We wore coats that had been provided by the Professors. Mine was too big for me. The others wore coats that fit them- even Jessie had a coat draped over her, in addition to the one I’d put on her.
As a group, hunkered down against the rain, we worked on extracting Helen.
The soldiers who had been stationed around the base of the ramp were advancing, many of them gathering at the railing, watching, staring at the noble. They watched us, and I was very aware that they were holding onto their guns, not putting the weapons away.
The flesh-melting rain pattered down around us. Already, the clothes that the coats and coverings I’d been using were bleached or eroding away. My skin hurt at the ankles and wrists when I stretched or pulled against it. I worried that sooner or later, I would bend a wrist and the skin would split, welling blood and other fluids.
But I worried about Helen more.
She slid fully out of the Infante’s mouth, and we wrapped her in a cocoon of the multiple coats we’d arranged, using the momentum of her sliding down to the deck to keep her sliding along the wet wood. We moved her to where the cabin encircled the ship’s navigation, and the overhanging bit of cover that we’d all been standing beneath. ‘We’ being the Professors, the Lambs, and myself, when we hadn’t been actively helping.
As a unit, we unwrapped her as much as we’d already wrapped her. Ashton lifted up her arm and side so Duncan could put the dry part of the coat beneath her, providing some protection from the water on the deck. Not much had reached the area under the shelter.
“Help,” Duncan said.
He unbuttoned her top. I moved to block the view of the soldiers behind us, while holding her head.
“Duncan,” Helen said. “Manhandling me? You cad.”
“I hope you’re satisfied,” I said. “You got what you’ve been wanting for a while.”
“Reasonably satisfied,” Helen said, her voice soft. “But now the bar’s been raised, whatever will I do next?”
“You could be content with this,” I said.
“I’m afraid I’m insatiable,” she said. “I always want them bigger, stronger, harder… to beat.”
She was delirious. Or worse, she was drunk on whatever hormones or whatever there was churning in her system, stoking her appetites for bloodshed, crushed bones, and asphyxiation.
The Devil of West Corinth lurked nearby. They were out in force, prowling in the shadows, adding their forces to the soldiers who had us surrounded.
Lillian provided some light, a bright little bioluminescent flask, and Ashton held it. Helen was visible in a stark blue-green and black.
“Plague,” Duncan observed. “We’ve got the pinprick signs.”
“Surgery?” Lillian asked.
“How fun,” Helen said, barely audible. She sounded like it was fun.
“Do you want to take point?” he asked.
“No. You know Helen’s physiology better than I do.”
“I’m also rather fond of her. It’s hard to be objective.”
“I operated on Mary, once upon a time. It’s best if you do it. We’ll split up the work, or I’ll keep you on track.”
“Got it,” Duncan said.
One of the Professors broke away from our group, approaching the soldiers. They were a restless lot, moving this way and that, not wanting to stay in the rain, but not wanting to leave the scene either. They paced around the deck, looking for safer ground, one or two choosing to stand where posts and gun mounts blocked some of the rain, others looking for overhangs.
They knew who we were. They’d seen the Infante on edge, bristling with ugliness, the emperor sans his clothes, and they’d… not intervened. No. They’d hesitated.
Not quite letting it happen, and more than a momentary hesitation- nine minutes. But it was the best way I could think of to parse it.
Duncan was using a gloved hand to explore where the plague was setting in. He tapped at one spot near Helen’s armpit, and gave Lillian a severe look. “He got you good.”
“I got him better,” Helen said. Her smile was hitching again.
“You did,” Mary said. “That was good.”
Helen worked out how to give a better smile.
Cynthia paced nearby, angry.
I was angry, I realized. This was very explicitly everything I’d been striving to avoid.
“I’m going to have to cut away an awful lot of skin,” Duncan said. “We’ll have to explore when we’re that far, and see how deep we end up going.”
“You know just what to say to a girl,” Helen said. “You’ve come so far, Doctor Duncan Foster.”
Lillian handed Duncan the scalpel.
“No snapping,” I said. “I know you’ll be tempted to jump one of us-”
“-But hold it back if you can.”
Mary was already tying Helen’s legs, using wire to bind her boots together.
“Oh,” Helen said. “I’m not sure it’s worth bothering about. I don’t think I’m very dangerous to anyone like this.”
“Ha ha,” I said the words, rather than actually laughing. “Be serious now, so our doctors can do their work.”
“I’m being serious, Sy.”
I glanced at the others. Was there a chance, any chance, that she was engaged in another ruse? That she needed to convince us so we could convince the Professors and the small army that was surrounding us?
Duncan was removing her skin, peeling it away with tongs, while Lillian raised Helen’s arm to view it better in the light.
I set my jaw.
That was serious, then.
“Oh, you should know I have a stab wound from the fight on the rooftop, in my side. Something bitey squirmed its way inside of me, through that entry point. I pinned it down, squeezing it with surrounding muscles. If you get close to it, it might come unpinned, depending.”
“Something bitey?” Ashton asked.
“It got a few nips at my insides before I squeezed its head shut,” Helen said. “Nothing too bad, I don’t think, but I wouldn’t want you sliding your hand inside of me and coming out with a stump.”
“Thank you, Helen,” Duncan said, unfazed. “That’s appreciated.”
His voice was tense.
For the time being, his focus was so overwhelmingly on his work that it looked like he was completely unaware of what the others around us were doing.
Saving Helen first. Other concerns came secondary.
I wasn’t doing much, but I couldn’t see myself leaving her side. I tried to think about the imminent situation with these soldiers who had no reason to let us go, and it was hard.
A different kind of hard than it had been back when I’d run away the first time, and my Wyvern had run out.
“I might need to take your left arm entirely,” Duncan told Helen.
“Okay. That’s my fault. I needed to grab his shoulder for leverage. The contact was direct, that’s why it progressed as much as it did.”
“I’ll handle the arm,” Lillian said.
“If we get out of this okay, I’ve got my creator on a leash to put me back together, right?” Helen asked.
Duncan and Lillian seemed too preoccupied to answer.
“That’d be the plan,” I said.
“It’s good that we captured him, then,” Helen said. She closed her eyes, and for a moment I worried she wouldn’t open them again. “Good job, Lambs.”
Duncan continued to strip away flesh. He applied powder as he went, to keep infection and the flow of blood down.
“Crown and Lords, there’s so much interconnection,” he muttered under his breath. “You’re a complicated person to work on, Helen.”
“I’m special that way.”
He continued working. Here and there, he cut away sections of muscle. The commentary seemed to stop for a daunting length of time.
He’d turned to using gestures instead, communicating with Lillian. Helen couldn’t move her head enough to see. I couldn’t see very well, either.
“You can say it,” she said. “I’m not going to be upset. It’s interesting, being taken apart, the feelings of cold wet air between skin and the rest of me. I dare say it’s fun.”
“You’re not the one I’m concerned about,” he said.
Helen sighed dramatically.
“Do you need me to go?” I asked.
“No,” Lillian said.
“Just offering,” I said.
“No,” she said. “Worrying about what you’d be getting up to would be more distracting than the inconvenience of having you here.”
“I can feel the affection, how many years in the making?” I asked.
“I adore you, you lunatic,” Lillian said. She severed the last major connecting piece attaching Helen’s arm to the shoulder. “If you have any doubt about that, then I urge you to be mindful of the fact that it’s dark, we’re in a warzone of your devising, the amount of rain is ludicrous, and I’m saying that as someone who spent most of her life living in a city where it doesn’t ever stop raining-”
“Fair,” I said.
“Except today’s forecast isn’t just heavy, it’s capable of melting flesh,” she said, pointing at me with Helen’s arm, before sweeping it around to indicate our surroundings, “we’re surrounded by soldiers-”
Duncan paused in his work, glancing around. He returned his attention to the excisions.
“-and I could go on,” Lillian said. “You’re not the whole reason I’m here, but you’re some of it, and I certainly wouldn’t be in this particular situation if I wasn’t attached to you on some level. You complete and utter loon.”
“There’s no need for name calling,” I said, under my breath.
“Was there really a need to carve a puerile insult into the back of the Infante’s head?”
“No,” I said.
“Did it make a difference?”
I glanced at the others. The Professors weren’t in earshot, the soldiers were keeping a wider berth, as focused on the infante as they were on us. They were keeping their distance from the Noble’s body, even though he was clearly deceased. Concern for the plague, or was the man’s presence so daunting that he cowed others even in death?
Mary leaned forward, kneeling on Helen’s arm, “Duncan. I’ll take over here. I’ve watched long enough and I have a fairly good hand.”
Duncan handed her a scalpel.
“Did it make a difference?” Lillian hissed at me.
“Some, small, but not in a major way. But there was more reasoning behind it.”
“Really,” Lillian said.
“Okay, not reasoning, but…”
Lillian arched an eyebrow, looking at me.
“Comprehensive instinct,” I said. “If we lost… where would he go? Here. He’d be mindful of what his soldiers saw, so he’d want to stop them. It diverts his focus. Maybe we get a chance to signal our people,” I said, my voice quiet. “Maybe we don’t. Either way, while he’s preoccupied limiting any danger to his pride, they have more of a chance to get away.”
“I pricked him earlier, when I said he never got to live a real life, I think. He never had a childhood. Juvenile… it made sense in the moment.”
“Everything makes sense to you in the moment,” Mary said.
I laughed, a contrast to what I was feeling as I saw Duncan and Mary work together to remove a handful of flesh from Helen’s side.
“Getting close to my little buddy,” Helen murmured.
“Noted,” Duncan said. “Mary? Stab it if it shows up.”
“An awful lot of things make no sense to me, and it’s getting worse over time,” I said. “Nobody can see the back of their head. If he had people see, it would always be a niggling doubt in the back of his mind, a desire to check. For someone that untouchable, if he were to stomp us out, but have to live with that small doubt? It’s minor, but I’m willing to aim for that as a final fuck-you from the Lambs. It served multiple purposes. More were for if we were defeated.”
“Alright,” Lillian said. “I can just imagine the letter being written to my parents.”
The grisly work continued. Duncan gestured, then swapped places with Lillian.
“Darn it,” Duncan murmured. “It progressed. I wanted to come back to see if it would. Helen? I’m going to have to take your left breast.”
“Mm,” Helen made a sound. “That’s a shame. I liked her. She’s prehensile, you know.”
“You do not have a prehensile bosom,” Duncan said.
“I gave them names, a long, long time ago. Do you remember the names, Jamie-Jessie?”
I glanced over at where Jessie lay slumped against the wall. I didn’t like that she was so far away, so vulnerable, the rest of us with our hands full. I ran my fingers through Helen’s hair, her head in my lap.
“She can’t hear you,” I said.
“Found your little buddy,” Lillian said.
“Speaking of names, we should give it a name,” Helen said. “Tell me about it.”
“We’re going to kill it,” Mary said.
“All the more reason to give it a name,” Helen said. “It came from somewhere, it has feelings, even if those feelings are ‘destroy this pretty girl’s insides’ and ‘squirm’.
“Those aren’t feelings,” I said. “Those are instincts.”
“I would have you know, Sylvester Lamsbridge, you loon,” Helen said, “That not only are those feelings, but they’re feelings I’ve held close to my heart at times.”
“Alright,” I said.
“Red,” Lillian said. “It’s red.”
“Rosie?” Helen jumped in. “No, too close to Sub Rosa.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“It’s plague-affected,” Lillian elaborated. “Duncan, best if you drop what you’re doing. The Infante laced the creature with plague before sending it after Helen.”
“That would explain why the plague is spreading from smaller bite wounds,” Duncan said.
“It was such a novel experience, being inside someone while something was inside me. I very nearly almost let more of them into me, to feel them squirm. I’m glad I didn’t, now.”
“I’m glad too,” I said.
“I wasn’t in my right mind,” Helen said. “I’m not in my right mind either now, but I can pretend to be, and I almost sound normal, don’t I?”
“You do,” I said.
“Letting the one in was enough,” Lillian said, almost to herself. “Duncan-”
“I see it,” Duncan said, curt. “I need a bigger blade.”
Mary drew and passed him a bigger blade.
With the three hunched over the site, I could only hear the work being done.
“I’m being rummaged in,” Helen said.
“You are,” I said.
“It’s a novel sensation.”
“It might be a while before you get that sensation again,” Duncan said.
“Controls,” Lillian muttered. “If we excise-”
“I know,” he said. “Listen, Helen…”
“You keep telling me what you’re having to do, as if you expect me to be upset. I’ll keep being fine with it. Chop at me, cut into me, rip me up and truncate me, and I’ll manage.”
“We’re going to have to take pretty much everything in your stomach, ribs to pelvis.”
Helen craned her head around, trying to see. Mary and Lillian weren’t saying anything.
In the background, the Professors, soldiers, doctors, and other major staff were still discussing what to do about this situation. The death of the Infante posed a problem, and they were working out how to deal with it. We posed a problem, and they were working out how to deal with us.
“…I’ll amend my statement,” Helen admitted. “I’m not entirely fine with that. I need my middle to hold the sweets I’ve eaten.”
“You’re going to have to do without,” Duncan said. “It might have reached into your upper chest cavity, by the looks of it.”
“Shoot,” Helen said. “But that’s preferable to my middle. I’m afraid I’m not strong enough at the moment to open my ribcage for you.”
“We’ll handle that,” he said.
I did my part, holding her down while the others worked to pry the ribs up and away. They opened like the legs of an insect.
The silence as the others looked at it was telling enough.
“We can get away with taking half of it. Better to take too much at this stage.”
“Limiters,” Lillian said, insistent.
“I know. We don’t really have a choice,” Duncan said.
“All of my middle and half of my upper torso?” Helen asked. “I didn’t know you were the type to be rough and selfish when you had a pretty girl on her back.”
“Trust me,” Duncan said, “I really don’t want to be doing this. Nothing selfish about this.”
“Greedy, then, not selfish.”
“I always saved you an extra portion of dessert,” Duncan said.
“Yes. You’re a dear like that. You’re right. I don’t know what to call you then.”
“Call me Doctor,” he said. He surveyed the damage thus far. “Lords.”
“Doctor Lords? I do believe that’s not allowed. Crown Law.”
Duncan plunged in, a large knife in his hand.
“We’re going to have to take everything below the ribcage,” Lillian said. “No preserving spine, no more legs.”
“I knew you were a fan of nice legs,” Helen said. “Sylvester has them, running around like a loon all the time.”
“Stop calling me a loon, please. I’m good at running, too. The way you make me sound, I’m flailing my arms around as I make my two-legged gallops from point A to point B.”
Helen laughed. Heads all around the deck turned at the sound.
Lillian took a large knife from Mary and, two hands on the flat back of the blade rather than the handle, pressed her weight down. I could hear the sound as the blade crunched its way between bone. Severing the spine.
“Something serrated?” Lillian asked. “I can’t get through everything in here.”
“I’ll do it,” Mary said. “Help Duncan. He needs it.”
Duncan’s expression had changed. He wasn’t speaking anymore, only working grimly.
“For your information, my dear doctors,” Helen said, closing her eyes. “I’m feeling a touch lightheaded.”
“We can deal with that,” Lillian said. “But that might be a good excuse to have a discussion sooner than later.”
I swallowed. The discussion further along the prow was continuing. No argument, no shouting. Purely organizational. Everyone there knew their place in the scheme of things, and it would take a great deal to shake them from it.
“So,” Lillian said.
“You’re so lovely, Lillian,” Helen said. “I hope you know that.”
“Shush now, we need to explain and speak, and you’re only going to make it harder,” Lillian said.
I ran my fingers through Helen’s hair.
Lillian drew in a deep breath, then said, “There may be a way forward. I think Duncan and I are on the same page. Sylvester might call it Duncan and I dancing, but I don’t think that’s it. More that we’re getting to the point where it becomes relatively easy to make choices, because there really aren’t many good ones.”
“I’m glad there’s a way forward,” Helen said.
“Maybe,” Lillian said. “Part of it is dependent on that committee over there deciding not to shoot us.”
“I’m thinking on that one,” I said. “I’m a little distracted by all this, but I’m thinking.”
Thinking might not have been the right word. I was trying to read the crowd, trying to feel my way toward any direction I might go in if I had to improvise something.
Still, I didn’t want to give them less reason to be confident.
“Good to know,” Lillian said, without missing a beat. “You’ve got your head, Helen. You have your essential vitals. We’ll see what we can do. You won’t be mobile, mind you. You won’t be much of anything.”
“Not so different from Jessie, then. You’re putting me away.”
I winced at that.
“You won’t be dreaming, Helen,” Lillian said. “Maybe after, if we can figure out a drug cocktail, but if we can strike this delicate balance, we might not want to upset it. At least for a while, until we can get to a place where we can start putting a Helen back together.”
“Cloning?” Mary asked.
“Something in that department,” Lillian said.
“I’m patient,” Helen said. “It’s one of my better qualities.”
“One you’ve been lacking in lately,” I said.
“I had an epiphany, while seeing to the Infante,” Helen said. “I’ll manage just fine, I think.”
“You’re a terrible liar,” I said.
“I’ll have you know I’m one of the best liars among the Lambs. Maybe even better than you.”
“You won’t have the limiters in place,” Lillian said. “Nothing to restrict, nothing to restrain.”
“Ah,” Helen said. “Well, that’s unkind. I’m starting to be much less fine with this.”
“There’s nothing salvageable in that department,” Lillian said. “While you’re all bound up-”
“I won’t be very restful or calm,” Helen said. “That’s alright. I know what you’re going to say. None of that.”
“You’re sure?” Lillian asked. “You want to do this?”
“I am very sure. I’ll have you know, my appetite is an appetite for life. I will not die to avoid an unpleasant-”
“Hellish,” Lillian corrected. “Wanting but unable to have, restless but unable to move. Probably wanting and feeling restless to degrees that none of the rest of us could imagine.”
“Fine. I will not die to avoid even a hellish… how long?”
“Months. A year and a half. Two years or more wouldn’t be completely out of the question, depending on how motivated Ibbot was in helping us,” Lillian said. The emotion had drained from her voice.
I wanted to hug her and hold her.
“Even for that long,” Helen said, earnestly. “Because it means I get to see you and Duncan again. I’ll get to see Ashton, too.”
She hadn’t made mention of Mary, Jessie, or me.
“I do hope to see you too, Sylvester,” Helen said, as if she’d read my mind. “And Mary, and Jessie. We went to all that trouble to recruit Doctors and Professors who could look after our projects. Let’s see if we can stick it out that long. It’s not like I can lose my mind, can I? It’ll take some doing, but you can change the balances and re-establish limiters.”
“We don’t know that you can’t lose your mind,” Lillian said. “Your brain is different, but that doesn’t make you immune. You could be irrevocably changed.”
“We’ve had other Lambs do that. That’s fine,” Helen said.
“If this even works,” Lillian said. “You could die when we cut you down to the minimum necessary.”
“I’ll try my hardest,” Helen said, her voice firm. “You two try hard too.”
Duncan nodded, face turned down. He was still cutting away from the contents of her upper chest.
As fond as I’d grown of Jessie in the time I’d spent with her, I supposed Duncan had spent nearly as much time with Helen.
I glanced at Ashton. He seemed fine.
The little blockhead.
“Would you like to speak to some of us alone?” Lillian asked.
“I would not,” Helen said. “I’ll just say my just-in-case goodbye.”
Her eyes moved around, looking at each of us in turn.
Her eyes met mine. I nodded.
“If I don’t see you again, then goodbye, you lovely creatures,” Helen said. “If I do see you again, I expect to be welcomed with a working midsection and a whole table covered in tasty things.”
“That can be arranged,” I said.
Ashton, still holding the light for the doctors, had to maneuver in an awkward way to not deny Duncan his light, while getting up closer to Helen’s head.
“Avoid the right cheek,” I said. Helen had a vein of plague standing out on the right cheek.
Ashton gave her a kiss on the left cheek instead.
“You’re my favorite,” Helen said, to Ashton.
“I know,” he said. “You’re mine.”
The Professor we’d talked to earlier, Lawrence, had approached us while we were preoccupied. He wanted to address us, talking to us.
“Let us finish?” I asked.
“That’s fine,” he said. “Once you’re done, we’ll be taking you into custody belowdecks. We’ll deliver you to the Crown Capitol.”
“No,” I said. “There’s too much to be done here. We have no plans to go to the Crown Capitol.”
“That’s not an option,” he said.
“It’s very much an option,” I said, my voice hard. “But it’s in your hands. Weigh your choices, Professor Lawrence. We killed the Infante. Do you really consider yourselves beyond reach? You’re choosing to take us and trying to return to the way things were?”
“What option would you pose?”
“The other choice is that you walk away, you all tell a story where the Infante was seized by plague, and the Crown States were overtaken by plague and black wood, with no survivors.”
Just beside me, Lillian cut into Helen’s face.
I ran my hand along the back of Lillian’s head, letting it run down her hair to her shoulder. I gently rubbed her back while she worked, not so hard as to disturb what she was doing.
“Look at us,” I said. “We’re not long for this world, are we? We helped you clean up what could have been a rather embarrassing situation with a Noble gone berserk. Don’t take our freedom in our last days and weeks together.”
“You’ll have days and weeks together in your cell, as we travel back,” he said. “The decision was made, and you’re in no position to change it.”
“Are you in a position to leave?” I asked. This was the direction I’d been pondering. “The Infante intentionally spread plague. He walked through that crowd of soldiers over there, and some of them are already going to be showing signs of it. He affected others, I’m sure. Quarantine procedures must be adhered to.”
“I’m well aware,” Lawrence said. “We won’t need to adhere too much. It’s going to be a… rather small number of crew and passengers.”
They were simply going to slaughter and burn all who could potentially be infected.
“As soon as they’re done,” Lawrence addressed soldiers that had approached. “Take them to the cells belowdecks. The quarantine ones, meant for the warbeast.”
The ship moved, hull grinding as it pulled away from the walls of Radham that it had breached, from Fray, and from Hayle.
Here in the cell, at least, we were out of the rain.
“We’re moving away,” Duncan said. “Back toward the town where we assembled our forces. Probably to pick up some secondary forces, or to ensure they’ve tied up all loose ends. Black wood isn’t out of the question.”
I sat on a table and watched out the window, seeing Radham slide further away.
“Does she like being stroked, do you think?” Ashton asked.
“I can’t imagine it hurts,” Lillian said.
“Alright then,” Ashton said.
This war is not yet done. The Crown Capitol is not part of the plan. Not like this. You will escape.
“Patience,” I said, under my breath.
“Talking to Jessie?” Lillian asked.
Jessie was propped up beside me, her head on my shoulder. Still sleeping.
“No,” I said. “More to the voice in my head.”
Lillian approached me, standing by the table, and she hugged the arm that Jessie wasn’t leaning against.
“I always wanted to see the Crown Capitol one day,” she said.
“We’re not going to the Crown Capitol,” I said.
“Oh? You have a plan?”
“Do you still have the bioluminescent lantern?”
“Duncan has a fresh one in his bag.”
“Shine it out the window. Flash code. We’ll see if anyone’s looking. Our options will depend on that.”
Lillian gave me a peck on the shoulder, then crossed the room.
Duncan was sitting against the wall opposite me. Ashton was beside him, and the two of them held Helen. She was, in rough dimensions and in size, about the same as a two-stone bag of flour. She was encased in the organ tissues they’d been able to salvage, which had been wrapped thoroughly in bandages. Blood was seeping through the bandage, so they had a raincoat between her and their laps. Ashton stroked her.
“Can she hear us?” Ashton asked.
“I tried to preserve the pilifer rings. It’s a question of how well the connection between the rings and the brain structures lasted.”
“Oh,” Ashton said.
“But I’ve been talking to her on the assumption she can hear,” Duncan said.
“Okay,” Ashton said.
When Lillian returned, she came with Mary.
Mary handled the flash code.
I turned my head, watching out the window.
“We got a response,” Mary said.