Lacey’s hands shook. She clasped them together, then unclasped them, balled them into fists, and then clasped them together again. She leaned on the railing, high above the city, elbows resting on the wood, her eyes roving over the city below, where countless citizens were clustering at vantage points and railings like hers, trying to see what was coming. She gazed over overgrowth and water.
It was fall, and the wolf clover thrived more than anything. It had been found in the late summer, disseminated over the fall, and it had survived its first winter. The Academies of the Crown States had devised and disseminated the strains, crossbreeds, and other materials as winter gave way to spring. The black wood was still there, the soil was tainted with the stuff to the point it was stained. But the clover had spread over the summer. The Crown States were now painted in a palette of black and green.
The cities affected by plague had been more or less reclaimed. The black wood had consumed the worst of the plague growths, but there was concern of resurgence, so those cities were occupied primarily by the Mercies.
Everyone had been working so hard. Lacey was put in mind of the times when exam season and the culling of the bottom percents of the student body had come around. Times when everyone had been fighting to stay afloat, because they knew that if they didn’t give their all, they would have nothing. This mentality had run through the most recent seasons.
People fought even harder now that the war was over. Studying, figuring out answers, figuring out the balances, and how to use piecemeal scraps of cats and cockroaches to form a passable ecosystem.
It had been over a year.
A long, long time ago, she’d been told that she did the things she did out of selfishness. She had been told that she extended kindness toward a wild and terrible child for herself, not for that child. The words had annoyed her, shaken her, and even cut her. She had pulled away. She had thought, naively, that it would be her last involvement with the project.
The problem all along had been her failure to see that the wild, terrible little boy had come from somewhere. He had learned from great teachers. She had learned to be on guard against him, and she had failed to see what the first of the teachers was doing. Whatever direction she turned, whatever path she took, she was pulled back in. By the boy. By the Lambs. By Hayle.
She wrapped one fist in the other hand and squeezed it until she knew it would hurt to hold a pen or a scalpel tomorrow, if tomorrow came.
She could have left. She always had the ability to walk away. She could have attended a less prestigious Academy and graduated with honors and accolades. She could have found a Professor to marry and been his assistant and partner.
On paper, as regrets, those options seemed so clear, so plain. She could spell them out like any project outline, in thesis, hypothesis, costs, goals, applications. She could have drafted each one with the letters with the carefully chosen language that were meant to sell the idea to the people with the resources to make them happen. In her work with poisons and drugs it was Professors and Headmasters, even whole Academies that she wrote those letters to appeal to. In this choice of life paths, it was her parents, colleagues, friends. Herself.
She couldn’t have left. In her naivety, she had taken on a project with immense responsibility. When she had been rebuked, she had said what she had thought were final, parting words to the Wyvern. She had told him that she knew him.
That knowledge had been the trap, that pulled her in, that drove Hayle to keep her close and involved, so he could guard what he was doing, that compelled her to be here, right now, trying to summon her courage.
A sea creature was making its way to the Eastern shore of the Crown States. Other sea creatures and weapons were gravitating toward it. She couldn’t see the battle or the frothing of the water, but she could see that the great sea creature continued its inexorable approach, and the water around it was dark with the floating bodies and viscera of its hundred challengers.
It wasn’t the largest creature in the world. It probably wasn’t. It wasn’t the most powerful.
It would, all the same, hit the shore, and the Crown States could well be broken by that arrival. She had absolutely no say in the outcome. Her say had been in the beginning, when she’d played her part in setting this in motion.
She was terrified in a way she never had been before. There had always been a way forward, the notion that she could return to her laboratory and try to figure out her options or if there was a solution. There was always ground to retreat to in times of war, when she was one of the people who served the back lines. Her position as one of the people closest to the headmaster of a top Academy meant that in times of plague or other catastrophe, she had always had some right to be one of the ones who were secured an out.
It was only the noxious child she had helped create that latched his claws in her, creating any uncertainty in her footing. That facet of things had only gotten worse with time and distance.
She straightened, turning her back on the scene. The fear she had wasn’t because of the great sea beast or the potential devastation it threatened to bring with it. The poisonous child wasn’t a child anymore.
They had claimed a neighborhood. The residents had largely been evacuated, and the ones who hadn’t left were incentivized to leave. Ten manors on a cliffside were now in the process of being transformed. Teams of students were running around, setting their work into motion. Wood grew so quickly she could follow the formation of branch and the expansion of trunk with her eyes. All was charcoal black. Harvesters crawled through everything, chewing away anything that wasn’t part of the greater construction.
It was claustrophobic, to enter a building that was forming around her. The light was fading as the growths rose up, elaborating on and exaggerating the features of the manors. Ten separate buildings were made more uniform in design by the shared material that formed them.
“My lord,” Duncan could be heard from down the hall. “Could I beg you to please don some clothing?”
“My Duncan, I will get to it when necessary. Abigail and I are deciding what I should wear.”
Lacey rounded the corner. Duncan stood with his back to the wall beside the door that was open a crack. The girl with the soft white curls stood on the other side of the door, wearing a fine dress. She went by Bonnie these days. The latest Quinton sat beside her, very un-lamblike in its behavior as it sat there with the wariness of a guard dog.
“My lord, it has been two hours now.”
“My Duncan, I am very much capable of looking at a clock and keeping track of time, as is Abigail. Don’t fuss.”
Duncan looked like he was going to say something, then spotted Lacey. He relaxed once he recognized her. “We’re nearly out of time, my lord.”
“I do believe our guest is on the horizon,” Lacey informed them.
“Our guest is on the horizon, my lord,” Duncan repeated, pitching his voice to be heard.
“My ears work perfectly fine, my Duncan.”
Duncan made a pained face. “He’s really going to need to stop saying that.”
“So do you,” the Lord said, from the next room.
“Please tell me the others are ready,” Lacey said.
“I wish I could,” Duncan said. “It’s been a year and two months of preparation and convalescence, the deadline’s here, and we are down to the razor’s edge.”
“We shouldn’t have set the deadline in the first place,” Lacey said.
“Far be it from me to lay the blame at the foot of any of our esteemed Lords or Ladies,” Duncan said, “But I recall something said about them wanting to put pressure on their own. They worried if they didn’t have a deadline, that nothing would get done.”
Duncan drew in a deep breath. “Abigail, could I see you for a moment?”
There was a pause, and then the door moved. Abigail stepped out into the hallway, closing the door behind her. She was as tall as Lacey, though she was less than half Lacey’s age, and she was beautiful in a very peculiar way. Her dark hair was long, and she wore a fine green silk dress that draped straight down from armpit to ankle. Her slenderness was the slenderness of youth.
Abigail walked a fine line as it was. It was hard to call her a Noble, because she wasn’t quite there. It was hard to call her just an aristocrat. Perhaps it was fitting.
Seeing her made Lacey feel that fear rising a touch. It made the vague feeling of claustrophobia and the looming, unavoidable crisis that much worse.
A distance away, the hallway was growing into place. Harvesters swarmed, keeping the growth from reaching inward, creating the apertures that would be windows, and redistributing material to smooth out the floor into a flat plane without even the divides of floorboards.
“Abigail,” Duncan said. “Please forgive me for saying so, but I don’t believe you’re helping matters.”
“Rest assured, Doctor, our Lord does what he says he’ll do. If he says he’ll be ready on time, he’ll be ready.”
Duncan suppressed a response, which might have been a sigh and which might have been a bark of uncharacteristic anger.
He was as scared as Lacey. For different reasons, yes, but he was scared.
“My Lord, for all his punctuality and finer points, is shortening my lifespan with the stress he’s causing me,” Duncan said. He said it so the room’s occupant could hear.
“How so, my Duncan?”
“By insisting on calling me ‘my Duncan’, for one thing.”
“He’ll stop when you stop using ‘My Lord’ when there’s no bystanders in earshot,” Bonnie said.
“We never know who’s in earshot,” Duncan said.
“I have very good ears,” said the voice in the next room.
“Just the wait is causing me enough stress, you know,” Duncan said. “I’m going to have a heart attack if we cut it any closer. Would someone please help me with this?”
“I think Abigail’s heart is skipping beats for different reasons,” Bonnie said, her voice soft. There was the faintest hint of something wry in her tone. “Playing dress-up with a red-haired young Noble, when every moment counts? Oh my, oh gosh.”
“Such insolence,” Abby said, affronted. For all the character she managed to inject into the words, she proved the lie by the gentleness with which she touched the side of Bonnie’s face. She paused at the door, looking at Duncan. “We will be on time. I promise.”
Lacey approached the small group as Abigail stepped through the door. She saw Bonnie’s expression change as the girl paid more attention to her.
Poison had its way of spreading through systems, Lacey observed. It could affect character and personality. There were traces of the boy she’d known in so many of these things. In the jokes, the cavalier treatment of danger, in the anger a soft, gentle child could display toward a woman in a laboratory coat.
“Is it what you expected?” Lacey asked.
“You’re asking me?” Duncan asked.
“Yes. You wanted to work with Nobles.”
“I don’t know. He might not be one. We’re holding off on a final decision or verdict. The last time we talked about it, we decided we wouldn’t announce him as one.”
“As you’re not announcing Abigail or the others?”
Duncan nodded slowly. “We thought we’d decide when we saw them all together. If he looked the part, and if he could play it. But we have, what, less than half an hour? Tens of minutes? Less?”
“I couldn’t tell you. Any of the above.”
“We’ll have other things in mind. Unless it’s unanimous and instant, I think we’ll hold off. So to answer your question, I don’t know. I don’t know if any of this is what I expected.”
“You work closely with other Nobles.”
“Of my share of our Lords and Ladies, do you really think any of them are the type you work with?”
“I’m not wholly certain any of them are,” Lacey said.
“And I’m not wholly certain why you’re here,” Bonnie said.
Lacey glanced down at the girl. She saw the anger and it took her breath away. She’d seen the same expression on a young face, a decade ago.
“I’m only a witness,” Lacey said. “I think I’m one of the only ones still standing who knows enough to know what happened, who isn’t threatening enough to warrant being destroyed, and I’m not so close to things that my judgment is obscured.”
“I heard who you were. What you’ve done,” Bonnie said.
“I’ve done good and bad,” Lacey said. “Yes, absolutely.”
The anger didn’t wane in the slightest.
Like so many things, that anger had been passed down in its way. By deed, by word of mouth.
“I think you’re lying to yourself if you think your judgment is clear,” Bonnie said.
Lacey paused at that.
It was Duncan who rescued her, or who interrupted at the moment she could have made order of very disordered thoughts and sentiments. “Lacey?”
“I’m tied up here. Could I ask you to check on Ibbot next door?”
Lacey glanced down at the girl from Hackthorn’s Fairy Tale ending. She saw the hard expression, and she left, so she wouldn’t subject the girl to her presence any longer.
“I’m thinking I’ll need to check on everyone.”
“That might be good. You could fill us in last minute.”
“Excuse me, then. No time to waste.”
“Thank you, Lacey.”
What had come before would come again.
She had to pass through the hallway in progress, Harvesters swarming along their prescribed paths, removing and depositing material. Branches slowly reached out toward her like grasping hands, only to wobble, jerk, and twitch as they were gnawed at their bases. That which fell to litter the corners between wall and floor was swiftly caught up and carried in the same direction Lacey traveled.
A young man ducked his head in a hasty little bow as he passed Lacey, traveling the other direction.
Lacey reached and knocked on the door to the next manor, which was becoming part of the overstructure.
The answer was a woman’s voice. “Come in.”
Lacey bent her head in a bow as she entered.
“No need to bow, my dear.”
“My lady,” Lacey said. She raised her eyes. “You might want to know that your guest is on the horizon and fast approaching.”
“I know. We had lookouts poised.”
“Yes, my Lady.”
Ibbot was in the center of the foyer. He knelt, his eyes fixed on the ground, and his entire body was rigid.
Galatea was there, wearing a dress that resembled a toga, all in spun golden silk. It draped off of one shoulder, gathered in careful folds around a belt that accentuated her waist, and the bottom hem was knee height at one side, ankle length at the other, the one calf exposed. Her shoes were stilettos with golden ribbons fixing them to her feet and ankles, but she was still putting one on.
She was and always had been fairly Noble in appearance. She’d only ever needed to grow to her full proportions to fit the mold.
No, it wasn’t appearance that had marked the change, here.
Galatea finished doing up the other set of ribbon-straps. She moved her foot and leg to examine it from multiple angles. Some of the angles bordered on the unlikely, but it was a thing she might have dismissed as an illusion or trick of the mind if she hadn’t known better.
Lacey averted her eyes, hands clasped in front of her. She’d been told not to bow, but here especially, she felt the need to. She wondered if it would be the case with the others, or if it was only the feeling of danger that went hand in hand with this particular young Lady.
The Galatea project had very nearly come to a conclusion when she had been reduced to only the core, essential pieces. The experience that had followed would have broken any other individual, to be confined in a parcel of flesh and brain for months, before a body was ready. But this woman had not and never would operate like other individuals. She was an actress, and she would never allow others to know the full extent to which she had changed, if she didn’t see the need to.
With Lacey, as familiar as Lacey might be to her, she wouldn’t see the need.
“Is there anything else?”
“I’m checking on everyone, my Lady. Duncan requested I check on you and the Professor Ibbot.”
“Very well. I’m still getting ready.”
“Yes, my Lady.”
“The Professor is fine.”
“Yes, my Lady.”
The fat little man had barely moved since Lacey had entered.
“Is my little brother well?”
“He seems to be taking his time, but miss Abigail is helping him, my Lady. Bonnie suggested miss Abigail is secretly enjoying the process.”
The Lady in front of Lacey tittered at that. Lacey swallowed.
“If she’s enjoying herself, then he is too. Good.”
“Yes, my Lady.”
“I’ll be along shortly, once I’ve put my Professor in his cage.”
“Yes, my Lady,” Lacey said. “Please excuse me.”
She only felt as though she could breathe once she’d left the room.
She passed a cluster of Doctors who were discussing the harvester’s work with the overstructure of the castle-in-progress in hurried and hushed tones.
She knocked on the next door.
The doors were opened. In the hallway alone, there were three men and three women in dress uniforms, the men to the left, the women to the right. Rapiers as their sides, rifles in hand, resting against shoulders.
Lacey bowed as she entered, and she kept her eyes to the ground as she made her way through the manor, using the position of the guards to know when to turn. If they were in her way and she had another path, she would take that path.
She entered the master bedroom. The Lady of this particular house was standing in front of a mirror, her back to the door as Lacey entered. Lacey saw only one eye, peering over the Noble Lady’s shoulder. The eye assessed her, then returned to the arrangement of jewelry.
“If you’re looking for our Doctor Lillian, she left a minute ago.”
“I’m under instruction to look for everyone, my Lady. The messengers told you that your guest is imminent?”
“They did, thank you.”
“Is there anything I can do for you while I’m here, my Lady?” Lacey asked.
“No, I don’t imagine there is.”
“Very well, my Lady.”
“I never could have worn a dress like this before.”
“I’m afraid I don’t fully follow, my Lady. You’re referring to your weapons?”
“I do miss the feeling of the flats of the metal blades resting on my skin. Not that I’m any less dangerous. Just the opposite.”
“Yes, my Lady. You could still use the blades, I imagine.”
“Not today. They wouldn’t make a difference, but the others thought that our guest might be able to smell the metal or the oils used on it. I had some special work done, blades of material other than metal. It’s not the same. Very different. Lighter.”
“Yes, my Lady. I imagine so.”
“It all reached a certain point, and then it started playing out backward.”
“I knew who I was and where I belonged, part of my unit, knowing who I followed. The crisis. Taking that leap of faith, at his behest. Getting to know the Lambs. Being a prisoner while I was secured and reconfigured for a new role. Crossing the threshold with a new kind of mission. The big, new, intriguing missions. Thinking I was falling in love. Finding love. Loss. More missions. More losses.”
“Yes, my Lady.”
“More losses, more missions. Loss. Falls in love, both false and real. The big, new, intriguing missions. The new, greater, grander missions. Being a prisoner while I’m remade for a new role. That’s as far as we’ve gotten. Now…”
“Getting to know them again, My Lady? Taking that leap of faith, at his behest? The challenge.”
“The crisis. Yes. That would be our imminent guest, this time around.”
“If you’ll excuse me saying, then after the crisis is faced down, with luck, you’ll find the security you had at the very beginning? Knowing who you are and where you belong?” Lacey asked. She realized she’d forgotten the appellation and was quick to add, “My Lady.”
“Ah,” the Lady said. She adjusted her jewelry, her back still to the door. “I should have said that differently. I don’t know if I really knew, then.”
Did that mirror, as well?
Lacey said, “I remember seeing Mary Cobourn, back then, my Lady. I talked to Professor Hayle about her.”
“Yes. Mary Cobourn. We talk about her as someone who has passed. Or someone we’ve passed on from. New names, now. Did she look lonely then? Lost?”
“She did. But if I may say so, my Lady, that didn’t last for long.”
“A good reminder, that. Thank you, Lacey.”
“You’re quite welcome, my Lady.”
“Would you give me a moment’s privacy? I’ll be along shortly.”
“As you wish.”
For all that the Noble Lady had turned down her offer for support, Lacey suspected she’d wanted, needed, and benefited from it most.
The outer shell was formed, at least for the ground floor, as Lacey emerged. The growth was faster now. The building had its outer walls, and the interior space was being fleshed out. Students hurried to place pots and tumbles of clover and the derivative plants in sconces and troughs, so the green spilled out to the ground below. It turned the area that had once been the cul-de-sac in the midst of the manors into a kind of garden or an overlarge gazebo. Flowers were set with care throughout, splashes of color in a dark aesthetic. They avoided the color red, it seemed.
“Yes?” she asked, turning.
It was a messenger. A young man, black-skinned with his head shaved of all hair. He wore a vest over a dress shirt. “I was told to tell you the guest has touched ground. We’ve sent people to meet him, and we can expect updates shortly.”
“Thank you,” she said.
She picked up her pace, all but running to her next destination.
It was everything the last houses hadn’t been. Busy, with Academy science in plain sight. Doctors and Professors worked to get everything arranged. Tanks bore the floating brains within, glowing faintly, as Lacey had seen countless times. Smaller tanks, these.
They were arranged as a wedding cake was, one atop the other, each a bit smaller than the one below.
“Don’t be so flustered, Lacey.”
It was hard to find her voice. She could barely see the Lady through the jumble of bodies.
“All according to schedule, thus far.”
“Forgive me for saying so, but your castle is still growing, my Lady. Things started late, as we expected him today, but we didn’t know what city to expect him in.”
“All according to schedule, I assure you.”
“Yes, my Lady.”
“Moving,” one Professor announced.
“Yes, my Lady.”
Tubes were disconnected. Pressurized gases hissed out, and mechanical latches snapped.
Stitched provided the lifting, though it would have been incorrect to call it steady lifting. It was a team that did the work because grace was required. With a team, it could be done fluidly. An upper body was carried into place. Trailing cords and tubes were plugged into the new housing, the layered stack.
Lacey averted her eyes, as stitched moved away, and an opening was provided that gave her a glimpse of the full picture.
Latches snapped into place, gases hissed, and things were connected.
“Ahem,” the Lady said. “I don’t seem to have feet, Professor Verde.”
“Beg pardon, my Lady,” a man muttered.
There were more snaps, then another hiss of gas escaping.
In Lacey’s peripheral vision, as she stared at the ground, the connected body raised itself up a fraction. The Lady didn’t move as a biped moved. She glided.
Cloth swept into the air as attendants took over. A dress was put in place. Hair was adjusted, where it had already been pre-done. There were no glasses.
The crowd thinned as everyone filled their prescribed role. All on a kind of schedule.
When they moved away, there was only a young woman of Noble-caliber beauty, silver hair braided in an intricate way and left draped over one shoulder. Her dress was of top quality, but modest, draping down to graze the ground.
“Walk with me?”
“As you wish, my Lady. I haven’t checked on Doctor Foster or-”
“Of course. I planned to give them a bit of time together, but the deadline’s come.”
The young Lady moved like a ghost floating through the air, always a measured, even distance above the ground. Even at the short set of steps that had once been the front steps of the manor, she moved fluidly and without effort.
Others were gathering and preparing. Duncan had arrived, which meant the others would be on their way.
Lacey could see Red and the other fairy tale creations. They had been done up pretty, but many had left monstrous features in place. Bonnie -Bo Peep- was in their company.
Shirley was present, too. The woman had made herself mayor of one of the cities to the west. The Lords and Ladies had recently made her an aristocrat proper. Shirley was in the company of a lanky, white-haired man, with a cast to his features that suggested they had been provided by the Academy. They were close.
Emily Gage was present. She’d done away with her monstrous features in part, solely for this event, but she was still an imposing woman.
Each had seen facets of the Wyvern when Lacey hadn’t been looking. Witnesses in their own ways, perhaps. Each compromised in ways Lacey wasn’t.
She wished she could compare notes with them and she doubted it was possible.
This particular beast had flown its coop.
“How are the others?” Lacey’s companion asked, as they walked the outer perimeter of the interior garden plaza. More guests were arriving by the moment.
“If you had asked me an hour ago, my Lady, I would have said I knew them well enough to say. Now… I’m not sure I have a grasp of any of them. Of any of you, I beg pardon, my Lady.”
“Riddles and enigmas.”
“One fusses and makes others fuss. One is compelling and frightening at the same times. The next is dwelling on arming themselves against the wrong thing.”
“And the next?”
Lacey glanced at the Lady beside her.
“Speak openly. If our guest doesn’t take to our hospitality, it could be your last chance.”
She said it in such a cavalier way. That this was all so critical a thing.
“You should be the most concerned of all of us, my Lady. You remember everything. You should see what’s unfolding with the most clarity, shouldn’t you? The others are caught up in the details, they’re dwelling on their personal perspectives, their needs and drives, the imminent threats and dangers. You’re equipped to see the big picture, the greater agendas, and how those details connect into something greater.”
“You think we’re missing something?”
“I think each of you have touched on pieces of it, my Lady. I hoped and felt you might be the one who would take those pieces and pull them together.”
“I played my part in getting us to this point. This meeting was always going to be part of the greater plan.”
“You didn’t see him toward the end, my Lady. Not around the time they besieged Radham, killed Hayle, or confined Genevieve Fray.”
“I did see,” the silver haired young lady said. She drew in a deep breath, then smiled. “I saw it in a dream, you see. Words spoken while I was asleep, all left unsorted. Ones I can forget or interpret, or that exist only in abstract. I would even say they’re my most cherished, special memories.”
Lacey felt her partially prepared response wither in the midst of her vocal chords, at those final words.
That response died when the young Lady said, “I believe in him.”
Lacey stopped in her tracks.
Her walking companion progressed a bit further, then paused, looking back.
“My Lady,” Lacey said. “I wouldn’t want to cause trouble, but-”
The silver haired young lady waved her off. “Speak frankly. Without titles, if it’s easier. Barely anyone is in earshot, and I trust all present who could listen in.”
“I- I beg your pardon. But really, truly. I spent the last decade of my life mired in this project. I’ve kept tabs on everything, I’ve followed along, I saw Project Wyvern at its inception, from that angry little boy that Hayle had delivered to our offices to the young man who killed Hayle and watched him die. He’s a shapeshifter of the mind, a sponge, a… puzzle.”
“It’s impossible to say anything for sure about Sylvester except that you can’t believe him. You can’t trust him. Once you do that, you’ve lost. Only disaster follows. Please. If all the years I’ve spent being involved in this count for anything, it needs to be that you hear and realize that. You can’t believe Sylvester. You can’t believe in Sylvester. He’s very possibly the scariest and most dangerous person in the Crown States, and I say that with your guest disembarking onto your shores.”
“I’m sure you’re right. I won’t deny your long and storied experience when it comes to Sylvester and the Lambs. It’s a large part of why you’re here.”
“Please, my lady.”
“But he isn’t Sylvester any longer.”
“And we’re no longer Lambs.”
With that, Lacey knew she had lost.
An entire city bent at the knee with his arrival.
He was a giant. His humanity had long been discarded. He was only human in the face he wore and his rough shape.
He strode down the carefully swept road, his retinue of fantastical beasts on either side of him and behind him. His beard was heavy, his hair long, and his footsteps had gravity, which made the bowing heads near him bend lower.
He had no carpet unfurled before him, but he had one trail behind him. Tubes, wires, and conduits of all sorts followed him, flowing from his back and shoulders, arranged in fine, orderly lines behind him. For every ten steps he took, there was a set of servants to take up position at the trail of fluid-filled tubes, to ensure that everything flowed straight and without issue. He took corners and traveled bends in the path, and the team worked discreetly to manage the trail so nothing caught, nothing became disorderly.
The trail extended to the mouth of the great sea beast that had borne him across his ocean, down at the harbor. The beast had unfolded itself, turning itself inside out to provide functional accommodations at the harbor, the revealed buildings taller than any building in the not-immodest city.
The bellowing of trumpets marked his approach and words were spoken to announce his coming, further down the road. His steps were measured.
The words were spoken as he passed through the gates. The hush was such that the words could have been whispered and most would have caught them. “You are graced by the presence of your rightful Lord King Adam, Emperor of the one hundred nations, bearer of the Crown, sword, and scales!”
All were already bowing, scraping the ground. The Lord King gazed at his subjects. He raised his eyes to look at the building that was still erecting itself, black branches reaching for the sky as it grew, shapes forming into arches and decoration.
“You,” the King spoke. Most present startled at the sound. “Have succeeded in drawing my attention.”
His head turned, taking in the surroundings.
“If this is an attempt to kill me, you should know this isn’t my true body. Your attempts will fail. If this is a mere farce, then the perpetrators of it should announce and explain themselves.”
“If I may, Lord King” one figure said, rising, only to segue straight into a deep, flourishing bow. His dark hair was long, and he was Noble in appearance, with sharp green eyes and a taller frame than even many Nobles. “I would announce those who invited you.”
The young man appeared to be close kin to the first, but was red haired, his hair tidily taken care of. He was adolescent, but had all of the hallmarks of anyone Noble-made. He had a woman of similar age beside him, still bowing. They wore clothes of similar colors, both in dark blues, in the finest fabrics.
The expression that Lord Asher wore was an unflinching one.
A beauty, possessed of grace. There was artistry there that few beyond the Lord King himself, his Queen and his Prince could lay any claim to. Most importantly, she carried it all with the bearing of someone that had known it from birth.
She smelled like blood.
Another beauty, if a sharper one, in the dangerous glint of her eyes and the way she held herself. Had he seen her in another context, he would have believed she was any of his new Nobles, still learning their new bodies. Promising. Dangerous.
Something else, there. Confident, but not nearly as immediately dangerous as the other two announced, supposed Ladies. Silver haired, modest, alert, her hands clasped together. She immediately went to the side of the tall man that had announced her, her hand on his arm.
One of the key players in this, then.
“You may, if you so desire, my Lord King, call me Lord Simon.”
The King stared at the assembled group. He looked at the crowd, and he saw the assorted monsters, the rough-edged hiding in the back rows, the ones decorated with tattoos and other things no true aristocracy would harbor.
“Let’s do away with the audience of this particular theater.”
Lord Simon gestured with one hand. The assembled crowd turned away, filing into the back hallways and doorways. In less than thirty seconds, only the announced Lords and Ladies remained, alongside two young individuals in lab coats, a boy and a girl.
The girl approached the Lord Simon and stood at his other side. He placed a hand on her shoulder, and he stared down the King.
“The stage is a good one,” the King observed. He looked up, where the branches were striving to meet in a steeple. “I’ve not seen one quite like it.”
“Thank you, my Lord King,” Simon said.
“It represents something. Transformation, growth, and timing.”
“Yes, Lord King. I’m gratified that came across.”
“I have never met any with the gall you supposed Lords and Ladies have on display here.”
The girl in the white coat that stood beside this Simon was scared, he observed. The boy who stood in the back was. The remainder were better at hiding it, if they were capable of feeling fear at all.
He went on, “That you would even try this ruse suggests that you know things few get to survive knowing. The existence of your audience suggests you’ve talked about these things.”
“Yes, Lord King. We know these things.”
“You’ve waged a war, clearly. You killed my kin.”
“Yes, my Lord King. Most here have Noble blood on their hands, in some form.”
The King moved through the room, traveling slowly.
Most, if taken at face value as Nobles, were only of the caliber that would be called bastards. Odd, that the one doing the speaking was one of those. Some were better, or had more promise.
“You managed to draw me here with your invitation. Now you’ll likely die for what you’ve admitted to me. You did this for a reason. You wanted my ear.”
“Yes, Lord King.”
“You have it.”
“Lord King, we would humbly request your sanction for our plan to wage war with the Crown Empire in its entirety, to ruin the Academy structure, and to behead the nobility. Yourself and ourselves excluded, of course.”
“You continue to call yourselves Nobles.”
It seemed to surprise more than a few of them that he’d chosen to dwell on that part of things.
Simon seemed to take it in stride. “Yes, Lord King. Absolutely.”
“Because the nobility under you is more farce than what we’ve posed here, Lord King. We proved our value by taking your Crown States as our own. I believe wholeheartedly that we’ll be better nobles than the nobles your Academy manufactures.”
“You would destroy our Academies, not just behead and replace our nobility.”
“They’ve grown too powerful, Lord King. In cutting them down, we would bring them in balance. It is in fact the reason we first decided we would approach you with the idea of a deal. We believe that you, being who you are, you would have to feel some degree of frustration with the state of the Crown as it is beside its brother, the Academy.”
“You would wage war with the Crown Empire. One broken nation against a hundred?”
“Yes, Lord King. We would, given an opportunity, colonize every place you’ve rendered unfit for habitation. We would stage wars from these grounds. Competition is healthy, yet the Crown never loses. You need an enemy or your people will wage a war against their own. They’re dangerously close to doing that. Even here, they were.”
“That plan of yours would require a great deal of time.”
“Generations, Lord King.”
“It would require my silence.”
The tall young Noble smiled. “Yes, Lord King. Your arrival or the arrival of your kin was inevitable. We thought we would invite it, so we could answer it appropriately, and make our best offer.”
“As offers go, it is not a very good one. War and death for me and my people.”
“The alternative was that we would raise the spectre of primordial-derived superweapons unleashed on the world at large, my Lord King.”
“You would not even be the first to do so.”
“We imagine not, Lord King. We would hope-“ Simon paused. “Well, perhaps not hope, but we may be breaking from pattern in that we’ll relinquish this leverage. We would hope others would do the same in similar circumstance, but we suspect we’re striking new ground in doing it this way.”
The young ‘Noble’ turned to the girl in the coat.
She hesitated, the Lord King saw.
But she turned over the iron key.
Simon approached, and he reached up to hand the Lord King the key. “The experiments are ready to be unleashed with a turn of the key, Lord King. They’re sitting dormant in the red-decked boat on port. You’ll want to dispose of them, I imagine.”
The key almost disappeared in the Lord King’s palm, as he held it. It was almost weightless.
“You believe this. You’d throw yourselves on my mercy to make it happen.”
“Belief is all we have. Belief that you’d have to find this necessary, interesting, or valuable. That you can’t possibly be satisfied with the way things are.”
“I’m the most powerful individual in the world. Why would I not be satisfied?”
“We’ve lived in that world, Lord King. We’ve seen it from the lowest to the highest points. The audience you saw ranged that same gamut. If you’re a representative of that world in near-totality, then you have to have seen the need for it to change. You must have seen and recognized that monstrousness at the core of things. The darkness. The ugliness.”
Simon touched his own chest, “It’s standing right in front of you, calling itself a Lord, my King.”
Others reacted to that, to varying degrees. The one in the back. The young woman with the dangerous eyes, ‘Margaret’.
Lady Jessica didn’t react. She raised her hand, holding Simon’s, and kissed the back of it.
“My King,” Lady Jessica said, as she lowered their hands. “The Academy wanted control and it pushed that control to the point of slavery. The result was rebellion. Your Crown wanted power and it exercised that power, breaking that which didn’t bend. Lord Simon here is a representative of every aspect of that. He was made to absorb and adapt, to mold himself to environments. He molded himself to us first. He molded himself to your world last.”
“And I’m supposed to trust him, knowing this?”
“Trust them. They’re the reason I’m here and wanting good things. They’re the reason I didn’t use the key. Well, as something more than a token,” Simon said.
The Lord King looked down at the key that rested in his hand.
“You’re not the first to make a bid or to pose a challenge,” the King said. He looked between them. He saw Helena’s hand on Asher’s shoulder, the look she cast back over her shoulder at the male Doctor. The way Lady Jessica and Simon and the female doctor stood together, and how the female doctor looked back at Margaret.
All knit together, their body language woven into one another.
“If you were to give us the chance, we can be the ones who succeed,” the young Doctor said. “We’ve come too far to do anything else, I promise you that much, Lord King.”
They might just.
The King clenched his fist, destroying the key.
“Do as you will.”