Thicker than Water – 14.4

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“-more permanent measure than what we’re doing now,” Duncan said.

“I don’t agree,” Gordon said.

“Of course you wouldn’t,” Duncan said, clearly exasperated.  “But, as I’ve been trying to outline for the past while-”

“This isn’t working,” Gordon said.  “There are clear weaknesses, it’s only going to break down further, and while we’re doing this, we aren’t resolving the problem, right?  That’s what you were going to say?  Again?”

“Yes.  And there’s the part where this problem may be actively getting worse as he leans on us as a crutch.  We all caught just how bad it got when we put Helen in charge.”

“Yes,” Gordon said.  “Nobody’s saying this is good or perfect.  But I’m loyal to Sy.”

“Of course you are.”

“Dunc, if you try that patronizing tone with me one more time, I will extinguish you, damage to Sy notwithstanding.”

“Be nice, Gordon,” Lillian said.

“You’re all too nice to him.  Far too nice, considering what he’s suggesting.”

“Don’t take me being quiet as me agreeing with him or tolerating him,” Jamie said, “I can’t stand him any more than Sy can.  He’s been improving, but this?  I can’t agree with this.  And I think I’m very well placed to comment on this.”

“The fact is,” Duncan said-

“Duncan,” Gordon interrupted, voice firm.  “Stop repeating yourself.  Say something different, if you’re going to say anything at all.”

“Is that your way of telling me to shut up?”

“My polite way,” Gordon said.

“Fine.  I’ll say something new.  Remember the rule?  I wasn’t there for it, but Lillian or Mary would have probably told me.  One Lamb can’t sacrifice themselves for another Lamb.  Because that’s not fair.  But one Lamb can sacrifice themselves for two or more Lambs, if the situation is dire.”

“We’re not Lambs, silly,” Helen said.  “We’re aspects of Sy, wrapped up in figments of memory.”

“And,” Jamie said, “Even if we were real, which we’re not, the rule doesn’t allow for one of the two to make the call for sacrifice on behalf of another.  If Sylvester and Mary’s lives were at stake, it would never be okay for Sylvester to decide to sacrifice me for the two of them.  I would, if there were absolutely no way out of the situation, of course, as would most of us-”

“I saw how you looked at me when you said that last bit,” Duncan said.

“Yes.  That was intentional.  I would, but it would never be okay for someone to decide to sacrifice me for their sake and the sake of someone else.”

“Okay, then,” Duncan said.  “Then I’ll rephrase.  Sylvester is self destructing.  He- Don’t get out of your seat, Gordon.  I’m not repeating myself.  I’m saying that we’re speeding haphazardly toward a situation where we all get extinguished, Sylvester included.  So maybe, maybe, it’s time to consider a more permanent solution than doing what we’re doing.”

“I half agree with you,” Evette said.  She paused.  “More than half agree.”

“You aren’t the only one, I don’t think,” Duncan said.  “Going by the eye contact I’ve had from some people, new recruits and veteran Lamb alike, I’d guess almost half of the group agree with me or are torn, and are not wanting to rock the boat by joining their voices to mine, or to yours.”

“He’s awake, you know,” Ashton said.  “He has been for two minutes, pretending to be asleep, while he gets over the effects of the tranquilizer.”

I opened my eyes.

I watched as the Lambs stirred, each one settling down, as if they’d been slouching or lying down or standing in the aisle before, but now were finding seats, ready to get down to business.  Lillian and the new Jamie, who had turned around to face the discussion, settled into their seats with their backs to me.

Duncan met my eyes for a moment, then turned to stare out the window, saying something under his breath to Ashton.

“I hope you’re rested,” Gordon said.

I blinked a few times, getting a sense of the surroundings.  We had stopped, and Leeds was once again sitting across from me, with the Lady Moth in the seat next to me, keeping me from the aisle.  The window to my left was sealed.

Jamie, Gordon, and Helen occupied the empty seats nearest me.  Evette stood on the seat behind Leeds, peering over top of it.  The window outside suggested we had arrived in New Amsterdam.  I could see the tall buildings, but from my seat, I couldn’t crane my head to see how tall they really were.

I took stock of them, the emotions, the clear distress that followed from the debate with Duncan, then looked across the aisle at Duncan once again.

“Sy,” Gordon warned.

Not that I was in a position to do anything.  My body was sluggish, and the noble was fast.  The sword point touched the hollow of my collarbone.

“You’ve somehow managed to seem concerned about something that isn’t us,” Lord Leeds said.

Jamie was already in the seat next to me.  He and I took a moment to adjust, then offered Leeds a small smile by way of response.

As I moved my head, I felt something strange.  I swallowed hard, testing.

“We fixed your throat,” he said.  “Our doctors did.”

I didn’t let my expression change any.

He didn’t react, didn’t offer me any tell.  He simply moved the sword, giving me three feather-light taps on the underside of my chin with the blade.  Bidding me to stand.

I did.

“Marcella,” Moth said, as she rose from her seat, “Watch this one.”

Indicating Shirley.

Shit flows downhill, I thought.

“Keep up,” Leeds said, as we approached the door of the train car.

The scene was akin to a dark mirror.  The nobles gathered at the end of one train car, in the covered space between cars, and in the next car, where the doctors were.  Several doctors filed through, filling the space between nobles, who spaced themselves out a fair amount.

There was a surprising degree of positioning, and the dark mirror was one that put the nobles in stark contrast to the Lambs.  Everything was deliberate, where the positioning was so fluid with the Lambs.

For us, it had always been something we naturally did.  Once we got to know each other and things became second nature, we would take up positions as the situation warranted, as comfort levels and skills in different fields dictated.

For the nobles, it felt mechanical, even as they did something very similar.  Everyone had a place they belonged, ordered by hierarchy.  They were, as far as I was aware, more similar to one another than individually specialized, and that informed how they moved, where they stood, and the order they fell into.

There were other parts.  The Lambs had never been tall.  Even when Gordon had died, he’d been approaching his later teens, he inevitably would have been tall when full grown, and he’d only been just a little shorter than the average man at that point.  That was another contrast.

The Lambs blended in.  These nobles did not.  They never would.

With a noble on either side of me, Leeds with his sword point touching me between the shoulder blades, we walked down the ramp that had been attached to the train, down to the train platform, and took our first steps into New Amsterdam.  Doctors quickly opened up tall umbrellas and stood beside their nobles, shielding them from the rain.  I was left with no umbrellas to shelter me, and the downpour soaked me through in a matter of seconds.

I turned my eyes skyward and let the water wash over me.  So many hours in the train without washing had left me dry, restless, and itchy.  In this, I felt more like myself.  The fact that it was a city of perpetual rain but not Radham made it feel more like familiar ground than I might have in Radham itself.

It was eerie to be looking up at the sky and to see the buildings spearing up in my peripheral vision.  I had seen buildings that were ten stories tall, but they were unusual things.  Brechwell had had towers, which might have been that height at their highest.  Here, it seemed like one in five buildings were about that tall, and another one in five were taller.

All of the individual spires that reached up in this manner made me think of the tines of an actual crown.  With the rain pounding down and the spires reaching upward, I felt an immense pressure, and there was something that felt like home in that, too.

The details captivated.  Everywhere I looked, I could see things.  Academy created life crawled on the outside of buildings, trimming branches and cleaning windows.  I could see buildings that were fascinating, because of the styles of architecture that I’d never seen before, because of the styles and building features that had no rightful place in the Crown Jewel of the Crown States.  Buildings that looked like they had been half demolished, and had churches rise proud out of the ruined stumps.

Churches.  I’d been warned, I’d heard tales, and seeing that anachorism in all its stone and stained glass still startled me.

I saw buildings that had biological reinforcement, which was hardly anything new, but the reinforcement was meat.  Spires of meat and stone that breathed.  Spires with bridges connecting them.  Castle features grew here and there like tumors on proud buildings, haphazardly thrown on.  I could see what I suspected were individual academies at various points in the cityscape, nearly hidden by the forest of tall buildings.

Everywhere I looked, there was crowd, but it was a messy, dark, jagged sort of crowd, the edges made ragged by the addition of countless works and experiments.

Everything about it surged, was growing, was alive, striving to break new ground.

I’d seen this before.  I’d seen the aftermath of that, too.  Drawing the analogy and then trying to wrap my head around this took my breath away.

It felt like home and it felt like an alien world, and that might have been because it had everything.

I took it all in, water running over me, and there was a stillness and a silence that made me feel even more disconnected from this city.

I looked closer, and I saw the Lambs.  Some were close.  Gordon, Helen, Evette, and Jamie.  Others were further away.

All were silent, all stared at me.

And as I realized why, as I looked for Lillian and Jamie and saw them standing beside one another, their backs to me, I lost what I’d nearly reclaimed.  The loss might have been intentional.  Self-sabotage.

I’d very nearly snapped out of the fugue that had held me for the duration of the train journey.

Jamie found his place beside me.  My focus turned to picking out the pertinent details, to assessing the situation.  Escape wasn’t possible, so I didn’t try, not yet.  Jamie was the right one to have at my side in this moment.

The doctors and the remainder of the nobles filed out.  A large stitched held Shirley in its arms.  As if we were a military regiment, everyone with their preordained places, Monte near the lead, with two doctors on each side of him, a row five people wide, two stitched carrying bags, then another row, with Moth and her three doctors, and so on, with me toward the middle, Marcella at the tail end with the overlarge stitched and Shirley.

We marched on, the sword periodically pricking me to keep me moving, and I took in all of the details I could.  There were so many.  The faces in the crowd as they bowed and curtsied en masse, when the nobles could only see the tops and backs of their heads, but I was short enough to see the faces beneath, staring, stricken with awe and fear.

People as far as a city block away moved to clear a path and bend the knee.

Ahead of me, I saw a noble peering over the crowd with a predatory eye.  He hadn’t spoken during the journey, except to add his voice to the discussion of what to do with me, out of earshot.  His hair was long and dark and flowed out from beneath a brimmed hat.  He wore a vest made out of what looked like spun gold cloth, which matched the band on his hat brim.

He walked at a leisurely pace, and he didn’t slow as he reached out.  He touched the face of someone in the crowd.  With three long fingers touching one side of a young woman’s chin, he drew her forward.  She stumbled but he didn’t let his fingers fall away.  She dropped her bag, leaving it behind, and she quickened her pace to match the casual walking speed of a man two feet taller than she was, though she was a grown woman of twenty or so.

She was beautiful, her hair pitch black, kept dry by a fashionable hat that was as wide as my arm was long.  The hand held her chin up and out, so it was raised, her back straight, her footsteps quick, as if she was being held off the ground and she had to stretch to touch the ground and propel herself forward.  Not that she was being held up.  Because I could see her in profile, I could see that her eyes were large, dark and very expressive.  The expression evidenced three different sorts of horror and terror.

If I had to guess, she had been slow to curtsy, and the noble, with a keen eye for beauty, had picked her out in advance.

It was as if those three fingertips had the same ability to find purchase as Helen’s did.  One touch was all it took, and the target was ensnared.  But the power being used here wasn’t physical power or perseverance.  It was purely one of influence and standing.

Fingers as long as my hand was from heel of the palm to fingertip reached out, and drew pins out of the young woman’s hat.  Freed where it had been pinned to her hair, the hat fell free, drifted my way, and was trampled under the feet of doctors.  The hat no longer shielded her from the rain, and water ran down her face and the neck exposed by her ‘up’ hairstyle, not so different from the Moth’s.

The fingers pulled out more pins, and the hair came free, falling out of its careful arrangement.

Finished with that, the noble settled a hand across one of her shoulders, guiding her forward.

She cast one quick glance back, over her shoulder, toward the family she’d just been pulled from, and I couldn’t see her face because of her hair and the angle.

Then she looked back over the other shoulder, into the thick of the procession, and her eye fell on me.

In the downpour, without her hat, her hair now falling free, hair stuck to her face, and her makeup ran, a streak of bold blues and black tracing down from her eyes to her chin.

It was a desperate look.  I almost saw hope in it, and that was a sad, sad thing.  She’d looked back at family, and had turned away, no doubt with the realization that there was no hope to be found there.  Her family couldn’t petition, nobody would call out and rescue her, no solace would be found.

But then she’d looked at me, and I was an unknown.  We feared the unknown because fear dwelt in the gaps, but she’d reached a point where her world had been turned upside-down in an instant, and in a world that was only fear and silent terror, the unknown potentially held saviors, just as it once potentially held monsters.

Even if the potential savior took the appearance of a rain-drenched boy four or five years her junior who walked with a sword pressed to his back.

We ignored the quarantine tents.  By the time we had put the station and the surrounding space behind us and reached the road, all traffic had stopped and parked.  People on both sides of the street bowed.

The nobles had brought a patch of stillness to this city that seemed so much like a pot that had boiled over.

A line of carriages extended down one side of the street, parked, and the crowd and other parked vehicles kept me from seeing where the line started and ended.

Six people climbed into each carriage.  With so many nobles and so many doctors, the stitched, Shirley, me, and the dark-eyed woman, the carriages filled up faster than seemed reasonable.

Every third carriage or so pulled out onto the road and started on its way with no passengers at all.

“Guards at the nearby buildings.  If they’re trying to maintain control over this city, then they’ve established this as a point to protect.  It’s likely impossible to get into any of the nearby buildings without getting past squadrons of armed men and countless checks,” Gordon observed.

“They established a routine,” Helen observed.  “This trick with the carriages is something usual for them.”

Helen speaking made me think about food, which made my stomach gurgle.

Nobody commented.

The noble in gold, the woman with the dark eyes, two Academy doctors, Leeds and I climbed into a single carriage.  I sat between Leeds and the noble in gold, facing the other three.

“You seem to be my designated jailor, my lord,” Jamie and I observed, to Leeds.

“I’ll gladly be your designated executioner,” he said.  “Quiet.”

We fell quiet.

Sitting one seat to the left and across from us, the woman with the dark eyes stared at her feet.  Tears ran down her cheeks.

“What’s your name?” the noble in gold asked, his voice soft.  The deeper speech sounds had a warm burr to them, rough in a way that evoked images of someone older than he was, or similar to the voices of those from regions of Crown Territory that had once spoken more guttural languages.  I had little doubt, hearing it, that it was a burr that had been designed, trained.

“M-mine, my lord?”


“Therese, my lord.”

“Therese.  Good.  Are you of high birth, Therese?  A respected family line?” the noble asked.

“My lord, my father is a banker.  He works hard, he earns a good living, and he left me wanting for nothing, but he did so by working as hard as he did.”

“Not of a respected line, then, no.”

“No, my lord, but we routinely socialize with those who are.”

He stared at her, intent, and she was diminished in the process, like a flower might crumple and wilt as a flame drew close.

I could tell that she was doing her utmost to avoid sobbing or sheer hysteria.

“I will make you into an aristocrat,” the noble decided.

“My lord?  I don’t understand.”

“You’ll receive enough of a sum that you’ll never have to work again, and your children and your children’s children will be cared for solely on the interest that this sum generates.  You’ll need servants.  A manor.  Do you prefer older buildings or newer ones?”

“I don’t understand, my- my lords, I don’t know what’s happening-”

Her emotions were on the verge of spilling over.  She’d found a way to resign herself to her fate, and keep the emotions more or less restrained, but now that this was being offered to her, it looked very much like she might lose her mind.

“Miss Therese,” Jamie and I said, careful to address her as we might a young aristocrat.  Leeds’ sword moved closer to my throat.  We continued, acknowledging the warning and proceeding with care.  “I would recommend you play along.”

I’d nearly said ‘we’.

“Play?” she asked.  She looked at me, stunned.

Then, as if a belated thought process finished, she seemed to realize I had her best interests at heart.  She wasn’t adrift, she wasn’t isolated.  Her hope wasn’t ill-founded.

“I prefer older buildings, my lord,” she said.

“We’ll find you one that costs what someone like your father wouldn’t make in a lifetime.  The staff I provide you will counsel and follow your every whim in decorating the place.  You’ll need three charity projects at a minimum, to discuss with other aristocratic women of your standing,” the noble said.

“Yes, my lord,” she said.  Her eyes flicked back to me.

“What interests you?  Think of one, quick.  Or I shall think you’re dull.”

“You do not want him to think you’re dull,” Leeds spoke.  Following so soon after the behatted noble’s pronouncement, it was a one-two punch, something to keep her off balance.

A test of more than just quickness of the mind.

“My lord?” she said, and she stopped.  For a long instant, I thought she would stumble.  Then I saw a light in her eyes.  “The welfare of clones, my lord?”

“That is one I have never heard of before,” he said.  He smiled, his voice still warm as he instructed her, “Tell me of it.”

“My friend commented on it once, and it stuck with me,” she said.  She still looked bewildered, but talking on this topic seemed to center her.  “Clones are grown and raised to perform menial work.  Stitching carpets and clothing in factories where they sit in row and column with others like them.  The law doesn’t protect them, but says that they are not actually human, because they are not of woman born.”

“The law, in this instance, favors the corporations, which fund the city, which funds the law, you see,” the noble said.  “That sounds like a wonderful pursuit.  If you paint it as something that troubles children or child-like things, you could romanticize it.  In fact, I would see little trouble in giving you my backing for this task.  You could achieve real change, a footnote in history, but, even so, that isn’t to be understated.”

“Yes, my lord.  I would… be honored.  I still don’t understand.”

Beside me, Jamie sighed heavily.

I remained still.  The grip of the nobles was too strong.  Jamie and I working together couldn’t see any gaps, couldn’t make out any chances, weaknesses, or opportunities.

The forecast the Lambs had made in deciding whether to try for escape on the train or later seemed accurate.  These nobles weren’t about to make a silly mistake that would give me a chance to slip away.  No.

No, except maybe this farce with ‘Miss’ Therese.  Maybe there was a way there.

I wanted to believe that the city was so large, chaotic, and crowded, that if I slipped away, I could disappear into it.

I harbored doubts, all the same.  Jamie and I waited, watched, and listened carefully.

“Were you fond of horses as a child?”

“I was, my lord.  But New Amsterdam doesn’t allow much room for horses that don’t pull carriages.  Even then, it almost mandates the use of stitched ones.”

“Very true.  But I’m thinking of an estate with a stable.  We’ll get you started with three horses of a beautiful pedigree, racers, if that’s alright?  Fast as the wind, beautiful, healthy.”

“My lord, I fear it’s too much.”

As she said it, I could see the glimmer of fear on her face.  As if the more he said, the less likely it all was to happen.

“Not at all, not at all,” the noble dismissed her.  He waved her off.  “I pride myself on my generosity, you see.  Your beauty seems a rare and natural sort.  That should be rewarded with wealth and power.  I dream of putting Wallace’s law to work, of putting the beautiful together.  Survival of the powerful, but in this era, it is beauty and brilliance that offer real power, once circumstance is stripped away, yes?”

Hesitantly, she nodded.  “Yes, my lord.  I think I see.”

“Your family will be brought to you.  I saw your tearful look back at them.  The love was evident, you for them and them for you.  They’ll be treated nearly as kindly as you will be.  Yes?”

“Yes.  Thank you, my lord,” she said.  There were tears down her cheeks, now.  I didn’t judge them as tears of sadness, tears of fear, or tears of happiness.  Not one emotion alone.  The emotional cup was simply running over.

“You’ll need clothes.  I’ll have the finest tailor in the city whip a wardrobe up.  Etiquette lessons, so you don’t have to worry about any embarrassing faux pas or what fork to use.  Though you did say your father had raised you in good company.”

“Yes, my lord,” she said, smiling, still with tears streaming down her eyes.  “I would welcome refreshers, should you suggest them, but I think I could comport myself, given the need.”

“And there will be need.  But that’s good,” the noble said.  “That’s good.  We can dispense with that.  I have a good eye, yes?  I can pick them out, just like that.”

He was talking to Leeds.

“You can, Lord Bonn.”

Lord Bonn raised a finger, as if something had struck him.  “Medical care.  A doctor to look after you.  So that beauty remains fresh.  I know just the doctor.  Doctor Bath, your colleague, her name, the one from the Academy in Hanover State?  She was talented, nearly good enough to be my doctor, when I was looking for a replacement for Joseph.”

“You’re thinking of Betty, my lord,” the noble’s doctor said.

“Betty.  Just right.  Miss Therese, we’ll enlist Betty.  Head to toe care.  Tear just about everything out.  All of the fiddly organs, vitals, eyes, eardrum, inner ear, tongue, vocal chords.  We’ll get you sorted out.  Engineered replacements.  We can put Betty to task phoning and mailing around to see what the various academies have concocted.  If they have any inventive replacements for the heart or the uterus.  We’ll leave your skin intact, of course, and your brain.  Beauty and brains, so very important, yes?  We’ll find a way to do it all without leaving a blemish.”

The tears had come to a stop in the midst of the monologue.  Her mouth worked, but her voice didn’t.

“Your family will be with you every day up until you decide on a husband for yourself, I’ll have to insist on that, but it would be unfair to ask Betty to divide her attentions.  You and you alone will get to be special, as the matriach of a new aristocratic family in one of the proudest and most distinguished cities on this planet.”

She hunched forward, staring down at the floor of the carriage, leaning heavily on her knees.  I saw her rock a bit.  I met Jamie’s eyes briefly.

“Theresa,” Jamie and I said.

Manners, fugitive.  You’re addressing an aristocrat,” Lord Bonn said.

We thought that final word would be the breaking point.  It wasn’t.  She was trying so dearly to hold it together.

“I would like to hold your hair back, if I may?” Jamie and I asked.

There was no response at first.  Then a faint nod.

Leeds moved the sword out of my way as I leaned forward and to my left in my seat, reaching out and over.  My hands combed through her hair, gathering it up and pulling it out of the way.

She brought her hands to her mouth.  They couldn’t block what came any more than an arrangement of planks could bar a flood.  They tried, but what didn’t come out of the mouth came out of one nostril, and then she gave up.

The cup of emotion had run over again, but they were heavier, uglier emotions.  Nothing so clear as tears.

“I am so very fond of my dolls,” the Lord Bonn said, ignoring the snorts and coughing from his ‘doll’.

“I know, Lord Bonn,” Leeds replied.

I reached for a pocket, and a hand seized my wrist, hard.  Lord Bonn’s.

“Handkerchief,” Jamie and I said.

He held my wrist firm and searched my pocket himself.  He withdrew the handkerchief and offered it to me.

We dabbed at her nose, then one corner of her mouth.

“It would be a mercy to kill her here and now,” Evette said.

I couldn’t see her, the carriage was too crowded for the Lambs proper to fit within, but I heard her voice, and I heard the sentiment.

“Consequences be damned?” Jamie asked.  “We would die.”

“It might well be worth it,” she said.

I dabbed.  We dabbed.  The worst of it had been wiped away, but our ministration was more to offer comfort and caring than to clean, at this stage.

“I have to ask,” Jamie said, “Are you suggesting this because you care?  Stressing that you’ve never evidenced real compassion before…”

“I can’t grow?”

“Or are you suggesting,” Jamie asked, firm, “Because you want to throw us heedlessly into something reckless, something that will get Sylvester hurt or killed?”

“Ah!  You got me, clear as day, transfixed through the heart, I’m foiled!”

“Be serious.  This is serious,” Jamie said.

Evette appeared, wedged between Therese and one of the doctors, leaning forward to match Jamie’s position, where Jamie sat between me and Leeds.  She’d aged down to match Jamie.

“Doing nothing,” she said, “Waiting, and biding our time, it’s not going to get us out of this.  At the very least, give up the seat.”

“To you?”

“To anyone.”

“There’s no escape,” Jamie said  “Not from this.  Not from this many nobles.  The situation we’re going into, we need to face it armed with as much information as we can.  So what we’re going to do is we’re going to sit, we’re going to watch, listen, and gather what we can so we’re equipped to act if and when there’s a moment.”

“And if there isn’t?”

The arguing of the two overlapped with what Bonn was saying to Leeds, “…color code my dolls.  I was thinking blue, perhaps, with the black hair, but then I think of her passion, the clones that need rights and salvation.  There is so much we could do with that.  I’ll have to get out a book of flowers, and find out if there’s anything that inspires me.”

“Perhaps,” Leeds said.  He was only entertaining his peer at this point, not truly listening.

I closed my eyes, letting everything wash over me.

The sound was one of a snapping branch, the whoosh of an aborted breath, then a violent skittering sound.

All conversation stopped.  Eyes turned to the object that rolled across the floor.

A dense metal center, with spines of metal extending out in all directions.  Fine wire extended between each spine.  Altogether, it looked like the upper half of an umbrella.

The carriage came to a stop.  I heard screams outside.

Then, in short succession, two more splintering sounds.  These were regular bullets, powerful ones capable of punching past a handspan’s width of wood and still flying true enough for the bullets to embed in the floor or opposite door of the carriage.

“No,” Bonn said.

As the next barrage opened, that deep-thinking, pattern-seeking part of my brain that was currently reaching out for Jamie kept count.  I wondered if each volley would be twice as numerous as the last.  But as bullets punched into the carriage, and I tracked the sound, they added up well past four, up to six, then seven.  Two or three more struck, ambiguous in how they came at once, so the part of my brain that was keeping count tried to count the sounds, and lost track of the numbers.

Bonn threw his head to the left, violently, cracking it against the metal-reinforced doorframe.  Not intentionally, I realized.  He’d been struck, a bullet to the head.  Ruining brains and beauty both in an instant.

The bullets came from both sides.  There was no running, no escaping.  Getting low to take cover would have been mad, because the bullets were coming down at diagonals.  A doctor caught one of the expanding bullets, which had already partially opened as it plunged through the outside of the wagon, with the bladed metal sinking into his thigh before opening the rest of the way.

Jamie and I watched as Therese jumped and flinched.  She had already reached the breaking point, and this was too much.

As the hail of bullets struck at the carriage, half of the bullets getting lost in the deep wood of the carriage exterior, we calmly reached out and placed my hands over Therese’s ears.

It did nothing for the feeling of the impacts, but we saw her shut her eyes, we felt her hands press over my hands, adding her strength to mine as if she could make us press hard enough to shut out all of the noise.

An expanding bullet grazed me and opened late.

The bullets had stopped coming from the right side of the carriage.  Leeds noticed a moment after we did.  He looked at me, then reached for the door, hauling it open, stepping outside and disappearing from sight.  His doctors were right behind him.

We waited, watching, noticed a pause of sorts in the barrage, and then shifted my hands away from Therese’s ears.  We took her hand, and dragged her behind me.  She was bigger and stronger than me, but she came willingly, looking back only to stare at the body of the Lord Bonn.  We left that dark, enclosed space of the carriage, and stepped out onto the street, our backs pressed to the side of the carriage for cover.

Panic.  A crowd fled.  Authorities approached.  Doctors were out and trying to give care.  One caught a bullet as Jamie and I watched.

This wasn’t the entire convoy.  It was one segment.  Five carriages, black and otherwise nondescript, but built sturdy.  We’d been targeted, and we’d been targeted by people who knew what they were doing.

“Therese,” I said.

She looked at me.  One of her hands was clasped to her upper arm, which was bleeding badly.  A bullet had gone through and through.

We bent over, picked up one of the expanding bullets, and used it to saw at the fabric of her sleeve.

“You’re going to run.  Go find your family.  Get your father.  Leave the city.  If he works at a bank, it might be a good idea to embezzle funds.  Gather as much as you can, get everyone you want to see again, bring them and run.  Cut all ties to this life.  You have been given a second chance.”

We’d removed the sleeve and reduced it to cloth strips.  We packed up and bound her wound as best as we were able.  My experience from Tynewear was coming in handy.  My hands knew how to do this.

“Come with me,” she said.  “They called you a fugitive.”

I thought of Shirley.

“They’ll kill her out of spite,” Gordon said.  “If she wasn’t killed in the barrage.”

“I agree,” Evette said.  “It’s how they operate.”

“I can’t help but notice she’s recommending the plan, again, that brings the highest chance of you getting murdered,” Jamie said.

“Without Shirley, I don’t think Sy will last very long,” Helen said, her voice soft, nearly drowned out.  I didn’t know where she was.

The rate of shots slowed to a near stop.  I peeked around the back of the carriage.

Like a living organism, the city had produced countermeasures to that which threatened it.  They moved like wolves might, as pack animals, with loping, lunging movements, strength, and ferocity, but they did it along the sides of buildings, headless things that were simply four spindly limbs with webbings of meat and muscle connecting them.  Jamie and I counted twenty.

An automatic, pre-prepared response to the snipers.

“Can’t,” Jamie and I said.  “We- I have someone else to save.”

She hugged her arms to her body.  I saw her close her eyes, and imagined she was summoning up the courage to bolt.

“Thank you,” Therese said.  “Thank you for your gentleness, in such a trying time.”

I felt a kneejerk reaction.  I wanted to reject it, clearly, without question.  To spit at that kindness, somehow.  It was an old feeling, nostalgic in a bad way.

I was reminded of Lacey.  I thought of how I had reacted when she’d been the one to show gentleness.

Now I was in that role.

I swallowed hard, and, grasping, I blamed Jamie.  It was him who had taken the action, who had noticed and held her hair and offered the handkerchief, who had told her to escape.

“Thank you,” Jamie and I said, though if I’d been able to let him use my lips without owning any of it, I would have.  “You should go.  Run.”

I injected enough force into that last word that it gave her the impetus to act.  She ran.

The Lambs were so scattered.  It was hard to track them all.  I could look places, see the dying horse, with Abby kneeling next to it.  Emmett, standing atop a wagon, staring in the direction of the shooters.  I saw Mary, taking note of all the guns.

Jamie was right next to me, but in the chaos- I couldn’t leverage him.

I looked for Gordon, instead.  For Helen.

Gordon was standing guard near Leeds, watching the noble.

Leeds had been shot.  He’d dropped to one knee by the nose of the next carriage over.  An expanding bullet.  It had torn into his hip, burrowing into the hollow of his pelvic bone.  He was working methodically to extract it.

As he saw my approach, he reached for his sword.

“The Infante is expecting us,” I said.  I didn’t bother correcting ‘us’ to ‘me’.  “This is really very inconvenient, my lord.”

He looked at me curiously, and in his pain and agony, his expression betrayed more than it had in all our prior discussion.  Confoundment.

The word was Jamie’s suggestion.  But it was Gordon who I tapped into, as I saw that weakness.

“Get my doctors, then,” Leeds told me.

Out of pain, or perhaps concern for how close the barbs of the expanding bullet were to something vital, Leeds looked down.

We looked left, looked right, assessed the situation.  That done, Gordon and I lunged forward, kicking with all of our strength.

The core of his body weakened by the injury, the noble didn’t quite have what he needed to stay upright.  He sprawled, falling to one side, his hand embedded in his wound, forcing him to catch himself with one elbow.

“Brat!” he spat the word.  He reached for his sword with his other hand.

A bullet caught him at the base of the skull, expanding on impact, doing horrific damage in the process.  His lips peeled back as tooth, tongue, and mangled flesh unfolded in front of his mouth, in the midst of a violent and very thick spray of blood.

Gordon and I didn’t worry about staying under cover or the possibility of incoming fire.  We looked in the direction the shot had come from, and saw it being overrun by the wall-crawling pincer wolves, a pack of them plunging into a single window to attack what lay within.

Whoever it was, they’d waited, taken their time, and made their shot count.

“Is that a noble sacrifice?” Gordon asked.  He looked down at the ruined body, and shot me a mean smirk.

“Something like that,” I said, mumbling.

I checked the carriage, then skipped the next, because it was the carriage we’d been in.  I didn’t worry about getting shot.  The shooters weren’t being indiscriminate anymore.  The ones who were still there, if there were any, were doing what Leeds’ killer had done, waiting and making sure, because they knew full well what price they were paying.

I checked the third carriage, and found doctors huddled inside.  Two were holding a carriage door that had torn free up against the wall, as an added barrier.

“Would be nice if there was a way to set fire to the carriage and keep them from getting out,” Gordon observed.  “Or something in that vein.”

Would be nice, I thought.

I left the group behind.

The fourth carriage.

Marcella was there, with one of the huge stitched.  The other had been shot.  Another noble I couldn’t name was lying on the ground, dead.

Gordon and I ignored her, checking inside.


She grabbed me by one shoulder, hauling me around.  She pressed a very pretty little pistol against my forehead.

Gordon and I didn’t flinch, and we spoke with confidence.  “The Infante is expecting us.  He won’t brook excuses.”

It’s the only way to reunite with Shirley.

“I actually almost believe you,” Marcella said.  She double checked over her shoulder, then led me away.

There were no more shots, nobody who had lasted this long and positioned themselves to put a bullet in her back.  The attack had concluded.  Three nobles dead out of four, for our little caravan.

“Let’s go,” she told us.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

67 thoughts on “Thicker than Water – 14.4

  1. How fun! I was disappointed thinking that we weren’t going to see the meeting with the Infante but luckily (or unluckily depending on how this goes) it seems like that meeting is going to still happen.

  2. So, Sylvester and a noble girl fleeing a bunch of assassins, no doubt winding up in the grimy underbelly of New York. How many chapters do you guys reckon it’ll take for Sy to wind up seducing her into joining him?

  3. I don’t get the thing with Therese? Were the Nobles implying a threat or is being indebted to a Noble just that scary.

    Like yea, they said they were going to modify her but thats kind of normal in the twigverse?

    • He wanted a doll; he found one. Other messages were no doubt there, but reminding Sy he’s naught but an ant was secondary to the all-important doll collection.

      Also, living hell is living hell… >_<

    • One of the Nobles called her a ‘doll’. The implication is that as soon as Therese bores Lord Boon or slips up socially she’ll be disposed.

    • I don’t think even a life of absolute luxury could make it worth it to live in the absolute constant terror that at the slightest whim of a noble you might not only lose it all, but undergo sadistic torture.

      Also, having all of your organs pulled out and replaced doesn’t sound like fun, and it’s also possible that what Bonn meant was that he would make her an actual doll, incapable of moving by herself.

        • It is painful, but the Noble doesn’t necessarily feel the pain. If you remember the Duke’s operation, he spent the first half of the operation feeling no pain. Then his father came by, with a speech about feeling the pain of the masses for the last time, and the doctors fixed it so that he did feel pain.

    • They were going to pull her apart and put her back together again in the most painful way possible. It was all just a way to entrap her into being a torture victim.

      • Well it wouldn’t necessarily be painful as evidenced by the dukes flashback. What’s horrifying about this is that the noble just decided that her life and the lives of her family would completely change and that they would constantly be under the close scrutiny of a sadistic murderer.

    • You ever hear the phrase “Be careful what you wish for?” Yeah it’s sort of like that in a fucked up Monkey’s Paw sort of manner.

  4. Nobles may have been killed, but the typo thread survives!

    hat. he wore a
    ~hat. He wore a (also needs a double space)

    a leisurely pace
    ~Double space

    pot that had was boiling over
    ~pot that was boiling over

    my dolls. I was
    ~Triple space

    jamie and I counted
    ~Jamie and I counted

    process. his lips peeled
    ~process. His lips peeld

    • I do need I’ll have to get out a book of flowers,

      I do think I’ll have to get out a book of flowers,

      that seemed so much like a pot that had was boiling over.

      that seemed so much like a pot that had been boiling over.
      Or perhaps: that seemed so much like a pot that was boiling over.

    • I could see buildings that were fascinating, because of the styles of architecture that I’d never see before, because of the styles and building features that had no rightful place in the Crown Jewel of the Crown States.

      The nobles had brought a patch of stillness to this city that seemed so much like a pot that had was boiling over.
      -pot that was
      -that had seemed

  5. Wow, wasn’t expecting the noble killer guns! I guess it makes sense though, Sy needed someone to shake up the box. I’m so curious about what’s going to happen when he shifts to Evette mode, I feel that’s going to mark the true beginning of the end.

    • Either the Nobles are underestimating the rebellion or they have an ace in the hole.

      Because the Crown keeps getting the rug pulled from under them.

      • Yeah, Nobles aren’t really doing much in response to the guns, besides creatures that are only useful after the fact.

        Granted, we haven’t seen a Noble in combat since the Twins, so who knows. Maybe lesser Nobles are just ill-equipped.

      • Or maybe Sy’s lie was more on the mark than we thought. Certainly some of the Nobles would be taking advantage of the situation to deal with rivals or those that could become troublesome.

        And it’s not like the nobles are invincible. They are flesh and blood. Sure heavily augemented by the medical technology of the setting, but it has it’s limits. They can only make the skull so durable, or put in so many redundencies. You hit something with enough kinetic energy, it will give. In this case it sounds like the current generation of guns are capable of punching through quite a bit of solid material, and expanding to make real big holes at the same time.

        • Put a little apathy there too. The Crown isn’t too interested in this side of the lake, so far as the Continentals are concerned.

          And maybe a traitor or two. If you told me someone got forcibly made into a noble or something that’d be near them and they decided to play the long game and spy on the nobles, I’d believe Fray probably already has a network of them.

          Or, you know, the doctors. Them too. Or maybe some of the nobles got sick in the head or bored that they’ve gone psycho and decided not even their own kind is above it all.

          Oh, and thanks Mauer.

          • Hell, the crown back home might have decided that the nobles across the pond have been getting a bit uppity and incompetent.

  6. Seeing the chapter beginning with Duncan speaking, I thought we were back with the real lambs, as I had completely forgotten that Sy had made a mental construct of him. What is he even good for?

    • Pretty sure he was suggesting they amalgamate themselves.

      He’s the “unpopular opinions” side of Sy, I think. His impulse to rationally consider even choices he dislikes.

    • I guess mental Duncan is supposed to be a dissenting voice of reason, a role that would normally go to Jaime 2.0 or Lillian but they aren’t talking to Sy.

    • Hello, my name is Duncan and I’m Sylvester’s self-loathing.
      You’re going to see me more often than he’d want until he forgets some of the recent events

  7. Ammount of tears shed for the nobles: Zero. Still got one left with Sy though, and a Shirley to save.

    And anyone else really worried about the imaginary Lambs discussion at the start?

    • When your own mental constructs plan a mutiny its rarely a good sign. You know, Sy is taking his breakups really really badly. He should just play sad music and eat a few tubs of ice cream but nooooo. He has to go develop dissociative identity disorder. Dammit sy.

      • Whatever Sy has is much, much weirder than DID. As far as I’m aware the different personas of people with DID don’t talk to each other.

        • It varies. Not all sufferers have total blackouts, and part of the therapy is determining how to communicate and coordinate between the personas. There’s no singular presentation of dissociation.

    • I actually liked the nobles in some way, even if not in a friendly way. Their low rank and fear of the Lord Infante humanized them much more than any other noble before and made them interesting to watch.

      • Course then we have a noble pick a pretty girl off the street, get her to tell him all her hopes and dreams, and then he tells her how he’ll make her an aristocrat, and have her turned into a living doll so she’ll stay beautiful forever. That was not a nice thing, the way he’d do it. He’d crush her hopes and twist her dreams and make her existence a living hell. He’d spend a fortune. To hurt someone for no real reason. So he can. Maybe he had to worry about his own head, but the nobles are truly twisted.

        Actually out of them Moth is the one I found the closest to sympathetic. Maybe it’s because she was described as being the least modified, the closest to human. Or maybe it’s because when she came up with a punishment drawn from her worst fear it was to be turned into a broodmother, and that carries some interesting subtext for me.

        Shit even the world nobles from One Piece have had a few genuinly sympathetic and decent people amongst them.

    • They certainly have gotten twisted into a horrifying form of believing the nobility are better, and have the right to do whatever they feel like to anyone below them. Absolute power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutly.

  8. Evette confirmed for the self destructive part of Sy. Sy confirmed for slowly realizing that being kind is important. Lord Bonn confirmed for massive douche bag. Me confirmed for very much enjoying Sy rapidly losing his mind and steadily giving less shits about hiding it.

  9. Three dead nobles? Know what I call that?

    A good start.

    Wonder what they put in Sy’s throat? Well, plenty of folks around to see to that.

    Odds on Marcella surviving this whole mess? I give it 50% right now.

    • Heh. Let’s see what kind of virtual reality can Sy create here.

      What part of virtual reality was constructed and percieved by lesser nobles:

      – Infante is second in power only to the king.
      – Infante owns fanatical squad of sniper assasins who are quite capable of killing nobles.
      – Infante orders a group of lesser young nobles to enter his domain.
      – Lesser nobles weren’t told yet of connection between Infante and his sniper-tools.
      – They met Infante’s agent (Sy) on a train. Agent seemed to be not that keen on traveling with nobles. Agent was resilent enough not to spill enough information but tidbits that he revealed seemed a bit.. conserning. It seems he knows an order of execution for his captors and reasons for tohse. But why was he running away? Why was Infante keeping a squad of noble-killers around him?
      – On the road back 3 of 4 nobles were assasinated by Infante’s snipers.

      Now young nobles must come to some sort of conclusion – what is Infante’s goals here?
      And with current information I see only 1-2 logical explanations they can come to ^ ^

      This is becoming 3-doctors level of fun ^ ^

  10. I think this is Mauer (or possibly Fray) intentionally helping Sy out. You know that he (she or they) have seen the wanted posters, and have at least theories as to what it means. And Sy not in service to he Crown is not an enemy, possibly an ally, and at least an element in play that can be leveraged to Mauer’s or Fray’s ends.

    So when the intel comes in that you’ve got a bunch of nobles with an undersized kid they’re treating like Hannibal Lechter, Mauer’s gotta know that’s Sy… if he’s captured, freeing him is a good move, and killin a few nobles in the process is just gravy.

    Except, though, how pissed is someone gonna be when the report comes in: “we got the nobles holding him, but then he just ran from carriage to carriage until he got recaptured.”

    • If Fray or Mauer, both now know Sy well enough to not jump to conclusions too quickly — Mr Chaos Incarnate is tricksome. Sy being “recaptured” by a single, isolated, relatively inexperienced noble? Equals Sy able to chaos-up that noble’s life in interesting ways which may require working out how badly he borked them (and/or visa versa)… and, whether this can be used.😛

  11. Did anyone else find therese’s mentioning of clones interesting? Especially comparing them to children. .. so far the name twig dosent make much sense, so I wonder…

    • Now that you mention it…

      Although, to be honest, I still don’t understand why Worm was called “Worm”, even after reading it. So, I’m not expecting the title “Twig” to make sense to me.

      • I still don’t understand why Worm was called “Worm”

        Grab your ROT13. Let’s go.

        Nf n abha:
        – ybat, guva vairegroengr (fbzr bs gurz ner cnenfvgvp, fbzr bs gurz srrq ba pbecfrf).
        – yneiny sbez orsber haqretbvat zrgnzbecubfvf.
        – n ungrq, qrfcvpnoyr crefba.
        – n xvaq bs frys-ercyvpngvat, hfhnyyl qrfgehpgvir pbzchgre ivehf.
        Nf n ireo:
        – gb jevttyr guebhtu fbzrguvat fvahbhfyl.
        – gb vasvygengr vafvqvbhfyl.
        – gb vafvahngr qrivbhfyl.
        Uryy, rira gur VG npebalz svgf: Jevgr Bapr, Ernq Znal.

        If you can’t see it… reread everything ?

        • OK, that does seem pretty descriptive. As a Wildbow fan, I don’t know why I expected the title to be something immediately understandable, instead of multi-layered.

    • I liked how clones aren’t just an isolated thing in the world, like Percy being the only one to make them. Having them created for slave labor is an interesting point, and I wonder if it will be revisited.

  12. I echo what I commented a little while ago for the last chapter; bittersweet-nostalgic personal memories, as well as memories of Umineko no Naku Koro ni which resonated in a similar way.

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