Augustus charged after us, while Mauer’s contingent aimed backwards, shooting in his general direction. One arm remained raised, protecting his face, his other arm reaching forward.
Without losing momentum, he put a hand out and pushed one of the men, a hand on the back of the man’s head.
Augustus’ weight, heft, strength and momentum were enough that when he shoved the man’s head to one side, he could grind it against the nearest building. Brick, branch, and stone tore and chipped at the man’s face, and the man’s feet stumbled, then dragged uselessly against the ground.
Something more significant shattered as the fellow’s face was driven into a bit of trim at the outside corner of the building.
He caught up to the stragglers, seized one, and hurled him into another, before stepping more to one side, to step where the two men’s legs overlapped.
A moment later, switching the arm he covered his face with while reaching out with the other, he’d seized a fourth man. The motion he used to toss him aside was a sharper one – one that I suspected left the victim dead before he even smashed into the nearest surface.
We passed through a wrought-iron arch and gate that was fixed to the walls on either side of the alley and a moment later, Mauer was through, standing by it, ready to close it as the stragglers came through.
Augustus caught up to some of those stragglers, grabbed one of them, a woman in a shirt and pants, not a uniform.
-And held her, without killing her outright. He advanced, moving quickly, dragging her with him. He knew what Mauer was doing, and he was making the decision has hard as possible.
Mauer slammed the gate, then turned the heavy key that was in the lock.
Augustus drew back, and kicked out as he drew near enough. His foot slammed into the bars of the gate, bending them outward.
Guns cocked, aiming at the spaces between the bars. Mauer raised his good arm, telling them to stop.
Augustus leaned forward, fingers interlocked with the horizontal and vertical grille of the wrought iron, his forearm across his forehead and eyes. Metal creaked.
I wondered if he was strong enough to tear metal. I really wasn’t sure.
Shirley was clutching Jamie’s hand.
“Mauer,” Augustus said, not moving. “We finally meet.”
“First Augustus, my lord,” Mauer said, injecting a venomous sort of sarcasm into the final two words.
“I mark this as the fourth time you’ve shot at me,” Augustus said. “Each time, I live, and people who serve you suffer…”
The woman he held screamed, scratching at his hand with her hands, kicking with her legs. He held her lower face by one hand, arm limp at one side, and his white-knuckled fingers were pushing into her mouth. From the looks of it, the pressure of the fingers was pushing teeth out of place or breaking them outright.
“…And die,” Augustus finished the statement. He glanced down at the woman. “Eventually.”
“Judging by the shield-bearing stitched you brought this time around, you seem to have some concerns.”
“Time spent getting new flesh put back on is time I’m not spending on hobbies and studies,” Augustus said. He smiled, his cheeks dimpling. “But I don’t think it’s worth throwing these lives away to cost me an afternoon of my time. Not unless you hate me beyond all measure and reason.”
“No, it isn’t worth throwing away lives for that…” Mauer said.
Liar, I thought. I could read things into the cadence of his reply, the way he crafted his voice, and I knew he wasn’t telling the whole truth. He was closer to that line beyond measure and reason than he might pretend to be in front of others.
“…But you protect your eyes, little noble. I know you have some reason to worry. And that’s reason enough to keep trying.”
“Until you exterminate us all?” Augustus asked. “And then the others, who come to replace us? The line of succession in coming generations will certainly be interesting, then. I’d say you could even earn your place as a footnote in history books, but we write those.”
“The knowledge that any noble can die will linger,” Mauer said.
“I’m alive,” Augustus said. “You’re an orator, Mauer, or so I hear. You know that what matters most in a statement is how it begins and how it ends. Your statement began with failure, courtesy of the youths who just recently found their way to your side-”
He looked at me and Jamie.
“-and adjustments are already underway. Life always finds a way, and the pace of our engineering will always outpace your trinkets. Your statement will end with the nobility proving that we cannot die, not even in the face of your special bullets.”
Mauer spoke, “All the same, any statement has to be mindful of its punctuation, or it starts to fall to pieces. The importance of a full stop here and there shouldn’t be underestimated.”
He mimed shooting a gun with his fingers, as he articulated ‘punctuation’. The action or the wit made Augustus laugh, loud.
Not quite as refined as the Infante. The laugh gave him away. But there were hints of the Infante there. A different sort of focus. He knew full well what he was, and he was eminently comfortable here. He was confident.
I gestured at Jamie. Flank. Bird woman. Big.
Yes, Jamie signaled, before gesturing a direction.
He was guessing where. Was she going over rooftops? Attacking from on high?
Mauer had to know. He wouldn’t ignore the other enemies on this battlefield he’d prepared. He’d had the sense to set up in a place where he knew he could retreat, where the gate was ready and waiting, to bar the noble’s path.
But… Augustus was smiling. One dimple, a lopsided smile.
I knew, in the instant that I had that realization, that Augustus was going to try something.
“Full stop,” Augustus said.
“We all die someday, even boy nobles,” Mauer said, and he made those last two words sound more contemptuous and insulting than if he’d called Augustus a pile of bird shit.
Augustus smiled. Still one-sided. One dimple, not two.
“You may well be right. They talk about true immortality, and we’ve even devised some forms of it, mind you, there were rumors about some work being done in the western Crown States, but there are always rumors. It is always a few years on. In coming decades, we’ll see if some of the current trials pan out. But I expect to live a very long, comfortable life, all the same.”
Don’t, I thought. Just walk away, Mauer.
I looked over at Jamie, who was standing on the other side of Mauer, just in time to see him glancing over at me.
He had to have a bad gut feeling too.
“I plan to prove you wrong on that,” Mauer said.
“Do you? Then take aim, reverend,” Augustus said. He dropped his arm. His little eyes narrowed, and he spoke through a half-smile. “You alone, I’ll let you draw your gun, aim at me, pull the trigger. Aim for my supposed weak point. Punctuate that statement you’re trying so desperately to make. One shot.”
I backed away a few steps. I bumped up against the front of a soldier, who put his hand on my shoulder. Off to the side, Jamie was leading Shirley back as well.
“And you won’t move?” Mauer asked, moving his coat aside to put a hand on the handle of the pistol at his waist.
Mauer drew, and the crack was sharp, audible, and visceral.
The crack had nothing to do with Mauer’s gun. No, that fired too, a fraction of a second later.
I could see the blood at Augustus’ temple, where the bullet had grazed.
The ringing aftermath of the gunshot was joined by the renewed screams of Augustus’ captive. Her lower face in his grip, he’d snapped her jaw in the moment before Mauer had placed his bullet through one of those small, piggy eyes.
Mauer had flinched.
The moment passed, and Mauer adjusted, pulled the trigger again, four shots in rapid succession.
But Augustus was turning away, the bullets gouged flesh at the side and back of his head, and caught one ear.
Mauer changed tack, aiming at the woman Augustus held.
The whites of her eyes were visible.
His back to Mauer and the gun that was aimed at the woman’s forehead, Augustus said, “Take her. Give her care. I’m not without mercy.”
And he dropped her.
Mauer gestured, arm sweeping down, and the rest of his men fired. Rifles unleashed their bullets, each aimed through the wrought iron gate.
Augustus simply walked away, the bullets punching holes into him, and tearing off their chunks of flesh.
When he was a distance away, bullets now pinging off of walls in front of and to either side of Augustus, Mauer raised his hand.
The guns stopped firing. I watched as Augustus turned a corner. He was circling around. He’d find another path to us, possibly, or retreat elsewhere to heal.
I was betting on the former.
This is far from good. Now Mauer is going to be mad. Who is the nearest target for that anger?
“Eric,” Mauer said. “See to the woman, bring her. Be gentle.”
He wheeled around, and much as I’d predicted, he reached out, seizing me by one shoulder.
“Everyone else, march,” he said, to his men, while he steered me. Now that I could see the group in whole, I could tell that only some were Mauer’s soldiers proper. Others looked to be ragtag rebels of another stripe. The presence and lack of uniform elements marked the two groups.
The woman that Augustus had maimed would be a part of the latter group, then. Mauer had probably picked up the best riflemen he could find, from among his contingent and sympathetic groups hereabouts.
Worth paying attention to, that. The possibility of a rogue element among the rebels, which both Mauer and I considered likely in a place like Gomorrah, and the fact that Mauer had help. He’d extended his reach, included other groups. That meant he likely had reinforcements in the wings.
I knew I could have said something to comment on the encounter with Augustus, but I suspected that would have been suicide. I kept my tongue and waited for him to take the lead.
“You got several of my people killed,” Mauer said.
“Yes,” I said.
I could have been glib, turned to wordplay, been clever about this, but I had strong suspicion Mauer wasn’t in the mood.
“I told you that if you got in my way again, I would see you dead.”
“That explosion on the street, that was us. They were making a move against you.”
“I was and am fully aware they were making a move against me,” he said. He used tone to make ‘was and am’ into less of a redundancy and more into nails that fixed his argument into place, made it sound that much more definitive.
Even now, I wished I could pick his sentences to pieces in a less grim context.
Instead, I talked, “And you planned to fight it out. I get it. You lost a handful of people here, and I’m willing to bet they were good soldiers,” I said. “But if you’d fought it out with their full forces, you probably would have lost a lot more.”
“Very likely,” Mauer said.
Was that it? Did he agree?
If so, he’d likely agreed from the moment he saw us and didn’t order us gunned down.
He changed tacks. “Jamie Lambsbridge. You were the one who read out the names of the fallen, back in Radham. People who turned out to be alive, as it happened.”
“I thought of that moment when I heard reports of your untimely end,” Mauer said. “Reported dead, only to be proven alive. My suspicion was correct.”
“Even if the pursuer is only suspicious it’s not the truth, it’s a good thing to be considered dead, when you’re a fugitive.”
“Mm hmm. The fact that you were showing yourself to me, I momentarily wondered if it was you extending a measure of trust or if it was desperation.”
Trust and desperation are both things you can use, as a manipulator. Another small facotr into why he hadn’t just had us shot.
“And the young lady?”
“Shirley, reverend,” Shirley said.
“I’m not a reverend anymore,” Mauer said. “These two were part of the group responsible for that.”
“Ah. I’m sorry.”
“Who or what are you, Shirley?” Mauer asked.
“A bystander. A colleague of theirs.”
“Mauer,” I said, interrupting, and working to take focus off of Shirley. “There’s a third group, led by Montgomery.”
“Yes, I know this. I’ve followed their movements.”
“And the Falconer, whatever her name is, she’s behind us, eight o’clock, on the rooftops. Or thereabouts.”
Mauer glanced over one shoulder.
Then he stopped.
“So she is,” he said.
My eyebrows went up. I turned to look, as Mauer motioned for his men to stop running.
She was barely visible, through the rain. A small figure on a building six floors tall.
Her head was angled, her hair blowing across her face, her skirt flapping in the wind. She stood at one corner of the building with one arm extended, saber in hand and pointing up and out. It caught the light, and for that reason alone, she was visible.
Jamie and Shirley drew closer to me, looking in the Falconer’s direction.
“So that’s her,” Jamie said, under his breath. “Wish I had a better look at this young noble that has you so fascinated, Sy.”
“Yeah,” I said. “We might just get one.”
As if to disagree, Mauer gave his men a signal.
As one, they fell into position, the ones near the front kneeling, the rest standing behind them, the butt end of each rifle pressed against shoulder, eyes looking down sights.
“Vic,” Mauer said. “Your feeling?”
“With the exorcists, this wind, this distance, shooting up? Better chance of throwing a thread and getting it through the eye of a needle.”
“Then lower the exorcists. Corey?”
“Could do,” Corey said, in a burr of an accent, “Not likely, but could do.”
What’s she even doing? Giving direction?
To what? The giants?
“Do,” Mauer gave the order.
The two guns fired, loud.
The Falconer, atop her perch, did not topple or react.
Both men began reloading their guns.
“Re-arm while you walk,” Mauer said. “It was worth trying. We’re-”
Something hit the same rooftop the Falconer was on. A thick, dark cloud spread from the point of impact.
Those same containers the giants had been throwing before. The ones that became massive clouds of smoke on breaking.
The Falconer stood on the roof next to the expanding cloud of smoke.
“She’s coming,” I said.
“Retreat,” Mauer said. “And re-arm!”
We turned to go, picking up the pace as we did so.
The next two shells were flung so they landed on the street between where we were and the wrought-iron fence that had separated us from Augustus.
I saw a glimmer of the Falconer moving, pointing her blade in a slightly different direction, guiding the ongoing fire.
Then the smoke covered her, and she was gone.
“Mark?” I asked Jamie, giving him the matching gesture.
“Marked,” Jamie said.
I was so tired. The food I hadn’t eaten was getting to me now. Muscles were twitching in my legs, and my knees wobbled a bit mid-stride, as I put my weight down on them. The mistake had been stopping and then starting again. Letting the adrenaline fade, when I’d been counting on it to give me the push I needed.
“What’s this ‘mark’?” Mauer asked.
“Her position,” Jamie said. “Where she is now. Where she can be. The routes open to her, given what I know about the environment. She can travel down the building face, I assume, or jump down to the next building, detour to one side. Go down the stairs in the building itself, if she’s hurt and doesn’t feel up to any acrobatics.”
“She wouldn’t be that high up if she wasn’t sure she could swoop down,” I said.
“Right,” Jamie said.
“I don’t get the impression she’s angry. We killed her bird, but I feel more like she has others. They’re tools. Weapons. But she’s motivated, and that’s more dangerous than her being angry. She’ll take a more direct path.”
“Jumps down to next building, jumps down to overhang above door, then to street. Moves along our right, catches up, flanks?” Jamie asked.
“I can see it,” I said.
“Or straight down building face, to road. Using cover of smoke, comes right after us,” Jamie said. “Risking getting shot at.”
I thought of how she had stalked us. “Any paths that branch off of that one? Flanking us? Or descending on us?”
“Several,” Jamie said. He gestured for me.
Mauer surveyed the area. We’d reached an area where, in place of a block of four to six large buildings, there was an empty lot. It had sat empty for some time. Crushed stone littered the area that would later be the foot of a building, and a combination of grass and brick paths filled out the rest of the square. Tall buildings surrounded us.
Mauer took us further down, to where short walls surrounded gardens in front of one stout apartment building.
“Stop here,” Mauer said. “Point out her paths. Where does she come from?”
Jamie pointed again.
Jamie indicated one street.
Jamie indicated one street over.
“Reinforcements. Montgomery? The people you didn’t kill in the explosion?”
“Reinforcements…” Jamie turned around, pointing off to our left and behind us. Then he went back, indicating the street the giants would be coming from. “…And the ones we didn’t kill.”
“Then we wait,” Mauer said. His men immediately moved to form a firing line along the wall. “The shieldbearers, they’ll be protecting the regiment?”
“Yes,” I said.
Mauer turned his head, studying Jamie.
“Yes,” Jamie echoed me, confirming.
“You were the one I heard reports of, scouting out this area,” Mauer said. “You’re using what you studied while you were making your way around.”
“Yes,” Jamie said. “I thought I was more inconspicuous than that.”
“If you’d come and gone, yes. But you stayed,” Mauer said. His tone changed as he asked, “Were you also the one who told them where we had a headquarters?”
“No. Absolutely not,” Jamie said. “I followed Sylvester to the building you brought him to. When he left, I lost track. I decided to stay, and count on the fact that he might return.”
“The building. Yes,” Mauer said. His tone changed again. Softer. “Did you investigate?”
“Yes,” Jamie said.
“Did you find anything?”
“I found that they were careful,” Jamie said. “That they used poison, and in two corners of the building, they made and used fires, to burn evidence. Papers, some clothing. When they were done, they raked through the ashes to be certain.”
“And with this powerful mind of yours, did you find anything?” Mauer asked.
“I made plans to visit again with Sylvester. In hopes our minds together would uncover something we couldn’t find alone.”
Mauer didn’t say anything, nor did he do anything in particular, but I could sense the disappointment.
“We’ve been working through it in our heads,” I said. “Talking it over, getting the shape of it. This isn’t a phantom we’re chasing.”
“Let’s hope,” Mauer said.
The enemy didn’t arrive immediately. They took their time. Long enough for that adrenaline to fade.
I stood at the wall, next to Jamie, while Shirley sat a short distance behind us, behind cover.
“Your first taste of battle?” I asked Shirley. Then I reconsidered. “Sorry. Nevermind.”
“I’ve fought,” Shirley said. “Face to face. Tooth and nail. Fingernails digging into skin.”
“I should have thought twice before I said anything. My thoughts are slippery today, getting away from me.”
She shook her head. “I think everyone has a story. In the midst of all of this, a nation at war, the people trying to hold on to some humanity while a great engine works and pushes things further along another track, inch by inch, foot by foot, mile by mile. Even on the ground level, at the very base of it all, it pushes people to desperation. We all have to fight at some point, don’t we?”
I suspected that Mauer could overhear. Some of his soldiers could.
“Mauer would likely say that he hopes so. That he prays for a world where we get the opportunity to keep fighting, and dreads a world where that desperate scrabbling stops.”
“And you?” Shirley asked.
“I think back at a winter and spring spent in Tynewear, with Jamie, some music playing, food in the icebox, kettle boiling for tea, and our concerns were relatively distant ones,” I said. “Good company, needs met, with no desperation to speak of. I want that for the people I care about.”
Jamie, hunkered down by the wall, just a short distance from me, smiled a little.
“It was awfully nice,” Jamie said, quiet. “But you’re being disingenuous.”
“You were out every other night, robbing people, gathering information, stirring the pot…”
“Shhh,” I said, again. “I was talking about the nicer part. It sounded good, didn’t it?”
I thought about Mary, Helen, and Lillian. About Ashton and the new Lambs, and the Mice of Radham.
“I want that nicer part,” I said, “for the people they care about. And it’s annoying, but some of them care about the whole damn world. So I guess I’m… I’m stuck. Because I want an impossibly good outcome for too many people, and I’ve got no time to do it. I’m bound to last as long as Jamie does, and then I’ll go mad, like I’d been doing before I was so rudely interrupted.”
Jamie gave me a sidelong glance.
“So, plan revised, I think we have to fight. We do the best we can. But we don’t do it so that everyone who comes after can fight for as long as the species lasts. We do it so that the people who come after don’t have to. Or so they have the chance to make it possible for the people after them. But we fight because I think there’s a way.”
“Yes,” Jamie agreed. “And that way involves killing the people at the top until the system self-adjusts, and they stop putting forth people who deserve to be killed.”
“Well, that’s part of it,” I said.
“I think I understand,” Shirley said. “I mean, I understand, but I understand what you’re doing in the bigger picture.”
“Sorry it took as long as it did for us to get around to explaining our thoughts,” I told her.
“Jamie and I talked about it before,” she said. “But I don’t think I understood.”
Mauer’s voice interrupted our conversation.
“It is very easy to understand when you reduce the message down to its most basic,” the man said.
“That so?” I asked.
Too insolent, perhaps.
“Yes,” Mauer said. “Every second member of the Crown Empire and many, many people beyond it agree on this, I think.”
His eyes were focused on a point on the horizon.
“That they need to be cut down,” Mauer said. “Nobles, Professors, Doctors, and the systems they put in place.”
The horn blew. An answering horn blew nearby, behind us and to the left. The direction Jamie had indicated.
The fastest road Montgomery’s group could travel to reach us.
The giants provided a shield to protect the thin columns of rank and file, as they moved down the street. Men peeled off, entering the tall buildings.
Mauer stood with his back to the tall post at the end of the wall, one of two that someone would need to walk through to access the garden and walk to the front door of the apartment complex.
He gave no signal, he said nothing, but all the same, what followed was at his doing. At least in part.
The neighborhood erupted, turning on the organized rank and file of the Crown. Guns, yes, but from every building came an outpouring of work. I could see it, and I could see the elementary nature of the work that had been done. Experiments. Crude life, and modified life. Stitched. Men and women with weapons who were clearly drugged.
Yes, this was Mauer’s organization, but it was Fray’s books. In the heart of the Crown States, in the midst of Gomorrah, where the Crown’s hold was questionable to both sides, the rebellion had stirred into a small revolution, taking what had been the Academy’s and shaping it with their own inexperienced hands.
What followed was pure chaos, and that, to be sure, was my cue to take part.