Just beyond the periphery of the city, the landscape rippled and bulged from the mass graves. All was now buried under a carpet of wolf clover. The plague had hit New Amsterdam, and war had hit it some time after. Word was that the putrescence made walking out among those mounds and that clover dangerous.
It was still so nice to see green again. It had been a bleak time of it.
Drake puffed on his cigarette, then moved his hand, putting the cigarette just in front of Emily’s mouth. She drew on it. Then, smoke still suppressed, she kissed the back of Drake’s hand before he pulled away. Her exhalation of smoke chased after his hand.
He moved the cigarette to his right hand, before reaching beneath her hair to rest his hand on the back of her neck. She half closed her eyes and let her head rock left and right as he used the one hand to massage her. The scales that decorated his hands were smooth on the surface, rough at the edges. His fingertips were clawed, and she shivered every time the points grazed her.
“I always planned to come here. I was so young, the last time I came,” Drake said.
“Yeah. It’s our city, isn’t it?”
“It’s everyone’s. Or it was,” she said. “It’s supposed to be big and messy enough that anyone can find their place here.”
His hands were strong. She loved his hands. They were long-fingered and capable of massaging her neck, from hairline to shoulder. It would be so easy to pinch or squeeze in the wrong way, and he avoided it. She loved that they were studded with scales and marked with tattoo and as a consequence there were probably no hands like his in the world.
She loved that just about every last part of him was like that.
A distant train whistle screamed, and people that had been in the station or sitting on benches under the eaves began to migrate out toward the platform.
That same group of people represented a cross section of the city’s residents. The rich, the poor, the young, the old. The free, the slaves, the living, and the dead that were animated with voltaic riggings. There were families there, Emily noted. She felt a twinge at seeing that.
Drake’s thumb ran down the side of her neck, tracing beneath the collar of her shirt, the nail touching skin of her shoulder that clothing covered.
“You’re bored, aren’t you?” she asked.
“Never, when I’m with you.”
“Clearly,” she said, with exaggerated amusement. “You turn your full attention my way when you have to wait around for even a few minutes.”
“It’s been an hour.”
“Not even half of one.”
The relatively chaste contact of his hand on the back of her neck was drawing some stares from some of the people who’d gathered closer to them on the platform. Well-to-do families. Not as well-to-do, perhaps, as the family Emily had been born into, Emily figured, but well-to-do enough to have clothes of the latest fashion and stitched to carry their bags. They would be paying the fares for those stitched servants, too. Those same servants would have a separate car. The smell of death and ozone tended to come up when they gathered in an enclosed space.
She was aware of the pressure. There was an unspoken expectation that Emily and Drake would get out of the way. They were supposed to move to a place on the train platform that would be out of sight. They were altered. Tattooed, physically changed. She was horned and her teeth were fangs. Her clothes were a men’s work shirt, because ordinary woman’s clothing didn’t fit well with her altered musculature, and she wore overalls with the straps and front piece of the upper half tied around her waist, knotted in front. Drake wore a sleeveless shirt and canvas pants with suspenders. The suspenders were a necessity, with him having next to nothing in body fat. Lean muscle, more lean muscle, the requisite pieces and organs to keep him alive, the skeleton to keep him upright, and everything else was decoration.
She wouldn’t have it any other way.
There was a girl, Emily noticed. Thirteen or fourteen, in nice clothes with nice hair, a pretty stitched servant carrying her bag. Where the girl’s family and greater group were turning up their noses or stopping just shy of outright sneering at Emily and Drake, the girl kept sneaking glances, and her expression was unreadable.
Please, little lady, Emily thought. Please see this for what it is.
She reached up for Drake’s hand, and she pulled it down, so his arm was against her neck and shoulder, his arm against her front, his front against her back.
She held that arm with both hands, holding it against herself, holding herself against it.
Look, she willed.
“What’s our agenda for later?” Drake asked.
“Our agenda? We have guests to entertain.”
“Mmm,” he made the sound, and she felt that sound through where his chest and stomach. pressed against her back.
“We’re fairly flexible, though.”
“That we are,” he murmured in her ear.
She laughed, loud. That got her more annoyed glances than the affectionate touching had. The little lady looked away, rather than at her, as if ashamed, embarrassed on her behalf.
Look, Emily willed, prayed.
“Good thing too,” Drake continued. “The very next moment we’re alone together, I’m going to pounce on you, beautiful creature, and I won’t be letting you go.”
Where his hand draped down in front of her, his fingertip tapped twice against the knot of the overall’s straps, that knot just a bit lower than a belt buckle ought to be.
She hugged his arm to her, tighter, and she smiled to herself.
In many things, she worried. In many other things, she was far from alright. In most things, even, there was anger or pain. Old, present, and looming.
In this, however, she was content. She had fought for this. She had claimed her scale-decorated man and left him behind, and she had fought her way back to him again. She wanted to embody her contentment in a way that could be seen.
That little lady with the fine well-to-do family and the stitched carrying her bag looked her way, curious despite herself.
Drake placed the cigarette in her mouth again. Emily drew back, then exhaled the smoke through her nostrils, twin plumes.
The train screamed again. It was coming out of the trees now. One scream after another, as it drew close to the platform. The sound of the whistles and horns were joined by the sounds of the brakes.
Soon the passengers would flood out and flood in.
I’m everything you’re not, little lady. I don’t have the fine clothes, I don’t have the money or the future waiting for me. Not properly. I could hang tomorrow, if things unfolded wrong, if the wrong words found the wrong ear or if the wrong people happened to arrive in this city.
But I’m free.
The train came to a stop.
Stairs stretched down from the side of the train, part machinery, part musculature. The passengers followed a moment later.
The car closest to Emily and Drake was filled with people like the little lady.
“Shall we go find them?”
They took their time traveling around the back of the crowd. They got several more dirty looks.
Chance and Lainie were getting off the rear car. They had a crowd around them. Lainie wore a sleeveless dress in a dusty rose shade that wouldn’t have looked out of place on someone in the well-to-do crowd, but she wore it to show off her arms. Plague scars marked one arm, and tattoos marked the other. Thorny branches reached up from her hands, and Kraken tentacles reached down from her shoulder, making only the slightest contact, just past the elbow. It was part of a broader tattoo that claimed her back.
Her eyes were modified, in what was supposed to be a minor change, but there had been a complication. A red ring marked the division between pupil and iris, stark and bright, but her actual eyelids were reddened, the spaces beneath each eye darkened, as if she’d just finished a marathon session of crying and gone a night without sleep.
Emily always noticed the eyes. Eyes held meaning to her. She’d offered to find someone good who could fix it, and Lainie had declined.
Chance was relatively unchanged, for his part. He was fit, with the work he did in the downtime, he had one or two tattoos, he had some plague scars that were worse than Lainie’s, mostly beneath his clothes, and he had a mod-girl at his side, but he was still recognizable as Chance.
The rest of their small crowd was of similar caliber. They were dockworkers, youth of questionable reputation, thieves, charlatans, with tattoos, modifications, and delightfully poor fashion choices.
Emily’s hand moved. Together.
Of the group, Chance’s hand, Lainie’s hand, and three others all moved in the answering sign. Agreement.
She broke away from Drake to reach out. Her hand caught Lainie at the side of the head, fingers in Lainie’s red hair.
“How are you?” she asked Lainie.
“Tired from the trip. Hungry. We made friends on the train.”
“Good,” Emily said.
Chance said, “Job finished early, but trains took forever. They were pulling trains off of one line to put them on this one. Five more trains are going to pass through this station before the afternoon and evening are over.”
“Why?” Emily asked.
“We should find out and report back to our Lords and Ladies,” Chance said. “After.”
“After food and sleep, please,” Lainie said.
Chance put an arm around the girl he’d been close to since stepping off the train. The girl had lace growing out of her, to the point it wasn’t clear where clothing ended and skin began. “After.”
Emily laughed. “I know just the place.”
“You know a place?” Drake asked.
Emily nodded. “Come on. All of you.”
She gave them a hand with one of the heavier bags, slinging it over one shoulder. She led them toward the city, the rest of the group chattering and smiling.
She cast a look over her shoulder, searching the crowd for the little lady. She found her target in the window, meeting the girl’s eyes.
Emily smiled, revealing her fangs. The girl turned away from the window, a flicker of annoyance on her face.
That was fine.
It had been the theaters of Tynewear, not a train station, she’d been two or three years younger, but years ago she had been that girl. She had cast the same inquisitive glances, her expression flat because she’d been unable to come to a judgment. Rather than a couple, it had been a heavily tattooed man and his friends, drunk off their asses, singing.
She hoped and she prayed that the girl, should she need it, would find it the same opportunity that she had. The first seed of a realization, if not the catalyst itself.
“Where are we going?” Drake asked her. She knew what he really wanted to ask. With this crowd in their company, would there be any pouncing?
“Home,” she said. “In a fashion.”
The music played throughout the apartment home. She moved her hand and it caught in torn sheets with beads of blood on them.
The room was nice. The walls were painted evenly, decorated with portraits and landscapes in fine frames. One wall had a bookshelf sitting against it, and the books were all leather, including some exotic kinds that had been Academy created. The bed had four posts and a canopy, the floor had a fine rug from halfway around the planet.
Everything in the apartment home would be of similar caliber.
She wanted to destroy the rest of it, as friction, scales, claws, and other decorations had destroyed the sheets. She wanted to tell the others to help her destroy it, but she didn’t want to spoil their rest.
Before they left, perhaps.
She sat up.
“Cigarette?” Drake asked.
She reached to the bedside table, retrieved the sole remaining cigarette from the little metal case, and handed it to Drake. She found a matchbook and pressed it against his bare chest, before standing from the bed.
“Getting water and checking on our guests,” she said. “I’ll be back.”
“Get dressed first,” he told her. “I’ll save it until you’re back.”
She threw a small pillow at him, then stretched.
She found the clothes she’d had on, and put them back, the overall’s straps going over her shoulders this time. She walked barefoot into the next room.
Lainie was curled up in a young man’s lap, head on his shoulder. The lad had a guitar resting across the armsrest of the chair and her lap, laid with strings up. As the music box played, he plucked the strings.
One of the young men stood and approached her as she found a wine glass and filled it with water from the tap.
“Keep your distance,” she warned. “I imagine I smell atrocious.”
“Can’t smell a thing,” he said. “Too many years of exposure to noxious chemicals, even before the Lambs found me and snatched me up.”
“And after they found me, it was more poisons, gases, and other things that singe the nose hairs, even if you’re being careful,” he said.
She drank her water, making a bit of a nodding motion to make it clear she’d heard.
“Junior,” he introduced himself. “Posie is over there, with one of our guests from the train. The other two, are boys I’m training up in hopes they’ll be able to follow in my footsteps. Marv and Vic.”
“Emily,” she said. She offered a hand to shake. He shook it. “I’m the princess in the tower that Lillian and Sylvester rescued, and now they don’t know what to do with me.”
“I think-” Junior started.
There was a hard knock at the door.
“-He knew exactly what to do with everyone.”
She went to the door.
No peephole. In a building like this, there wasn’t really a need. Each resident had an apartment that spanned one or two floors.
She opened the door. The people on the other side forced it the rest of the way open. Soldiers. They flooded into the apartment. Anyone who could have gone for a gun wasn’t given a chance.
Candy stared down the officer who pointed a pistol at her.
If they shot Drake-
“On your knees!” the officer shouted into her face.
“No,” Emily said.
The others were kneeling. Junior had dropped to his knees of his own volition, even without a gun pointed his way. It freed officers to turn their attention to her.
Two approached her from behind, grabbing her arm and shoulder. A boot kicked the back of her knee, sharp.
Her leg didn’t bend or even move in reaction.
“I will not ask you again! Down on the ground or I will put a bullet in you!”
“My answer will remain the same. If you shoot me-”
Emily closed her eyes for a moment.
“Officers, it’s alright.”
“Are you sure?”
The pair stepped through the door. More officers followed behind them. He was an older man, his features chiseled to the point they looked artificial. She looked thirty years younger than she was, her figure ridiculous.
“Everard. Adelaide,” Emily greeted them.
“Candida. Don’t use our first names like that. It’s petulant. We’re your father and your mother,” Everard said.
“I’d hoped never to see you again.”
“Then our family apartment in New Amsterdam was a bad place to visit. You’ve brought squatters?”
“Friends and acquaintances.”
Drake had emerged from the other room, dressed.
“They’ve broken into our liquor cabinet, it seems,” Everard observed.
“My lords! You’ve destroyed yourself,” Adelaide said.
“I feel better than ever, Adelaide.”
“Your eyes,” Adelaide said. “Whatever possessed you?”
Emily raised her hand to her face, touching near her eye. The orbs were there, but they had been made utterly clear and translucent, visible only if the light caught them at the right angles. Otherwise, it left her eye sockets looking empty, raw.
“The husband you picked for me had it done.”
“Nothing so grotesque, I’m sure,” Adelaide said.
“What even brought you to New Amsterdam?” Everard asked.
“I could ask you the same thing. You could have left.”
“We tried,” he said. “Our timing was wrong. There was supposed to be a boat this spring. We made the trip and were turned away. Imagine our surprise when we return here, only to hear the doorman is alarmed at the rabble that forced their way through, and that authorities are already contacted and en-route.”
Emily glanced at her friends. “The trains. It’s why so many were coming back. They weren’t allowed to leave.”
“Quarantine concerns,” Everard said.
“What a shame,” Emily said, with no emotion in her voice. She wondered if it was one of the other groups, isolating and rooting out key players in aristocracy and business.
Her father certainly didn’t look happy. She’d seen that unhappy expression on his face many a time, but it had typically been reserved for her misadventures and delinquency.
“We’re hoping the ports will open soon,” Adelaide said. “We’re expecting ships next fall.”
“What shall we do with them?” the officer asked.
“Will you behave?” Everard asked. “We can have all of that stripped away, the tattoos removed, the eyes replaced.”
“I would sooner kill you than let that happen,” she answered.
“Please,” Adelaide said. She drew closer, hesitated, then closed the distance. “Candida.”
“That’s not my name.”
“It’s the name we gave you,” Adelaide said. She sniffed. “You reek.”
“That might well be the cigarettes,” Emily said.
“Not ladylike, those. Phallic, stinking things. Unhealthy, the Academies say.”
“Oh yes. Unhealthy. If only I were immortal, and didn’t have to worry about such things.”
Her parents exchanged glances. Her mother said, “It’s not the cigarettes. You smell like sex and sweat.”
“I should hope so, after six goes at it.”
Everard made a face. Emily only glared at him, staring him down.
“Why do you have to make it all so hard?” he asked.
You tried to sell me. I was the currency you used to bet your chips on a particular horse, and that horse was put down.
“Why couldn’t you have ever made it easy for me?” she asked.
“We gave you everything,” Adelaide said. “You seem to glory in perverting it. Ruining those things. It’s a wonder you haven’t soiled this place more than you have.”
She glanced at the mess. Considering the people she kept company with, it was so mild as to be laughable.
She caught Junior’s eye. He gestured. Fight. Question.
She shook her head slightly.
“Tell us you’ll cooperate, that you’ll be good. We can discuss fixing what you’ve done to yourself. Perhaps, if the local authorities are willing, we could have them take your friends into custody, and free them, contingent on your cooperation,” Everard said.
“Whatever you need, Mr. Gage, sir,” an officer said.
“The local authorities are so obedient. You’ve climbed the ranks, haven’t you?” Emily asked.
“Even with the fate of the Lord Baron Richmond, the tragedy that was, we were elevated by our association with him.”
“Ah,” she said. “Were you? I would say that was the most tragic part of it all, except I wouldn’t want to undermine how very horrible the rest of it was.”
“His death was a great loss. Then you disappeared. You played at being dead for a time, only to resurface, tried your hand at playing dead, but we had eyes on you- and then you disappeared for a considerably longer period of time, appearing only today,” Everard said. “For the best, perhaps, considering the last word was that you were associating with rebels.”
“Rebels?” the officer in charge asked.
“I would recommend treating her colleagues here as such,” Everard said, with a kind of finality.
“You’re aware that the penalty for even suspected involvement in rebel groups would be death by execution?”
“I’m aware,” Everard said, staring Emily down, before he couldn’t stare into the void of the raw, translucent orbs any longer. His sculpted, Academy-given lips twisted with disgust. “Arrest her with them. But postpone her execution, at the very least, if you can. I do have hope she’ll come around.”
“You really don’t know me at all,” she said. “Thinking I can come around.”
Everard drew closer, until he was shoulder to shoulder with his wife. He was smaller and shorter than Emily, with all the augmentations she’d had.
He reached up for her face, and she caught his hand.
She squeezed it, watching his expression, wanting to see just a little bit of the pain. She heard the parts of his hand grind into one another. She saw his expression tested, but she didn’t see it break.
“Let him go,” the officer said.
She let Everard go.
They were led as a group toward the lift. Thick fluids churned through tubes as the lift made its way toward the ground floor, their small crowd of delinquents and rebels with shackles on, arms behind their backs, while officers lined up behind and to the side of them, guns in hand.
Drake stood by her, his upper arm pressing against hers. That ended when her father intervened. Drake was pulled back by men in uniform. Everard stood to Emily’s left instead.
“You really want to do this?” she asked.
“Not in the slightest,” Everard said. “But what other option do we have?”
“Leave us to this. Admit there’s no rebel involvement. Go to one of your other homes. Accept that I served my role and elevated you in status, and leave me to lead the rest of my very, very long life as I see fit.”
He shook his head, and he remained silent, as if he couldn’t even dignify her with a response. He could dignify her by making her a Noble’s wife, but… it terminated there.
“Does the lobby of this building have a phone?” Junior asked.
“Of course,” Adelaide said.
“Shush, dear. Don’t entertain them.”
“Of course,” Junior muttered. “Like it’s assumed.”
The lift’s door opened. They stepped out into the lobby.
“We’re on Crown business,” Junior said. “It’s meant to be discreet. Before things go any further, I’ll have to ask that I can make a phone call.”
The officers exchanged glances.
“I was the fiancee of the late Baron Richmond,” Emily said. “Adelaide and Everard Gage will confirm this. Take that into account and hear me when I say that you must allow that phone call.”
“She was, but-” Adelaide said.
“Shush,” Everard said. “It’s fine.”
They approached the desk. Junior took the phone. He paused for a long moment before dialing the number, as if he had to remember.
It was a much longer moment before there was a response. He stood where he was, waiting.
“Junior,” he finally said. “Yes, my Lord. Yes, my Lord.”
He held the phone out to Emily.
She took it.
“It’s Emily, my Lord,” she said.
“You don’t ever have to call me that.”
She wasn’t sure how to respond.
“Shall I leave this to Junior?”
“Yes, my Lord.”
“Do visit. That’s not an order. Only a wish.”
“Yes, my Lord.”
There was a soft sound of amusement on the other end.
“Hand the phone to the person in charge.”
She extended the phone toward the head officer.
She watched as he listened. Whatever he heard, he wasn’t given a chance to speak, much less utter a ‘my lord’. Not until the end.
“Yes, my Lord,” the officer said.
Emily watched her parents’ expression transform. Puzzlement, then something between concern and hope.
The officer hung up. He kept his hand on the bar of the phone while it rested on the cradle, then glanced at the secretary at the desk. “That was the true number?”
The officer nodded. He turned to Junior. “My apologies for the inconvenience, sir.”
Junior smiled. “Please take the shackles off.”
The officer motioned. Officers in the retinue hurried to oblige.
“What is this?” Everard asked.
“You can shackle them,” Junior said.
Junior glanced at Emily.
“They were directly implicated in the Baron Richmond’s death,” she said. “That in mind, keep them alive.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the officer said.
“I don’t understand,” Everard said.
“I think you do,” she said. “It’s really very simple. You and your ilk owned and ran this country. You ran it into the ground, as a matter of fact. Now it’s no longer yours, and debts are coming due.”
“We’re your parents. Your family!”
“You never even resembled family, let alone parents,” she said. “You’re traitors.”
The officers stood ready to cart the two away. They looked to her for leadership, expecting their orders.
She didn’t like it. It resembled what she’d seen and done as the Baron’s fiancee.
The Lords and Ladies of Radham had asked her if she wanted a greater role in things. She had refused. She had her family. She looked at Drake.
“A question, before they go,” Junior said. “Though I suppose I could interrogate them properly, with chemicals-”
“There’s no need,” Everard said, “We’re loyal to the Crown. This has to be a misunderstanding or a lie. I’ll tell you whatever you need to know, without chemicals.”
“You said you expected ships next fall?”
“Yes,” Adelaide said.
“Incoming or outgoing?”
“Incoming,” she said. “It was the talk of Trimountaine Port. We’re hoping- were hoping, that we could sail out with them when they left. You can’t imprison us, none of this makes sense-”
“That’s enough,” Junior said. “That’ll be all.”
Their group remained in the lobby while the officers, Everard, and Adelaide left.
Together, they all returned to the lift, many rubbing at wrists. Couples paired off and friends met to converse.
“Incoming guests?” Drake asked. “How? How would we even know?”
The questions echoed her own thought processes, even if the direction of those questions didn’t. In many things, she worried. In other things, she was far from alright. In most things, even, there was anger or pain.
Some of that had quieted, with this. Some of the fears had been put to rest, the demons slain. Her parents were gone, and with luck, would never darken her path again. Old pain there, yes, but never to be present or future pain again.
Monstrous, perhaps, to turn on her parents like that, to let it happen. But she wore that monstrousness with pride.
Her hand with its clawed fingertips reached for and found Drake’s.
“A singular guest, I imagine,” Junior said. “As to how, I have to think our Lords and Ladies sent out an invitation.”