The carriage wheels cut through snow with a thick ice crust, a faint steam rolling off of the backs of the stitched horses pulling the vehicle. The steam fogged the exterior of the carriage, and the fog froze into patterns.
There were fields to the left and right of us. Even covered in layers of snow, the different textures of different kinds of field made the individual sections stand out. A patchwork quilt in white, with bits of brown and black where shrubs or other plants poked through. The road was only visible by the faint indentation in the snow where there were ditches on either side, and by the lines of trees and fence that ran on either side.
In the distance, a warbeast passed between two trees.
He was a big fellow, with more sheer mass than our carriage, two sturdy stitched horses, and all six of the carriage’s occupants. Black furred, glowering, his head heavy with a fanged maw that was no doubt capable of biting a horse in two, he limped forward. His mass helped drive clawed feet deep into snow, and when he brought them up, they flung clumps of snow, dirt, and grass into the air.
The movement of his frontmost right claw was weak, disturbing less of the ground beneath him.
It was preoccupied, too. In another circumstance, it might have noticed us as it limped in our general direction. The haze of wet snow or hard rain obscured vision, and the warbeast was focused more on putting one leg in front of the other than on its namesake duty.
I silently gestured for Rudy to stop. Rudy passed the instruction on to the horses.
I had climbed up onto the bench with Rudy not that long ago. I’d wiped it as dry as I could using a towel, then folded and sat on the towel, and the seat of my pants was still getting damp.
Rudy and I waited, sitting very still, as the warbeast loped forward. Its one leg hampered, it moved less in a straight line and more in a gradual curve, entering the east side of the field and gradually turning north.
It took several minutes to make the quarter-circle journey across the field.
It was only when it was walking directly away from us that a flash of color signified what was wrong. At the great black warbeast’s right shoulder, red flowers had already set root and started the slow crawl over its body, no doubt burrowing into the creature’s flesh. The beast wasn’t howling in agony or rampaging, which suggested it had been made to ignore pain.
“Git,” Rudy instructed the stitched horses.
“Wait,” I murmured.
Just as soon as they’d started moving, Rudy brought them to a halt.
Another full minute passed. The wet and snow gathered around us, and the chilled air seemed to grow colder. The trees set ten feet apart from one another by the sides of the road weren’t much help when it came to the wind. The fields hereabouts were broad and flat enough to let the wind pick up a lot of speed before it reached us.
I thought fondly of the fire and Jessie’s armchair and cocoon. Bubbles had it good, sitting there on the wall as the fire dwindled hour by hour, heat leeching out of the fireplace. Then again, Bubbles had had it rough, sitting there for years without any company or creature comforts.
Ten males, probably Stitched with a handler, emerged from the same spot the black warbeast had. We watched from our vantage point as they followed the same course the warbeast had, rifles at the ready.
“They’re going to have a huck of a time mercy killing that’n,” Rudy commented.
“I’m willing to bet they are, Rudy,” I said. “But they can’t have it spreading plague around.”
“It’s not a good sign that there are already soldiers around.”
“Nope,” I said. I hunched over, pulling a blanket tighter against my body so the wind wouldn’t slip between me and it.
“It hurts to breathe,” Rudy said. “You can go inside the carriage if you want.”
“We’re close, I think. I want to watch out for trouble.”
“Yeah?” Rudy asked. “Can I go inside the carriage?”
I shot him a look. I saw how ice was forming at his eyebrows, even with his hat and hood pulled down, and at his eyelashes.
“Go on,” I told him.
He started to budge from his seat, then hesitated.
“We might have to walk back,” he remarked.
He indicated the stitched horses.
The steam still rose off of them. They were breathing hard, trying to maintain a necessary temperature. Hot, moist breath carried through the air and rolled past me and Rudy.
“Maybe,” I said. “I really hope we don’t.”
Rudy nodded. He still didn’t stand from the seat at the right end of the bench. “Not really earning my pay, am I?”
“You’re fine. Go.”
He handed over the reins. Clusters of ice that had bonded him to the seat crackled as he rose up, and more fell away from his overcoat as he turned to climb down then let himself into the carriage proper.
I had my own slough of ice as I shifted over, centering myself in the seat, and set the horses in motion again. It took some doing before the carriage was rolling enough to start properly rolling through the snow again.
I had to remind myself not to shut off the discomfort and the pain. The cold was seductive and sneaky. Drugs, alcohols, innate abilities, they all lulled one into a false sense of security when it came to bitter weather like this.
“Someone keep me company,” I said.
It took a moment, and for that full moment, I was legitimately spooked at the notion that it might not be a Lamb who took a seat next to me.
Ice crunched as he took his seat.
“Remember when we had the cold spell in Radham, and Nutsy kicked the Gibson family out?”
Gordon. I relaxed.
“They weren’t the Gibson family, were they?”
“No, but I don’t even remember their actual name, and you definitely don’t. It wasn’t Nutsy either, but it was a stupid, stupid name.”
“Sure,” I said, hunching over. “Yeah, I vaguely recall. Nutsy was that slumlord, freakishly tall-”
“Normal tall. Everyone’s freakishly tall when you’re short.”
“-and handsome? All the old women gushed over him,” I commented, trying to ignore the ‘short’ comment. I was conserving heat and energy.
“Women of all ages. Yeah, that’s the one. Remember why we hated the name? Because they’d all coo ‘Nawwwtsyyyy‘ in that saccharine tone, each one trying to outdo the others.”
“The ladies of Radham didn’t have any taste until Lillian and Mary,” I said. “It might actually be just Lillian and Mary. Something in the water, maybe?”
“If you were after looks only, he was alright, I imagine. Had a bit of German to him, square jaw, cleft chin, different enough in fashion to catch the eye. And he kicked a family out in the dead of a pretty awful winter. Because a pair of his friends wanted that apartment. Barely any warning, not giving the Gibsons a chance to get anything else lined up. The Gibsons had kids, the kids knew the mice, the mice knew us…”
“I remember,” I said, as it all fell into place. “You took him apart.”
“Yeah,” Gordon said. He turned his face skyward. He didn’t care about the dense, wet snow that collected on his face. He didn’t blink as it touched his eyes and eyelids. “I remember standing there while he lay on the floor, whimpering. It seemed like a forever passed while I tried to figure out how to hurt him so badly that they couldn’t make him pretty again without killing him in the process.”
“I gave advice, once I realized why you weren’t doing anything. I remember trying to be careful about it, because it was your show.”
“Why was it my show, again?” Gordon asked.
I had to think for a long moment.
“I was so young, then,” Gordon said. “Really inexperienced. I’d killed before, but he was the first person I killed that I wasn’t ordered to kill. It was-”
“Personal,” I finished.
“The Gibson daughter. But it wasn’t like that. I was at the bakery once with you and Helen, and I was fishing through my pockets for change, and Gwen Gibson slapped some money down. It was a nice gesture, for no reason. That was the first part of it. I might never have paid attention to them otherwise.”
“She wasn’t even sweet on you, I don’t think,” I said. “She thought you were funny and she felt bad because you were an orphan.”
“Yeah. They got kicked out, and they spent three days in the church before the law said they had to move on.”
“Can’t have people becoming dependent on the church.”
“The injustice of it infuriated me,” Gordon said. “That they could be kicked out like that, with that timing, that the Crown wasn’t on their side. Even the mice wouldn’t make space for them because Gwen Gibson and her brother still had their parents.”
“It was personal,” I said again.
“On a cosmic level, if personal vendettas can be cosmic. I found him, you helped. But it was my show, like you said. I used a hammer to do most of it, because I didn’t want to pause to change tools once I got underway. Shattered his teeth, his nose, cheekbones, the orbital ridges. Whack, whack, whack, all steady-like, kept up the same rhythm from start to finish. A part of my brain… I had one brain chosen from one person for one reason, and another part of a brain chosen for another. I think around the time I turned that metronome-steady destruction toward his hands, keeping the time while he flopped them around, moving them as much as he could with his shoulders demolished, I tapped into traces of personalities that I wasn’t supposed to be able to. Edges and trimmings that still remained.”
“You told me, a while later.”
“He died before I fully came back from thinking all black and scarred-like. I was so inexperienced, so young,” Gordon said.
“You were. We didn’t even have Lillian yet. Our balls hadn’t dropped.”
“This cold reminds me of that,” Gordon said. “That day, that moment. The unfairness of it.”
“Trying to correct things and making a bigger mess,” I commented.
“Now you’re seeing what I spent so long getting at,” Gordon said. “All while we’re riding a carriage down memory lane.”
“Country road twenty-one, I think,” I said.
“What I don’t get, and this is sort of annoying me at this stage, but why the hell do I remember all of that, minus a few names, while I can’t remember for sure who’s in the carriage and I have to do mental acrobatics to remind myself that it was Rudy up on this bench a little while ago?”
“Because,” Gordon said, “Remembering me as perfectly as you do means remembering the look on my face as I brought that hammer down, once a second, never missing, even as he flinched and tried to move out of the way.”
I exhaled, and raised a cold hand to my face to rub at it, wet but still lukewarm.
“There’s going to come a time, and it won’t be too long, but you’ll need the real estate, Sy. You’ll need to lose faces, like Evette was doing, to make better room for other memories. Otherwise you won’t stay functional.”
“If I do that, I can’t break my suspension of disbelief and stop thinking of the Lambs as phantoms.”
“You’re aware that’s a horrible idea, right Sy? This whole process will go more smoothly if you try to forestall the crazy. Don’t throw yourself down that slope and try to meet the rockiest, roughest bit with your face.”
“It’s nicer this way.”
“I’ll remind you that you said that,” Gordon said. “If I get the chance.”
I blew on my hands, rubbing them. “I wish I’d gotten to see more of the other Gordon. The fragments of personality.”
“They didn’t add up to a gestalt. They just… functioned. Barely.”
“I know, I know,” I said. “But he was so much less naggy.”
Gordon shot me a level glare.
“Yeah,” I said. “There’s our friendliest rabbit again. Why don’t you get lost?”
It seemed to be the rule now that the Lambs, Fray, and Mauer didn’t leave if I asked them to leave. Gordon stayed.
Pierre was approaching from the other end of the road. He’d made the hour-long trip down the country roads from the city to Sedge, then back out to the city, and now he was meeting me here, with no signs that he was any worse for wear.
One of his eyes squinted a touch where fur around it had frozen. His breath fogged, suggesting he’d been running moments before he’d slowed to a walk and strolled into view.
“Any word?” I asked.
Pierre shook his head.
“Dang it,” I said.
The carriage door opened. Jessie leaned out, saw Pierre, and then climbed up the side of the carriage, taking a seat beside me.
“It sounded like Sy was having a whole conversation up here,” Jessie said. “Glad it was you, Pierre.”
Pierre glanced at me, then looked at Jessie and gave her a bow. “They’re focused on the train.”
“Is it really salvageable?” I asked.
“I wouldn’t know,” Pierre said. “I don’t know about trains. But when they realized they couldn’t evacuate, they drew closer into the center of the city. A contingent is holding the train hostage.”
“It has to do with the rail system layout,” Jessie said. “So long as the train is there and train and tracks are all held hostage, trains can’t pass through. They can detour, but it sets a bad precedent, shifts weight of responsibility, denies them easy access from one port to the next. Supplying the east coast becomes a snarl. All because of this one roadblock, a city of two hundred thousand situated by the coast.”
I put a hand up by my mouth, whispering to Pierre, “She likes trains.”
“I’m aware,” Pierre said.
“Are you cold, Pierre? We’ve had you running here and there, and the weather is awful.”
“I’m mostly fine. Won’t complain if we find a fire to warm our feet by soon, but I won’t lose a finger or toe to the cold anytime soon. Even my face is pretty toasty,” he said. He gave his rabbit cheeks a pat.
“Good man,” I said.
“I’m worried about Shirley,” he said.
“We’ll help Shirley,” I said.
The wagon slowed as it ascended a hill. The heat rising off of our stitched horses had intensified, the steam picking up.
Rudy might be right. They might not last for the return trip.
As we crested the hill, we could see the scene.
The city wasn’t too large, as cities went, but it was a healthy one, organic in how things were laid out, all the components present and accounted for. It had a purpose it was built for, a port that could defend itself, and it had lived up to that purpose last night. It was surrounded by a wall. Two sections of the city looked quite well-to-do, with fancy, cathedral-esque architecture, and there was no sign of things being run down in the sprawls that extended out from the nicer areas.
“That side of the city,” Pierre said, pointing, “Is where the rebels attacked first. They set fires and fired guns at quarantine officers. When the city guards moved over to respond, another group of rebels attacked the opposite side, which was only lightly defended. I went to check on Shirley and the others before reporting to you. Plague hit like a lightning bolt. South end, north end, running through everything in between, cases cropping up everywhere.”
“Reminiscence,” I said.
From a distance, the collected Academy forces were clearly visible. It wasn’t a perimeter.
The others had climbed out of the carriage. Rudy, Second, Bea, Fang, and the Treasurer whose name I could never remember.
“You can see the traces of red,” Rudy said “A tracery of crimson-pink.”
Jessie and I glanced at the Treasurer.
His hair straddling the line between orange and blond, his build very stocky and appearing all the more so for the sweater-neck that extended up to his chin and the many layers he wore. He wore his gun comfortably and carried two knives, one of which had been his, the other won in a bet. He looked uneasy.
“Someone deliberately spread it?” he asked.
“It seems so,” Jessie replied.
The Treasurer had been planning to study epidemics and work in quarantine. He had been studying under a gray-coat specialist on the subject when his mentor had been caught fraternizing with non-human experiments in the lab. His parents had made him change schools to avoid the ensuing scandal. He had ended up at Beattle. From Beattle, he had made his way to us.
While others were drinking and enjoying each other’s company, our Treasurer was diving into his work. He bore a deep, simmering resentment against Academy, Crown and parents, and had been likely since his parents had insisted he change schools.
“They’re playing with fire, which means they’re stretched thin,” he decided. “Barely any soldiers or groups covering some tertiary roads, unless I’m missing something. Were there any rumors of strange monsters, Pierre?”
“Some,” Pierre said.
“Experimental measures to experimental measures,” the Treasurer said.
I quirked an eyebrow.
“It’s… a bad joke my boss once liked. They’re delivering experiment agents as one measure. Which suggests a mindset where they’re wanting or willing to try things that they aren’t certain will work… experimental measures.”
“They think they have nothing left to lose. Everyone in that city is likely dead.”
“Yes,” the Treasurer said. He looked out over the city, and there was the faintest glimmer in his eye of what I’d seen in Lillian while she was on Wyvern, a glimmer when I saw her passion for her work at work. “We’re going to lose the city. You might want to plan accordingly.”
“We’re planning on rescuing Shirley and our gang leaders,” Jessie said.
“Agreed,” I said.
Someone had attacked the city. They’d lost, according to Pierre. Violence provoked plague, plague had snapped through the city in a way that suggested the losing side might have decided to play dirty when they’d realized the direction things were going, and now we were going to lose Shirley, a city we needed to keep our camp running, and a painful amount of time and resources.
Our pheromone trick wouldn’t work if things remained as they were. We at least needed to be able to hitch a train.
“Cold weather should inhibit the spread of disease,” the Treasurer said.
“It didn’t,” I remarked.
“No,” he said. His face was perpetually sour, as if someone had just insulted his mother, but his eyes were aglitter. “It’s curious.”
“Poison?” I asked. “In the food? Water?”
“I don’t know where the fresh water supplies are,” the Treasurer said.
“I do,” Jessie said.
Then Jessie began running through it for the Treasurer, pointing out key details for the city proper.
While the Treasurer tried to plot the spread using that information, Jessie suggested, “It could have been set up in advance, except-”
“People are diffuse,” the Treasurer said. “Especially when it runs through one key area in town like this. It was too quick, too contained, if it was a line just like that, north to south, along some of the major roads.”
“Horse dung? Steam from a stitched horse?” I asked. “Something that actually uses the road?”
“Perhaps. I’m thinking it would be a food.”
“That’s pretty god-damn premeditated,” Second said.
His foul language went unremarked on. We were musing on the personality and attitude of someone who could spread a plague this ugly and do it intentionally.
“It might not be. Something this virulent?” the Treasurer asked.
“What are we doing?” Bea cut in. I did like how she was straight to business.
I glanced at Jessie, “Tell me if I’m forgetting something.”
“You’re forgetting everything, Sy,” she said.
I rolled my eyes a little.
“We rescue Shirley,” I said. “We rescue the gang leaders. If there’s a way to get this under control, we do that.”
“Where was she?” the Treasurer asked.
Jessie pointed, “By the large tree.”
“They’ll pick a large, roomy space with good lighting,” the Treasurer said. “Set up quarantine, screen a base population of people, while keeping others in their homes, then try to stay ahead of it.”
“They won’t,” I said, thinking of Tynewear. “This is a stalemate. The train held hostage, the Crown holding position at key points in the city. It’s a stalemate that won’t hold. If the plague spreads too far, if countermeasures don’t work, and experiments can’t kill people faster than they get infected, the Crown will erase the city from the map and rebuild the railroad.”
“How are we splitting up for this one?” Jessie asked.
“You stay outside-”
“Try again, Sy,” she said.
“You stay outside,” I tried again.
“No, Sy. You function better alongside me, and I know the city layout. If I get sick again-”
“Keeping in mind you’re prone to Ravage and Reminiscence.”
“-If I get sick again, I know you can handle it, you have a scalpel” Jessie said. “It’s cold, we’re covered up, and we have our suspicion that the plague is presently being spread by food. We don’t eat while we’re there.”
“They’ll close the borders of the city soon, as soon as reinforcements arrive,” the Treasurer said. “Getting in right now should be fine, but getting out is troublesome. You’ll want to go to some building in the nicer district there. One with room, possibly a jail, with cells.”
“The Little Castle,” Jessie said.
We looked at her.
“It’s the stone building with the tree growing out of one corner that looks like it was on fire not long ago. It’s not. I’d call it a hotel, but it’s not. It’s the sort of place that a lesser noble might stay in while traveling across the country. Aristocrats, visiting allies of the Crown, it’s a place they like.”
Pierre shifted his weight, antsy. His ears moved.
“If you’re cold at all, Pierre,” I said, “The inside of the carriage has a heatlamp.”
“I don’t like confined spaces,” Pierre said.
“I know,” I said, “But if you’re that uncomfortable-”
The ears moved slightly again. His shoulders moved back, chin raising.
“Please,” I said, very firmly. “Let me know. It matters.”
“Shirley is a good friend of yours and mine,” Pierre said. “I would like to see her safe and sound. I know for a fact you worked hard to recruit those men and women from the gangs of Laureas, and they aren’t insignificant. If we can save them too-”
“Pierre,” I said, firm.
What aren’t you saying?
Our lanky rabbit man fell silent, glancing off in the direction of the city.
“I’m not sure what’s going on,” Second said.
“Secrets,” Bea said. She leaned against the side of the carriage, next to Fang, her boyfriend of the now.
In the city itself, Warbeasts were being used to keep a crowd at bay. They roared, and even miles away, we could hear the echo of it.
They were working to seize control, leaning heavily on experimental measures, which meant things like Dog and Catcher, likely with some resistance or immunity to plague. The net would slowly close, reinforcements arrive, and the city faced bombardment, gassing, or cleansing by fire.
“Pierre. Trust us,” I said. “Trust that we value Shirley. That whatever it is, it won’t distract from that.”
He bent his head. “If she’s there, she’s in the same place as him. A man who meets the criteria you set when you had us stake out the area, looking for new arrivals and anyone important, passing through.”
“A noble?” I asked.
“No,” Pierre said. “But close. A noble’s doctor, one left recently without work. This is a man who served the Duke of Francis.”