I spread my arms to embrace the rain.
Radham wasn’t home. I barely recognized the view of it as I looked at it from afar, frankly. That wasn’t that my memory was slipping, but the fact that it had changed to adapt to plague and the press of war. Where the Academy had once had tall fortifications surrounding it, now the city was ringed with them. One tall wall lanced out into the distance, blocking off the view. Fields, orchards, and grazing areas, secluded from the rest of the world.
So very strange to see walls of stone and mortar on that scale without the wood interlaced through it.
The rain ran through my hair, down the back of my neck, and soaked into my shirt.
Helen, walking a few paces behind me, was humming to herself. I changed my pace, took one grand step back, and swept up her hand with mine, turning myself around to wrap her arm around my shoulder. In the doing, I pulled her a little away from Shirley.
“Careful now,” she said. “I don’t know if I trust myself to let things go nowadays.”
“Wouldn’t that be a way to go.”
“Don’t tempt me,” she said. “Play nice, and I’ll hold back.”
“I’ll try,” I said.
She squeezed my shoulder with her arm, walking with me.
I glanced over at Shirley, who was putting her hood up, covering her short hair. “How are you getting on?”
“I’m mostly marveling at Helen,” she said.
“That would be justifiable, given how I’m a marvel worth marveling at. I’m sublime, even. The professor I keep chained to the desk and cot in my room ensures it.”
Shirley looked like she needed a second to get her bearings, her conversational stride broken on a few levels by Helen.
“Anything in particular?” I asked.
“The lessons you taught me are very evident in a very natural way for Helen. Poise, framing.”
“Entirely learned,” Helen said. “But I learned it early on. One of the first things I learned, I’ll have you know.”
I let the conversation continue, as Helen and Shirley had their talk.
Radham loomed in the distance. It was enshrined in walls and soaked in a perpetual rain. We were getting a trace of that rain, or perhaps we were getting the rain that Radham would’ve been due if it wasn’t generating its own. It really wasn’t home. We’d grown up and away from it. But it was where we had set our roots. Some of our brightest, most genuine, and saddest moments were founded there.
It was fitting, then, that we made it the first of the surviving major cities that we would seize. It would, all going well, be our base of operations.
This was our staging ground. The city was choked with soldiers and the creations that needed to be housed indoors. They were trying to keep on the down-low, with primarily officers, major divisions and key experiments stored in the city, but it was still a lot of people. People were gathered in the streets where there wasn’t enough room indoors, and while fires had been prohibited, the distribution of food and leash-free water was an ongoing process.
The manors atop the hill were the nicest in the town, and they were where we had settled. They were where the officers, top Professors, and our other key ‘converts’ were staying. The only people to come and go were our other converts.
Well, them and the scattered few enemies who made my heart jump in my chest, before I realized there was no conceivable reality where they could be here. The Primordial Child. Ferres outfitted in the suit that had enabled her to walk and use her hands again. Sub Rosa, as both the child and the adult.
The Snake Charmer was staring at us, sitting with a girl I didn’t recognize.
I ran my fingers through my hair, palm hard against my head, squeezing the water out and back. The streets were full enough that carts and carriages had a hard time passing through. There was a variant Crown States flag on a pole by one of them, waving slightly. It was one of many, signaling for gates and checkpoints to let the carriage through, but the key difference, with the crimson background to the flag, was that it was meant for us.
One of ours, coming back. We’d meet them at the road that led from the city to the hill manors.
Helen and Shirley’s conversation was winding down, it seemed.
“…would be a waste if you didn’t,” Helen said.
“I’d like all of us to get to a place where I didn’t have to do anything like that with people we didn’t like, let alone carry a garotte with them,” Shirley said. “If I had any dream or goal beyond situating myself well and rising from my current station, it would be seeing everyone get there.”
“Speaking of goals…” Mary said. “I wouldn’t mind discussing that.”
“If you’re asking me I know what my goals are,” Helen said.
“I was thinking Sy should chime in,” Mary said.
I looked skyward, letting the rain patter against my face.
“We know what we’re doing in the big picture. Claiming the Crown States. I know Jessie was clear on that. Jessie and Sy had that as a defined plan. And… you’re doing what you do, Sylvester. Now that something’s firmed up, you’re revolving and spiraling around it.”
Helen lifted my hand up. I dutifully spun her around, as if we were dancing. She smiled brilliantly, before raising a hand to her face, pushing wet hair out of the way and tucking it behind her ear.
“I understand if you want to keep quiet, if keeping quiet is one of the things that’s helping you to stay balanced, somehow,” Mary said. “Even if I don’t understand how that works in the slightest.”
I shook my head.
“Three major hurdles to overcome,” I said.
“More than three, I’d imagine,” Helen said.
“Big hurdles. Three gods to slay,” I said. “Three gods to overcome.”
“Gods? Do I need to be worried about where you’re at after all, Sy?” Mary asked.
I twisted around in Helen’s firm grip to glance back at Mary. I gave her a smile. “I’m fine.”
Mary had a parasol, and wore a very nice red dress with crimson lace, a ribbon at one side of her head. Beside her, the flesh-suit giant walked with Jessie in its arms, one of its hands holding a similar parasol to shield Jessie’s upper body from the rain. A raincoat was draped over her legs to waterproof them. Jessie looked so small.
“You were saying something about gods?” Helen asked me.
“Yes. Gods, my dear Helen G. Ibbot and Miss Mary Cobourn. Great, unknowable, and potentially very intelligent forces who could yet tear us to pieces, even now. Especially now.”
“Can I tear them to pieces?” Helen asked. “Or twist them up?”
“One or two of them, I think, given opportunity.”
“I’ll look forward to that, then,” she said. “You look to giving me those opportunities.”
“Why ‘gods’, Sylvester?” Mary asked.
“Because they’re not people, they’re not something we can stick a knife in or remove from the picture with carefully worded letters. They’re timeless in a way, they were there before we came into this world, they’ve been there all along, they’ll be there when we leave.”
“Are these real things or, again, do I need to consider putting a knife through the back of your knee?” Mary asked.
“Stop saying that! When I end up getting knifed or shot, it’s going to be because of a conversation that starts with ‘I’m very worried about Sylvester.'”
“Most of our conversations start that way,” Helen observed.
“I know,” I said. “But I’d really like to focus on killing and subjugating god, not on the sad, slow decline of Sylvester. Let’s hammer this out.”
“Alright,” Mary said. “I can do focus.”
“Your ‘gods’. You’re not being abstract?”
“Real, concrete things. Problems, enemies in broad but very definable senses.”
“Okay, so if I had to guess, going by the things you tend to natter about-”
“Natter? Natter?” I asked. I twisted around. “Jessie, they’re being mean to me. Make them stop.”
Jessie slept on.
Mary’s eyes tracked mine very carefully. I saw a fractional shift in how her lips pressed together.
“I know she’s asleep,” I whispered.
Mary snapped her fingers. “Power.”
“Power is absolutely one,” I said.
“Not at all,” I said. I smiled. “We just spent the last year working on bringing that particular god to heel, didn’t we?”
“I suppose we did,” Mary said.
“Think on it,” I said. “There’s no rush, no time limit except the one we’ve had since the early days, and of course if the god ends up dead before you name ’em, you miss your window.”
“You’re appealing to my competitive side,” Mary said.
“I suppose I am.”
“And you’re appealing to Helen by giving her gods to embrace.”
“Please,” Helen said.
“Maybe,” I said. “Maybe. But maybe I also did bring it up as a way to tempt.”
“I’m rusty,” Mary said. “Figuring you out, trying to keep up, thinking outside of the box so I might keep up with you. I’m starting to feel like this is more familiar. It’s nice.”
“I’m rusty too,” I said. “I’ve been trying to figure it out, but I want to work with the Lambs on this. What comes next could be very hard. If I’m doing a good job of pulling your strings and Helen’s tongue, appealing to your best parts in the process, I’m glad.”
“Helen’s tongue?” Shirley asked.
“Her… Helen-ness. Her appetite, in all the things that tongues can be used for.”
“I do like that,” Helen said. “Do keep using your own tongue in clever ways with me, Sylvester. It’s fun.”
Getting Shirley’s attention with a movement of my head, I gestured at Helen for effect. “See? Helen’s tongue. It works.”
“Dangerously well,” Mary observed.
“I see,” Shirley said.
“And Sylvester, sir,” Helen said, and she smiled, “let me know if you need any advice on pulling on Duncan and Ashton’s somethings. I’ve spent a lot of time with them over the past few years.”
Shirley cleared her throat.
“I’ll let you know, Hel,” I said. “I’m pretty sure I know how they operate from a mechanical standpoint. I can figure out the rest.”
She laid her head on my shoulder, and I put my arm around her.
We hadn’t made mention of Lillian. Somehow all of us knew that it wouldn’t have gone good places. Not with things where they stood, and not with Jessie’s role in the conversation.
The flag-bearer moved the flag, pointing it.
They were indicating which carriages it was, and the little caravan wasn’t on the main road.
I changed position. My hand was still tender, and it nearly seized up as I scaled the side of a house and climbed onto the roof, settling onto a perch at one corner.
“Ah,” I said.
“Not the Lambs,” Mary said, beside me. I’d barely heard her ascend.
The carriages took the road normally reserved for the denizens of the hill. Men opened the door and climbed up onto the sides, hanging off of them. They kept watchful eyes out.
They stopped on the road. Making us come to them, perhaps.
Or they didn’t want to venture too close. Like this, they could at least attempt a haphazard getaway.
Mary and I descended to the road. We signaled and broke into a jog.
They had all climbed out of the carriages by the time we arrived. We slowed down before stepping into view, walking as a group with an easy, natural formation. Shirley hung back.
Mauer stood in a congregation of his rebel soldiers. He was in the heart of the Crown States, near one of its remaining major cities, with half or two-thirds of the nation’s armed forces gathered in the surrounding region. He was one word from having the entirety of that turned on him.
It would have been one thing if he’d been in that situation and he’d remained calm. That was a thing.
But he was here, and he was pissed.
“Mauer,” Helen greeted him. “I would call you reverend, but you don’t like that, I remember.”
“Calling me Mauer is fine,” he said.
“When we told our soldiers to let you through, we didn’t anticipate you showing up at the foot of our warcamp,” Mary said.
Mauer’s voice carried across the distance, “Something tells me that if I were to find a convenient clearing and send a message, you’d be too occupied with other matters to respond. What would I do then? Find my way to you through your assembled forces? Would I try to steer your course? I told them to take me to you. You gave them permission to bring me here.”
“We actually anticipated Fray doing the bold arrival in the enemy’s midst when we left that instruction,” I said. “This works too, mind.”
“I sent a soldier to be captured and leak information about Ferres acquiring an immortal,” Mauer said. “As was requested.”
“Thank you,” Helen said.
“I did not expect this,” Mauer said.
I spread my arms. “You don’t like the notion of turning the Crown against their own, as they tried to turn us against each other?”
He turned his body, as if he needed the right posture to move his arm, and hauled his monstrous arm free of the coat that covered it. The mangled, distorted, oversized arm raised one index finger.
When he spoke, it was with a very dangerous tone. His people were reacting to the tone, shifting their stances. “I would very much like that notion, if I thought it was leading to justice and right. Something tells me it isn’t.”
“What would be just and right, Mauer?” Mary asked.
“Mary Cobourn,” Mauer said. “I knew someone with your face and name when she was a child. But you’re Percy’s creation, aren’t you?”
“He also wronged you. He did you an injustice.”
“I see what you’re saying, but it was the injustices he did to others that I acted on. On behalf of people close to me who mind those things.”
I wanted to comment or indicate something, to let Mary know that that lie was old, that I and everyone else should already know that she had more heart than she pretended. I didn’t, however, want to give any sign of weakness to Mauer. I didn’t take my eyes off of the man.
“Remind all of us, please, just how you addressed that wrong of his.”
“I executed him.”
“Tell me, then. Between you, you seem hold the assembled forces of the Crown States and its lesser Academies in your hands. You give orders and speeches here and there, and the enemy’s armies move for you. You forge letters, and you make them act for you. You have them utterly at your mercy.”
“We do,” I said.
“Will you cast them down, Lambs?” Mauer asked. “Will you tell me my instinct is wrong, and that you will set one of them against the other with the intent of destroying both, or in hopes of leaving one of the two weak and vulnerable to a knife in the back?”
“There are better things we can do,” I said.
“They are a festering thing, Lambs,” Mauer said. He clenched his monstrous fist, still holding it before him. “They are overgrown and twisted to the point that they barely serve the purpose they were intended for. They are a system corrupted, that inflicts needless damage and stress on itself for reasons that have been forgotten. They are a cancer, Lambs. Cut them free. Be ruthless, and excise the surrounding tissue.”
“You’d have us set them up to wipe them out?” Mary asked.
“You hold their vitals in your hands, Lambs. Not the heart, not the brain, but enough. Crush those vitals.”
The look in his eyes was murderous.
“You would advocate mass murder, Mauer?” I asked.
“The Crown doesn’t lose,” Mauer said. “That’s the saying.”
“That’s not the whole saying,” I said. “Because they do lose here and there. You know that. You’ve had your small victories.”
That anger was still etched on his features as he acknowledged me.
“It’s that if and when it looks like they’re losing, they’re so big they drag you down with them. They make it a draw, if they can’t make you regret trying.”
“Lambs,” Mauer said. He sounded so menacing that I thought one of his younger soldiers might take initiative and act on that anger, shooting us as a kind of punctuation. His face was etched with deep lines. “You should be aware of how many rebel groups have come and gone. You’ve seen people who struggled alone or as part of armies against the Crown. You’ve seen people use sword, knife, gun, bare hand, pen, word, and every other tool they can bring to bear against this enemy.”
“We’ve been thoroughly introduced to those people. We count many of them among our number,” I said.
Behind me, there was noise. I worried it would be the very people Mauer was wanting to crucify. It was the other Lambs. They were roughly on schedule. Lillian, Duncan, and Ashton. Behind them, I saw the aristocrats Chance, Lainie, and more glorious and monstrous than any of Ferres’ fairy tale creations, a thoroughly modified Emily Gage, with sweeping horns and flesh that included decorative scaling in amazingly intricate patterns. Her eyes were missing from the sockets, and each of her hands ended in two sets of claws.
I smiled. I turned back to Mauer as Lillian, Duncan and Ashton joined us. All three had their hoods up, protecting them from the steady, easy rainfall.
Something about being interrupted when he’d been making his speech seemed to push him into another dimension of anger.
“Hundreds of millions have fought against this force that Wollstone armed and brought into being,” Mauer said, and his tone was lower. “It’s not beyond the realm of imagination to suggest it could be a full billion or more human beings who were raised from the womb into the world, who fought the Crown desperately and went to meet their creator.”
“Not beyond the realm of imagination, no sir,” I said, my own voice pitched to match his.
“How many of them had their chance at this? At a true, honest, undeniable victory? A chance to gut them, and wrest a continent from their grip.”
He was gesturing with his monstrous hand again, clenching his fist and turning it in the air as if to tear something forth from reality.
“And what is it you intend?” he growled. “Because something that gravely concerns me, gravely concerns me…”
His voice was at the point where it almost wasn’t a word as he uttered ‘gravely’ the second time.
“…As I take this in and as I find you here, of all places, is that it very much seems that you aren’t looking for that victory, Lambs. You asked for my cooperation and promised me satisfaction, and yet I’m left to believe you aren’t going to take this justice that we have at hand.”
I remained silent, watching him.
“Tell me I’m wrong, Sylvester. Any of you. Raise your voices, and give me my satisfaction!”
I’d heard him speak, and I’d heard him raise his voice to be heard by a crowd, exclaiming, but I couldn’t remember hearing him speak at this volume, with this degree of rage.
“Tell me you aren’t going to take this and deliver a mere slap in their face. Tell me you aren’t going to give them a draw!”
“You want satisfaction,” I said. I tried to let my own voice carry.
He set his jaw.
“The reason we sent Helen to you was that we thought she would understand you best. You’re both impossible to satisfy. You will always want more blood, more satiation. If you were a glutton you’d eat until your stomach split. But you want to somehow… what is it? See them pay for their cumulative sins of the last century in the span of a few short years? That’s not possible.”
“I’ll settle for what’s possible,” Mauer said.
“And that might have been the first lie you’ve ever told us,” I said. “What would you do once you’ve settled? Would you retire?”
I paused. I watched him.
“…Or would you resume your crusade?”
I watched him bow his head, as if in prayer, but his face was contorted.
“We need doctors and soldiers to keep plague at bay, and to act in the event that the Crown realizes something is amiss and brings a fresh war from over the ocean. We need a lot of things, and if we did what you wanted, we might get that justice you describe, but it would come at the expense of our lives, on several fronts.”
He clenched his fist.
“You know this, Mauer. You’ve always known this. Even in the most peaceful period of the Crown States’ history under Empire rule, there was never going to be a reality where you could see your rhetoric come to bloody fruition.”
He turned his head, speaking to his lieutenant. I could read his lips. ‘We’ll leave soon. Before they surround us or call reinforcements. One more question.’
I continued, “You just don’t care. You’ve always been willing to destroy yourself in pursuit of this end. You’d ask everyone to follow you in that martyred pursuit of revenge.”
He closed his eyes. His hand fell to his side. I watched as he composed himself, relaxing, surrendering.
“Reverend,” Lillian spoke.
Oh, she’d missed that part.
He raised his human hand, holding it up. Whatever approach Lillian had been planning to make, she held back.
He spoke, and he spoke calmly, as if none of the anger was there anymore. “You made me another promise.”
“We did,” I said.
“You told me that you would reveal the truth of the Block.”
“I did,” Helen said.
“Then tell me,” he said. “And I’ll take this knowledge, and… if I don’t stay, to wage my part in what’s about to unfold here, I’ll leave for other shores. I’ll wage my war there, in places that aren’t quite so vast. I’ll gather my flock.”
He sounded so eerily calm.
The voice, too was calm. Only I heard it.
Do not tell him about the Block. Lie to him where necessary.
My hand hurt as I clenched it into a fist. The skin was new, as were some of the connective tissues that held the skin in place.
“There are no other shores,” I said.
That look in his eyes grew darker.
“Refugees, Mauer. There were too many children and not nearly enough supply. That was the secret, and finding the right refugees, before the Academy got to them, that was the source of the knowledge we wanted.”
Helen, beside me, was nodding slightly. She was so sincere it helped to sell my lie.
“You are not the first, or the tenth, or the hundredth, in that billion or billions of people, to have a glimpse of victory. The Lambs and the Beattle Rebels, our fairy tales and our soldiers, our ‘cooperating’ Nobles, aristocrats, doctors and civilians, none of us are the first to stand where we stand on this road, on the brink of victory. In the last century, this conversation has played out before. Not exactly the same, the players are different, but it’s happened. Humanity has been here.”
One of his soldiers looked uneasy. Mauer spared the young woman enough attention to deliver a sharp hand gesture, one that hinted at emotions he was trying to keep from us.
“You want this to be a victory, but it’s not. Trying to make it so will only see them destroy all of this, in ways we can’t stop or deflect. Anywhere else you could go, they have control, they’re as close as God-damn to seizing it, or they’ve already razed it all to the ground. This, here, it’s the staging ground they’ve chosen for the present day. They’ve been waging war for a long, long time, almost incessantly.”
“The plague, the black wood,” Mauer said. He sounded further away, now. “They’ve cultivated it? To help the razing along?”
“They’ll let this place be buried, have Tender Mercies stalk the alien wilderness and hunt down any stragglers, and revisit it in some distant future when the plague has subsided and the black wood extinguished itself, old vegetation regrown.”
It seemed to take him a long time to digest it. His lieutenants and soldiers seemed far more affected by it.
I’d painted a grim picture for them, one where Mauer and the rest of us weren’t special. Where victory was not achievable in the end.
He spoke, calmer still, “And you?”
There were so many answers to that. So many answers that could have drawn him in. To talk about beliefs, about the nature of the war we were fighting, about anger. They were things I could seize on and play with and twist around with my tongue.
I waited for the voice to tell me what to do.
The voice was silent. The non-answer stretched out, until I thought he might get angry again.
Feelings, anger, belief. It was what drove him. He was not rational, and he had long ago condemned himself to hurl himself into a wall until he’d dashed himself to pieces, in hopes of making some difference to it.
I could bring him on board, even subjugate him in a sense, when he had so little else. It would be the first step, but it was not a hard course of action to draw him in. All I had to do was extend a hand, speak his language. Something heartfelt, basic, clear.
“We’re re-evaluating the assumptions at hand,” I said.
I let that sentence linger, I let him take it in, and turn it over in his head.
I saw it. The anger that crept across his face, in the incremental, moment by moment changes of one line, of one angle of the corner of his lip, the movement of his eyelids. By hair’s breadths, as if the mask was cracking. Rainwater ran down his face.
“And we’re killing gods,” I said, because so long as I was extending him a mercy, I might as well slap his hand away to be more merciful still. He wouldn’t thrive or even survive under our thumb, and what we were doing wouldn’t survive if he outlived us and took over. He hadn’t quite reached out to offer his assistance, but by rejecting it, rejecting him, I could give him that push he needed to resume moving in the ways and directions he had been moving for some time.
At least for a short while longer.
“I see,” Mauer said.
“Nothing to lose then, is there?” he asked.
“I suppose not,” I told him.
He stood there for a few seconds, and then adjusted his coat, covering his arm. He turned, and he walked back to the carriage.
He stopped there. Without looking at me, he said, “You said you thought Genevieve Fray might accept your invitation and come here.”
“She somehow always manages to turn up when it matters,” I said.
“She won’t turn up. She was going elsewhere.”
I didn’t ask. If I’d asked, he wouldn’t give me the answer. Because of spite, or because I’d just rebuked him and it would be his chance too rebuke me.
Mauer turned his head to look in the direction of Radham.
I’d guessed as much.
The door slammed behind him, the stitched horses grunted rather than whinny, and they turned back to the main road. We remained where we were, largely silent, as we watched them go, picking up speed as they got to flatter ground.
I turned my back to Mauer’s wagons, and my focus on Jessie, where she’d slept through it all.
“I know,” I told her. “I know what you’d say.”
“We couldn’t use him?” Mary asked.
“I don’t know,” I said.
The Lambs were folding in together, the group focused on the group. Lillian and Mary reunited, talking. Helen hugging Ashton, talking to Duncan. There was the tentative approach of Lanie and Chance, too, with Emily trailing behind.
“You look unwell, Sy,” Emily said.
“You’re the one without eyes,” I said.
She smiled softly.
“It’s cosmetic?” I asked. “After what the Baron did to you?”
She held her smaller set of claws to her face, and pried her eyelids apart. Within the recessed sockets, raw and bloody in appearance, there were orbs set into the back, small and beady. She smiled a little more. “I thought that instead of facing my fears, I’d become them. My peripheral vision is garbage, but it came with other perks.”
“That’s amazing,” I said.
The conversations carried on. Plans, strategy, small words of affection, teasing. Ashton mentioning Abby. The conversation turned to Jessie, and all three of our young aristocrats seemed genuinely upset at the sight, even as Jessie was unfamiliar to them, in large part.
“You had her here, while talking to him?” Lillian asked.
“She got us this far. She gets to be part of the rest,” I said.
“She’s asleep, Sy,” Lillian said. “Don’t start thinking otherwise.”
“Maybe words or sounds filter through into the dreams.”
“That’s you starting to think otherwise, Sy. I know how you work.”
I smiled, and I was happy to stand next to Lillian, not tugging or pulling on any part of her, be it a string, tongue, or a bit of her clothing. Having her here was good enough. We each played only the smallest roles in the ongoing conversations and planning.
Somewhere in the midst of it, I glimpsed Mauer, standing off to one side. His arms were spread. He was speaking, orating, and there was no sound.
The rain pattered down around us, lightning flashed, and there was no thunder.
The voice spoke, hushed.
With that, I ceased to hear the other Lambs, our friends and allies.
I heard the rain on the ground, running out of gutters. I heard the city. Minutes passed, and Lillian drew closer, asking if I was alright. I didn’t even hear myself respond, my ears attuned to the sounds of the world around us.
When I heard it, my head turning, the others noticed, and they looked too.
A lingering orange light, a plume of smoke. Futile, given the wall was what it was, but he hadn’t been trying to do damage so much as he’d been trying to make a statement. A bomb, a mortar, something else. It didn’t matter. A detonation near the exterior walls of Radham, not far from the gate.
Our entire city shifted, packed to the gills as it was with soldiers and commanders, with suppliers and with weapons.
It wasn’t ideal, it wasn’t even good in any respect. Both Radham and our side were fully in the know, now. It would make both sides suspicious.
But it was somehow right.
The war was on.