The young lord Leeds sat across from me, his narrow sword laying across his lap. The other nobles were at the far end of the train car, talking among themselves.
Leeds was tall, but that wasn’t unusual. All of the nobles but the ‘Lady Moth’ were. His hair was immaculately slicked back, his skin lacked any sort of blemish, and he sat with such perfect stillness that I might have thought he had died on the spot.
That would have been quite the thing to deal with.
I shifted the position of my hand. Leeds’ hand moved almost in unison, as if there were strings attached to me, and any movement on my part made for an equal and matching reaction on his.
If I moved my hand in any way that put me in a better position to grab the sword, his hand moved closer to the handle.
No other part of him moved. No tells, no tricks.
The other Lambs sat around us, but he couldn’t see them.
“In practice,” Gordon observed, “this is working better than the discussion was.”
“Agreed,” Evette said. She was still standing on the seat behind Leeds, arm draped over the top of it, looking down at the rest of us. Her other arm dangled, touching Gordon’s hair.
Helen sat beside Gordon. Jamie sat beside me.
“Sylvester is good at a number of things,” Jamie said. I kept my mouth shut as he talked. “Action, acrobatics, fiddly things with his hands-”
Fiddly things? I thought.
He cracked a smile. “social manipulation, thinking fast, assessing and investigating a situation, consciously or subconsciously, making mental connections, problem solving, presentation, I could go on. He’s clever.”
“Too clever, sometimes,” Gordon said.
“Shh, be kind,” Helen said. “Sylvester is in a rough spot. Don’t kick him while he’s down.”
“He’s resilient,” Gordon said.
“Point is,” Jamie said, patiently, “Right now, he’s doing what he always does. He has the same capabilities, but they’re divided between us. There might be a small advantage if he needs to switch from one methodology to another quickly, but we’re in a bad place when he needs something like an aggressive approach-”
Jamie indicated Gordon.
“-With some mental connections while he’s at it,” Jamie finished, indicating himself.
“Or when he needs to lean on me,” Evette said. “We’ll be in a bad place then.”
“I think it’s best that we don’t put you front and center in Sy’s head,” Gordon said.
“Agreed,” Jamie said. Helen nodded.
“We’ll see,” Evette said. She turned, looking at the others at the other end of the train car, while my eyes remained on Leeds. “They’re figuring out what to do with us.”
“So are we,” Gordon observed. “What are we doing with us?”
Evette spoke, “Even if they finish that discussion by deciding we’re lying, they probably won’t jump straight to killing us.”
“Not much we can do if they do,” Gordon observed. “We broke their stride just as they were handing us back to Monte for him to kill. That was good. Are we counting on being able to slip away? With Shirley?”
“Shirley is a snarl,” Jamie said.
Marcella, the blonde noblelady, stepped out of the car, passing into the train car where the doctors were.
Gordon spoke, “I think we need to do something with Leeds. If we can put some distance between ourselves and the nobles here, we can tap into other resources.”
“I think we should wait,” Helen said. “Bide our time.”
“Really?” Gordon asked. “We’re going to argue this? They’re nobles. If we bide our time, there might not be any weak points or opportunities that pop up for us to exploit. We just end up getting closer and closer to a terminally bad situation.”
Helen twisted around to better look at Leeds. “I think there might not be any weak points or opportunities for us to exploit in the here and now.”
“Unless we create one,” Gordon said.
“Me?” Helen asked.
“You,” Gordon said. “If there’s no objection?”
“I’ll just wait my turn,” Evette said.
“You’re not getting a turn,” Gordon said. “Now be quiet.”
Jamie vacated the seat next to me. Helen collapsed into it.
I put the whole of my focus into her, letting the others become blurs in the background, vague sentiments and images.
Helen, as I brought her into sharper focus in my mind’s eye, demanded that I tax my imaginary senses. Helen was art in life. She was, in my estimation, more beautiful than half of the nobles present, just in how well she was put together, how easy she was to look at and how captivating she could be when she’d drawn in the eye. Even then, she had them beat, because I was pretty sure that most of these young, attractive nobles were leaning on the exotic clothes and context. Helen could look like a force of nature while wearing a potato sack.
She smelled good. The sensory inputs were important. I let my eyes close, and I tried to push my brain to create the smell of Helen. She could naturally produce a scent that other women strove for with chemicals and bottles, and then augmented it with something more artificial and mild.
Not as forced as Ashton, but attention had been given over to everything.
In training my senses to capture her essence, I pushed more of my thought processes into getting more out of the senses I did have. The taste in the air, of lingering sweat and humanity, and the taste and smell of the noble sitting across from me.
Helen was a paradox. The human brain had a part to it that reacted on instinct, that pushed for the most basic needs. Warmth, food, water, sex. There was a primal center, and for Helen, that primal center was front and center. Everything else was camouflage that let her draw nearer until she could take what it was she wanted.
She was driven by very simple wants and needs. But those wants and needs were characteristically things that were wanted and needed now. Society and civilization and social niceties kept us from snatching up all the food we could eat and stuffing our faces with them, from mashing our lips against the lips of each attractive person we saw.
But for Helen, it was different. That same process that made her need and want also made her very capable of holding back from partaking. The patience was built into her on the ground level.
As I constructed the illusion, trying to figure out how she would move and act in a more complex dynamic, I felt a blade touch my throat. It scraped skin as it moved slightly.
I opened my eyes at my own leisure.
Leeds was holding the sword.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Resting my eyes,” Helen and I said, lying easily. I continued putting the mental picture together.
“No,” he said. “I don’t think someone would be able to rest their eyes in your shoes.”
Control of expression, control of my body. Look at him, how he was looking at me, and decide.
No sooner did I decide that I didn’t need to put on any persona at all than I let my body and expression empty of all Sylvester. All of the pain, all of the will, all of the character.
“Careful,” I heard Gordon say, from a far away place, and he wasn’t talking about the sword or the noble.
It wasn’t a perfect emptying. Remnants remained. Wyvern let me bend my brain in the directions I needed it, and this wasn’t that difficult.
The next part, the key part, was to turn my brain to its tasks. I had to pick out the things I needed and wanted.
Food was secondary. None of the cake or cookies Shirley had been getting, hungry as I was.
Safety. I needed safety. Physical safety. Escape.
I needed mental safety. My focus turned to the nobles at the other end of the car, who were staring at me and the sword at my throat. It extended beyond that, to the train car next door. To Shirley. Without her, I was liable to unravel.
The key, I assumed, was to savor. I was here, what I wanted was there. The space between was tantalizing. The time between was. So long as I wanted it badly enough that I could taste it, the present me and the future me were so close as to be indistinguishable, and there was no contradiction in being a creature of want and being a patient creature.
And wanting something badly enough to taste it was not a stretch when I was already recreating distinct smells and sensations in my mind’s eye.
The others were talking in stern tones. I could catch the cadence of it, in the background. There were two sides to this argument. The more aggressive side was winning.
“You’re the third in the hierarchy,” Helen and I said.
“You’re the one with the sword to his throat,” Leeds told me. “I would address that first.”
Helen and I looked down at the gleaming length of the blade.
We looked up to meet his eyes. My eyes were cold, dispassionate. I was Helen without the mask on.
Gut feeling told me that the noble would respect this more than the act.
“I’m going to assume you found a way to give yourself a dose of one drug or another, based on the things I’m seeing,” Leeds said. “Narrowed pupil, change in breathing.”
My breathing was slower. I was calmer.
Monte approached, traveling down half the aisle before asking, “Is there a problem?”
“I don’t think so,” Leeds said. “He may have found a way to dose himself with something without moving his hands or feet.”
“Wouldn’t surprise me,” Monte said. “Ask if you need help. We’re just waiting on Marcella.”
Leeds didn’t say or do a thing to express just how little he wanted to do that. I still knew.
Establish a personal relationship.
There was no good, no bad. Reach out.
I let a slow smile creep over my otherwise blank face.
Leeds kept his face so under control that his eye didn’t even flicker a hair one way or the other.
“I’m not worried,” Helen and I said. “I’ve let the genie out of the bottle. I’ve mentioned the Infante.”
“You bolted when you first saw us,” Leeds said. “Now you’re claiming you’re safe. My peers will be saying the same thing.”
I adjusted, letting an eyebrow twitch. I started the movement of my mouth, then forced it to stop. Not even a twitch, there, but there would be a hint in the way my muscles shifted, a faint change in the way the light hit my cheek.
He would almost certainly read it as a touch of humor. As if I’d found what he said funny.
It was like Helen’s reaching hand, looking to close the distance, to get a fingerhold, which could snag on clothing, and allow for the grasp.
Only in this case, I needed to inject enough small doubts to give myself an avenue out.
My eye went back to the door Marcella had gone through, I visualized Shirley on the other side.
“Look at me,” Leeds said.
The amount of time it took to look at him mattered. I could have snapped my eyes to his, and I could have taken long seconds to do it, and both could have been confident and intimidating in their own ways.
I took the middle road, but I didn’t lock eye contact. I gave him the once over, looking at vest, shirt, pants, shoes, at the handle of the sword, then his face.
It would be nice to be a girl. I could try feminine wiles.
I’d had that thought before. That conversation, with Jamie. It had been stirred up by my interactions with him, the memory part of my crystallized impression of him, locked in a different part of my brain than the one that handled the rest of my memories.
I didn’t have feminine wiles. I was just a little too old to play the child. I was a ‘young man’, a ‘lad’, a ‘boy’, but never a ‘boy’ in the tone that was reserved for the small, more as an epithet.
While I was trying to figure out how to get a hook in him and create an opening, I picked up on something with instinct. It might have been prey instinct, except I didn’t feel very prey at the moment.
He was thinking about killing me.
I could follow his thought process all the way through. Kill me, cut my throat. Fuck the Infante, fuck his peers. Just be done with the problem. He would say I tried to run.
I turned my eyes toward the others, and again, I used the smallest of expressions, a faint lowering of the eyebrows, drawing them together, a pinching together of the lips.
Believe that they’re coming.
I saw the faint movement of the sword. It wasn’t the attack. It was Leeds holding himself back.
This little trick would only work until he was sure he didn’t hear them, that they weren’t looking or doing something. He would realize I was up to something, that I was successfully manipulating him, and I would die.
The door of the train car opened. A terrified Shirley was brought through, past the five other nobles, with Marcella and a doctor right behind her.
I saw Marcella hand Monte a large piece of folded paper. I recognized the image on the upper half. It was my portrait. The wanted poster. They must have had it in the staff car.
I couldn’t dwell on that. My timing had been about right, stalling Leeds. Leeds couldn’t kill me now, especially now that the others were paying attention to me.
“My lord,” Shirley said. Fear made her voice almost nonexistent. She strained to speak louder and more clearly, and her voice only broke. “My lord, my lady.”
She tried to curtsy to each one while still moving forward quickly enough to appease the crowd.
It was a mercy of sorts when she was able to move ahead of the nobles, eyes like dinner plates, as she walked down the aisle to me.
“My lord,” she said, still sounding deathly afraid. She gave Leeds a curtsy. She didn’t curtsy for me. “Sylvester.”
“Sit,” Monte said. He’d finished reading over the note at the bottom end of the wanted poster and handed the paper to one of the nobles I hadn’t placed yet.
Leeds moved the sword away from my throat, raising it up and out of the way, to give Shirley room to pass to her seat.
The other six nobles were stepping out of the aisle, allowing the doctor to come through. He stopped a distance away, beside Monte. One of his personal attendants, it seemed.
Shirley sat next to me. She very carefully avoided looking at me.
“Poor thing,” Helen murmured.
I looked at Shirley, I reached out, took her hand in mine, and squeezed it.
I was disconnected enough internally that I had to frame what I was trying to express.
I had very low expectations that the reassurance would be warranted, but the more confident Shirley was, the less likely we were to have a disaster.
“You guessed the lord Infante was in New Amsterdam,” Monte said. “But that’s not a difficult guess to make, if sufficiently educated. But the idea of you being here on an errand to see the lord Infante doesn’t hold up.”
“He tried to run, earlier,” Leeds said.
Shirley’s hand moved under mine. A reaction.
“Why did you try to run?” Monte asked.
“I’m not permitted to say,” Helen and I said.
“Really, now,” Marcella said. She was standing next to the Lady Moth. “We’re nobles. If we ask, you say.”
I could see the other Lambs more distinctly, in the background. Jamie wanted in. He had something to say.
Gordon seized Jamie’s wrist and shook his head.
We couldn’t afford to give up the act.
Helen and I turned back to humor, instead. That look as if, if we had far less self control, we would be laughing at this situation. I wanted to project power, to draw on the Infante’s, and put these people on their back foot.
I saw Monte and Leeds exchange a glance. They’d come to a conclusion, and now there was doubt.
“Do we take Helen out?” Jamie asked. He wanted in so badly.
“I don’t know,” Gordon said. “We have an opening, but-”
The window had passed. There wasn’t room to discuss, to switch patterns, when things were so time sensitive.
Monte moved his hand, indicating me.
The doctor they’d brought out of the last train car approached. He paused. “It’s an experiment?”
“It is,” Monte said, without looking away from me.
“Will it lash out?”
“It could,” Monte said. He stared me down. “If it does, it dies.”
Helen and I kept my expression still and maintained a look that lacked any concern at all.
The doctor reached into his coat and withdrew a set of calipers. He touched them to the bridge of my nose, then pinched. He moved them to the corner of my jaw, where the flesh was soft, and pinched, noting the measurements each time.
The third measurement was of the jaw bone itself.
Wait, I’d had this examination before.
I reached for the memory and floundered.
Helen vacated the seat. Jamie rushed into it.
The machinery of my mind began clunking, shifting directions here and there, a wet, biological sort of clock taking on its own dimensions.
The Attendant Doctor continued his work, the calipers pinching into the top and then the underside of my wrist. The pinch was brutal enough that I thought it would puncture through and bite into my artery there. The complex mechanical calipers had fluid and hydraulics as part of the design, so there was some give, but the doctor wasn’t forgiving in the least.
I could remember a session with Lillian giving me this same examination. Some different body parts here and there.
“Heh,” Jamie made a noise. It wasn’t a wholly happy noise. There was something behind it, much like how the recollection of Lillian was bittersweet.
Not like that, I thought. The fixation in the moment and the so-far-useless eye for openings was giving way to a slower, more careful way at looking at the bigger picture.
She had told me I needed to put on more weight. Just after going for the thigh.
There had been a few before that. He might not go for the thigh. I forgot how exactly it went. Was it better to be firmer or weaker?
I couldn’t go weaker, but if I could throw off his numbers…
I very carefully tensed my leg, well in advance of him reaching for it. I relaxed it, then tensed it, just a little harder than before.
He poked at my stomach, then moved to the thigh with the calipers.
He frowned slightly as he recorded the number.
“I also haven’t eaten today,” I commented.
“Quiet,” Monte said.
The doctor moved over to Shirley. I didn’t miss the slight pause as he looked her over.
I doubted Shirley did either. Still, she submitted to his measurements.
“We’ll entertain you,” Monte said. “And we’ll assume you are indeed in service to the Infante. We’ll deliver you to him. Tranquilized. He’ll warrant a higher dose, Attendant. He’s resistant to drugs and poisons, according to that poster. He has a lifetime of tolerances built up from being a lab rat, injected with some very noxious chemicals.”
“I’ll account for that,” the Attendant said. “But he’s underweight, and the lack of food in his stomach does matter.”
“I’ll trust your expertise, Attendant,” Monte said.
Damn it, I thought.
The seven nobles stared me down in relative silence as the doctor finished measuring Shirley. He reached into a deep pocket, retrieved a syringe, and then slammed it into my chest.
I gasped, from surprise and the pain.
I could feel the contents spread out, numbing.
“There was something I was going to say,” Jamie said. “Provide some doubt.”
I drew in a deep breath, exhaled.
I wobbled a bit. Part of it was my recognition that I was under the influence and exaggerating a touch.
“I think…” Jamie said, very slowly, “We can talk as we go under. Try to remember how you smirked, with Helen, but don’t hold back… not now, but soon.”
The doctor didn’t slam the needle into Shirley’s chest. He was actually gentle, finding a vein in the arm. Her dose was half the size of mine.
“What I’ve been piecing together, what we’ve been piecing together,” Jamie spoke to me, “Is that these nobles are very small. They identify by their families. The Mothmonts. By places. Leeds. But they sure as hell aren’t major players in those families or places. Monte is the one with the highest rank and he’s only a ‘lord’. They’re small.”
Shirley squeezed my hand, looking for reassurance.
“It’ll be okay, Shirley,” Jamie and I spoke. As if our tongue was looser than it was, maintaining confidence. None of Helen’s act, but a person succumbing to drugs was a sloppy enough picture that it worked on its own.
Jamie spoke, launching off from the tail end of that sentence, while my lips remained shut. “But they’re operating in a cluster. The way they talked about the train stops, about having to return home, and the timing, they had places to be, a schedule. They were on an errand. Maybe for the lord Infante, and maybe it was big, maybe it was a mid-level errand and they just don’t feel the need to brag about it, but they aren’t carrying it with them. So why are they in a group of seven?”
I could feel the drugs taking hold. I didn’t feel like I was passing out, but I had to pretend to be.
“They’re not just small nobles. They’re brand new nobles. They’ve probably been raised by their families in houses like Richmond House was for the Baron. This might be some of their first exposure to the world, their first time being expected to act.”
“They’re insecure,” Gordon observed. “It would have been a nice realization to have in the beginning. We could have anticipated some of the violence they directed our way, and we could have used that. It could have been the in we needed.”
“But,” Evette said, from the seats to our far right, on the other side of the aisle, “We didn’t, we couldn’t. No use dwelling on it. Sylvester’s broken. We’ll make do.”
“You’re not going to say you want to be in control?” Gordon asked.
“No,” Evette said. She grinned. “Well, yes. But not now. There isn’t a lot we can do now, and Jamie’s talking us through that.”
“Right,” Helen said. “Shh.”
There were a long few seconds of silence. My body was heavy with the drug.
Jamie spoke, and in the haze of the tranquilizer, his voice was very similar to the voice in my head, “They’re insecure nobles, only exposed to the proper world in the last few years, and we want to unsettle them. So, let’s say…”
“He said,” Jamie and I spoke, mumbling, “The Mothmonts don’t face the firing squad yet. For now he wants you alive and he wants me alive, so…”
Monte lunged forward, shouldering his attendant doctor aside. He grabbed me by the collar, pressing a blade to skin.
“…We’re okay for now. Not to worry, my lord,” Jamie and I said.
I slumped over, letting all of the muscles in my upper body go slack. It wasn’t hard to manage. They wanted to, with the tranquilizer coursing through me.
It was just on the edge of knocking me out. I wondered if tensing my leg had done anything, or if my tolerance was higher than he had estimated. Possibly both.
My head lolled, and Monte shook me.
There was a long pause.
“Thank you Attendant,” lord Monte said. “I know this business is menial for a man of your talents. See to it that they don’t die on the journey, keep quiet and don’t speculate on what you heard, and I’ll end your rotation in my service six months early. You’ll have a year and six months to use as you see fit before I see you again.”
“You’re too kind, my lord” the Attendant spoke. I could tell from the way he was speaking that he was bowing deeply. “I make it routine habit to put all matters outside of science outside my head at the first opportunity. You can count on my silence.”
“Good. Then leave us,” Monte said.
The man’s footsteps retreated from the car. The door at the end opened and then closed.
“What he said was trickery, lord Monte,” Leeds said.
“Trickery is very possible,” one of the others said.
“The firing squad?” The Lady Moth asked.
I had to pull myself back from the brink of actually passing out.. Their voices had almost lulled me into letting my defenses down.
“Nobles have been getting shot. The rebellion leader with the grotesque arm. Ex-soldier. He made the guns that took off half of the Duke of Francis’ head, I can’t imagine what else they would be referencing,” Monte said.
“Trickery, lord Monte,” Leeds stressed.
Marcella spoke in that grating voice of hers, over-enunciating here and there and injecting an accent into her words, “His woman here didn’t know anything about where he was going or who he was seeing. No contradictions. He saw his friends in West Corinth and was upset after. They’re hunting him.”
There are advantages to not telling your friends what you’re up to, I thought.
Then I thought about how some thinking in that vein had spoiled so many things so very recently, and I felt less victorious.
Moth spoke, “What he just said, pretending to be working for the Infante, being expected, and now this? It implies collusion between the rebellion soldier with the guns and the lord Infante.”
“What you just suggested is treason enough to get us all executed, my Lady,” Leeds said. “The lord Infante primarily operates in the capacity of magistrate and judge. Particularly over other nobles. He wouldn’t be shy about using the guillotine.”
“He said yet,” Monte said. “We don’t face the firing squad yet.”
“He didn’t say it was you two, either,” Leeds said. “Be rational, my lord.”
Monte’s voice was as strained as a noble’s voice ever was. “A difficult thing to do, given the stakes. I’ve been floated over the ocean to come to this place, which no self-respecting noble besides the Duke bothered with, we’ve been going to and fro trying to placate the elements of the Academy who are getting too cocky for their own good. Now we return to New Amsterdam amid noise of rebellion and people making monsters in their basements and bathtubs, a fugitive with a story, and possible conspiracy involving a man who may very well wear the Crown in my lifetime, and I’m being asked to be rational?”
“The fact is, my lord,” Leeds said, very calmly, “If such a conspiracy exists, then there is little to nothing we can do about it. If he wants us dead, then we die. If he has a greater plan that he has not deigned to share with us, one that involves a supposed rebel leader who is killing nobles, then we are to smile, bow, and accept that this is our lot.”
“No,” Monte said, the word short. “You would not be saying the same thing if it was you.”
“I would. I promise you this, my lord. But there is no decision we could make here that would change the course of events. We cannot kill him. We cannot keep him secret and keep him to ourselves. From the moment we get off this train, eyes will be on us. If we hesitate to bring the fugitive to the Lord Infante, then he will wonder why. We’re being tested on our loyalty and ability as it is. We can’t fail in something like this.”
“We ‘ave to bring him, my lord,” Marcella said. “And this girl, hm?”
“Hm,” Monte said.
“If you might have guns to your heads in the future, my lord, my lady, we can’t give the lord Infante the excuse to use the guillotine in the here and now instead.”
“Yes,” Monte said. “Yes, dear sister?”
“Yes,” the Lady Moth said. She didn’t sound happy about it.
“And,” Leeds said, pointedly, “We shall keep our eyes open, our hearts loyal to the Crown, and we shall be guarded.”
The conversation moved on to other things. I started to lose my ability to track it.
“That will have to do,” Jamie said.
“Shh,” Helen said. “Sleep, Sylvester. You won’t be able to stay awake the entire time. Let it happen now.”
I wondered if the real Helen would suggest that, or if my tired and abused mind was telling me lies because it wanted so badly to sleep. All the same, I let myself succumb to the tranquilizer, hoping I would be awake by the time we arrived in New Amsterdam.