The carriages pulled into an enclosed space, and the light that was filtering in through the windows faded.
This was another protected space. An area of the city the nobles had carved out, where raids like the one they had just weathered wouldn’t be possible. Guards, more thorough countermeasures, and fortifications would abound.
Climbing out of the carriage, I was surprised by the surroundings. Calling the space a stable or a garage felt wrong. The ceiling arched, and there was space enough for twenty carriages and their stitched horses, with a wide path that a small parade could have passed down, running through the middle. Said path was paved with stones, and rose up in a series of stairs that led into the building proper. To the left and right of the stairs were arches, with stairs leading down into an unlit space.
But the reinforcement of living flesh was prominent here. The walls had flesh-like growths, complete with circulatory systems, fatty tissue, and something respiratory. They kept time, with one pulse a second, for the parts that pulsed, but they also breathed, expanding over five seconds, then contracting. Whatever it was, it also served to hold the stones of the walls together. Artificial tubes as large around as my leg ran into spaces, feeding other fluids into the wall, and large arrangements of wires and metal rigging seemed to be set into the flesh, running down to the individual spaces where the stitched horses were.
Jamie and I looked back at the carriage we’d just left, and we could see how the metal rigging was being connected to the horse by stitched with heavy, insulted gloves.
“I like this place,” Helen said, admiring the walls.
“Agreed,” Evette said.
“Focus on the nobles, all of you,” Gordon urged, his voice quiet.
“There’s no hurry,” Jamie said. “Let them mourn. They won’t be saying anything for a little while yet. We might as well assess our options and escape routes in the meantime.”
“There could be clues you’re missing while we’re focused on a very neat station,” Gordon said.
Station worked, as a word to describe the space.
The doctors had all piled into the third most intact carriage. Now they were administrating stitched in handling the care of the three bodies they’d had collected before we departed.
The nobles, with Marcella joining them, were standing on the other side of the path that divided the station. Shirley was with them.
“People saw,” Gordon said. “In the heart of the city, people saw nobles die. The magnitude of that… even if a hundred of Mauer’s soldiers died to pull it off? I could see them saying it was worth it, for the sheer damage they just caused.”
Marcella didn’t explain. The other nobles didn’t ask. The four of them watched, expressions as still as stone, as the three bodies were placed on stretchers, the stitched carrying them. Doctors stayed by their dead nobles as the stretchers were carried out to Monte, Moth, the other noble, and Marcella.
The four nobles looked down at the bodies.
Jamie was right. There was silence, and nobody talked, nobody moved.
Some of the doctors turned their heads. They dropped to their knees, and the nobles in front of us did so a moment later. Jamie and I took their cue and set one knee on the ground.
“There goes our chance to get away,” Gordon observed.
“There was never going to be one,” Jamie said. “The moment we failed to get through the window and jump from the train, there was never going to be any getting away.”
“Unless we’d used the ambush to abandon Shirley,” Helen said. “Which we can’t.”
“That’s taking Duncan’s path,” Gordon said. “We destroy Sy, and it skews things in a bad way when it comes to the rest of us. I might have a role, but I’m imagining a scene where we’re left with Helen in full-on bloodlust, Evette, Duncan, and maybe Mary in play. I’d be so busy managing that nightmare I wouldn’t ever get a say.”
“We need Shirley,” Jamie said.
“He needs Shirley,” Helen said.
Shirley looked so scared. She was kneeling, trying to bow lower than the Lady Moth without being prostrate.
Shirley had her gaps in education, but she knew how to act around nobles. I wondered if her madam had ever trained the members of the house in the nuances of how to act around nobles, knowing that Tynewear might one day play host to them.
A bird took to the air above us. That added to what I was able to make out in my peripheral vision, allowing Jamie and I to place the new arrivals.
The first was a young man, heavy, an ogre dressed up as a prince. He was six times as large as I was, sheer physicality, but with a beautiful face, and crisp clothing. His pants were tucked into socks, so they crumpled and puffed at the knee. Those socks, in turn, that came up to the top of utterly massive calves that looked like they might let him grind granite underfoot. He wore a dress shirt with suspenders and a belt. His hair was neatly parted to one side and slicked down.
The slender woman next to him… I didn’t like nobles, but I’d found something I liked about her when I’d first seen her. She did what the Lady Moth seemed so intent on doing, making herself into a physical and fashionable entity without going over the top, and she managed to sell herself as a Noble without being ostentatious. A lot of that was how she moved, and her focus. Her hair was black, swept over to one side, and her clothes were black silk, leather belts, and a shoulder ornamentation that looked like a roost for the falcon. her hand on that same side was clad in a stylized falconer’s glove.
The raptor that was flying around the station would be hers, then.
The pair made their way down the stairs, leaving us kneeling, and approached the stitched, who had knelt while maintaining their hold on the stretchers.
A noble said something under his breath, and the stitched all remained on the ground, one foot and one knee planted on the stone path, but they lifted the stretchers up for a better view.
“Thank you,” the Ogre said.
The Doctors stood. Heads still bowed, they gave instructions to the stitched. As a group, they split up to enter the tunnels on either side of the stairwell, disappearing into an apparently unlit abyss.
“Follow,” the Ogre said.
The remaining doctors, nobles, Shirley and I all followed the Falconer and the Ogre into the building proper.
Veins and flesh held panels of glass as part of a greater skylight in the main hall of the building. I could see the layout. A castle, sprawling, with three of the taller buildings in the city sprouting from it, spearing toward the sky. At the top of those towers, another castle was poised, suspended between them.
“Who handles this?” Jamie asked. “I can do it, but…”
“I could,” Evette said.
“No,” Gordon said.
“I wouldn’t be the best choice,” Helen said. “Sylvester likes the Falconer though. If he wants to pursue her at all, practice his wiles, I could sit in.”
“No,” Gordon said, again, in a different tone. “And I think it’s left to me. Jamie’s too set in deep thought, introspection, and he’s not quick enough on the draw. No offense.”
“None taken. I might rephrase that ‘not quick on the draw’ part, though. Not because it bothers me, but because it’s easily misunderstood.”
“You’re right. Noted. Alright.”
Jamie fell back, joining the other Lambs.
We were faced with six nobles, their retinues, a great swathe of unfamiliar and hostile territory, and emotions were likely running high. Theirs and ours. Gordon had commented earlier on the situation, on the fact that they’d been hit in the heart of their territory.
The problem was, as Gordon and I turned the situation over in my head, there weren’t any weak points we could target that weren’t also weak points for us. The insecurity of the nobles was just as likely to backfire on us and see us put to the sword. The presence of enemies in the city would make them more guarded, less likely to offer us a weak point.
The Falconer’s bird, perched on her shoulder, watched us. It was half again as large as any bird of prey I’d seen, and Avis had once had some very large eagles. The bird of prey had a head of golden feathers, and a body of black ones. Its talons and beak were oil black, adding to the contrast. Modified. Possibly a chimera.
Gordon and I assessed the thing, and judged that if we had to bolt, and if we couldn’t close a door behind us, that thing would probably win in a fight.
The entire building was dark stone, lit by light from outside, and biological growth reinforcing it, all of the same fleshy nature. When the daylight faded, they would have light by other means, yet there were no torch sconces, no artificial lights.
It went back to the biological growths, stylized stretches of flesh, running along walls. Veins twined their way between stones. In the castle proper, the growths were more elegant, less like tumors or unidentifiable masses of flesh, and more akin to pillars. The networks of veins and the beads of fatty tissue formed fractal patterns and geometric arrangements. When the lights went out, the biological growths would likely provide bioluminescence. The veins would light up.
But the placement of them had another purpose. There was a strategy to it. Something that an intruding agent or group might miss, after a lifetime of acclimating to the wooden growths that supported buildings across the Crown empire. They were positioned at key junctions, and there was little doubt that they were loaded to the brim with biological weapons and agents.
None of the nobles talked. It was as if the hierarchy left the Ogre with all of the power, here, and it was up to him to decide if conversation was permitted. Even if the mood had allowed for talk, we doubted he would have said much.
The place was crowded. There were stitched servants everywhere, perhaps a third of the people we saw were stitched, but every last one of them was work on par with Fray’s stitched, whatever her name had been. Stitched without stitches, at least not in visible places, their nature only noticeable if one knew what to look for. They wore uniforms, and they moved with purpose, attending to tasks up until a noble came into sight, at which point they stopped, stepped to the side of the wide corridors, and bowed or curtsied, freezing in place until we were past them.
Another third were alive. They were hard to place, more important than servants, but not in charge, either. Facilitators, if I had to guess. Administrators, aristocrats, suppliers. Political grease.
The final third of the people present were doctors, and there wasn’t a white coat to be seen. It was like an Academy, almost, but the standard student or white coat had been replaced by a grey coat specialist, and the remainder wore black coats. Professors, top of the heap. The best at what they did.
If they hadn’t been doing as the servants did and been stepping to one side, heads bowed, Gordon and I imagined we would have heard heated debates, strict orders, and calls to action.
There was a power in surrounding oneself with smart people. The Lambs were an indicator of that. This place, this building, it was where the brightest minds gathered, one of the peaks from which the greatest ideas flowed down to the rest of the Crown States. Professors looked forward to the day they got an invitation to join a discussion here and then they burned with envy for those who got to lead the discussions.
And, in exchange, the nobles could call on this collection of minds, name a task, and expect that the task would be seen to.
We watched as lord Monte spotted one group of professors, broke from the group, and leaned close, to whisper a few words in the ear of a man who had had ten other professors trailing in his wake.
Monte caught up with our group, returning to his prior position. The man he’d spoken to broke into a run, heading in the direction we’d just come from. His retinue followed.
Gordon and I glanced back, and saw, halfway down the corridor, that the professor was recruiting others, and sending others running elsewhere. All business.
All hands on deck.
Leaving that isolated storm behind us, we reached the end of the main corridor. Large double doors were framed by an arch of stone and fleshy growths.
The Ogre pushed the doors open. We entered the garden, where the Infante waited. The Falconer’s bird found its roost.
The area was a space beneath a partial dome of glass that kept the rain at bay while allowing sun and wind through, all framed in growths of wood and flesh. The paths and the walls of the architecture at the boundary of the space looked to be cut obsidian, the plant life had been cultivated to grow in shades of red, magenta and violet. The space, all in all, took up roughly as much property as the grounds of the Lambsbridge orphanage had.
The red plants were eerie and ominous, in light of the plague that was sweeping across the Crown States.
The Infante, with sprightly eyes and a frame that dwarfed even the Ogre, wore only a ruffled collar and a simple black outfit.
Sitting in a chair near him was the Duke of Francis. Intact, no damage, dressed as impressively as he’d ever been.
But, as I looked, the sharpness was gone, the light absent. He moved his hands, placing one over the other in his lap, and the movement was slow.
It hardly mattered at this stage. The concern was the Infante. The lie we’d told, and the danger we were in.
Gordon and I raised up taller, confident, sure in ourselves. It had the added benefit of putting us in a slightly better position to run if we needed to run.
“Lords Jeremy, Richard, and Edmund, then,” the Infante said, looking over the group. His voice was terribly deep, magnified by the acoustics of this open space, and it seemed even deeper because the plants and the surroundings should have dampened noise, instead of strengthening it.
“Yes, father,” the Ogre said. The Falconer walked over to her bird.
“Are their corpses salvageable?”
“No, father. They’ll try, the bodies are only thirty minutes cold, but the damage is extensive. It’s the new guns.”
“Go to the labs, August. Don’t interrupt the man, but talk to Jeremy’s lead,” the Infante said. “He’ll be upset, already thinking about leaving, if the revival isn’t possible. If we don’t catch him, he’ll convince himself to leave by the finish of the mandatory three tries. We want to keep him.”
“Yes, father,” ‘August’ said.
“Tell him that the Lady Charlotte needs an attending first. That’s a move up for him. A fresh start. She was only just born.”
“London, uncle?” the Falconer asked.
“My brother will owe me one,” the Infante said.
Sent off by some signal Gordon and I didn’t see, August turned, striding past us and through the doors. We turned to look, and he gave us a nasty look with his small, dark eyes as he closed the doors behind him.
“I heard about the attack as it happened,” the Infante said. “I had some information about who it was, but no confirmation until just now. An unfortunate end to your first proper outing, and to theirs.”
“Yes, Lord Infante,” Monte said.
My heart pounded. Every single one of the Lambs was present, fixated on the Infante and on the other nobles around us. A simple choice of phrasing could utterly destroy us.
“I see you’ve brought me a present.”
Gordon and I bent low into a bow. “Lord Infante. It is good to see you again.”
Setting the stage as best as we could. We were caught in a river. All we could do now was steer as best as we could, and hope we wouldn’t be dashed on the rocks.
“A fugitive,” Monte said.
“I’m well aware of who he is. Sylvester Lambsbridge. One of the Lambs of Radham. Francis, you were intimately familiar with this one, were you not?”
Not good. We saw Monte shoot us a sidelong glance. The lack of familiarity was telling. The first rock, and very easily the one that might sink us.
Gordon and I watched the Duke’s eye move. There was a delay. As if it took willful effort to direct his eye, to fixate on us. Whether there was recognition or a complete mental blank, the man gave no indication.
“A pity you’re not up to talking,” the Infante spoke. “Your counsel would have been appreciated.”
A heavy hand settled on the Duke’s shoulder.
“You may leave,” the Infante said.
“I wish that meant us,” Lara said, from the sidelines. She stood near Lillian, who was leaning against a tree, arms folded, cross, her back to me.
“Lord Infante,” Monte said, not budging from where he stood. “Sylvester Lambsbridge told us that he was doing work for you. That we were to bring him to you.”
“Is that so?” the Infante asked.
Monte bowed deeper, then took his leave, joined by Moth and the others.
It left the Duke, the Infante, and the Falconer in the garden with Shirley and I.
“A shame about Jeremy,” the Infante said, as if he were speaking to the Duke. “But I do like Montgomery. Nascent promise, there.”
The Duke, striving to put in effort, moved his eye, looking up in the general direction of the Infante.
“I see a lot of the Baron Richmond in him, as a matter of fact,” the Infante said.
“What?” Gordon asked. My lips remained closed.
The Infante set his eyes on me. “Richmond was clever, once upon a time. He could have climbed a fair way up the ladder, done more with himself, and done more for the Crown. But he learned the wrong lessons along the way. Tragic, but all too common. His death at your hands was just.”
Gordon and I bowed deeper, acknowledging the statement.
“Montgomery could go either way,” the Infante said. “Straighten up. Look at me.”
“You lied to them, telling them you worked for me.”
“I did,” Gordon and I said.
“You have your audience. Will I now find out that your companion there is plague infected?”
“No, my lord,” we said. Have to take the subject off of Shirley. “My understanding of you is that you appreciate strong, bold, meaningful strokes of the brush. Cornered, my first thought was that, instead of dying, I could make myself useful to you.”
“Had you phrased that as being useful to me again, I might have had you killed,” the Infante said.
Easy enough to see what he was thinking about. “With all due respect, Lord Infante, I took the death of the Baron Richmond to be a neutral thing. As much good done as bad.”
“The bad, unfortunately, being ours to bear,” the Infante placed his other hand on the Duke’s other shoulder as he said that, standing behind the man in the chair. He made the Duke look small.
“The act of killing the Baron was the nail in the coffin, my last act as a Lamb. I was cornered by a former ally, I had to shoot-”
“Mary Cobourn. In one knee,” the Infante finished for me. “I’m well aware. Faced with a strange boy with high aspirations and two dead noble ladies already killed by his hand, I sought to inform myself. I asked after you, and I obtained my answers.”
“Yes, Lord Infante,” Gordon and I said. We bowed, acknowledging him.
“I’ve remained aware of you as you cut a violent and explosive swathe through Tynewear. I read your records and I put good minds to work on analyzing data, about Wyvern and similar drugs, to project forward and to reach conclusions that your doctors wouldn’t have found until five years after you expired.”
The Falconer was watching. Very quiet. Her eyes matched the Infante’s. Dark, penetrating, and suggestive of something very clever going on beneath the surface.
The Infante continued, “When word of you being on a train heading south from Tynewear reached my ears, I had investigators track down people who were on that same train. We traced things backward, in the midst of some of the greatest chaos this continent has ever seen outside of wartime.”
Gordon and I remained silent.
“I could make threats, but what good is a threat? You’ve lived with Wyvern’s venomed stinger for all your life, promising pain today and lost sanity before you’re twenty-one. I could threaten the life of Shirley Pope, hold her hostage, but you grew up with your fellow Lambs and you knew you would likely live to see them die. They’ve been hostages all your life, and they remain hostages now. You lost your childhood friend and brother Gordon to one pull of the trigger. Jamie, another childhood friend and brother, lost to oblivion after a throw of the switch. Threatening you and holding things you love hostage is old hat for you. Those things have permeated every day of your existence for a long time now.”
Jamie loomed in my peripheral vision, to my left. Gordon loomed in my right.
I wanted to say something, and I couldn’t. I wanted Gordon and I to say something, and he wasn’t volunteering anything.
“You left them behind,” he said. “All of the rest of the Lambs. One by one, you’ll hear stories. Your Mary Cobourn already has notes in her file. Fatty deposits under her skin, in the armpit, behind one ear. Moles. In a year and a half, they will be noticeable. Within six months of that point, she’ll be slowed or crippled by it. In three years, she’ll be dead.”
I looked over in Mary’s direction, then wished I hadn’t. My mind jumped straight to trying to paint her with the Infante’s brush, complete with lumps and blemishes, and in the effort to erase that part of the image, I blurred the picture and lost the clarity in her.
“Duncan reported to Professor Hayle early on that your Helen was becoming emotionally disturbed. I’ve had other sources say that Ibbot is neglecting her as a project. He invests too much energy into the political side of things, when his talent is solely limited to the art of biology. She’ll soon reach a point where she requires more upkeep than he is willing to provide while he is so eager to seize greater opportunities, and the idea of a custom wife, pillow companion and personal weapon that he grew in a vat will lose out in the end.”
I didn’t look at Helen. I didn’t want that image to be blurry like Mary’s had.
But the Infante kept talking on the subject. “She will go to his lab for a standard appointment, bubbly, smiling and laughing. That preferred personality is in her records. She’ll be nonetheless obedient as he asks her to lay down across the counter and opens her up to examine her organs. And I can assure you, that spiteful, vitriolic little man will be in the midst of palpating her insides with a scalpel lying within arm’s reach, and he will find his way to the decision that frees him to pursue his politics. That is, if she doesn’t break before then, slip up, and lead him to the conclusion herself. Whatever the case, he will make a single small cut, deep inside her, and she will go quiet and cold.”
Shirley shot me a nervous glance. I remained very still.
“You’ve condemned yourself to a very lonely existence, Sylvester Lambsbridge,” he said. “You’ve put considerable distance between yourself and the people you love to avoid having to see them go. But word of their passing will find you, no matter where you hide, and you will, with your last vestiges of sanity, wish you had been there.”
He released the Duke’s shoulders, and he approached me.
I didn’t move as he placed his hands across my cheeks, cupping my head in his hands.
“What do I do with you, child?” he asked. “I have all the resources in the Crown States at my disposal, and you’ve confounded me. How do I invent you a punishment fit for hell when you seem so intent on flinging yourself there first?”
He knelt before me, and the weight of him made the thick black stones under my feet shift slightly, crunching with a stone against stone sound.
He embraced me. Even kneeling, he was far taller than me, but he hugged me to his prodigious stomach.
“Wretched child,” he said.
I looked up at Shirley.
Gordon, Jamie, and Helen didn’t volunteer anything. The other Lambs were unreachable, indistinct, or too far away for their individual reasons.
There were ways to salvage them. I could work my head around it. Dig for them if I really wanted them. But to do that, I had to acknowledge that they were as fragile as they were. That they were smoke.
I was legitimately afraid at how easily it had crumbled.
I hadn’t anticipated the Infante doing this. I’d expected a challenge.
A challenge, I could rise to.
This wasn’t a challenge. This was the epitome of what I’d hated, in the very earliest days, with Lacey and the other doctors.
Acknowledgement of my reality.
“Do you want something to occupy yourself with?” the Infante asked.
“Yes,” I spoke, finding a voice. Belated, we added, “Lord Infante.”
“Then find and kill Mauer for me. He’s in the city.”
“As you wish,” we said.
The Infante released us from the hold. He gave us a measured look. “Then take your companion with you. I have no need for hostages, I have no need for threats. I’ll give you a general direction, pointed away from me, and we’ll see if you do more damage to the other side than to mine.”
“If I may make a request?” we asked.
“I’d thought I was being generous enough, but you may. My resources are at your disposal, should you want them. I certainly have enough.”
“I’d like access to a lab,” Evette and I said.