People could always be trusted to do the least sensible thing. It was the middle of the day, and in response to a rollicking explosion, the people who were still at home were departing their residences, walking out into the street to get a look.
Many were women, homemakers, some were young children.
On taller buildings, many of the windows opened out and upward, forming a kind of cover overhead as people leaned out, craning their heads to see what was happening.
As I ran as fast as I was able from the source of the explosion, I drew attention.
“Run!” I called out. Then, a few moments later, for the sake of those who hadn’t heard me “Run!”
The sentiment caught.
Good thing, too, because I could feel the impacts as the giants gave chase.
Their aim wasn’t me, however. I crossed the street, and the first giant moved out into the street, raising his shield as a wall.
The second giant followed, offering further cover. I couldn’t even see the nobles as the giants escorted them across the street.
Goal one was to get them in position where they were close to the street and I was far enough down the alley to be in the clear. We hadn’t anticipated or accounted for the explosives in the other wagons, that had extended the damage. I wasn’t sure if it was a pro or a con, though. Hopefully there would be a point later on where I could take stock of the fallout from all of this.
I liked the mental image of standing on one of these tall buildings and looking down at what we’d wrought, while the Infante fussed.
But getting that far meant evading the nobles. The closer I got to Mauer, the less free they would be to give chase.
That was goal three. Getting them closer to Mauer.
Most of the traffic had stopped as a result of the explosions and then arrested further at the first appearance of the giants, but one carriage stood in their way. With the shield in front of it, the giant didn’t even see the horse it ran into. The carriage the horse was hitched to toppled.
The crash and the ensuing disruption might have bought me time. The elements of the crowd that were lingering gave me some room to move. The nobles were, by dint of the bodyguards, big. I could thread the needle, weaving through the crowd, that was only just realizing they were in the way, and hope that the nobles would either show some conscience and avoid the worst of the crowd, or at least stumble on the bodies and wreckage left behind and slow down because of that.
I preferred the former to the latter, but I preferred living above all else.
It was telling, then, that the nobles chose to detour and slow down, and that I was able to put some distance between myself and them.
Good thing too, because for all of their injuries, they had caught up to me fast, and they would again. I had little doubt they had more stamina than I did, too.
I rounded a corner, then crossed the street, weaving through traffic. It wasn’t so dangerous – traffic at the end of the street close to where I had come from was stopping in reaction to the giants. One automobile was on the street, and the thin tires squeaked on the road as it came to a wobbly stop.
I looked up and down the street, and I saw a carriage with a closed window, a cloth caught in it.
I checked over my shoulder to see that I wasn’t being watched, glanced up at the man with the heavy mustache and long whip that sat under the covered front seat, and I slipped inside.
“You made it,” Jamie said. “I was worried.”
I flashed him and Shirley a grin as I closed the door and removed the cloth from the window.
“The bird didn’t see you?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “It got burned. But I think it could probably sniff us out, if the nobles can’t. We should leave.”
Jamie nodded, stood, and opened his side door. He leaned out the door, and said, “Get us away from here. The faster the better. Side streets are fine if you don’t think we’ll get bogged down, just keep us moving.”
The driver said something I couldn’t make out, and the carriage lurched. We tilted uneasily as the wheels rode up on the curb, before we started moving briskly down an alley street, the walls of the buildings on either side precariously close to the sides of the carriage.
With nothing to look at outside the windows, Jamie focused on me. He had to squint a bit in the gloom. “That’s a lot of blood, Sy.”
“I’ve learned I really dislike birds. I raised questions once upon a time about the Academy’s aversion to working on flying things. But now I know. Anything with wings is evil, through and through.”
“Let me look-”
I turned so he could see, and bowed my head so he could check my scalp. “Detestable. Probably dirty. Can you imagine the dust that collects there?”
“They self-groom, Sy.”
“That motherfucking avian doesn’t, I promise you that. Birds eat bugs, too, don’t they? You are what you eat, and bugs are pretty gross, y’know?”
“You’re rambling. How much of that is you being goofy and how much is you being injured?”
“That’s fine, then. You got cut up pretty badly there. I’ve got some medical stuff. Turn around there so I can work on you.”
I smiled, turning around in my seat so he could work. He pulled out a small pocket medicine kit he’d had with him.
“I bet you brought that along in hopes of getting to put your hands on me,” I said. “Tsk tsk. Shameless fellow.”
“No, no. Starting to realize why you self-censored. You’re a horrific flirt.”
“You’re just now realizing this? You’ve only really existed for, what, two years? Two and a half? And you spent most of that time seeing how I tormented Lillian.”
“I’m suddenly feeling a lot more sympathy for Lillian, and I had an abundance, before.”
“You know I used Wyvern to cultivate a mindset. I cultivated a mindset where I prey on weakness. It’s a reflex now, and people’s biggest weakness is that connection between their hearts and their pants.”
Jamie sighed, again. He daubed at my neck wound. “Put your hand there. Fingers like… so. So I can work, but so there’s some pressure.”
“But if it’s a problem, I can adjust.”
“I’d rather deal with you as you are, than deal with more of your adjustments,” Jamie said.
“I meant more of a normal sort of adjustment. Learning how to keep my mouth shut and minimize the jokes.”
He pricked me with a curved needle, and threaded the first of the sutures. “You used Wyvern to self-censor and you couldn’t stop the jokes altogether, Sy. I think that’s a hopeless task.”
“Um,” Shirley said.
Jamie turned his head to look at her. With my neck being worked on, I only moved my eyes.
“Self censoring?” she asked. “That’s the second time you mentioned it.”
“Oh,” I said. “I used that drug I take, Wyvern, and altered how my brain worked, so I wouldn’t fuss Jamie too much.”
“Oh,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said. “For the sake of Jamie’s sanity, really. And for other reasons.”
“Now, with Sy actively working on undoing that censorship, I take it…?” Jamie trailed off, eyebrow quirked to suggest it was a question.
“…He’s borderline intolerable. There’s a balance to be struck,” Jamie said.
“That’s horrible,” Shirley said. “The fact that the drug is a thing and that you had to do that, that you were able to do that? That you were given the ability to do something that extreme when you’re still so young. When I think about the ways I would have changed myself when I was your age… I’m… Is it wrong if I say I’m very sorry?” she asked.
I shrugged one shoulder in a small way, so as not to disturb Jamie’s stitching. “We’re the product of horribleness. The people we’ve been closest to in our lives are the product of horribleness. The people who were chasing me are the engineers of horrible. Or the bankrollers and aristocrats enforcing it, or… something.”
“Something,” Jamie said.
“I’m sorry you and the people you cared about have had to deal with all of that,” Shirley said, voice quiet. “I know that sounds like very useless, petty words, compared to the magnitude of what you’re talking about.”
I knew where her words were coming from. I knew that she’d dealt with her own, simpler sort of horrible.
“You’re good, Shirley. Not to worry,” I said.
“Thank you, for your feelings, Shirley,” Jamie said. “They’re appreciated.”
“Alright. You’re welcome.”
Jamie tied off the stitches at my throat.
“I can do the ones on my own head,” I said.
“You can,” Jamie said, “I don’t know if that means you should. Bend over.”
Jamie looked at Shirley. “Help me.”
“He’s insufferable,” she said.
Jamie put one hand on my shoulder and had me lean forward, so he could work on the top of my head, where the talons had scratched me.
I bit my tongue rather than make mention of the fact that I was staring into his lap, now.
“No opportunities to use the explosion?” Jamie asked.
“The blast set off other things,” I said. “Our guess was off. I got knocked to the ground. I felt like if I went after them while they were down, they would jolt like a new stitched, reach out, and grab me.”
“It’s good if you go with your gut,” Jamie said.
“Done pretty well for me so far,” I said. I sighed. “I’m so tired of running all the time.”
“What I said before, about preying on weaknesses?”
“I’m not sure the nobles here have any. The pet bird didn’t have any. The explosion roughed them up, but… they’re a step above the Baron and the Twins. A few steps above. Even with that, I wouldn’t say there’s a weak point to hit, or anything I can do or say that would affect them.”
“I’d offer something to help,” Jamie said, “But I don’t know much. Augustus is close to the Infante, and is in the Infante’s neighborhood when it comes to the line of succession. The way things unfold, he probably won’t ever wear the crown, barring incident. Children are born, they’ll fill up the space between Augustus and the Crown, but… it’s not entirely out of the question?”
“From what I read in the news, he’s only just ventured out from noble holdings to take a hand in affecting the world.”
“Reminds me of the young nobles that I met on the train. They were new to the world too.”
“Stems from the work they have done on them, I think. They need time to recuperate, so they’re fully prepared and fully recovered by the first time they show their faces,” Jamie said.
“Can’t show the public the wrong face.”
“I wish I knew more about Augustus’ motivations,” Jamie said. “But I read the newspapers, I read the books that cover modern history, and I’ve heard people talk, and… I have no idea.”
“He’s an extension of the Crown,” I said. “I wonder if, the closer you get to the top, the less they seem like people.”
“Maybe. The one with him, you called her the Falconer?”
“Closer to the Duke in general rankings, but kind of a youngest-daughter of the youngest-daughter thing. Further away in the chance of getting the Crown, but maybe one day she would marry someone close to the Crown, and settle into a position of power. It says a lot that the Infante seems to like her.”
“Where did she first appear?”
“London, or so I heard. Her debut was here,” Jamie said. “Same as Augustus.”
“She’s interesting,” I said.
“Interesting?” Jamie asked.
“I can’t put my finger on it. But she draws my eye. There was a moment, she was chasing me, and my instinct was to throw myself at her.”
“That’s… much worse than being a hopeless flirt, Sylvester.”
“That’s not what I mean,” I said.
“Either she’s Helen tier in being able to manipulate people, and she puts on a cold face while beckoning them closer, raw physical attractiveness that makes even clever enemies do dumb things or a presence gives her a kind of gravity…”
“Science or natural ability?”
“Both? Neither? Being compelling on Mauer’s level while being silent ninety-five percent of the time? Whatever it is, if it’s that, then it would make me personally revise her chances at getting the Crown to be much, much higher than you’re suggesting.”
“Fair,” Jamie said.
“The other option is… I don’t even know. That there’s chemistry, purely between her and me? One way, considering her apparent desire to murder me.”
I felt Jamie’s hands stop working on the stitching of my scalp.
“Not like that,” I said. “I don’t think?”
Jamie’s hands resumed their work.
“If we end up having to kill her, I’m going to be very annoyed at the lack of answers.”
“Noted,” Jamie said.
“But if you happened to catch sight of her, and if you caught any clues at all…”
“I’ll pass them on,” Jamie said.
“Thank you, sir.”
It took a moment for Jamie to finish up the work. I sat up, and gingerly touched around my scalp to see that everything was intact.
“Well done,” I said.
Jamie gave me a little bit of a salute.
“Trapped some of my hair under a stitch, I feel like, or in a knot. How does it look?”
“Wet,” Jamie said, dryly.
“Ha ha. Shirley? Please?”
“Your hair looks fine, Sylvester.”
“You’ll look nice if you run into the Falconer again today,” Jamie said.
“Ha ha,” I said, again. I mentally weighed how far I could push things in poking fun at him, but I didn’t get a chance to follow through.
The carriage turned, and it was going at a high enough speed that one wheel lifted up off the ground.
I looked out the window. We were on a major street.
“We’re close to Mauer,” Jamie said, after a glance out the window, at the skyline. “Almost at the foot of the building he was supposed to be camped in.”
“They’d have to be crazy,” I said.
“They chased us this far?” Shirley asked.
The guy driving the carriage banged one hand against the side, hard. The vehicle was slowing.
“That, or it’s Mauer,” I said. “It has to be Mauer.”
With some risk to life and limb, the mustachioed man who had been driving the carriage leaped clear of the seat, in the direction my window faced, and stumbled as he landed on the road, before scrambling to run off.
The horse slowed further.
“We’re stopping,” I said. “Driver made a run for it. Trouble is incoming. Shirley? Stay here until we signal you.”
“Okay,” Shirley said.
Jamie and I glanced at each other.
“Weapons?” Jamie asked.
“Scalpels, a knife, a needle of something I’m pretty sure is poison. Used my gas canisters.”
“Trade you,” he said. He reached over to the seat and handed over a pistol.
“I could have used this earlier.”
“I didn’t have this earlier, you ninny,” he said. “I grabbed it while we were looking for a carriage with a driver we could bribe.”
I sighed, took the pistol, and slid the scalpel across the seat between us.
Jamie and I opened our doors.
I saw something move, fast, out of the corner of my eye, and I slammed my door shut. Jamie was a second behind me.
It crashed rather than explode. A kind of artillery shell, but made of something closer to glass than to metal.
There were other impacts. One struck the carriage itself.
Each splash of liquid from the containers billowed smoke on contact from air.
“They’re coming,” I said. “A moment ago, I would’ve said seventy five percent chance it’s Mauer, twenty five percent chance it’s them, but-”
“Fifty-fifty?” Jamie asked.
“Yeah,” I said.
The smoke was expanding to the point that some of it was leaking in through gaps in the carriage. Shirley still had the gas mask I’d given her in the lab, and she pulled it on.
I leaned over, as the gas came in through a crack in the door, and I wafted it to my nose with one hand, like I’d seen scientists do.
Slightly acrid, but I couldn’t smell much in the way of chemicals. Nothing too medicinal. Subtle.
I’d spent my life around labs, both hostile and questionably friendly.
I opened my door and stepped outside, breathing deeper.
Even with my emotions running high, I couldn’t sense any shifts, major or miniscule, in how my body reacted. My capillaries didn’t suddenly draw up more blood or vent it. My breathing was fine. The taste on my tongue was mostly neutral.
“Safe?” Jamie asked from within the carriage.
“No idea. But it doesn’t seem unsafe,” I said.
With the smoke and rain being what they were, the visibility had been reduced. I could make out large details within fifteen feet or so, and the general shape of things out to thirty feet, maybe. But beyond that, things were a blur.
Very likely the intention.
Jamie opened and closed his door, venturing outside to stand in the smoke, on the other side of the carriage.
Could we run? Not out of the question. The cover was as helpful to us as it was to anyone else.
I felt rather than heard the heavy footsteps of the two stitched giants.
Two nobles, new to the world, much in the same way Jamie is.
The world is your oyster. Expectations for you both are so very high. You were tasked with handling this situation. You have something to prove.
I wasn’t sure if that qualified as a weakness, when they were fully capable of providing that proof in spades. Now here they were, on the doorstep of a noble-killing rebel leader, facing down two Lambs, one of whom had killed several nobles, and they were using the cover provided by some kind of smoke weapon to deal with one enemy while ignoring the second.
I twirled the pistol in my hand, finger in the trigger-guard. I caught it by the handle.
I made out the general shape of the giants, looming through the cloud, as visible by the rain that formed a mist as it bounced off of their heads and shoulders as they were by the silhouettes they cast.
Jamie and I moved away from the giants, circling around the carriage, until we stood almost back to back, each of us with one pistol and a blade in hand.
I put a hand back, close to the side of Jamie’s face, and, knife still in my left hand, gestured.
Empty. Eye. Alert.
“Yeah,” he said, his voice barely above a whisper.
The giants were flanking us. One in front of the carriage, one behind.
The empty, inviting space was one that was sure to have nobles lurking within it.
“Shirley,” I said, just loud enough to be heard.
“We’ll make a run for it soon,” I said.
The Falconer stepped out of the smoke. It flowed off and around her, as if she was eminently at home in it. Her bird wasn’t with her.
She moved easily, with no suggestion of the injuries we’d inflicted with the rolling explosion. Her head was angled in such a way that she could watch the both of us with one eye. She maintained a set distance from us, walking sideways across our field of view, emerging from and disappearing into smoke.
“My lady,” I said.
I hadn’t really meant to speak.
Jamie’s hand moved, reminding me.
Empty eye. What we couldn’t see was more dangerous. Where we weren’t looking was more dangerous.
Giant to the front of us. Giant to the back of us. A Falconer without her bird to the right of us, and Augustus…
Augustus appeared, a lesser giant in his own right, very near the Falconer, to the right of us.
Leaving the left entirely open. It would mean moving further from Mauer, but it was inviting. Safe emptiness.
I knew who or what it was that was guarding that emptiness, laying in wait to strike at us.
“Just saying,” I murmured, “I really hate that damn bird.”
“I hear you,” Jamie said.
“And I really hope you didn’t pay that carriage driver in advance.”
“I didn’t,” Jamie said.
The Falconer kept moving, back and forth, taunting. Augustus was very still. Our ability to see him was entirely dependent on the vagaries of the wind. The rain came down hard.
The giants only loomed.
Come on, Mauer. I know you can’t see us to open fire, but even blind fire might give Jamie and I a better chance than what we had.
One of the giants moved. Again, the glass or clay or ceramic or whatever it was broke.
Replenishing the smoke. They’d been the source of it.
“What you plotted,” Augustus said, in his Crown accent. “The explosion was your doing. But did you intend for it to hurt Mauer too?”
“Not so much,” I responded.
“Father will be disappointed.”
I kept my eye out for the bird. Even flightless, it was far too dangerous, and it was the hardest opponent to see in the thick of the smokescreen.
“He probably will,” I said. “But I imagine that when you’re as grand a figure as the Lord Infante is, us lesser mortals are nothing but fonts of disappointment.”
“You would be surprised,” Augustus said, in that cultured accent. “Many rise to the occasion.”
“Thing is, I’m not a riser,” I said. “That’s not how I do things. I wallow. I get dirty and scraped and bloody, and I come close to drowning in the shallows of the muck.”
“So it seems,” Augustus said. “And your dead friend? Is he the same?”
I raised an eyebrow.
“No,” Jamie said. “I’m not a riser. I’m not a wallower. But maybe, when it comes to Sy and the people close to me, I can raise them up when and where even the Infante failed.”
“I like that,” Augustus said. “It would be nice if it was true.”
“Thank you,” Jamie said.
With where Augustus stood, and where the Falconer was pacing, it seemed like Jamie’s eye was more on the Falconer than on the fat noble.
I looked, my eyes searching the smoke for the bird. An irregular shape, low to the ground, with even less body mass than me, but it was a body mass that was all blade, beak, and talon.
In the doing, I was looking away from the Falconer and from Augustus. I followed the conversation with my ears.
“I don’t think it’s true, though,” Augustus said. “Not if it ends with you both dead.”
Right. Without my eyes to go by…
I closed my eyes, and I stepped back, until my shoulderblades touched Jamie’s.
Let him be my eyes. If he moved, I’d feel it, and I could move accordingly.
I pushed my brain, which was only slightly less receptive to me nudging it this way and that, with Wyvern a couple of days old, and I focused on my ears. Listening past the rain.
There had been a time, once, when I’d almost been able to hear the Ghosts. When Percy’s creations communicated in noises too high pitched for humans to hear, I’d caught a glimmer of something.
I was listening for the scratch of talon on road, or the first movement of the giants, or the scuff of August’s shoes as he brought his weight to bear and charged in a moment when the direction of the wind and the thickness of the cloud of smoke made him hardest to see, or as the giant lobbed the next jar to spread more smoke cover.
But, while listening for those things, placing my enemies and visualizing the battlefield, I thought perhaps I caught a glimmer of that sound.
I’d stood with my back to Jamie’s to use him as a warning system, but as I threw myself to one side, he matched my movement.
I heard rather than saw the talons scratching the wood of the back of the carriage, as the Falconer’s raptor threw itself at us and hit the carriage instead.
Jamie and I opened fire, emptying our guns at the thing, putting bullets into the back of the same carriage Shirley was inside.
Because there was no other option than to kill that thing.
It made a terrible sound as it crumpled to the ground.
“Shirley!” Jamie called out. He and I were on exactly the same page as we ran. Shirley burst out of the door, none of our bullets in her, thankfully, and followed us.
I was looking back at her as I saw the Falconer jump up and onto the wagon, as if she was as light as air. Graceful.
If she cared about her beast dying or having been shot, she didn’t show it.
I fired my gun backward and in her general direction, and I saw a hint of a reaction.
I doubted it would kill her.
We had to flee from the direction of the tall hotel building Mauer was inside to seek shelter elsewhere. It was very possibly what the nobles had intended, herding us lambs away from possible help and reinforcements.
We were able to cross the streets before they drew close.
As we did, leaving the smoke behind and entering the comparatively light alley, we saw the very reinforcements we were supposed to be getting steered away from.
Mauer was in the alley, along with a small regiment of his soldiers. There were two rows of the men, some kneeling, others standing behind them. The guns they held were special. Exorcist rifles, and then the new ones. The noble-slaying ones. What had he called them? Guillotines? Something else?
With all the guns pointed our way, Jamie and I balked momentarily. But when Mauer didn’t give the order to fire, and when the soldiers didn’t take their own initiative on the matter, we started forward again, weaving between the soldiers to reach the other side.
“Not wholly what I had in mind,” I told Mauer, “But this will do.”
His face was stone, his expression dark.
I could hear the stomps of the giant, and for an instant, I thought I knew what we would see – the giant appearing, holding his shield before him, ready to plow through our ranks like a runaway carriage.
But it was Augustus. Only Augustus.
“Fire,” Mauer said.
The soldiers did. One clean shot from each of them, the Exorcist rifles first. Then the special noble-slaying rifles. Augustus raised his arm, blocking his eyes with one forearm.
I saw the blood, and the flecks of flesh tearing away, and the explosions of gore as the special noble-killing rifles did their work.
The shots fired, the soldiers broke rank, backing away swiftly, the ones with the exorcists reloading quickly.
Augustus lowered his arm. All over his body, in places, I could see that the damage was less than a centimeter deep. It stopped at a layer of fat beneath the skin, and where whole chunks had been peeled away, I could see strange patterns.
“I thought those special rifles were supposed to be able to penetrate the plates of a warbeast’s armor,” I told Mauer.
Mauer was silent.
“You’ve shot him before, and it didn’t work.”
He didn’t answer me. Instead, he said, “Flame.”
Two of the men pulled the pins out of containers, lobbing them. They erupted with what looked like flaming oil, fiery droplets and dribblings falling as they arced in the air.
Augustus moved to one side, in the same moment it made contact with the ground, he knocked it back with the side of one foot. Flames licked against his boot.
With the other, the noble grabbed it with one bare hand, and he cast it back and behind him. Open flame licked his hand, front and back, and he ignored it.
“Retreat!” Mauer called out.
He wasn’t talking to Jamie and I, but we sure as all damn listened.