He walked slowly, taking in the scene.
He hadn’t walked slowly in a very long time. It wasn’t how he operated. It wasn’t what he was. He always had a mission, if not several, and that mandated that he constantly be in motion, or that he be set in place, doing what the Crown needed him to do.
His memory was exceptional, his brains the best brains the Crown could provide. When he turned those brains and that memory to the task of thinking back, trying to picture the last time he’d strolled, as one might stroll in a garden, he only found scenes he’d staged, scenes where he was conveying an image. In those moments, his brains had been set to the task of focusing on the individual or individuals that he was strolling for, so it was never truly an opportunity to stop and smell the roses, so to speak.
But it was important to convey that he was unruffled, whether to an ally who needed reassurance or an enemy who needed to know their enemy was invincible.
As he dug through his memories, he had to reach back to childhood to find a time and place where he’d truly focused on the moment and not the destination. He’d been confined to a chair, legs missing, his upper body as much a series of containers and vessels for organ systems and ongoing work as it was actual body. He’d pushed himself, while his team of doctors followed behind.
He couldn’t remember the why of that moment. He’d been upset, angry at a relative, and he had wanted to think, so he had pushed himself out into the garden, and nobody had stopped him or wrested control of the chair from him. It was curious, because it must have been a justifiable anger, but when he’d found himself in the garden, the anger had faded, and he’d been free to witness the moment. Even now, he wasn’t sure what it had been about.
It was a very different sort of garden that the Infante found himself in now.
One hand raised, he held it up, and he watched as red petals blew in the wind, brushing his hand and fingers. His fingers traced the growths that sprawled across the city. A system of water absorption and transfer drew water from the coast and fed the plague growth that smothered the city. At the water’s edge, tendrils like the ones that had snared the plague victims floated on the water’s surface, a film that was alternately pink and brown, depending on how the light caught it. It might gain ground on that front if the ocean currents started to push a great deal of seaweed or other material toward the coast.
The ocean here didn’t smell like ocean, the city didn’t smell like city, and the countless dead who scattered the streets, buried under the carpets and tangles of red vines. Here and there, dessicated bodies lay, mummified by the environment, faces pulled into mocking smiles by the retreat of skin and the pull of the vines that were still hooked into them.
Everywhere, red flowers carpeted surfaces. From a distance, it looked like the buildings and streets were drenched in fresh blood. From as little as ten paces away, they looked like flowers. When he reached out to tear one free of the vine and held it before its face, the makeup of it looked more like a chimerical hybrid of a starfish and a snowflake.
No weeds grew, no birds roosted, no rodents or insects crawled through this very alive place, that whistled with the wind and gurgled with the movement of fluids.
Only his Professors kept him company, and they kept their distance, hanging back. They wore quarantine suits and were accompanied by gargantuan stitched servants in shrouds, with modified quarantine masks. The stitched were ten feet tall, and they shambled, bent over by the burdens they bore, laboratories packed into five hundred pound boxes. They were wearing robes that trailed on the ground behind them, and their expressions were limited to what the sculpted masks.
The Infante walked with his hands clasped behind him, drawing in a deep breath. His throat and lungs prickled with plague and the responses of the implanted countermeasures fighting it off.
His professors were the only souls around for a considerable distance around. The plague ensured that no others were near to see or to study him as he moved through streets and past war-torn buildings without particular pattern.
They might wonder at what he was doing, but they would never voice any of it.
After investigating a series of alleyways, a narrow market street, and a winding street with empty crates stacked on either side, threatening to lose the professors that followed behind him, he stepped out onto one of the wider streets, stood in the middle, and stopped.
It gave him a chance to let them find him and catch up, and it gave him a chance to stop. He could see the whole shape of this red-stained city, which hadn’t been a place of much worth before the plague had found root in it.
At one edge of the city, an Academy creation had crawled onto land and summarily died. There was sufficient bacteria, algae, or other material clinging to it for the plague to have crawled up onto it, embracing it. A great seaborne warbeast’s skull, returned to its original function as an anchor for a greater system of living material.
His deep breaths were mechanically powerful, forceful enough that if someone had clapped their hand over his mouth, he could have pulled the hand into his mouth with the power of the draw and even broken fingers in the process.
This was a principle that applied to every part of him. It applied to his legs as his professors emerged, finding him, and he started forward once again.
A part of him felt like a child unfettered. He breathed this air in the same way a child ate candy. It was prescribed as bad for him by the people who looked after his well being, but so long as there weren’t too many watching he would indulge himself. He felt it in his hands, and he felt it on his skin, countless spores trying to find root in his flesh.
He liked to understand his enemy.
He went where the ‘petals’ were thickest, and where the spores were heavy enough to appear as a fine red mist, that beaded on surfaces. There were many red herrings, misleading areas where the plague had found root in burned buildings and where bodies of plague victims had been stacked three high by the unwitting.
His stroll came to an end after he had made his way from these dense areas and macabre scenes for nearly a hour. He’d found what he’d come looking for.
In some places, the bodies were embraced by the red vines, a papery, dry skin drawn tight around bones and the networks of vines that stretched beneath skin. In other areas, there had been bones, some pulled away from the bodies by the pull and spread of the plague growth. In this particular garden, he had seen child and parent, a man and his dog, he had seen rodents aplenty.
But this was something else. It wasn’t anything natural to the Crown’s earth or derived of its denizens. The formation that peeked through a gap in a wall that the weather had cracked hadn’t even been fabricated, really, by any man. It had fabricated itself.
The Infante had to reach out and pull down a wall that was newer and more sturdily built than many of the ramshackle constructions in the area.
The bones were marked, as if a thousand deep cuts had been made into each bone, some at angles from one another. To do it by hand would have required wire to get into the crevices, and it would have required a hundred years. There was no flesh to draw tight against these bones, for it had been burned thoroughly. Quarantine chemicals had been thrown over it and catalyzed. If anything had remained alive and functional, trapped within char and gristle, it had been sealed away from the world by the clear crystalline growths that had resulted. A bug trapped in amber.
At least Mauer was thorough in his handling of this.
He looked back at his team of professors, and he raised one hand, bidding them to remain still. He ventured into the space.
The thing was headless, but its central column had something akin to ribs, which would have supported other parts. He thought of it as a rack, almost, with a play on words as he thought of the familiar torture device, and of ‘wrack’ and its root words in middle low german. To stretch, to reach.
It yawned open and apart, the individual spires, growths, and complex geometries of the rack like teeth in a wide open screaming mouth, a man’s ribcage opened up and splaying apart when he was being serviced in surgery or being tortured in inventive ways.
A crown lying on its side, its tines spearing in the Infante’s direction.
“I would like to name you, but it’s not my place,” the Infante spoke.
“My antithesis,” the Infante spoke.
Much as it had been a long time since he had taken a walk to enjoy the journey, rather than to position himself at his destination, the Infante hadn’t spoken for a long time without a proper audience, without modulating his powerful voice and keying it to optimal effect.
“They made you a tool to prop up the desperate multitudes. I was made and given the duty of constraining and punishing the few at the top who warrant it. You destroy, you lash out blindly, and you salt the earth. I create, I order, and I make the world fertile for future generations.”
He reached up, touching the encasement.
“You were temporary. A stroke of lightning. Your desperate action had ramifications that may well be felt for a thousand years or more. Your plague is stubborn. I will live for a century and exercise a power you never had, and yet I’m only one piece of a greater system, performing a role that history will forget.”
For an instant, he had the urge to reach up and turn his prodigious strength to tearing down the quarantine encasement, breaking one of those bones so that whatever lay within them could be exposed to the world again. It would be a foolish action, and one that might well kill him, either at the hands of primordial parasites or by the swift reprisal of the Crown. It would also be an action that was entirely his own. It would be a legacy, even if it was a grim one.
Red flakes of the plague’s flower-like growths were collecting all around the Infante, obscuring what lay beneath them.
“If you thought to hurt us, know that you only made us stronger. You’ve given us an excuse to shutter the windows, lock the doors, to burn it all down, and step away with intent to return to a clean canvas in the future. In challenging us and trying to claim your own portion of this nation, you’ve been our greatest ally.”
He walked around the formation, touching different parts of it, studying the art of a creature that had painted itself.
“Not a reality uncommon for a nemesis or antithesis, I find, that paths run in parallel…” he said.
He trailed off.
He remained where he was, hands clasped behind him, and he contemplated the writing on the wall, very literally.
The creation had been injured enough that it could be made to stay still while it burned. The burning had been followed with chemicals, which formed a solid and clear binding chemical. After the binding chemical, walls had been erected with the creature at the center.
All Mauer’s work. To do anything less would have been tempting fate.
But there was one wall that had been part of the adjoining building, and that wall had a message inscribed on it. He had to push down part of the roof and exterior wall to allow sufficient light into the dark, enclosed space. Once he had, he could reread the message and be sure he’d read it right the first time.
It named itself God.
The Infante had taken all of this for an indulgence, a step away from the normal routines and responsibilities. His desire to know his enemies had brought him here, so he might find the source of the plague and look it in the eye.
Mauer likely hadn’t seen the connection between primordial and plague clearly, or hadn’t wanted to. Few others knew enough of the full details while also knowing that a primordial could even do something like this.
The epitaph scrawled on the wall had taken all satisfaction out of the study of his enemy, and it had taken the pleasure out of the indulgence, leaving only the bitter aftertaste.
His conversation partner had kept a secret from him.
He turned away from the primordial’s corpse, walking in the direction of his professors.
“Have your stitched seal it in securely, with all measures we have. Repair the walls and seal those as well,” he said, without stopping.
He walked with purpose once more, ruffled in a manner he couldn’t quite put a finger on.
The train whistled as it vented pressure. Lugh sat on the horizon, stained red. Tynewear was at another place on the horizon. Where Lugh looked like diced chunks of raw flesh scattered in a pool of blood, the spires of Tynewear and the damaged walls of living wood that riddled the city made for an image more like blood-spattered stakes or knives gathered in a cluster.
They had paused at a crossroad. At the point where the tracks turned sharply away from Lugh and toward Tynewear, as if repelled by the sprawling rebel city, Academy had set up a waypoint, and buildings had started to appear in the vicinity, complementing the Academy institutions and forces. The intent had been that scientists working the plague cities could fall back here, a safe distance away.
Other cities had fallen to plague, and this stop was little used.
“I suspect we’ll have to take you apart, Lord Infante,” his chief professor decided.
The Infante turned his head to stare down the man.
“To be absolutely sure, My Lord.”
“I am hyperaware of my own function,” the Infante said. “I can turn my mind’s eye inward and I’m aware of every component, of temperature and nutrition levels. I am intimately aware of every weapon stored within me. I am very much aware that the plague has not found root in me.”
“The exposure level you just endured was unprecedented, Lord Infante.”
“Others have faced the same,” the Infante said.
“If you mean the ones who now lie dead, then I have to protest, My Lord.”
“I will take that under advisement,” the Infante said.
Sensing something was amiss, the professor bowed and retreated, finding his own seat elsewhere on the train.
Another professor stepped onto the train and made his way through security. He approached the Infante, bowing, and handed over a stack of letters and papers.
“Any news?” the Infante asked.
“Nothing of note, my lord,” the professor said.
The letters were important. Plague and black wood had served to squeeze all who lived in the Crown States. Refugees from plague-ridden areas flooded every city that hadn’t been caught by plague. Black wood strangled the smaller towns and the hiding places, and it ensured that the Academy’s food supply was the only food supply.
Black wood would soon be employed without quarantine measures or acreages of burned land to suppress it. The rebel factions would be blamed.
Plague, as was its penchant, would carry on.
He had done this before, in a half-dozen variations. He did it efficiently and he did it ruthlessly.
The letters, for the most part, were the responses from professors and aristocrats, from lesser nobles of the lowest tier. What was normally easy in practice was difficult here. The chemical leashes had been given to a large share of the population, and some members of the upper class were strictly leashed in place. The Crown had spread the necessary chemicals needed to keep the leashed alive throughout the Crown States, but putting that same thing into practice on the other side of the ocean was a far more difficult task.
There was very little elbow room in the Crown Capitol. To bring thousands of individuals and maintain the leashes, putting all the necessary labs into motion to produce the right chemicals, it invited negative attention and potential disaster.
It posed a dilemma. To rescue all people of note and invite problems from the capitol, or to leave them behind. Leaving them behind meant potentially losing good people, or worse, it meant that if and when the Crown returned in the future, that there might be survivors angry enough to point the finger and ask why they hadn’t been invited to leave.
Killing them all was another sort of problem.
In this, he was the figurehead. The Crown would take the blame if anything went wrong, when leash, chemicals, mass sterilization and the treatment of the vast public were really the province of the Academy.
Men in black coats bowed and scraped before him, and obsequiously they addressed him with honorifics and careful mind to his tastes. But at the end of the day, when all else was said and done, the Academy ruled.
A farce really. It was a farce he entertained and played a supporting role in, but a farce nonetheless. Maddening.
The Baron Richmond had learned of the farce and had gone properly mad. The Duke of Francis hadn’t. It had played a role in the Baron being demoted to a lesser noble, the Duke taking a firm hand in broader procedure and operations on the Crown’s end of things. Most others fared somewhere between the two ends of the spectrum.
He sorted through the mail, skimming each letter. Chemicals in one side of his throat allowed him to track and remember the numbers used with the security measures on mail. With each such letter with a number in the margins, he was able to verify that the sender had used the appropriate codes.
If resources would be expended to keep the right individuals on the other side of the ocean, then he had to be careful no to accept too many. The letters contained refusals and carefully worded pleas. Others were entirely oblivious to the true and imminent dangers of plague and wood, their attention rarely extending beyond their labs or homes.
He reached a letter from Professor Hayle.
A clever man, Professor Hayle, but one without a great deal of clout.
The nation was a sinking ship, and the rats were clamoring for a chance to exit safely. It was an exit only the Crown was equipped to provide, a roundabout way of saying that it was an exit only the Academy could provide.
Professor Hayle, for all of his forward thinking, was electing to stay where he was. He wanted to continue to run Radham.
With thought of Hayle came other thoughts. The Infante continued his search through the mail. A day of travel into Lugh and a day of travel out had allowed the mail to accumulate.
There was a possible breakthrough, by the woman professor of Hackthorn. He would attend that.
And there was a letter with a black resin seal.
The message within was printed with a machine, and the Infante, again, had the means of deciphering it built into his neck.
The Duke of Francis communicates, but only to the Lambs. They conspire.
The Infante leaned back in his seat, custom made to his frame and weight. The source was a trusted one, a spy who kept and maintained a pet experiment, a crawler in walls. The thing was blind, with an ear keener than most, and the spy was competent enough to cover the other bases and double check everything pertinent. The message would have been next to impossible to forge when the forger had no idea of how it was deciphered.
There was merit to this accusation. This was sound.
There was no need for a proper court or deliberation. The Lambs had made themselves dangerous. He would see to that before he saw to Hackthorn.