Thunder rumbled in the distance, and the rain momentarily let up. It was a trick of the weather, a shift in the already high winds that lifted the raindrops up, holding them in the air, before letting them drop.
A moment of relief in the patter, followed by a sharp rap as the rain resumed.
I flung myself out of the window, arms out to the sides, eyes wide, my open, borrowed shirt fluttering around behind me.
I landed on the top of one of the carriages, shoes sliding on the rain-slick roof of the vehicle, impact startling the horse. I managed to avoid sliding off, even with the height and angle of my jump.
Heads were turning. I could see the greater picture now. Looking through the windows, we had only been able to see a narrow portion of things.
Nobody shot me or shot at me. Not right away. That had been a concern.
The group that Jamie had estimated would be near the front doors, was there, out of sight of the window and of Mauer’s position. There would be the people from further upstairs moving down, some people moving up, with Shirley and Jamie caught between.
They weren’t the only group he’d been able to identify. There were two other groups the Falconer could be leading, based on what we already knew about the nobles looking to lead the army that was forming to surround Mauer. Jamie had anticipated where and when they would turn up, based on distance, the speed of her ‘falcon’, and the speed of the vehicles on the road. Vehicles at the end of the road changed course as I appeared, immediately looking to park, so the occupants could get out. Odds were good that Jamie had been fairly close to exactly right.
The first of the people here and there started to react. The hesitation had been fed by the fact that they hadn’t wanted to reveal their positions or presence to Mauer. Everything had to be done out of sight, often with other obfuscation, and deciding to stop was a call that had to be made by people at the top. That meant there had to be communication, even if it was a glance on the part of the subordinate and a nod from the officer in charge.
The result was as if I’d hurled myself from that window into water in the greatest of cannon balls, but the splash was delayed by a full five seconds. The ‘splash’ was shouts, orders, and people moving. The group by the door broke away, moving to chase. Vehicles got in the way of other vehicles.
I hopped down off the carriage, onto the road, and ran, feet splashing in puddles as I crossed the street. Horses, carts, and pedestrians provided some measure of cover.
Stitched exited one of the covered wagons on the far end of the street. The wagon was the sort meant for the transport of goods, and it had hosted ten or so stitched soldiers, all armed.
I reached to my belt and grabbed a can.
“Grenade!” I shouted, as I threw it at the group.
The stitched reacted, automatic, their instincts trained for a battlefield. They parted, moving to take cover, leaving me more or less free to run straight at the ‘grenade’ – nothing more than a tin can with a key punched into the top. I moved right into the group of stitched, who were settling behind cover, ducking, or jogging away as well as a muscle bound stitched could.
I could see the two in the group that weren’t reacting the same way. They followed the group, but they weren’t reacting like it was a grenade. Stupider, less trained, their outfits basic, with no jacket and only some of the equipment.
The commanding officer, still in the vehicle, began to shout out orders.
Each of the stitched had bands at their arm. I had to hope Evette had guessed right and that I’d remembered right.
“Tempest to field,” I said.
I had only a momentary glimpse of the man’s eyes widening eyes before one of the two stitched bulged violently and exploded. Meaty bits went flying this way and that, and a heavy gas cloud expanded outward. I disappeared into the midst of it.
Passing Gordon as I made my way into the alley, I was careful to grab some of the garbage, pallets, and milk crates stacked against the wall and tip them over behind me. It gave away my position with the racket of it, but that wasn’t too important.
Gas and obstacles behind me, my way forward mostly clear. They wouldn’t be following. Not easily.
Not the people.
The concern was the experiments. The nobles.
And, as it turned out, the squad of soldiers who were gathered in the alley, safely out of sight of Mauer. They were sitting here and there, many smoking. A
“Stay right there,” one of the soldiers called out, pointing his rifle with attached bayonet at me.
I raised my hands, my mind going over the scenarios.
They were too relaxed. Their body language suggested they were familiar with each other. Nobody had run to them, bringing news of trouble.
I shifted my expression and body language, and I approached them with little concern apparent. “I’m Sylvester.”
“Who?” one of the soldiers at the side asked me.
“I’m part of the reason we’re here. I’m helping set up Mauer for the Infante.”
“The kid,” the soldier who’d spoken first said. “Right.”
“Sure,” I said, with a bit of uncertainty. “Something’s up. There’s trouble brewing. Someone used gas, and it looks like it was Mauer. He knows we’re here.”
The soldier who was doing most of the talking looked at one or two of the others. Lieutenants? Seconds in command? Friends?
“You’re supposed to head west, move around, wait for a horn. If Mauer flanks us, they want you ready to move in. If you’re here, you might get mistaken for Mauer’s men and shot.”
“In the briefing, same breath they mentioned you, they said to ignore you. If we had any suspicion at all…”
He asserted his grip on his rifle, pointing it at me.
“…We’re supposed to shoot you.”
I allowed only a hint of confusion to show. “And you’re suspicious?”
“What are you even doing here?”
“What I’m supposed to be doing?” I said, trying very much to sound like I wasn’t sure what he wasn’t understanding. “Outmaneuvering Mauer on behalf of the High Lord Infante.”
I touched the space over my heart, declining my head in the faintest of bows.
The man did the same, moving his rifle to tap it against the badge at his breast, head lowering. To do otherwise would be to suggest that I respected the Infante more than he did.
To shoot me, after making such a suggestion, it would say all of the wrong things about their leadership over their unit. The military wasn’t as political as the world of professors, but there were little realities of politicking, and he would have poisoned his leadership. Any one of his soldiers that didn’t like him could mention the slight to the Crown and it would have spread through the rumor mill.
Lillian stood to one side, watching all of this.
All of that was a series of ingrained fears and worries, patterns of behavior long established by the man’s path to being captain. Even if it was archaic and rarely performed outside of formal circumstance, if someone showed respect to the nobility, he did the same. To question or to hesitate meant he was doing something wrong.
He did it and I’d made him do it, and in that, I’d achieved the upper hand in a subtle, infinitesimal way.
It had the added benefit of ensuring that the gun wasn’t pointed at me anymore.
“I’m not following your order,” he said. Showing he wasn’t a pushover, that he didn’t believe me. He was still suspicious. He’d lost two small battles to me in my verbal rebuke and in the bowing. This was his defiance.
His small defiance. It propped him up, but it made him weaker, not stronger.
I could just barely hear the noise as someone pushed crates and pallets aside behind me. I had pursuers.
“Fine,” I said. “Just be on your guard. I’ve got things to do, and Mauer’s close.”
I was sure to turn and make my departure before he could make an argument, point that gun at me again, and reaffirm his leadership. Not as graceful as I might have liked, but it would have to do.
I wasn’t sure if he’d shout after me, tell me to stop. He didn’t.
“Your funeral,” I said, under my breath. I pitched it to be heard by the people at the fringes of the group, and not by the captain.
I didn’t look back as I moved on, taking the first right available.
One in five odds that there would be a discussion behind me, that they would actually follow the order I’d given them, and vacate. Anyone following wouldn’t be able to ask them which direction I’d gone in.
Others were coming down other streets and alleys. I avoided them as best as I could. It was midday, but it was gloomy and the rain obscured the scene.
The nobles would be coming. Montgomery, the Falconer, Augustus. One, two, or three of them, potentially. I was laying odds on having to deal with Montgomery again, and having the falconer close.
For this plan to work, we had to be in the right places at the right time. Jamie had estimated things, but it was impossible to look at the nobles, knowing so very little about their capabilities, and figure out any way to deal with them.
I was prone to forgetting complex directions, so my plan of action was a simple one. I was to cross the street, enter the alleys, pass six buildings, turn right, pass six buildings, turn right, and so on.
If I reached the street I’d been on, I was to cross it.
Which was bound to be a nightmare. The hardest part of this.
But I was excited. My senses were sharp. My thoughts were falling in line with few stumbles or catches. The Lambs were omnipresent but they didn’t interfere, and they didn’t look incomplete or horrifying.
I had an enemy, I had a goal, I had a greater plan in the works, mysteries to solve. But it wasn’t a desperate, dangerous scrabbling to hurt the enemy, to pursue my goals, to solve the mysteries, because stopping meant falling into a chasm.
No. The drop wasn’t nearly so far, if someone was there. The ground, so to speak, was only a foot below my dangling feet.
I chose my path carefully, used the terrain, used the rain and the haze of moisture that it produced, water streaming off of me, soaking me from skin to bone and back again. I watched for soldiers and I watched the sky.
I saw the Falconer’s bird, as it flew into the alley, flapping its wings to pause, taking in the scene, and began following me.
This danged thing.
Where were you, bird? You disappeared for a while. Reported to your master, then came to look for us again. Did you bother Jamie? Did you scare Shirley?
My eyes were opened as wide as I could get them, to better take in everything, see in the gloom and the rain. My only blinks were really the reflexive ones, in reaction to the rain.
As I reached out to a windowsill of an open window, gripping it hard to hurdle over and inside, I saw the great black bird diving for me.
I let go of the windowsill, pulling my hand back and away, falling inside the kitchen there rather than gracefully leaping through. The talon raked the base of the window where my hand had been, and flecks of water and wood splinters flew into the air.
I heard its cry, and I imagined it was a shrill, eardrum-piercing cry of frustration. It was certainly loud. Even after it ended, there was a kind of echo in my ears as my ears rang from the volume.
Before it could reorient and fly into the house, I hauled the window shut, then shut a second window.
That cry – everyone within two city blocks might have heard it. The Falconer certainly would have.
The bird arrived, flapping violently before settling on the windowsill, the far side of the glass. It stared at me, then shrieked again, a sound so loud and sharp it made my brain hurt.
“Yeah, get plucked, bird. You going to come through that window?” I asked, backing away.
It rapped its beak against the glass. One motion, sharp and backed by the full physique of its dense, well engineered body, and the glass shattered wholesale. It flapped its wings, taking off.
I reached for my waist, and I drew a gun.
Except I didn’t really have a gun. I’d sought to fake the bird out, force an instinctive reaction, much as I had with the stitched.
The thing didn’t even give a dang. As I turned on my toes to scramble for the nearest doorway, my brain dwelt on why. Did it not care about me drawing a gun because it was that smart? That perceptive? Was it capable of figuring out that I didn’t actually have a weapon?
Or was it tough enough that a bullet wouldn’t necessarily kill it before it killed me?
There were other possibilities, but I had to consider that this was a noble’s pet. Hubris had been a beautifully engineered piece of work, dangerous to underestimate, smarter than all get out. There was no reason to think this was anything less.
I would assume the worst, which meant assuming this thing was the best piece of work I could imagine it as, if not better.
At least it didn’t have hands.
Before it could fly at me and tear into me with talons long enough to reach into my chest and pluck out my recently repaired heart, I passed through a doorway and slammed that door behind me.
I heard the impact as it struck the door. It was a sound like one I’d heard countless times before. A sharp object striking wood with confidence.
I ran down the hallway, making my way to the front door of the house.
My hand had only just made contact with the doorknob when the bird came through the glass of the window by the staircase, to my left. Its wings were spread wide, making it seem far larger than it already had, and it had already been the size of a proper attack dog.
I threw myself back and away, landing on my back on the rug that ran down the hallway. The bird was a blur, talons raking the door in passing before it flew into the living room. The doorway to the living room was an arch, with no doors for me to slam shut.
It knew exactly where I was, and it had gotten out of the building and around in time to intercept me. It likely hadn’t hesitated longer than an eye’s blink before tearing away from the door and heading around to intercept.
Even that attack, slashing at the door with its talons- it knew full well that I wasn’t at the front door anymore, that I’d thrown myself to the ground. It hadn’t actually been trying to hit me. It was a show of strength, intimidation.
It perched on the mantlepiece, staring me down, extending that show.
“I’m not a fan of you,” I informed the bird. “You’re too big, too sharp, and too fast.”
It flapped its wings and adjusted its footing, but it looked to be a show, just exercising them, posturing.
Then it shrieked at me.
I winced. “And you’re loud. Does your master put up with that?”
I wanted the creature to make the first move, so I could react.
The problem was, it seemed content to wait, let me act, and then it would probably scream at me, take off, and fly right for me. It would scalp me, slash my throat, and I would have to deal with blood loss while making a run for it, if I even got that far.
Or I could wait, and the Falconer would saunter over here and kill me.
The tight confines, the countless little objects here and there, the pieces of furniture, the doors, they were supposed to be to my advantage. This wasn’t a space that bird was supposed to be able to maneuver in. It couldn’t even fully spread its wings in the hallway.
Why, then, was it so damn hard to think of a good way to deal with it?
Okay. Have to do something. Jamie and Shirley are waiting, and timing does matter.
I didn’t climb to my feet. By the time I did that, the bird would be on top of me. Instead, I raised my feet up, slowly, my eye on the bird, watching carefully.
I jumped to my feet, bringing my legs down as I brought my upper body up and forward. I had to bring a leg back to catch myself from falling backward, but I was able to lunge for the front door.
It would be locked. It was a two-step action, to unlock it and haul it open. Another two steps to move through the doorway and close the door behind me.
And at no point would I actually be rid of the bird. It would exit through the window it had entered through and be on top of me in seconds.
Four steps was still too many. Seconds was a reprieve, time to think and act when this encounter moved at double that tempo. Every half-second mattered, every action had to flow into another.
My rolling to my feet became a lunge for the door. That became a jump, where I set one foot on top of the doorknob, running up, twisting around, aiming to go over the Falcon, utilizing the blind spot of the archway and wall that separated the hall from the living room.
My head grazed the ceiling, and I found myself face to face with the bird, which within an armspan of me.
I’d been out-anticipated and outsmarted by an animal with a head the size of two fists pressed together.
I struck for one wing – the most vulnerable and least sharp part of the thing, and hit it, but as gravity pulled me down, the bird maintained its height. Talons raked my scalp and caught the side of my neck.
I’d have blood running down my face and the back of my shirt, and that neck wound would bleed like an alkie’s asshole, but he hadn’t gotten anything vital.
My eye was on the prize. I landed, shifted to face a right angle, and sprinted to the window by the stairs, diving through it.
The bird was a second behind me, but it didn’t dive for me.
I tumbled to the ground, got my feet under me, and rose from the tumble to a standing position, reaching out for the wall to steady myself.
I saw the flapping of those great black wings in the corner of my eye, and I turned to look.
The Falconer had arrived. Tall, raven haired, dressed in a white silk shirt with black leather over it in something between armor and a corset. Much as the shirt was constrained by the black leather, belts constrained her skirt, which was just short enough to show how tall her boots were. The boots matched the falconer’s glove she wore. Her free hand, ungloved, held a saber.
Every piece of her was decorated, but it was subtle, not ostentatious as nobles so often were. Etching in the leather, stitching in the silk. It drew the eye, made that part of me that wanted to investigate want to pay attention and discern meaning, whereupon I only fell into the trap and her dangerous allure.
Her eyes resembled those of her bird.
“My lady,” I said, instinctively. One of my hands was pressed to my neck wound. “I must say, I am not a fan of your bird.”
She advanced, silent, while her falcon flapped its wings without taking off, shifting its footing, much as it had done on the mantlepiece.
I backed away, moving in the direction of the street where the collected soldiers and stitched were.
Even if I lured her out into the street, the angle of the street and the placement of buildings meant that Mauer’s snipers wouldn’t have a clear shot. There could be other snipers in other buildings, but if she was here, her bird had likely searched the area, and I was betting they had other ways of clearing the buildings.
She raised her arm, and the bird took off, flying high.
I turned and ran, knowing that she was faster.
As I approached the street, however, I saw something glorious.
The haze of the rain was made even hazier by thick clouds of gas. I could see the spatters of gore. I could see people reeling, hands to their ears
Woe unto the birds.
This particular command phrase, in retrospect, was very fitting, considering who my current pursuers.
I ran straight into the fog of gas.
The Falconer leaped up onto the top of a carriage, then leaped across to the next. Staying high, above the fog and the smoke, while still pursuing.
I saw one wagon with a slope leading down to the bench, rain-slick, and put it between myself and the Falconer.
She leaped, and I doubted she saw the slope before she was in the air. She skidded on landing, momentum carrying her into the slope.
I watched her adjust her weight, the foot that was set lower on the roof sweeping in a sharp, focused half-circle, scraping the wet wood for maximum traction. Not quite enough to stop her downward movement, but it slowed her enough that she could leap to the next carriage. One that had a flatter top.
She had a gravity. I was drawn to her, as if there was something about her that made me want to fight her, to engage in a contest. The problem was that it was a contest I was doomed to lose.
Her expression was unreadable, her body language expressing nothing but danger and her intent to catch and murder me. But it was the lack of anything at all that made me feel a moment’s panic, the certainty that another blade was drawing near.
I shifted my footing, switched direction, moving closer to her, ducking around another carriage, deeper into fog, and I nearly ran into the hooves of a horse that was fussing and panicking at the spreading gas and the misery it was inflicting. Its owner had already left the scene. Civilians were few and far between, if there were any.
The Falconer’s fell bird came down, shifting its trajectory to follow me. I’d anticipated it, because the Falconer had been too calm, too measured in her advance even as I’d slowed down to watch her. Anyone else with her capacity for killing would have reacted on some level, quickened her advance.
But the guillotine had already been coming down, and she had no reason to hurry.
I had to shift direction a second time, letting myself fall to the ground right next to the rearing, stomping horse, to avoid the bird’s talons.
The Falconer leaped, in perfect step with her pet, and I rolled, beneath and through the stomping hooves. The puddling water I moved through made my already drenched clothing even heavier, pooling within it, weighing me down, pouring out and altering my balance every step of the way.
The Falconer’s saber had been buried a half-foot into the road by her plunge. With cool confidence, she stood, pulling it free with no effort at all.
Across the street, a stitched had already emerged from a covered wagon. One stitched, but it had taken up the whole wagon. Ten feet tall, it carried the floor of the wagon as a shield, wood reinforced by bands of metal and bolts as fat as my arm. It was joined by a matching stitched, a second shieldbearer. One had long hair, the other was bald, with a beard that reached its navel. Both wore the same robes, waterproof coverings that sheltered them from the rain, augmented with armor here and there. Both steamed as if the water that was on them boiled on contact. Not that it did, but such was the effect.
I had to run between them to get where I needed to be.
I was running, only running, trying to get away. I’m a chicken that needs desperately to get to the other side.
One of the shieldbearers raised their shield high overhead, holding only the bottom end. The other raised its shield overhead, but held it horizontally, not vertically.
August dropped down from a window much higher than the second story window I’d leaped from. Shielded from Mauer’s gunfire by the wall the long haired giant had created, given a platform to land on by the bearded one, he landed with both hands and one foot on the ground.
As I passed between the giants, beneath August, he stood, turning to face me. Anyone else would have been shattered from foot to hip by such a landing, but he didn’t seem to have even paused.
Streams of water and wisps of gas flowed off of me as I made my way to the sidewalk, passing into the alleyway.
August, deposited on the ground, was supported and protected by his giants, the Falconer joined by her bird, as they entered the alleyway. August said something under his breath, and one of his giants gave the pair of nobles a protective ceiling, using the great shield that was as broad as a cargo-bearing carriage and as tall as it was long.
It sounded like a rockslide, starting at one end of the street, sweeping to the next. A series of detonations, one after another. The nobles stopped, looking back and over.
I kept moving away, bracing myself.
The explosion swept over the street, and it caught something. It wasn’t the other gas, which had enough methane to keep the chain reaction alive. No. One or several of the wagons that had been parked along the street had borne gunpowder, or explosives, or fuel.
Stitched were capable of burning. They were dry, combustible. Wagons were wood. Soldiers carried grenades.
Whatever the case, that ominous rumble as the methane caught and was consumed in a rolling flame, it was soon punctuated by the crack and the blast of real explosives going off, each with their individual shockwaves and ripple effects.
I stumbled, tripping and falling as I wrapped my head around what was happening. The nobles, their giants and their pet bird, they were closer to the street and the nearest wagon loaded with munitions. The shockwave hit them. The nobles were bowled over, the giants staggered, one of their robes setting alight. The bird went down in that same lick of flame.
The goal had been to stir the pot, to give people reason to leave or be evacuated. It also, in the roundabout path, would mean that people who had been further away would gather here, that numbers would be more concentrated. All of that required buying time.
It wouldn’t be a guarantee, some civilians would have been caught in the blast.
The act of buying time had also given Jamie time to get in position, to spring the methane trap with the next of the command words.
The nobles had been bowled over. The bird and one giant had been burned.
I picked myself up, and climbed to my feet, still breathing hard from the running, shaking from exhaustion that was half due to exertion and half due to my not having wood on the fire, food in the belly.
They remained on the ground for long moments.
I waited, watching.
August was the first to move. The Falconer stirred after that.
Not even looking up at me or at her pet, she gestured at the bird, and she made a short whistling sound.
The bird moved, shifting its stance. Wings stretched forward, and it crawled to its master on its bladed wing-tips and talons, much as the spike warbeasts had moved on four spikes. No longer able to fly, but entirely capable of operating as an attack beast all the same. Just as resilient as the noble it served.
The Falconer put one hand on its back, and rose to her feet, head still hanging, hair forming a curtain in front of her face.
I’d seen all I needed to see, gotten the measure of the damage we’d managed to inflict, by way of how slowly they moved.
The nobles, I was sure, would chase, and they would be sure to make us answer this.
I ran for it. I ran to Jamie, and with any luck, to where Mauer waited to capitalize on this opportunity.