Lawrence was jolted just as he finished penning one of the final lines of his letter. The chandelier in the room swung, the curtains swayed, and books on shelves slid across the shelves or slammed forward against the doors of branches and glass that kept them from scattering across the room.
Whoever designed this thing should be poisoned and left to die a gasping death, he mused.
He leaned back in his chair, running his fingers through his hair without putting the pen down, holding the instrument with the point away from his head. His eye traveled to the bed that was just a short distance away.
The sheets were black, only fragments and pieces of a pale form visible amid the waves of spun silk fabric. Jeanette. She had slept through the most recent crash- the alcohol that he could still smell was likely a part of that. He didn’t begrudge her the alcohol, nor the sleep. That wasn’t how he wanted to operate.
He turned his eye to the letter. A line stretched across it. Frustrating.
He mused for a moment, then used the head of the fountain pen to stab a beetle at one corner of his desk. He shook it loose over the trash bin, tracking it with one eye to make sure it fell within, then opened a tin case, collecting a nearly identical beetle.
He was careful not just the words he chose for the letter, but in how he penned it out. There was a care that needed to be taken in the formation of strokes, in the intensity, rhythm and speed with which he put words on the page. It was closer to the enunciation and rhetoric of a speech than to the crafting of the written word.
Silent, scratching, black ink on white, but a speech all the same.
He finished,then picked up the letter. Striking a match, he burned it. He held it until it was almost entirely gone, then carefully deposited the remaining corner in the bin. He placed a lid over the top of it.
Gathering his things, he set the pen and paper away, careful to secure each. The paper went in a box that was fixed to the shelf, and the pen went in a case. The beetle he gathered in his hand.
He stood from his chair with care not to let the feet scrape on the floorboards of the cabin, and he walked over to the window, stretching as he did so. He opened it, and he released the beetle.
He remained at the window, watching the speck that was the beetle fly off. It would travel to its destination and, with the right coded chemical to unlock its instincts, pen a replica of his letter. By similar secure means, the letter’s contents would find their way to the Crown Capitol.
He shut the window and turned. Jeanette was awake. She held the sheet around her breasts, for modesty’s sake.
“Did I sleep too late?” she asked.
“Not possible,” he said.
“I have to make you breakfast, or tea,” she said.
“You don’t,” he said, firm. “All you have to do is… enjoy existing. Within the week, all other business going well, we’ll be on our way to the crown jewel of the Crown States. Circumstances allowing, I’ll defer my primary duties and we’ll travel over the winter and spring while I show you some of our most beautiful cities.”
“All of this feels dreamlike,” she said.
“It does,” Lawrence admitted.
They both harbored thoughts that they didn’t say.
He broke the momentary silence, “I’ll be busy. Have you given any thought to what you want to do with your day?”
“Read,” she said, without hesitation.
“Alright,” he said. He smiled. “Let me know if you run out of books.”
“Ha,” she said, in mild disbelief. Her eyes roved over the room. Countless bookshelves stored texts with leather covers.
He walked over to the washroom, which was partitioned off by a partial wall, with a section that could slide to afford more privacy. An esophageal hose lay coiled white and alive in the commode, like a severed umbilical cord or a section of intestine with a toothless mouth.
Jeanette was not a fan of the ‘tube’.
He washed his hands of stray bits of ink, then started washing his hands thoroughly, in the way he’d been taught to do in the Academy, from fingertip to elbow. It wasn’t necessary, with the various measures they had against infection, but he liked the ritual of it, and he liked the symbolism. Preparing for every day as if he was preparing for surgery. In a way, he was.
He faced the mirror. The face on the other side was pale, with sculpted cheekbones, a high forehead, and a defined jaw. The nose was narrow, the lips thin, and the eyes intense and blue. He lathered a brush and applied the foam to face and head before shaving cheek, chin, and neck. That done, he turned his attention to the hair at each side and the back.
Jeanette appeared behind him, pressing her front against him. Her hands rubbed at his shoulders as she looked past him to the face in the mirror. Her own face was visible, made faintly foggy by the steam from the sink. The effect was dreamlike, as she’d said. Freckles dotted her cheekbones and nose, her hair was straight and brown, her lips full, and her eyes were large and green.
They were solemn, too. The eyes.
He stared into her eyes as he finished wiping at the foam and fixing hair, and he didn’t break the eye contact while rinsing the brush and razor. He didn’t flinch as she reached over to touch one cheek.
Not his cheek, really. One cheek.
He firmly took her hand, moving it away. She lowered her eyes, and gave him one kiss on the shoulder before walking to the bookshelf, no doubt to consider what she might read while lounging about in his cabin.
Even words that were implied were dangerous, much like the speech to the beetle wasn’t actually spoken. Through silences and gestures like what she’d just done, she could say so much, and that ran contrary to the deal they’d struck. He’d said it was because it would disrupt things if people knew, if they found out, but that wasn’t true.
He preferred things if he didn’t have to think too deeply on the subject of faces.
He’d fallen for her beauty, initially. He was willing to admit as much. She had worked in a coffee house, in a city he was only in temporarily. He had struck conversations with her, and he’d remembered her bewilderment when a man like him had spoken to her, expressed interest in her day, and made a daily habit of going there.
He remembered the fear when he’d given her a gift. She loved reading but rarely had an opportunity, so he’d given her some favorites. She’d been afraid, because of the black coat he wore and the power he wielded, and because of the disparity she saw between them.
If it had just been her beauty that drew him to her, he might not have used his free days to travel to see her. But he liked her mind, as literary and creative as he was analytical. More than a few times, as he’d outlined problems that stumped him in terms someone without Academy education could understand, she had made suggestions, and while they hadn’t been answers, they had set him on the right track.
That was what love was supposed to do, wasn’t it? Aside from the reproductive side of things, which would be complicated, it brought people together who might be stronger as a pair than they were summed up alone. ‘Behind every great man…’, as the saying went.
He’d courted her, and he was fairly sure she had only accepted at first because of the fear. After nearly two years, when he was sure the fear was well behind them, he’d made his proposal, and he’d revealed the secret that he’d removed several rivals to keep.
She’d accepted the deal, and its few solitary provisions. As he’d done to himself, he would change the color of her skin, he would change the structure and details of her face, change her hair and eyes, and in the doing, he would open all of the doors to her that such a procedure might entail. He would give her all the freedom he could, even let her go if she so asked, and he would made only two stipulations.
The first was that she never mention the procedure. Certainly not to others, but not to him, and never committed to the written word in any diary, letter, or journal. The second was that once she accepted the deal and the surgeries, he could never change her back.
They were selfish requests with complicated reasons he wasn’t fully prepared to admit to himself, but after much deliberation, she had accepted.
He thought a lot about that night. His tears, as he took a scalpel to the most beautiful young lady he’d ever laid eyes on. The consignment of a whole human being’s worth of skin and hair to the incinerator.
He’d expected her to cry, to weep, to be inconsolable. Lords knew he had been. What he hadn’t expected was for her to show him a face without tears, and then to save that anguish for when she thought he couldn’t hear.
He was partway through getting dressed when Jeanette approached. She took over the buttoning of his shirt, and he took hold of her hips. She kissed him once with each button she placed through the eyeholes of the shirt. Kisses on the collarbone, on the neck, on the shoulder.
“Don’t look so sad,” she said.
She kissed him on the mouth this time.
“You have a war to win, Lawrence,” she said. “You and your fellow Professors. There’s no place for sadness.”
A long time ago, Lawrence had been told and had told himself that it was necessary, to walk this path he had chosen. He might get a white coat, if his skin were black. He would, he was promised, get his black coat if his skin wasn’t. Propriety, he was told. He could do things to help others, he was told.
He’d become a black coat fairly quickly after he’d transformed himself. He played the political games and broke ground with his science, and he’d been called a great mind.
After her, after the scalpel and the incinerator, something in him had awakened and countless other things in him had died, and dwell as he might on the subject, he couldn’t quite articulate which things belonged where. But others had remarked on how driven and how dangerous he seemed.
A year and a half ago, he had earned his place on this team. That had led to him being here.
“I know,” he murmured. “I’m the best here.”
“In the Crown States.”
“Yes. The best in the Crown States,” he repeated.
“I’ve been reading books about war and strategy, in case you ever want to talk about it,” Jeanette said. She helped him put on his vest, then went to his black coat. “I know you’ve read them all, but it’s a thing I like thinking about. If you saw the need.”
“I might just,” he said. “I like your way of seeing the ways through the knots and tangles in things.”
She smiled. He turned his back and let her help him into his lab coat. He felt the familiar weight of it on his shoulders, and he stood taller because of it.
“Will you come back for lunch? No, wait, of course. Not with the battle.”
“There’s no telling. We don’t know how severe this is. Countless armies are marching when we didn’t ask or allow for it.”
“An interesting puzzle,” she said.
He kissed her. “I may send someone to you if there’s any concern that you could be in danger.”
“I’ll be dressed,” she said.
He kissed her again, then turned to his desk, collecting folders and papers he’d weighed down with inkwells and fossils.
The outer deck of the vessel was windy. Already, even though they were a distance from Radham, the rain pelted the craft’s metal and wood exterior.
He spotted one of his colleagues at the prow of the vessel. He joined the man, and in the doing, saw that the others were sitting nearby.
“A slow start today, Lawrence?” one asked.
“I had the letter to write. The vessel shuddered just as I was penning the last of it. I imagined I was stabbing this damned craft when I executed the first scrivener beetle.”
The others chuckled.
“I’ll send tomorrow’s,” Copeland offered. “And I’ll be mindful of the jostling of the craft.”
“No objection,” Lawrence said. He approached the railing.
The vessel was of a scale to do any warship proud, but it wasn’t a warship, quite. Metal and wood, with enough fortitude to withstand artillery and cannons, it traveled over plains and through sparse forest, cleaved across hills and crossed rivers with scarcely any hesitation.
Great insect legs dragged it forward with steady, mechanical movement. Altogether, the craft might have looked like a great beetle with the exterior of a grand ship, but it was really a number of creatures working in concert.
“Radham,” Savage said, beside Lawrence.
“I won’t say I haven’t thought we should send an army to Radham to stamp out all the troubles and nuisances that seem to pour from it,” Lawrence said.
More wry chuckles.
“But we didn’t make this request,” Copeland finished the thought.
“The timing couldn’t be worse,” Lawrence said. He wanted to lead, here, so he had ventured the risky thought. “I’m sure the three of you discussed this before I arrived.”
“We didn’t actually,” Savage said. “But I’m interested to hear you elaborate on that.”
Lawrence turned around, back resting against the railing, looking to see that the coast was clear.
“Ah,” Savage said, as if that answered the question.
“Exactly,” Lawrence said, raising one eyebrow. “I’ll be diplomatic and say I was very glad we were making preparations to travel back to the Crown Capitol.”
Professor Poole reached into a pocket. A creature, mouse-like but without fur, its features somewhat eel-like, pawed its way over the back of his fingers. He met Lawrence’s eyes.
Lawrence gave Poole a curt nod.
The creature was deposited on the table that sat before the seated professors. It looked around, then settled.
There were measures to listen for eavesdroppers, but they were very often confounded by the fact that they were surrounded by people. This was a measure to listen for one very dangerous person who was almost always present. A man they couldn’t have overhearing any of what they would say.
“He’s in a dangerous state,” Lawrence observed. “I’d be much happier if a team three times our size was working on him.”
“He’s plague-infected,” Poole said. “He has to be in incredible pain, but he’s hiding it.”
“He’s reveling in it,” Savage said. “The pain, and the fact that he’s holding onto the plague.”
“In all of this,” Copeland said. “He’s reveling in all of it.”
Lawrence nodded his agreement. “Do we need to steer?”
The creature perked its head up.
The conversation aborted, the professors settled. Poole reached down, and the creature scampered up his arm, disappearing into his sleeve.
Propriety dictated that they use covert means to communicate. The beetle, the small creature, countless other measures, they shared essential information that would probably go without incident if they were mentioned out loud. Things were what they were, and nobody had any illusions about that.
The Infante least of all.
But, by that same measure, both Lawrence and Jeanette knew their shared story. They knew who they were, and Lawrence suspected that much as he imagined her as she’d once been, when the lights were off, she might well imagine the him he would’ve been. But if they ever spoke it out loud… it would destroy everything between them.
“Which experiments do we have on board?” Savage asked.
“The belchers, the locust knights, the tunnel gnawers, and the helmed,” Lawrence said.
“A veritable army. Any issues?”
“Hydration for the gnawers. We debated stopping to take on water- you were there.”
“I was distracted. We were talking about other concerns at the side of the room.”
The Duke, Lawrence thought. He nodded. “We didn’t stop. Our Lord Infante wants to get to Radham without delay. Whatever this is, it’s a priority.”
“Indeed,” the Infante spoke as he ascended from below decks. A tower of a man, stout, all muscle and presence. He was followed by the remaining two members of his entourage. Lawrence’s peers, ostensibly, but they were newer to the role than even he was, and they weren’t quite to the point where they were privy to discussions that the eel-rat needed to preside over.
Lawrence joined the others in bowing.
“It’s poetic,” the Infante said. He indicated the city in the distance. “The very nature of Radham is that it is always in shadow. There’s always a dark cloud above it.”
“Yes, lord Infante,” Lawrence said.
“None of that,” the Infante said. “We’re going into battle. You know my preferences.”
“Yes,” Lawrence said, straightening.
The Duke was brought forth by a team of vat-grown servants, and followed by two of his professors. Adams and Berger, if Lawrence was remembering right.
They looked weary.
The Duke looked almost normal. He held himself with poise, he looked at everyone with eyes that seemed no less alert than any other person’s might be, he looked healthy and even magnificent, and only his silence might mark him as unusual to the untrained.
But Lawrence was well versed in these things. He’d seen many a noble, and his initial work on those fronts had been sufficient to see him placed with the Infante’s team. He was responsible for the Infante’s ability to house multiple hostile experiments within his body.
“This is your doing,” the Infante said.
Heads turned in surprise.
The Duke stared out at the city in the distance, his chin set.
“Nothing will come of it. Nothing can,” the Infante said.
The Duke approached the railing. He raised a hand, and with a measure of deliberation, reached out to seize it, gripping it.
“You’ll go out with grace,” the Infante said. “As far as any bystander is concerned, you’ll wade into the fray and you won’t emerge. Your professors will try to save you and they’ll perish in the process.”
The Duke turned. He looked at his professors.
“As you wish, Lord Infante,” Berger said.
“Yes,” Adams said.
Lawrence watched the exchange without revealing what he was feeling. How easily might he find himself in the position they described. What might be leveraged to make him comply? Jeanette, really. There wasn’t much else he held nearer or dearer, that he would walk without argument to his execution.
The Duke nodded once.
“The slate will be wiped clean, legacy left untainted,” the Infante said. “For you, and for the Crown States.”
Lawrence imagined the Infante stood a touch taller, a touch greater, as he said that. Much as Lawrence might have, as he’d had his black coat placed at his back.
They were close enough to Radham to see the army arrayed against it. The battle had already begun, Radham was in the midst of unveiling its superweapons, and the walls were already damaged. Clouds of gas billowed from it, and plumes of more vapor speared from the Academy and the city to the sky, feeding the cloud cover above. The vapor was darker than it should have been.
Lawrence felt his heart beat faster at the sight.
He had so much he wanted to say and do, but he couldn’t, with the Infante present.
The vessel marched onward. Even at a distance, the army on the field seemed to react to the approaching vessel. Most of them wouldn’t even know what this was. The others would know and they would be awestruck. The Infante’s personal conveyance, normally meant for travel across the oceans.
He was forced to hold his tongue, to keep the company of the three doomed. He tried to anticipate what the others would say.
The vessel slowed as they approached a settlement. It looked to be the staging point of the battle. They remained silent until it had ground to its stop, the keel of the craft dragging into the earth. Far below the railing at the prow, legs folded back into the front, protected by layers of armor
The Infante turned to leave, and all present followed him, Lawrence among them.
He stopped as he spotted a squadron of personal guards. They bowed as they acknowledged him.
“O’Neil?” he asked.
“Yes, sir,” the captain said.
“My cabin. The woman in there, Jeanette. You’ll look after her.”
“As you wish, Professor.”
The stairwell led down through the literal guts of the vessel, and gates in the side cracked open, stairs unfolding by the same insect-leg mechanisms that dragged the ship forward over land. At the very last hallway, leading to those stairs, they were joined by gargantuan stitched that carried the mobile laboratories.
Soldiers knelt by the hundreds as they emerged and made their way down the final set of stairs.
The Infante’s attention was on the leadership. The seeming bulk of them approached from the hill where the largest manors and nicest grounds were. Aristocrats, Nobles, Doctors, Professors, military leaders…
Lawrence felt his heart beat faster at seeing how very comprehensive this was.
He could see the looks on their faces: anguish, a full and complete knowledge that the Infante’s appearance had doomed them, whatever leverage had been used to bring them here and make them do this. One woman of sixteen or so looked away to hide her tears from the larger crowd.
The Lady Gloria approached, bowing as she acknowledged the Infante.
The Infante reached out with his left hand, and touched her face, raising her up to a standing position.
Killing her, Lawrence realized.
Very possibly killing her with plague that would strike her down within the hour.
The Duke walked to a vantage point on the path that led up to the manors, high ground where he could look over the houses and see the Radham that now stood, uneven, raised up into stages and levels, smoke pouring off of it, plumes of vapor reaching skyward from it. From the right perspective, with a slight squint of the eyes, the walls couldn’t be clearly seen. A shattered city floating in the midst of poison and vapor.
Lawrence had only a moment where Savage and Poole were in earshot. Copeland wasn’t close, but he would be gathering information.
Poole allowed the eel-rat free of his sleeve, where the creature danced across the back of his hand before disappearing within.
“Steering,” Lawrence said. “We’ll only be able to make one push before he balks. We’ll need to decide what it is.”
They bowed to the Infante, but they were the ones in charge in the end. They were supposed to be, in any event. The nature of the plague and the sheer devastation here had given the Infante more freedom than he might normally have. The war served him. He hadn’t orchestrated all of this, but he thrived in it.
“The Duke dies, we’re not changing that,” Savage said.
“Agreed,” Lawrence said.
“The battle has to be fought. We’ve tried to wrest the plague from him,” Poole said. “He’s intent on holding onto it.”
“We’ll cleanse him of it before we cross back to the Capitol,” Lawrence said. His eye roved over the crowd.
“I can see us making the argument. It’s one of the few things that the Lord King might kill him for, bringing plague with him,” Savage said.
“I worry he might be beyond caring,” Lawrence murmured, under his breath.
Poole and Savage nodded.
The Infante’s voice was audible, deep and loud as it was, even though he was a distance away.
He seemed intent on continuing this battle, but on his terms.
Lawrence looked over the assembled forces. He could see how gruesome a thing this might be.
The army had been gathered to wage a war against Radham. They had yet to know the full reason why. The simple appearance of the Infante had turned the tides, and now the army belonged to the Infante again.
For now. Supposedly.
He could see the Infante deciding that betrayal was betrayal. That they’d acted against the Crown, they might very well be seeded with betrayers, with agents and provocateurs. A few touches of plague in the midst of this army, it was only a few steps down the road the Infante was traveling.
He worried where that road went, when the damage was already as bad as it was, and the Infante was empowered by the devastation to the Academy’s empire, not weakened by it.
He worried because in part, he’d made the choices and sacrifices he’d made to clear a way, and some of those people he’d worked to help would be here.
“We’ll ensure he spares the army and the unwitting Academy Doctors, Specialists and Professors that support it,” Lawrence said. “We check him there, have him draw on the forces we brought with us in the vessel, if he needs anyone. We can’t let him get carried away.”
“You think you can make the argument?” Savage asked.
Lawrence nodded slowly. He was prepared to, if it came down to it. “We’ll tell him we can’t trust the army in the field. We need to find the culprits. They’ll be close, if they aren’t outright involved.”
“Not many options for something on this scale,” Savage said.
“No,” Lawrence said. It was hard to believe there was any option for something on this scale.
It was the nature of Academy science that man created things that could destroy him. The work they did, the strength, intelligences, the capability and the beauty they created required sacrifice. They had to put something of themselves into their best work.
Lawrence thought momentarily of Jeanette.
Sacrifice and responsibility.
If the responsibility to look after the consequences of one’s own work wasn’t seen to? He suspected that Radham’s current crisis was one answer to that question.