly lowered closer to the ground. She climbed down to the damaged platform.
When she was fifteen feet above the sloping roof, she leaped for it.
Her feet scraped as she slid dangerously close to the gutter and the drop to the ground and bushes below. Helen, who had disappeared behind Sylvester, was just now emerging.
“He locked doors behind him,” Helen said. “He was heading toward the other end of the house.”
The other end of the house.
No. That didn’t make sense. What was there? More mischief?
Mary turned, looking. The front of the house was to her left. The crowd of children was still there. At the back were…
Two carriages, parked and waiting.
If the answer seems obvious…
She headed for the front of the house at a dead run. She let herself drop, sliding over the edge of the roof to catch the gutter, her body already contorting so she could swing herself over, passing herself over to the next gutter, the one that surrounded the overhang above the balcony. She nearly lost her grip on the grease that Sylvester had arranged to put there, but it was an easy matter to maneuver her body and tumble onto the balcony itself.
She heard Ashton say, “Get him. Help her. People should treat girls nicer than that.”
Mary did away with all niceties, and leaped off the balcony onto the lawn below. She grunted as she landed.
Sylvester was sitting in the doorway, an unconscious Lillian in his arms. The children were approaching hesitantly.
If only Ashton had had a little more to go around, Sylvester’s own assets could have been dogpiling him this very moment.
“I want to point out-” Sylvester started.
Mary threw a knife. Sylvester ducked his head – the only readily targetable part of his body.
“-I did get the drop on you after all, in a manner of speaking.”
He reached over, and hauled on a part of the doorframe.
Mary forced herself to her feet, legs aching, and broke into a run, chasing. There was no time to reach for a knife.
False floorboards were lifted out of place as Lillian was dragged by the hook Sylvester had attached to her clothes. Sylvester ran alongside her, stooped over, one hand on her to help ensure she kept moving.
Mary gave chase, running, as Sylvester hopped up onto furniture.
She buried frustration with focus as every knife she threw at him hit a piece of furniture instead. While Lillian was dragged underneath a coffee table, he kicked at a bowl, and more mechanisms kicked into motion, counterweights dropping as the walls began to fold in together, like great double doors.
Mary slipped past the first set of doors, then only barely scraped through the second, but she knew she was losing ground. She saw the last set of doors closing, and turned, running to step onto the top of a heavy armchair, up to the staircase. She used a knife, embedding it into wood rather than trust the rungs of the railing.
From there, she leaped over the last set of doors.
A final trap awaited. Stretched across the open space above the doors were threads. Not razor wire, but threads, a spiderwebbing or a loose net. Enough to tangle her, not enough to be easily seen in the moment, with only the light shining in through the doors.
Stuck there, she watched as Sylvester disconnected the hooks from Lillian’s clothes, then dragged her out and away from the open back doors.
She cut at the threads, watching as he closed one of the back doors, sliding it over, then the other. She could hear the sound of the lock with all the gravity of a death knell.
She disengaged herself from the threads, and dropped down to the sitting room. She approached Ashton and Helen, who were now at the front door.
“They got Lillian,” Ashton observed.
Mary ignored him. She ran outside, knowing full well what she’d see.
One carriage cutting through the field, taking a diagonal path until it reached the road. From there, it headed toward the city.
The other carriage headed out to locations unknown, the same path through the field to the road, but going in the opposite direction.
“Next time,” Mary observed, “I’m going to shoot him. No nonsense, just pull the trigger, put an end to my misery.”
“That’s no fun,” Helen said.
“Neither is this,” Mary said. “Help me with the horses. Can either of you ride?”
“Nothing that big,” Ashton said. “And not without a saddle.”
“Damn it,” Mary said. She avoided the path as she strode toward the carriage the rabbit had disabled. As she reached the first horse, she cut at the straps and bindings that fastened it to the wagon.
The Rabbit, securely tied with one ankle handcuffed to a wheel spoke, was humming to himself.
“Look,” Ashton said. He pointed.
There was a wagon on the road trundling down the path, a stitched beast pulling it at a good clip.
A working vehicle.
Mary hurried over, concealing her weapon.
“Problem?” the farmer asked, as she approached. “Someone in trouble, was it?”
“Yes sir,” she said. She revealed her knife.
“Terribly sorry,” Helen said, as she climbed up. “But we need this.”
“I’m running an important errand!” the man said, raising his voice. “Something of an emergency.”
“So is this,” Mary said, tense. “Please step down.”
“No,” the man said, stubborn. “No, a child’s life may be at stake. Your emergency might well be the same as mine, but I cannot and will not let you-”
Mary moved the knife, silencing the man.
“Your emergency is the same as ours?” Mary asked.
“I was asked to help. A child in this very orphanage needs medicine, and that medicine is in town.”
“Sylvester,” Helen said.
He’s giving us a wagon?
She looked at the bigger picture.
The wagon, going in the direction of the city-
Did Sylvester hope they would take the easy route? Hop on, head in the direction that was most convenient, into the city, and ignore the other wagon, because it would have meant turning a bulky wagon around on a narrow road?
“Go,” Mary said, “Ashton, Helen, go with the nice man. Apologize to him for the knife. Get the help we need.”
“What are you doing?” Helen asked.
“Going after the other carriage!”
Mothmont taught her useful things, and horseback riding was one of them.
She finished cutting the straps, the farmer’s wagon rolled past her as she worked, disappearing down the other end of the long, straight road.
Once the Crown’s police horse was freed, she mounted it bareback, managed the reins, and rode, as hard as she could, after the second carriage.
Helen’s and Ashton’s was liable to be empty. But convincing the farmer to turn around would have been a waste.
This would have to do, and it had the added benefit of covering both bases.
Knives and items that she’d secured on her person were jolted and jarred by the hard ride in a way that acrobatics and most fighting didn’t manage.
Her focus was razor sharp as she first saw the dust the carriage had kicked up, and soon that dust dirtied the beads of sweat that covered her body.
Lillian was her friend, her heart. Her most important person.
She willed Lillian to be in the carriage, as she caught up to it, then leaped on top of it.
A knife to the carriage driver’s throat worked to make him pull to a stop. He remained cooperative as she climbed down to the side and hauled the door open.
Of course it was empty.
She mounted her horse, turned it around, and rode in the opposite direction. She didn’t go after Helen and Ashton. She already knew what had occurred.
She made her way back to the orphanage, the around to the back field.
By the back door was a hatch. She kicked it open, then descended the ramp down to the tunnel below. There were multiple access points.
And one exit, heavy, reinforced, and locked.
To where? She thought, in the same moment that she remembered, Fort city.
The place was probably riddled with the things.
She let her forehead rest against the door.