Thicker than Water – 14.2

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“Fugitive,” the noble said.

“Ah,” Gordon said.  “That’s no good.”

I exhaled, as much as I was able, with the cane pressing against my throat.

The young man who was sitting across from me looked as though he had just had a team of hairdressers, a barber, and a tailor just finish working on him.  His black hair was slicked back, the faint messiness at the front of his hair and over his ears looked sculpted.  It was late, but his chin was clean of even the shadow of stubble.  Chin and cheekbones were sculpted, giving his face a mask-like appearance that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.  He wore a white collared shirt with ornate silver trim at the edges of the collar, a tie, vest, and a long black coat.  The silver ornamentation extended to his cufflinks, embossed buttons, the buckles of his shoes, and, now that I looked, to the irises of his eyes.

He was the biggest threat, so I fixed the whole of my attention on him.

“What a shame,” he said.  “By bringing you in, we’re denying a good citizen the ability to do the same.  There was good money placed on you, sir.  Good money the Crown was willing to part with, a sum that could have raised someone up from obscurity to aristocracy.”

“Wouldn’t it be nice if we could kill them all?” Helen asked.  “Make a lovely bloody mess.”

“Not practical,” Gordon said.  “We need to play along for now.  We kill them later.”

“Lord Monte,” one of the two girls in the group spoke, with a posh accent that pronounced ‘Monte’ as “Mont-ay’.  I didn’t take my eyes off of ‘Monte’ as she continued, “If you talk about the citizens of the Crown in that way, they might get offended.”

She made it sound like play.  As if to set up Monte for a retort, a joke at the citizen’s expenses.

But he was more focused on me than on verbal wordplay or making light of the citizen’s feelings.

“You don’t look like much, do you?” Monte with the silver ornamentation spoke, studying me.  “But you certainly did something to deserve being worth that reward money.”

Jamie’s voice overlapped with his, “Think.  Gordon’s right, we need to play along, and we’re getting swept up in the observations without picking out the things we can use.  You used Wyvern to shut out the world, Sy, but we need you to access the world again.”

I stared into Monte’s silver eyes, and I was reminded of how I’d met Lillian’s, when she and I had been so close.  It was a painful reminder, but it was a barb that helped wake me up to reality, connect this situation to the way I’d been thinking there.

The emotional equivalent of reaching out, seizing a knife by the blade, and squeezing.

Something must have changed in my expression, because Monte said, “There you are.”

“Good evening,” I said.

“Titles!” Jamie urged.

“No titles,” Evette said.  Evette was now behind Monte’s seat, arms folded over the top of the seats.  Her chin had been resting on her forearm, but now her head was raised just enough to let her talk.  “Look at him, look at them.  They’re deferring.  The woman, the way she talked, you know He’s the leader of this pack.  Your instincts said to focus on him for a reason.”

Whatever the case, the window of opportunity had passed.

The cane moved from my guzzler’s knot to the side.  It jerked, pressing in hard, just beside my windpipe.  Had it been sharp, a thrust of that force would have gone right through my neck to the seat behind me.

He knew where nerve clusters, veins, and arteries were, I was guessing.

“Customarily,” Monte said, “One addresses a noble lord in a more appropriate manner.”

Already, my vision was suffering for the continued press of the cane.  It was crumbling to black at the edges, especially around my left eye.

“Stay strong, he won’t kill you this quickly,” Gordon said.  “Bend the knee, Sy.”

“Bend the knee,” Jamie echoed.

I looked up at Evette.  Her chin rested on her arm, now.  She only smiled.

“Ah,” I managed.

Monte let up with the cane.  I took a second to let my vision start to go back to normal, the light returning at the periphery.

“My apologies,” I said.

Monte declined his head in acknowledgement of my apology.

“Good evening to you,” I said, looking again at Evette.  “Monte.”

The cane stabbed forward before I was even done uttering the word.  Fast reflexes.  The butt end of it thrust past my teeth and into my open mouth, then stabbed at the soft flesh at the back of my throat.

My eyes went wide.  The contact there and the natural physiological reactions mandated that I gag and upchuck, but the fact that I hadn’t eaten in recent memory, giving my lunch to Shirley instead, and the fact that I’d dulled my senses and put myself into a kind of hibernation mode meant I was only barely able to repress my reaction.

My hands went out, gripping the armrests to either side of me, as he pressed hard, the back of my neck being compressed against my pillowed seat back.

He kept me like that, my breath coming in short, pained gasps, while he continued to stare me down.  The others stood on the sidelines, quiet and analytical.  Even bemused.

“I don’t think Evette gives very good advice,” Ashton commented.

“I’m inclined to agree,” Gordon said.  He gave Evette a pointed look.  “Why are you even here?

Evette spoke, “You’re all here for Sy, you’re paying attention to him, you know him.  I’m more focused on them.  You’re in lockstep, you work together, and one of us has to be a little unconventional.”

Distant, sitting back, the problems beyond.  That made a degree of sense.

Monte might have sensed that my focus was elsewhere, because he rotated the cane, still pressing it against the soft tissue at the back of my throat.  I’d already been bleeding, no doubt, but now there was actual damage.  He was grinding the tissue there much as someone might do to make absolutely sure that the bug underfoot was being extinguished.

“Ow,” Helen said.  Jamie had his face in one hand, beside her.

“I did want this to be my chance to show Sylvester what he could do if he just did things right the first time around,” Gordon commented.

Evette commented, “Which translates to you being informed by a fragment of Sy’s personality that wants to be fantastic at everything he does.”

“Well, yes, but we’re glossing over that,” Gordon said.

I started to raise my hands, intending to grab the cane.

“No, Sy,” Gordon said.  He put his arm out, between my hands and the cane.  “You’re not going to win that battle of strength, not when he has the leverage and most certainly not when you’re you.  You took Evette’s advice.  See it through, at least.”

I lowered my hands, settling them into my lap, and clasped them there, as if I’d never been more comfortable.

“Good.  Upside,” Gordon said, “Is we’ve made this a battle of wills.  There’s room to move to make that a battle of wits.”

“Monte has an image to maintain,” Evette said.  “He wants to resolve that image.  The hope is that he realizes he can’t just extinguish us without turning us into… a kind of martyr, I suppose?  Our last action would be a mad, curious kind of defiance of him, and our deaths would seal it in the memories of his peers.  That would nettle him.  More a loss than a win.”

Helen leaned over, peering along the cane and into my open mouth.  “There’s a fair amount of blood.  Even with Sy’s tolerances, he’s going to choke soon, or ingest so much of his own blood that he reflexively vomits.  He might be able to suppress that, I know, but-”

“He might not,” Gordon said.  “Damn it.  Okay.  That’s the nature of the battlefield then.  Will Monte take an out if we give it to him?”

“No guarantee,” Jamie said.

“I don’t think so,” Evette said.  “They barely even recognize us, let alone recognize us as an enemy.”

“Alright,” Gordon said.  “Damn it to hell.”

The train rattled as it bumped over some mild obstruction on the tracks.  I involuntarily winced as the cane shifted even more than it had been.

If he was going to say anything, it would be now.

He was true to form.  Monte spoke, “Shall we stay like this all the way to New Amsterdam?  My arm won’t get tired.  I can smell the blood coming from the back of your throat.  I can see your muscles moving as you hold yourself back from gagging.  If you try to vomit, you might tear your own throat open.  How many hours is it?”

“Long enough,” one of the other nobles said.  A man, wearing only a vest over a collared shirt.  His blond hair was damp from the rain of Radham.

“This is dull, Monte,” one of the other nobles said.  The second of the two young ladies.  She was the shortest of the group, with black hair, intense blue eyes, and a light fur ruff at her collar, built into her dress.  Where the fur ruff might have been too warm for summer, the fact that her hair was an ‘up’ style that exposed her neck and that her dress was open backed and mid-thigh in length made up for it.  The series of careful balances continued, as she wore just enough tasteful jewelry to make up for the minimal quantity of cloth.  She, too, had chosen silver.

The dress tied at the back, behind the neck.  The elaborate tie looked like a small set of wings.

“She called him Monte.  Is she testing him?” Jamie asked.

“There’s a greater game afoot,” Gordon said.  “That’s their interplay.”

Monte stood, and his hand slid down the length of the cane as he approached.

“And they’re related,” Helen commented.

“See, fugitive,” Monte said, his voice low.  “My sister, she can call me by my name.  But my friends and peers?  Even they know enough to call me lord.”

You,” Gordon pointed at Evette.

“You got angry at me last time.  My lips are sealed.”

“Good.  This is a power game, contest of wills.  I think… there has to be a way out of this.”

“I can think of one, but it’s a case of frying pan and fire,” Jamie said.

No,” Gordon said.  “There has to be a straightforward solution.  Helen?  Please?  Ideas?”

“Charm him?” Helen offered.

“Yes, because Sylvester is such a darling,” Evette said.

Gordon gave her a warning look and a stern point that threatened future repercussions.  Evette clapped a hand over her mouth.

“I don’t think that’s going to work,” Gordon said.

Nothing is going to work,” Jamie said, “Sylvester is Sylvester, we’re not him.  As a composite, we’re a mess, we’re functioning too slowly.  He’s turning to us because he just had to face the hard reality that being Sylvester often doesn’t work out.  He doesn’t want to be him, so…”

“He’s being us,” Helen said.  “And it’s like it was back in Brechwell, when he was missing you, he’s not very good at being you.  That’s why we’re stumbling.”

I suppressed a cough as I failed to swallow the blood that was making its way down the back of my throat.

“We don’t have another option,” Gordon said.  “At least not right now.  And we’re out of time.”

Prey instinct, again.

Something in Monte’s demeanor had tipped Gordon off.  The cane came free, sliding out of my mouth.

“Were you going to say something?” Monte asked.

“He knows full well that was a cough,” Helen said, indignant.

I started to speak, and felt the pain in my throat, the blood, and coughed fairly violently, turning my head and coughing into my hand.

“He’s sensitive to his sister’s boredom,” Gordon guessed.  “And we need an answer to give, now.  Jamie, the frying pan, the fire, does it buy us time before the fire?”

“Yes, it definitely does, but… the timing is wrong.  It’s a gamble as is, but it could be disastrous.”

“Damn it,” Gordon said, for the third time.  He watched as I continued coughing.  “You’re sure?”


“Cease your barking and speak, boy,” Monte said, imperious.  His hand gripped my hair and pushed my head back against the seat.  The movement of my head made my throat hurt, and the shift in angle forced blood out of the open wound, which only exacerbated the problem.

He’d known about the veins and nerve clusters.  He had to know he was demanding I speak while I was helpless to do so.

“Violence?” Gordon asked.  “Stupid question.  Threaten?  No.”

“Can’t negotiate,” Helen said.

“Can’t play them off each other,” Gordon said.

“Bargain?” Jamie suggested.

“Would be too close to begging.  And if he’s anything like I think he is, he hears begging often enough,” Gordon said.  “And we don’t know what they want.”

“No tools available,” Evette said.  “We have a knife, the packet of poison from Lillian’s bra in his pocket.  Nothing too useful.  There’s the cloak?  If we were quick, we could use the distraction and slip under the seats.  No…”

“Thank you for contributing,” Gordon said.  “And I agree, no.  We’re not that quick, and there’s nowhere to go.”

“And Shirley,” Evette pointed out.

“And that,” Gordon agreed.

I regained my breathing.  I swallowed, hard, and didn’t make myself cough any further.

I could tell that their patience had run thin.

Nothing to give me? I thought.

“Sorry,” Jamie said, his voice quiet.


I looked up at Evette.

Don’t,” Gordon said, sounding pained.  “Don’t take cues from her.”

“I confess,” I managed, and my voice was hoarse, my throat much abused and heavy with fluid.  “If your friends and peers have the sense to call you Lord, I must be exempt from that same rule, because I am not your friend, and I am most certainly not your peer.”

Ah, I could see, the way his face changed.

He didn’t like the response.

All that remained was for him to figure out the best way to punish me.

But his sister broke into laughter.  My eyes moved, and I saw smiles spread across several faces.

“I like him,” the sister said.

“You are notorious for your horrible taste, dear sister,” Monte said.  He had to be taking note of the expressions of his peers.  His sister’s response had disarmed him.  He couldn’t take action now without seeming petty.

“And you’ve grandstanded long enough,” she said.  She moved down the aisle, gave her brother a light push, and flounced down into the first available seat, sitting across from me.  “And this is my first time meeting a notorious criminal.  Hello notorious criminal.”

“Sylvester,” I croaked.  I suppressed a cough.

“Sylvester,” the sister said.  The others were drawing nearer.  The spectres of the Lambs moved to accommodate the group.

“Monte is the leader, he gets first pickings,” Gordon commented.  “But if he doesn’t maintain that standing, the power moves to the next figure in the hierarchy.  We have hours left on this train, several stops, and they’ll keep rotating out until they find an excuse to eat us alive.”

The sister was shooing at her brother, talking, “Sit.  I don’t like it when you’re looming over me like that.”

“I’ll stand, thank you,” he said.  “And I’ll point out that insolence can’t go unanswered.”

“It won’t,” she said.  She met my eyes, “But damage to the body is one of the least meaningful ways to destroy a man in our modern era.”

“There’s a wedge,” Gordon said, quick.  The second half of the thought was mine to complete.

Divide them.

“I quite agree,” I said.  “I’m rather resistant to pain, so physical torture doesn’t work very well in the short term, either-”

“My lady,” Helen whispered in my ear.

“-My lady,” I finished, seamlessly.  I gave her a small smile.

The sister looked up at her brother, offering him a polite smile, followed by a very smug, “Hm.”

“Yes, dear sister,” Monte said.  “I know.  You catch more flies with honey.  But this involvement soils the honey.”

The sister rolled her eyes.

“Don’t be a sore loser now, Monte,” one of the other nobles said.  The blond male that had been doing most of the talking.

“Third in the hierarchy,” Jamie guessed.

“Sylvester,” the sister said, as if she was trying on the word.

“Yes, my lady,” I said.  I suppressed a cough.  With my luck, I would have spat a fine spray of blood into her face in the process.

“What did you do?” the sister asked.

“Wow her,” Gordon said.  He sounded dejected.  “Might as well.”

“I murdered the Baron, for a start,” I said.

Her mouth made a very neat, practiced ‘o’ of surprise.  I was put in mind of Helen.  “That was you.

“It was,” I said.  “I’ve done quite a bit else.  Much of it in service to the Academies, not nearly as exciting.”

Exciting is not the word I would use for murder of a noble,” Monte said.

“How curious,” the blond noble said, ignoring his friend.  “You say in service to the Academies.  Not in service to the Crown.  Is this the way it is normally said?”

“Misstep,” Jamie said.

“No,” Gordon said, “We need to wow them.  Buy time.  Try…”

When I spoke, it was in coordination with Gordon, and the response was for the sister, not for the blond noble.  I shifted my body language to match my words, to use the very same key pieces of body language I’d taught Shirley to convey attention, power, and the same sort of intensity I’d used to ensnare Lillian.

Another painful barb, that.  A firm grip on the knife blade, emotionally.

But necessary.

Gordon’s voice in my head overlapped with my words in reality, “…I might be the wrong person to ask, my lord, given I’ve just admitted to murdering one of you.”

“Are you flirting with a noble?” Helen asked, caught between incredulity and horror.  I ignored Lillian and Jamie, who had been sitting in the background, their backs to me.  Were they turning around?  Reacting?  What would I feel, if I let myself recognize that and my internal responses to it?

“That’s flirting?” Jamie asked.

Another self-inflicted barb.  The innocence, bubbling to the fore alongside thoughts of Jamie.  I missed the innocence we had in the early days.  I’d grasped for it, in a way.

The sister crossed one leg over the other, so they folded over at the knee, her hands clasped in her lap.

“You’re a hard one to get a read on,” she said.

“I’ve been told that,” I said.

“You’re more methodical than I thought you’d be, at first glance,” she said.  “You think before you say or do anything.  I even suspect you feigned coughing for longer than you needed to, to work out what you were doing.  I suppose that’s necessary for an assassin, but it feels very mechanical.  Like a stitched, albeit a clever one.”

“Because we’re handling this by committee,” Jamie said.  “Gordon.  Take over.  You call the shots.  One person at a time.”

“It’s going to be unbalanced,” Evette said.

“Shh,” Helen shushed.

“I’m an experiment, after all, my lady,” I said.  “But I can be more fluid, if that would please you.”

“We’ll see,” she said.  A non-answer.  Then, abrupt, “I’ll confess, I thought this time on the train would be a bore.  Our trip out was dreary, but it was at least broken up with stops here and there.  But one long, straight trip back?  Ghastly.  To think we’d claim a train car for ourselves, resign ourselves to drink and discussion, and find a wanted fugitive instead.”

“I’ll strive to entertain,” Gordon and I said.  Care was being taken to emphasize certain words without actually putting stress on them.  The last word or two of each sentence was key.

“I’m sure you will,” she said.  “About your traveling companion, who was getting you tea…”

“No,” Jamie said, in the background.

“Shirley,” Gordon and I said, without flinching.

“Aiding and abetting a known fugitive.  I’m thinking, for punishment, a bidding.”

“And how would that work, dear sister?” Monte cut in.  His sister gave him an annoyed look at the very calculated intrusion.

“Each member of our group here has our own doctors, who are occupying the next car and keeping miss Shirley company.  There are twenty four doctors in that train car.  Many were the top of their class in their respective years and Academies.  They can bid with ideas, from their polished, Academy-trained brains.  The doctor who can devise the most fiendish punishment for miss Shirley gets a reward.  Predicated, mind you, on their follow through after the fact.”

“I imagine,” Gordon and I said, “that if they can’t follow through, they’ll be discarded.  Or perhaps, you could offer up the reward to any of the doctors who can follow through, but using the doctor who failed as the subject, this time.”

The sister smiled, looking at her companions.  “I do like the way he thinks.”

“My lady,” Gordon and I said, “I am honored by the compliment.”

I’d very nearly said we.  I was fairly certain that would have been a disaster.

Every ‘my lady’ was a jab at Monte, a courtesy we’d refused to give him.  Gordon and I were both calculating how much we could push him before he snapped.

How did that play out?

The moment we gave any evidence that there was something we wanted or valued, he was liable to dash our hopes and take that from us.

Strengths, weaknesses, attack, defense.  That was the focus right now.

“Can we participate, my lady?” the blond asked.

“We.  In the bidding?” the sister asked.


“This is bad,” Gordon observed.  I was in agreement.  If there was a way to keep the young nobles out of it, build the idea up and then deflate it, or make it too complicated to see through, or to buy time, at the very least, then there was a way out, and Shirley could be okay.

Not so, if they had a personal stake in seeing this through.

“I think so, Lord Leeds,” the sister decided.

Lord Leeds, the blond noble, smiled.

“What would you do, my lady?” I pressed.  Deny the enemy the chance to maneuver, don’t give them time.  Force them to act without enough time to reason.

“Me?” she asked.  “In this sort of game, it’s a disadvantage to go first.  I only encourage the others to top me.”

“It’s only fair that you set the bar, as the inventor of the game,” I said.  “Besides, I suspect you’re more interested in seeing the creative efforts of others.  I imagine you have an idea in mind already.”

She wanted us to be fluid, less mechanical.  Now we were responding faster, ready with answers the moment she spoke.  Throughout, we maintained the eye contact, the confident body language, the faint mirroring of her own body language here and there.

And she had to know that we were moving to force her hand.  If she said that no, she didn’t have an idea in mind already, then she looked ignorant, she forfeited power in the eyes of her peers.

Where the eye contact, the body language, and all of the word choice up to this point were important was in making this more of a tease than an attack.  It wasn’t so different from how I’d approached Lillian.  ‘I know you’re capable of handling this.’

I could handle teasing, as painful as it was to execute.

So could Gordon, for that matter.  His teasing had been a different sort.  Natural, less manipulative, and more because people had been drawn to him automatically, and all he’d had to do was step back and let them follow.

She knew what I was doing.

“We take that young lady, who was helping prepare the tea, the biscuits, and the plate of cake, and we make her a warbeast,” the sister said.  “Transplant her brain, or take her body and build up the warbeast around her, extending her nervous system.  Whatever road we take to the destination, she should be elephantine, ugly, slow, and securely confined.  One of the brood beasts, good only for rutting once a season, followed by pregnancy and the birth of a generation of warbeasts for the Crown.”

“A fair start,” Leeds said.  “I’m sure I’ll best you after I think for a moment.”

“Can’t let him,” Jamie observed.

“Shh,” Helen whispered.

“I’m sure you will, Lord Leeds,” Gordon and I said.  We turned to the sister.  “It doesn’t seem terribly fair that you have no consequences for losing the contest.  How do we decide if it can be followed through on?”

“The nice thing about maintaining the status that we do,” the sister said, “Is that when the scales are unbalanced, we’re invariably on top.”

“Existence is unfair, but it’s unfair in your favor?” Gordon and I asked.

“Exactly.  I have a team of doctors at my disposal.  The three of them can work on making my project a reality,” she said.  She gave me the same smug smile that she’d given her brother.  “I find it very telling that you jumped straight to finding objections and flaws in my design.  Are you not keen for my bidding game?”

“More like a game is more fun if there’s something at stake, my lady.  What if we said that if they couldn’t make it a reality, one of them would be executed at random?”

“Perfect,” she said.

She hadn’t hesitated a second.  Was there no loyalty to the doctors that maintained her, or was she an effective bluffer?

“It does become a charade, though,” Gordon and I said.  “A farce, to have twenty-four doctors submit their individual ideas, to be independently judged-”

“-And a long train journey to manage it,” she said, without missing a beat.  “Your reluctance is showing through, Sylvester.”

“That isn’t where I was going with my objection,” Gordon and I said.  It was so hard to avoid saying ‘we’ while still maintaining the independent schematic in my head.  Gordon was a machine of memories and ideas and impressions that required constant attention to maintain.

I paused, making use of the hanging thread of my statement to reorganize, to get everything straight, before Gordon and I said, “I’m saying that the doctors will intentionally fail.  They know full well that existence isn’t fair, as you just said, and they would throw the game rather than slight any of you.  A lot of work to tally their responses, when they won’t take your game seriously.”

“He does have a point,” Monte said.

“Oh, shush, dear brother,” the sister said, waving him off.

“The game only works with the seven of you as participants, or the twenty four doctors,” Gordon and I said.

We need them to favor the doctors, then take the joy out of the idea, focus on the work and execution of it.

“We’ll have the contest among us, then,” the sister said.

“Damn it,” Gordon said.  I kept my own mouth closed, my poker face intact.

The sister smiled.  “I just had my pick, so I think I get to choose who goes next…”

“There’s a way,” Jamie said, “I- Let me.”

“Your synergy with Sylvester is terrible,” Helen said.  “You work together as a pair only because you’re so different.”

“That was the other Jamie.”

“Do you remember Brechwell?  Do you remember how bad he was at emulating you?” Gordon asked.

“I remember,” Jamie said.  There was none of the new Jamie’s characteristic annoyance of having to reaffirm that fact.  It made me wonder if the new Jamie’s annoyance was fueled by the fact that his predecessor…

No, that was still too painful to dwell on.

Gordon ceded control.  Jamie stepped in.

I shifted my approach.

Not attack, not defense, nothing direct.  We’d gathered the materials.  We needed to draw on what we’d already established.  I already knew what we wanted to use.

Jamie and I patiently watched as the sister seemed to decide on the other girl as the next to take her turn.  The taller, blonde noblewoman, the only other girl in the group of seven.

The finger pointed, the sister enjoying her moment.  “Marcella, dear.”

“My lady,” Marcella said, curtsying in the aisle.

Patience, timing.  I leaned forward, knowing the movement would draw attention.  They were still wary of me sprinting for freedom.

Jamie and I spoke, and in it, I felt a moment of the playfulness we’d enjoyed, roughhousing, teasing each other.

Not a barb.  No fierce gripping of a knife, that made me feel pain while sharpening my focus in the moment.

Just a sad, dull ache.

“My lady Marcella,” we said.  “What’s your greatest fear?”

“I beg your pardon?” the sister asked, startled.

Beside her, Monte chuckled.

“Isn’t that the trick of the game?” Jamie and I asked.  “In devising horrific fates for others, you reach deep inside, and to recognize what others might find horrifying, you tap into what you yourself fear.  To win the game, you have to dig deeper into your mind, memories, and self.  In the doing, you reveal vulnerabilities.  Even when one wins, it’s a bittersweet victory.  That is, unless you trust your friends to keep confidence.”

Monte’s chuckle continued, picking up as I said that last part.

“I do believe you’re suggesting something unsavory about my character, now,” the sister said, to me.

Ah, this was tricky.  The diplomatic riposte.  I could say yes, and she would kill me for the insult, or I could say no, back down, and risk letting her recoup and continue forward.

Were I dancing with Gordon in the here and now, we might have said no, maintained our stance, as part of the conversation, and tried to steer things as it continued, so that that one sour note Jamie and I had seeded it with would recur, spoil things, and create divides we could use.

But I wasn’t.

Yes was an answer, so was no, but silence was the third option that remained at our disposal.


Let one second pass, confident, accusatory.

I’d expected Monte to take the bait.  He didn’t.

It was Leeds.

“Not to worry, Moth,” the blond noble said.  “Our collective lips are sealed.”

Joining his strength to mine, to bring down the Lady.

Moth, though, was a curious appellation.

Moth, Leeds, I thought.  Then, Monte?

Nicknames.  Place names.

No.  Mothmont.  The place was named after the people.

Members of the branch of the family that the school was named after.

Nothing we could use, but a detail to file away later.

Monte’s chuckle died.  “You walked yourself into that one, dear sister, with your made up punishment.  It would be like you, to fear being grotesque, huge, and good for nothing but-”

And,” Moth said, very pointedly, “It would be crass to imply any more.”

“I don’t think you’re going to find any more takers in your game,” Monte said.

The Lady Moth pouted, the expression very calculating.  “True.  I had my try of it.”

“Shall I have my try?” the Lord Leeds asked.

“No,” she replied.  Her affront was feigned as well.  “No, that wouldn’t be fitting.  We’ve toyed around, but at the end of the day, my dear brother is the highest ranking nobleborn on this train.”

The pause was a loaded one.

She was passing the lead back to Monte.  Not everyone would get their try.

I’d insulted her, and now Monte had no reason to play, no reason to tear me down strategically before finishing me off.

“My idea about the cloak, and going under the seat?” Evette murmured.

“Won’t work,” Gordon said, his voice soft.

Fire and frying pan, I thought.

The timing was good enough, and the situation dire enough to warrant the gamble.

The first part of the gamble was plain.  If our educated guess was correct.

“Unfortunately,” Jamie and I said, “You are not the highest power in play here, Lord Monte.”

The sheer audacity of what I’d said gave him momentary pause.

“We’re on our way to New Amsterdam for a meeting with the Lord Infante,” Jamie and I said, with confidence, our voices still ragged.

The sheer audacity of that bought me another moment of life.  Then Monte said what Jamie been worried about him saying, “The Lord Infante is not in New Amsterdam, fugitive, so that meeting is unlikely and impossible.”

My eyes and the eyes of every phantasmal Lamb in the train car turned his way.

“He is,” we said.  “And I’m sure he’ll thank you for delivering us securely to him.”

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82 thoughts on “Thicker than Water – 14.2

      • We’ve certainly seen noble’s doctors have a lot of power (relative to everyone except nobles), but it doesn’t seem like a job where you get time off. Or retirement. So you can exercise all the power you want while staying within 100 feet of your assigned noble until you eventually screw up (and if you’re a competent doctor, that screw up may be years down the line and due to age or illness, but it will happen some time).

        So yeah – I don’t quite get how it can be a high reward job when you never seem to have the chance to use any reward.

        • I’m trying to remember where it was established that being a noble’s doctor was that insanely risky.

          Unless the noble is insane like the Baron, I imagine the power dynamics are much more balanced. Doctors hold a great deal of power over the nobles–as they are the ones with the actual knowledge and ability to grant them biological enhancements. A noble must select a trustworthy and talented team of doctors, as those doctors have access to them at their most vulnerable times.

          Act too ruthless and you risk scaring off talented doctors, who end up working for your slightly nicer cousin. Refuse to give them benefits or time off? I’m sure they’d be happy to give you a lopsided smile at your uncle’s party before joining someone else’s team. As always, it’s just a game of politics.

          All the nobles here talk cavalierly about their doctor’s lives, because acting like it matters would be a sign of weakness. But I’m sure they spent a great deal of effort finding and vetting their doctors, and it would be a major loss to them to lose even one of them.

          It might be a high-risk job, but a doctor who is familiar with politics and etiquette isn’t going to die at the drop of a hat.

        • If I remember right, the Duke and his team of doctors had a fairly great relationship (as well as one can be between a noble and non-noble) since they made a pact with the Duke while he was under the knife to turn off his pain (against the Duke’s father’s wishes) and if the Duke didn’t turn them in, they would be the most loyal, dedicated, hard-working set of doctors he could ever ask for. And it obviously worked out since decades later they were still his doctors and the Duke was nigh undefeatable until Mauer came up with the noble killing rifles.

          Though since the Duke ended up incapacitated anyways, I’m sure they were punished for failing to do good enough work to prevent his removal.

          • Not quite. The deal with the Duke was that he would forgive them for turning BACK ON the pain, and not reveal that they’d turned it off to start with, contrary to his uncle’s expectations.

            Relevant only in that that pain gives us a glimpse into what made the Duke the Duke, and that his willingness to make the deal (and that the doctor who didn’t offer it was never heard from again) tells us about his character.

          • Actually, I am pretty sure that the Duke’s doctors were so loyal because they turned his pain back on. The Duke’s father had assumed that they had left the pain receptors on (or just implied that he had assumed it so that they would actually turn it on), and then the Doctor’s swore to the Duke that if he would forgive them for putting him through that pain they would be the most loyal servants possible.

            At least, I think that that is right.

            As for people wanting to be a noble’s doctor, you are also putting a whole lot of trust in their ability to choose. It is just as likely that a noble could stroll in to any Academy, find a talented young doctor, and just conscript them. The Duke nearly did so with Lillian way back when and he was one of the less crazed members of the aristocracy that we have seen.

    • Because when a noble is dependent on you, they don’t have the freedom to harm you, or to let other nobles harm you.

      Imagine if you’re a noble, and the doctor who designed and maintains your exoskeleton suddenly can’t or won’t any more. Anyone you get to replace this doctor won’t know the system as well and can’t maintain it to the same degree.

    • Because when a noble is dependent on you, they don’t have the freedom to harm you, or to let other nobles harm you.

      Imagine if you’re a noble, and the doctor who designed and maintains your exoskeleton suddenly can’t or won’t any more. Anyone you get to replace this doctor won’t know the system as well and can’t maintain it to the same degree.

    • People in some societies are more concerned with status and the fairytales in their brain than actual happiness or practicality. Happens in ours too.

  1. Interesting that the best and brightest scientists the Academies produce end up in a job with such a high fatality rate. I’d say it can’t be good for the progress of science in the Twigverse, but I suppose they’re going fast enough anyways.

  2. I loved this chapter. It had me on the edge of my seat the entire way through. Very little action and almost all done through dialogue, but there’s just so much tension in the scene. Sy transitioning between reckless and insolent Evette to confident and charming Gordon to thoughtful and patient Jamie was well done but makes me worry even more about his mental health. In the entire scene Sy is one verbal slip away from complete destruction. Nobles in Twig are portrayed so well – they’re not stupid, they’re smarter than you, they’re quicker than you and they’re smarter than you. They have such a potential for terrible violence. Sy’s not going to be winning any battle of the wits here and Sy’s entire thing is his wits.

    Lord Infante totally came out of nowhere though. I wonder if his name’s resemblance to ‘infant’ means he is doing something with children? Also the Mothmont reference is a Chekov’s gun if there ever was one.

    • Infante is a Spanish title for any of the children of the reigning monarch. So the Lord Infante would presumably be one of the highest ranked nobles below the Crown itself.

    • Sy met the Lord Infante just before killing the Baron. He let him walk away because he hates the Baron, but promised retribution on Lainie for her collaboration.

      Also, I agree with you about the great writing for the nobles. It’s all about signalling games.

      • Both the Duke and the Lord Infante both seemed to enjoy Sy’s games when they met him; both tacitly enabled his dance with the Baron for their own reasons. One can’t continue to be entertained by throwing a Sy-shaped spanner at lower-ranked relatives thanks to Mauer, but the other still can.

        Sy isn’t pulling this very dangerous card entirely at random, and this lie of his has a basis in truth. The Lord Infante encouraged (with a whole host of caveats and asterisks) further interaction if he succeeded in killing the Baron. He did… ergo, it might just tickle the bigger hornet to keep the entertainment going by actually backing the experiment in a little game with family (well, either backing Sy into a corner or up — whichever or both). 😛

      • Getting the Duke to ‘like’ him isn’t really outwitting the Duke. The Duke was always in complete control over everything in regards to Sylvester.

        Sy fucked up the Baron and his Sisters pretty hard but then again those five were kinda idiots The other nobles acknowledge this. The Baron’s an exception to the rule.

        • I get the impression that any noble who proves themselves incapable in the eyes of others gets the Baron’s treatment — others finding ways to get them deaded using cat’s paws. If you do die (or become brain-dead), you fail The Game.

          If Sy embarrasses this little swarm of relatives the wrong way, the higher-ranking ones will retaliate, sure… But, also start moves to downgrade them to the Baron’s position of social Coventry. If he embarrasses them the right way, he’ll get to be in an unenviable position as a usefully dangerous toy/ training device to keep around as long as he’s fun. And, the little swarm may all get Coventry, depending on the flair each individual exhibited in The Game.

          After all, they picked this round of The Game when they decided to play with him. If he does better than they bargained for, that’s on them, too. 😉

  3. It’s interesting that while he asks the other lambs for what to do, he hasn’t actually thought about what Sy would do. Considering he’s the social manipulator, shouldn’t his skill set lend itself to the situation more than the other Lambs’?

    • As Jamie mentions in the chapter: “He’s turning to us because he just had to face the hard reality that being Sylvester often doesn’t work out. He doesn’t want to be him, so…”

  4. A great chapter, very well written.
    Not sure if it’s because of how complicated conversations with nobles tend to be what with the amount of consideration that goes into every utterance, or if it’s because I’m a big dumb-dumb but I found this chapter a little bit hard to follow.

      • You left out the sensory torture techniques constantly being put on random shuffle. The projected images, dissonant “soundtrack”, the piped scents disguising or emphasising the presence of the toxin and the games with the thermometer and humidity levels. Some of which may wake the snakes, just for that little extra fun. 😉

  5. Sy’s playing a really dangerous game here, but 1) it’s Sy, how is this different from normal, and 2) it’s nobles, what choice does he have?

  6. I loved this chapter. No action, but only social banter like a return to Sy’s original speciality, with a lot of things from the other Lambs even if they aren’t there.

    It surprises me how nonchalantly they talk about their doctors, but so did it surprise Sy. I assume that it’s only an act, because you don’t want to anger the people that keep you alive. Because even if they are executed for messing you up, it won’t be of use if you’re dead then.

    • Also, it was a nice reminder what for horrible people the nobles are. Kinda makes me miss the Duke who both seemed an interesting character and a decent person, which is a big leap for the average friendliness of the nobility.

      • “Decent person” — I don’t think even the Duke would have gone quite that far in describing himself. XD More of a people-person, sure. But, not decent by any common definitions of the word in that context, no. 🙂

  7. Dear Wildbow, please kill all the nobles before you finish this. It won’t solve all the Twigverse’s problems, but it’ll help.

    And Sy flirting with one… Sorry Sy but I don’t think you’d be able to get out of it easily if she decides she wants you. I do however imagine somewhere Lillian and Jamie got a cold shiver.

    • See, thats one of the reasons why xianxia are so popular , along with the power trip, despite the fact that the average xianxia has worse writing than the average shonen (there are exceptions, mostly Er Gen’s works, but eh, nothing even close to Wilbow’s writing even in the best specimens currently available)

      They have tons of noble-like characters which they punish copiously. Its one of the things that never gets old, as long as you are good at making the character infuriating enough.

      Of course, said characters are much dumber than Twig’s nobles, even if xianxia nobles could erase Twig nobles with a finger (said power trip requires a power creep)

  8. I imagine the Lord Infante will be quite interested to see what Sy has in mind, particularly since the last time he knew Sy planned a meeting with a noble it was to kill him. That is, if he’s not offended by thinking Sy lied to a noble…

    Either way, I suspect once Infante hears about this he will want to meet him personally. I’m sort of hoping he decides to try and hire/recruit Sy to his cause. There are two ways we have seen Nobles killed- a specially made rifle, and a preteen boy with a grudge and few resources. In this world of biotech, which would a noble find more interesting and potentially useful?

  9. Honestly, the dialogue in this was incredible. So much tension within it, yet we were treated to the banter that we’ve been missing since OG Jamie and Gordon. It’s pretty great that even if a character dies, we can still interact with them in a way. Hell, Evette never existed, and I’m finding I like her as a character almost as much as Sy himself. It’s great to see how she fits in with the rest of the Lamb specters so easily.

    If the nobles didn’t know his name or his crimes, I wonder how they so easily recognized him as a fugitive in the first place. Was it a poster in Radham that was fresh in their minds, or did they get a tip somewhere?

    This seems like a great chance to learn more about the Crown structure in relation to the rest of the world. I hope we get more conversation between the nobles here, at least for another chapter or so, before we get off the train.

    • Well Lord Infante recognised Lanie from seeing her once when she was a baby so it probably wasn’t very hard for the nobles to recognise Sy.

    • They probably saw his wanted poster at one point. Actually, it would make sense if all nobles were urged to look at all bounty posters exceeding a certain amount, as it is their money being used to pay for these people (in their minds anyways)

      Nobles have altered minds to give them enhanced memory among other things. It makes sense, as they have extended lifespans, it would be better to remember it all.

      Lord infante remembered and recognized Elaine instantly, even though he literally glimpsed her once when she was a baby, and the Duke could clearly recall every detail of his uncle’s death at the hands of a primordial infection when he was a child up until he got shot in the head.

      So even if they saw the poster once a year ago, they would be able to recognize him and Shirley instantly.

  10. I think I’ve hit the breaking point. Despite liking most of the cast if Sy doesn’t get a good ending where he is safe then I don’t care if the twig world explodes destroying everyone else.

    • Don’t be sure it’s actually happy even if it looks happy. After all with Worm Jvyqobj riraghnyyl fnvq fbzrguvat nobhg Gnlybe orvat va chetngbel be n pbzn, naq bs pbhefr vs gung raqvat pbhyq or pbafvqrerq unccl, ovggrefjrrg, be onq sbe ure jnf uvtuyl qrongrq ng gur gvzr.

      One of these days we are going to summon an eldritch abomination with Rot13.

  11. Just random thoughts here but does anyone else find it weird that the story is essentially named after clones and yet Mary is the only clone character so far. Just food for thought as we get closer to Sy’s origins

    • Except… She’s not.
      Ashton is literally a twig from the tree of his predecessor. He embodies both the literal twig and the original klone words in this regard.

      Gordon is basically the practice of grafting twigs of other trees to make a superior tree taken to its extremes.

      And Jamie had his brain and parts of his spine literally cloned to make his brain tanks he uses for memory uploading and compressing.
      Not to mention that one can argue that new Jamie is genetically the same as old Jamie in every way, so either they are the same people, or they are not the same people but a duplicate or clone.

      The primordials that the priest picked up were clones, and Lara and Nora are literally clones of… Someone?

      Lastly, the facility that Emmett told Sylvester of. No doubt some of the kids there are being cloned. Hell, he may find some familiar faces there if he ever gets there in one piece

  12. My favorite thing in this chapter is how the cadence of Sy’s mental narrative changes as he switches which Lamb he’s channeling. It’s a nicely subtle writing effect, Wildbow.

    My second favorite thing is Helen’s suggestion that Sy charm the nobles. If Sy was bad at trying to be Jamie, how terrible would he be at being Helen !? *can’t stop laughing*

    • *looks at the Sy/Lillian S&M erotica chapter a few chapters ago*

      Sy would be pretty good at being Helen, I think. Social manipulation is what he does, and she’s designed to seduce and kill people.

    • I doubt they will. With that single name drop Sy has flipped the tables and put them in a horrible position. If they do decide to take him to infante they run the risk of battling him. Sy just named him as someone sy was traveling to see so it seems as if he is working with Infante. If they do take him to infante and thats the case then Infante would either have to implacate/recruit them or dispose of them. It’s not worth the risk as a noble unless you’re 100% sure that Sy is lying.

      • He admitted he killed the Baron. The nobles would know that he was murdered around the time of his wedding, a wedding that Infante attended. I was going to continue, but I found this.

        From 10.17

        “You’ll come with me,” he said. “You’ll work for me. Perhaps I’ll alter you. Elaine Dexter, as well. For working willingly beside someone like this, who would hurt a noble, I can’t allow you to return to your parents.”

        He thought about recruiting Sy from the start, and that was before he killed the Baron. Now that he has, Lord Infante knows he’s worth something.

        Anyway, the nobles in the train car know that Infante and Sy were in the same place at the same time, at the wedding. They easily could’ve made a deal, for all they know.

        They’re screwed. Kill him, risk the wrath of someone very close to the throne. Don’t kill him, be thrown deeper down the rabbit hole like you said. I feel like if Sy can follow through, he’s won.

        (On a side note, same 10.17, a bit before.

        And the young lady… about my age, and undoubtedly a noble, was leaner than her guardian and relative. Statuesque, with the man’s fey glittering eyes, yet with none of the apparent humor behind them. I wanted to despise her by default, to hate her, and I couldn’t find a flaw to pick at, to latch on to. Not overdone, but not so indistinct as to be lost amid all of the other worked beauties. Her features were soft, her almond eyes green and cold. Her costume, and I didn’t have a word for it otherwise, was black, half-dress and half-suit, with calf-length leather boots and a fine leather falconer’s glove on her right hand, though she had no bird with her. She stood with one hand on her hip, body askew, glove hanging at one side, and she made it look natural. Raven hair hung down one side of her head, exposing only the one ear, which had black jewels set into it.

        She looked like the sort of noble I might have wanted to be, had I been one. Whoever had decided on her aesthetic had made good choices, ones that I suspected made a great deal of sense, with attractiveness as a byproduct. I suspected it all flowed seamlessly, in a way that made me think of the artistry behind Helen. That design was almost enough to distract me from the situation. The situation was bad.

        I’m getting the same vibes I had with gung obtrlzna sebz Cnpg gung Oynxr erpehvgrq va gur Nolff arne gur raq. Gur bar gung Oynxr erpehvgrq gung qvfnccrnerq, gura fubjrq hc gb xabpx Oneongberz/Wbunaarf bss gur ohvyqvat. Anyone else?)

        • Very likely that she makes a return appearance but wildbow has gone into elaborate descriptions of characters that play very minor to practically nonexistent roles. A trait he can perform due to the medium being a web serial while if this was a book instead she would definitely have a supporting role. It’s pretty difficult picking up on the Wildbow cues because of the web serial format in my opinion. He isn’t constrained by a page count and thus can move in unique manners unlike 99% of authors.

        • What I’m thinking
          “Oh great Sy is flirting with a noble… See great work Jamie, Lillian now NEITHER of you get Sy.”

          More seriously what I find interesting is that Sy said they needed to use what they find most frightning to come up with the possible punishments. Moth came up with being turned into a brood mare. That raises interesting implications.

  13. Sy is going to become a noble by the end of this arc. Calling it now. He’s clearly capable of hanging with them socially, and with how malleable his mind is, he’ll be able to survive getting the brain surgery without going insane.

    • … Good luck surgically removing or altering Sy’s baselines of “Scamp”, “Rogue” and “Gambler”, any doctor who gets that unenviable task. 😛 A fudge might be possible: going for a “Prince and the Pauper” theme would be the safest bet to not utterly fail and get yourself Bonesawed by somebody else. :/

      Sy is both very plastic and surprisingly, stubbornly consistent, too. There are themes to him that he can’t get rid of, even when he wants to. They creep back. 😐

    • I like the idea of Sy saying, “Yeah, my brain’s pretty malleable,” and the nobles replying, “Ah, so we can physically reshape it then.” Cue nobles with their hands in his head, playing with brain Playdoh.

    • Seems unlikely but noble!Sy would be interesting to see. Or if he becomes a noble, he’s going to lose something significant in exchange.

  14. I like the juxtaposition between these last two arcs.

    In Black Sheep, Sylvester could be said to be the main focus seen through the lens of the new lambs, while in this arc, Sylvester has no agency and is merely the lens through which we observe the new main cast of old imaginary Lambs.

    What a delightful shift of perspective.

  15. I see another reference to the doctors doing something to Sy besides just Wyvern. It was said at the beginning that every project is meant to eventually evolve into something else… Is Sy’s mental gymnastics the sign of something happening physically to his brain/body?

  16. My father describes himself as being very good at knowing where the line is and then tap-dancing on it. He ain’t got nothing on Sy. I mean, wow. Refuge in audacity.

  17. I wonder how the Lord Infante is doing this time of year? Enjoying New Amsterdam I hope. Maybe he’ll be in a good enough mood to spare Sylvester.

    He has such a peculiar psychology. He hates those that lie to him and to his knowledge there’s no evidence Sy did. He said he’d kill the Duke and so it happened, he can’t exactly find….Lanie, I think, at the moment so he thinks she’s been punished too. Curiouser and curiouser. Almost distracts me from the black aching hole in my heart that was the last arc’s end.

    At least we got to see Sy being a gang boss for a few arcs. That was nice

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