“The Composer is beating us,” I said flatly.
No need to sugarcoat it.
On the other side of the video screen, Butler narrowed his eyes. “Explain.”
“She’s bleeding us dry. Poking and prodding us, making the Paladins run around the city getting nothing done.” I shook my head. “Right now, we’ve been lucky. Most of the attacks have been on the small side. But something big is coming. I can feel it.”
I heard him tapping his fingers on something. Probably his cane, though I couldn’t see it. “I do trust your instincts, but I need a bit more than just a feeling.”
It took a measure of will to resist biting my tongue in annoyance. “Then how about this? Since we discovered who she was, Elizabeth Greene has attacked five times.” I shrugged. “Six, if you count when she broke out of the warcage. She’s gotten closer to killing the Paladins each time, and when she can’t fight them—the attack on Mjolnir’s bar, the escape from our custody—she has taken her frustration out by slaughtering nearby bystanders. We have a limited number of Paladins, but she has a seemingly unlimited number of Blackguards.”
The Big Boss nodded. “Yes, let’s talk more about that. Tell me what you think about the Blackguards.”
“They’re just slaves,” I said flatly. “They’re like the Belian sclavi, or Malcanthet’s Riven.” I blinked, then shook my head. “No, that’s not right. The sclavi are too drugged-up on battle chems to understand what’s happening, and the Riven aren’t much better. These ones…” I narrowed my eyes, thinking. “These renegades know what they’re doing. They retain their intelligence. I’m guessing she’s using her hypnotism, like on Huntsman.”
Butler leaned back in his chair. “So she can just kidnap anyone off the street and turn them into her super-powered soldier. Wonderful. Worse than the sleepers.”
I shook my head. Artemis Butler was a powerful leader with a good head for tactics, but this was far outside his area of expertise. “No, no, it’s like with Huntsman. She didn’t change anything really major, she just added an obsessive love for her, so that his annoying ‘save everyone’ personality would work in her favor.”
“Ah…” he grimaced as realization dawned. “She’s not grabbing innocents off the street. She’s finding criminals and murderers, and just modifying them to be loyal to her.”
I nodded. “That’s what makes the most sense. Modifying people is—apparently—easy. But doing the full sleeper conversion is a lot harder, maybe impossible for some people. Otherwise, Huntsman would be on her side.”
“There’s a dark thought.”
I smiled. “Sir, you treat that man like grenade, waiting to go off. He’s not that dangerous. We’d be able to handle him, if he had gone renegade.”
My albino employer raised a colorless eyebrow. “Kelly, you—” He sighed. “Do you know who his parents are?”
“Maria Huntsman and Victor Medina,” I answered promptly. “Well, Victor’s not actually his father, but he may as well be.”
“Normally, that’s true,” Butler admitted. “But not this time. What do you know about his father, William Huntsman?”
“He was a ‘sarian, right? I know he died a while ago.”
“A long while ago. Before his son was even born.” His eyes turned distant. “And then poor Laura’s mother died giving birth to her…this city has too many orphans.”
I didn’t say anything. My relationship with my own parents was…complicated, and bringing it up now wouldn’t make my boss feel any better.
“But yes, he was one of mine. I had met Maria and Victor on the boat over, but I only really got to know them through William.”
He fell silent.
I could only give him a minute or so before I had to pipe up. “Uh…were you going to say something—”
“You know about Maria’s sticky fingers, I assume,” he interrupted. “It’s hard to tell who is worse, her or Victor, but William was never like that. He was never fond of theft in any form. That’s why he joined Necessarius, actually. And why those two didn’t.”
I heard the tapping sound from his cane again.
“As you might expect, William never approved of his girlfriend’s activities, and spent most of his free time trying to get her to go straight. Completely unsuccessfully, of course.” The big albino smiled slightly. “I think he would have had better luck trying to change the tides.”
“Then why did he marry her?” I pressed.
I was surprised when Butler actually laughed, a loud bark of mirth.
“Oh, he didn’t! No, no, he insisted they wouldn’t get married unless Maria could go a year without stealing anything.” He chuckled, quieter than before. “That didn’t work. When she got pregnant, he dropped the number down to a week. She still didn’t get close.” His smile faded. “She tried going clean, after William died, but…” he shook his head. “It’s not who she is. She just couldn’t do it. All she could do was change her name to Huntsman and hope that was enough.”
“How did he die?” I asked, and immediately regretted it. Oh, duh, Kelly, how would a ‘sarian die? And who would blame himself for that death?
As expected, my boss winced slightly at my words as he remembered whatever mistake he had supposedly made that lead to the man’s death. “A routine peacekeeping mission. The kind that happen every day. But the Brits ambushed his patrol…” he let out a breath I hadn’t realized he was holding. “That’s not important. I seem to have gotten off track.”
I don’t think I had ever seen the Big Boss this…shaken wasn’t the right word, just…slightly off. I knew the man a bit better than most, due to my history with the Belians and my defection, and he had always been as stable as a mountain.
Now I was seeing a few rocks tumble from the cliff face. It wasn’t an avalanche, not even close, but it was still disturbing to watch.
“My point is, Derek Huntsman is like his father. Who knows how that happened, since he never met the man, but there it is. William…was not perfect.”
“He got easily flustered by women?”
Butler chuckled. “No, that’s a problem he doesn’t share with his son.” He turned stony again. “The problem they do share is an inability to forgive anyone who does something they see as amoral.”
I thought back to the time Ling had ditched, during the skins incident. “Yeah, I’ve seen a bit of that.”
“William boiled over too quickly,” he mused. “That’s what got him killed. He saw something happening that he couldn’t abide, and he had to intervene. But his son…Derek is the type to keep it inside. To only let it off the leash when the time is right.”
I swallowed, as it dawned on me.
“He’s going to kill Anders, isn’t he?”
“Anders hasn’t done anything yet,” my boss noted. “But I’m sure Derek and Laura both think it’s just a matter of time. However, that is not the problem.”
I felt a chill then, from the tips of my toes crawling all the way up to my head. I shivered, literally shivered as the feeling settled into my bones.
“He’s going to kill you.”
“Yes,” Artemis Butler said, very quietly. “Sooner or later. Almost certainly.”
Behind the Scenes (scene 181)
Yeesh, short. Oh well, Kelly has some nice long ones later anyway.
Extra update Wednesday.