Book One – House Immoral
They named the comet Mercury Star. Not for how brightly it burned, but for the star-shaped hole it punched into the land, and the rich, strange mix of minerals it left behind. —1603
—from the journal of L.U.C.
The way I saw it, a girl needed three things to start a day right: a hot cup of tea, a sturdy pair of boots, and for the feral beast to die the first time she stabbed it in the brain.
“You missed, Matilda,” Neds called out from where he was leaning in the cover of trees several yards off.
“No,” I said, “I didn’t. This one doesn’t have a brain to hit. Kind of like a certain farmhand I know.” I pulled the knife out of the crocboar’s skull and sank it into the thrashing creature’s eye before dodging out of the way again.
It lunged at me, three-foot tusks and long snout lined with crocodile teeth slashing a little too close for comfort. Crocboars weren’t smart, but they had the teeth, claws, and tough skin to make up for any intelligence they lacked.
“Now you made it mad,” Neds said.
“Not helpful.” I jumped out of the way and pulled my other knife.
“I’ve got the tranq gun right here,” he said. “And a clear shot.”
“No. Wait. I want the meat clean.”
Keeping property out here in the scrub meant occasionally trapping and taking down feral beasts before they damaged crops or the domesticated animals. Crocboars weren’t good eating, since they were too filled up on the nano that laced the soil of this land. But they made terrific dragon chow.
The beast thrashed some more, ran out of steam, folded down on its knees, and fell over dead.
Just like that.
“Can’t get over how quick those things fall,” Right Ned said.
“Who are you calling brainless, by the way?” Left Ned grumbled.
I shook the slime off my gloves—crocboars excreted oil—and glanced at Neds.
Most people stared, eyes wide and mouths open, when they first meet Neds. There was good reason for it. Neds had two heads but only the one body, which was never the most normal sort of thing.
Both of him had sandy blond hair cut short and soft blue eyes that gave him an innocent shine, when most times he was anything but. He was clean-cut good-looking, a few inches taller than me, tanned and hard muscled from farm work; something you could tell even though he wore a dark green T-shirt and baggy denim overalls.
He’d left the touring circus and was looking for a job when he saw the ad I’d taken out at the local feed store. I wanted a farmhand to help with the land and the stitched beasts my father, Dr. Case, had left in my keeping.
Especially since my brother, Quinten, hadn’t been home in more than three years, something that worried me terribly.
Most people had been scared off by one thing or another in that ad: the hard work, the beasts, or me—a single women holding down her own chunk of land far enough from a city we weren’t even covered by House Green, nor were we on the power grid. Neds never complained about any of that. He’d been a fixture on the farm for two years.
“Bring the net over,” I said. “We have some dragging to do.”
It didn’t take us long to throw the net over the beast and tug it tight so the rough hide caught in the rope fiber. That was the easy part. Dragging was the hard part.
I walked over for my rifle, picked it up, and took one last look at the trees and dry summer underbrush around us. Nothing else moved; nothing reared for attack. So that was good.
“Who gets this one?” Right Ned asked, tossing me a rope. “Pony or the leapers?”
“Lizard. I think it’s about ready to molt. It should be nice and hungry.”
“Just tell me we don’t have to boil down scales today and I’m happy,” Right Ned said.
I took a length of rope and slung it over my shoulder, and Neds did the same.
“No boiling.” We put shoulders to it and dragged the half ton of dead and stink behind us. “But we could have a little fun and scrape a few scales free while it’s eating.”
“Never have seen the fun in that,” Left Ned complained, like he always complained. “But if it pays extra . . .”
“It doesn’t. Same pay as every day: food, roof, honest work. And the pleasure of my conversational company.”
“Speaking of which,” Left Ned said. “Isn’t it about time we converse about a raise?”
“When we clear a profit, you’ll get your share,” I said.
Right Ned slid me a smile, and I grinned back. Left Ned and I had had that conversation daily since they’d wandered up the lane and shook on the terms and job. My answer had never changed, but it didn’t stop him from asking.
Lizard wasn’t hard to spot since it was approximately the size of a barn and was napping behind the electric fence. It was harmless as long as you didn’t move fast around it, didn’t look it straight in the eye, and didn’t poke it.
“Always meant to ask,” Right Ned said. “Where’d the lizard come from? Did your Dad make it too?”
“Yep. Stitched it up piece by piece.” We stopped dragging, and Neds and I bent to the task of pulling the net free of the beast.
“What’s it all made of?” Right Ned asked.
“Iguana, if you’d believe it,” I said. “Of course, bits of other things too—crocodile, kimono. No boars.”
“And how do you explain the wings?”
“No idea. Mom said Dad had a whimsical side to his stitchery. Said if he was going to make living creatures, he may as well make them beautiful.”
I threw the last of the net off the crocboar and straightened.
The lizard stirred at the commotion and shifted its big shovel-shaped head in our direction.
“You stand on back with the tranquillizer,” I said, handing Neds my rifle. “I’ll heave this into the corral. Plug it twice if it gets twitchy. Takes a lot to put it down. Are we gold?”
“We’re gold,” Right Ned said. He stepped back and set my gun down while he pulled his tranq gun.
“You know no one says that anymore,” Left Ned said. “Gold isn’t what it used to be.”
“Gold is just the same as ever,” I said. “People aren’t what they used to be.”
I hefted the front half of the dragon kibble up off the ground, dragged it a little closer to the fence. It was heavy, but I was an uncommonly strong girl. My brother had made sure of that when he’d stitched me together.
“Did you ever ask your father why he stitched a dragon?” Right Ned asked.
“Four legs, four wings, reptile the size of a house.” He raised the tranq gun at Lizard who opened its yellow slitted eyes and then raised its head and rose onto its feet. “Dragon.”
“All right, dragon. Who knows? Mom said it was during his scatty years, shaking off his time after he left House White. Maybe just to see if it could be done.”
“So your dad gets a pink slip from House Medical and stitches together a dragon?” Right Ned shook his head, admiration in that smile. “Wish I’d met him. He aimed high.”
“I don’t mind high, but I wish he’d aimed smaller.” I heaved the first half of the crocboar over the metal wires. “Then maybe Lizard would go catatonic every couple of months like most stitched creatures of a certain size.”
I heaved the other half of the lizard’s breakfast over the fence. It landed with a squishy thump.
“And maybe Lizard wouldn’t be such a big, smart, pain in the hole to deal with.” I stepped away from the fence, but did not turn my back. Lizard was cobra-fast when it caught sight of something it wanted to eat.
“Do you think it could survive on its own, if it were set free?” Right Ned’s voice muffled just a bit from holding the gun ready to fire if the fences failed.
“I suppose. Well, maybe not in city. It’s never been on dead soil. Large things unstitch there, don’t they? Not enough mutant nano to keep them going?”
Left Ned answered, “Can’t keep a stitch that big alive in the city. Hard to keep the smaller bits alive unless they are very, very expensive and very, very, well made. It’s not because of the soil, though.”
“Sure it is,” I said. “It’s all about the soil. Out here in the scratch, we still have devilry in our dirt. Makes stitched things stay stitched.”
“Never thought you were the sort of girl who believed in magic, Tilly,” Right Ned said in the tone of a man who clearly did not believe in the stuff but had spent years taking money from people who did.
“Stardust, nanomutations, witchery. Whatever you want to call it, Lizard there is breathing because of it.”
Lizard finally got a solid whiff of the dead thing and smacked at the air, sticking out its ropelike tongue to clean first one eye, then the other. It started our way with that half-snake, half-bowlegged-cow waddle that made a person want to point and laugh, except by the time a person got around to doing either of those things, Lizard would be on top of them and they’d be bitten in half.
It opened its big maw and scooped off a third of the beast quick as a hot spoon through ice cream, then lifted its head and swallowed, the lump of meat stuck in its gizzard.
“All right, we’re gold.” I said, as Lizard made contented click-huff sounds. “Looks like it’s not going to attack the fence. Or us.” I pulled off my gloves and smacked them across my thigh to scrape away the dirt and slime. “So, are you hungry? ’Cause I could eat.”
Neds shifted his finger off the trigger, set the safety, and leaned the barrel across his shoulder. “I wouldn’t mind a hot breakfast.”
“Good.” I picked up my rifle and slung it over my shoulder, then headed up the dirt lane toward the old farmhouse. “It’s your turn to cook.”
Left Ned complained his whole way through it, but he and Right Ned put up a decent egg and potato scramble.
I made sure Grandma had her share of the meal, ate more than my share, then did the dishes as was only fair. Just as I was drying the last plate, there was a knock at the door.
Neds stopped sharpening the machete they called a pocket knife. He glanced at the door, then at me. We didn’t get unannounced visitors. Ever.
Our nearest neighbors were five miles off. If they needed anything, they’d tap the wire before stopping by.
Grandma in the corner, didn’t seem to notice the knock. She just went right on knitting the twisted wool spooling up off the three pocket-sized sheep that puttered around at her feet. The sheep were another of my dad’s stitched critters, built so they grew self-spinning wool. I’d tried to breed them, thinking I could sell them and make a little money for the repairs on the place, but like most stitched things, they were infertile.
I wiped my hands on a kitchen towel and opened the door.
“Are you Matilda Case?” the stranger asked in a voice too calm and nice for someone who was holding his guts in place with one hand.
“I am,” I said, even though Neds always told me I shouldn’t go around giving people my name without having theirs first. “You’re a long way from the cities. Do you need a ride to a hospital?”
The stranger was a couple inches shy of seven feet tall, had a broad sort of face with an arrangement of features that fell into the rustic and handsome category, five o’clock shadow included. His mop of brown hair was shaved close by his ears and finger-combed back off his forehead so that it stuck up a bit—which passed for fashion maybe a hundred years ago.
His shirt, under the gray coat he wore, was high collared, buttoned, and might have once been white. That, along with his dark gray breeches and military boots laced and buckled up to his knees, gave him a distinctly historical sort of look.
Gray clothes meant he was claimed by House Gray, one of the eleven powerful Houses that ruled the modern world’s resources, from technology and agriculture straight on up through defense, fuel, medical, and the gods we worshiped. Gray ruled the human resource—all the people in the world, except for those who claimed the twelfth, powerless House: House Brown. Loosely democratic, House Brown was made up of people who lived off the grid, scraping by without the comforts and amenities of the modern world. House Brown was barely recognized by the other Houses.
I was House Brown, but I wore green, Agriculture, when I needed to trade with nearby businesses. No one from House Gray, or any other House, had ever come to my farm.
I had changed out of my filthy hunting clothes into a pair of faded blue overalls and a checkered shirt. It wasn’t at all House Brown or House Green compliant, but, then, I’d been off grid and below the radar all my life.
Just the way my brother wanted us to be.
“Unless you’re here to sell me something,” I said as I leaned the door shut a bit. “In which case I’ll just save you what air you’ve got left and say no, there’s no Matilda Case living here.”
He didn’t smile, but his eyes pulled up a bit at the bottom and something that looked like humor caught fire in them. That’s when I noticed the color of his eyes: cinnamon red, like mine when I was injured.
I took a step back, startled, and he took a step forward.
Neds racked a round in the shotgun he’d had propped by his knee and then all of us in the kitchen held perfectly still.
Well, except for Grandma. She just kept on singing her knitting song about sunshine through lace and liberty’s death, her fingers slipping yarn into knots, smooth and liquid for a woman of her still-undetermined years.
“Not a single step closer,” Left Ned said, his voice always a little colder and meaner than Right Ned’s. “You have not been invited into this home.”
The stranger looked away from me, and I thought maybe for the first time he noticed that there was a house, a room, and people around us. A whole farm, really: 150 acres tucked back far enough in the rolling hills of Pennsylvania that the nearest fill-up station was thirty miles away.
He certainly noticed Neds—both heads of him. And the gun.
Since Left Ned was talking, I knew he was willing to bleed up the stranger a little more if that’s what it took to keep him out of the house.
“I’m looking for a doctor,” the stranger said. “Dr. Renault Case.”
“He doesn’t live here anymore,” Right Ned said calmly, everything about his voice the opposite of Left Ned’s. “If you need someone to take you to a town doctor, I’d be willing. But there’s no medical man here to help you.”
The stranger frowned, sending just a hint of lines across his forehead and at the corners of his eyes. “You think I came here for help?”
I nodded toward his gut. “You are bleeding rather strongly.”
He looked down. An expression of surprise crossed his face and he shifted his wide fingers, letting a little more blood ooze out, as if just noticing how badly he was injured. If he was in pain—and he should be—he did not show it.
Shock, maybe. Or expensive drugs.
“I didn’t come here looking for help from Dr. Case,” he said, cinnamon gaze on me, just on me, and the sound of his blood falling with a soft tip tip tip on my wooden floor. “I came here to warn him.”
“About what?” I asked.
Left Ned spoke up. “Say it, or get walking.”
“His enemies are looking for him. For him and what he’s left behind on this property. I come offering protection.”
It was a dramatic sort of thing to say, and he had a nice, deep, dramatic sort of voice for it. Chills did that rolling thing over my arms.
But there was only one problem.
“He’s dead,” I said.
“My father, Dr. Case, has been dead for years.”
That, more than anything, seemed to take the starch out of him. He exhaled, and it was a wet sound as he tried to get air back in his lungs. I almost reached over to prop him up, afraid he might just pass out and further mess up the clean of my kitchen floor.
He was a big man, but, like I said, I’m strong.
“Are you certain?” he asked.
I’d been twelve years old when the men from House Black, Defense, and House White, Medical, came to the farm. I’d hidden like my father had taught me, up in the rafters of the barn. I’d watched those men kill him. Kill my mother too. I’d watched them search our house and carry out boxes. I’d watched them pick up my parents’ bodies, put them in a black van, then use our garden hose to clean up the drive so not even a drop of their blood was left for me to cry over.
My brother had come home from studying the old skills—electrical tinkering, metalwork, analog and digital system repairs—out on the Burnbaums’ homestead about three months later. He’d found Mom and Dad gone, and me and Grandma trying to hold the place together. Right then, he’d started his crazy crusade for information and histories that had eventually made him unofficial head of House Brown.
The same crazy crusade that had left me alone on this farm for three years with an addle-minded grandmother, a two-headed farmhand, some impossible creatures, and the communication hub for the scattered, off-grid House Brown folk my brother promised to look after.
My brother might still be alive, but not my parents.
The image of their bodies being carried away flashed behind my eyes again.
“I’m very certain,” I whispered to the stranger.
“I . . .” he swallowed hard, shook his head. Didn’t look like that helped much. His words came out in a slur. “I thought . . . I should have known. Sooner. We thought . . . all our information. That he lived.”
“Neds,” I called.
The stranger’s eyes rolled up in his head and he folded like someone had punched him in the ribs. I put my hands out to catch him, got hold of his jacket shoulders and pivoted on my heels, throwing my weight to guide him down to the floor without knocking his head too badly.
I crouched next to him. This close, I thought maybe there was something familiar about him.
Neds strolled over. “What are you going to do with him, Tilly?” Right Ned asked.
“I don’t know. Check his pockets, will you? See if he has a name. If he’s really House Gray, we might have trouble on our hands.” I was already pushing his hand to one side so I could get to his wound. It was deep and bad. Might be from a crocboar. Might be from any number of beasts that grew up hungry and mean out on the edges of the property.
I could mend him enough to get him to a hospital hours away in my old truck on these old roads. If he hadn’t lost too much blood, he might survive.
I stood. “I need the sewing kit. The medicines.”
“Tilly,” Right Ned said. “I don’t think that will work.”
I was already halfway across the kitchen toward the bathroom, where I kept all the supplies for taking care of Neds and Grandma.
“Tilly,” Left Ned snapped. “Stop and listen, woman.”
I did not like being bossed around by that man. Either of them. I turned.
Neds hunkered next to the stranger, his shotgun in easy reach on the floor beside him, his shoulders angled so the shirt stretched at the seams. He’d pushed the man’s jacket sleeve back to reveal his arm up to his elbow.
Stitches. The man had a thick line of charcoal gray stitches ringing his entire forearm. Not medical stitches, not medical thread. Life stitches, like mine.
I instinctively held my own hands out, turning them so they caught the light. Thin silver stitches crossed my palms and circled my thumbs, making the gold-brown of my skin look a little darker. Just as those same silver stitches tracked paths across my arms and my legs, and curved up my stomach, my breasts, and around one shoulder. Just as stitches traced my left ear to the curve of my jaw and ran a line across my neck. I kept my hair free to cover them up. If I wore gloves and long-sleeved shirts and pants, no one knew I was made like this.
Made of bits.
Not quite human.
Stitched like my father’s other illegal creations.
The only other people in the world who were stitched were the galvanized. Warriors, historians, counselors—they were prized and owned by the heads of the Houses. Rumors said they were owned against their will and put on display in the fights during the annual Gathering of Peace, and any other politically influenced event. Owning a galvanized was proof of the House’s wealth and power. Rumors said they were the reason the Houses were no longer at war with each other, because the galvanized refused to be involved in House-to-House conflict.
Rumors also said they were immortal.
The galvanized began as a medical curiosity, then went on to become oddities, supersoldiers, historians, while remaining technological and medical guinea pigs. Tired of being owned and used, the galvanized walked away from the Houses. It became known as the Uprising, and once people saw that the galvanized refused to follow House rules, they too defected from House control.
The Uprising saw thousands of people fleeing from multigeneration debt to the Houses and forming their own House—House Brown—which they intended to run democratically as a loose collective of people unhappy with House demands and injustices.
The galvanized stood with them. In an attempt to kill House Brown and its promise of freedom, the other Houses banded together to wage war on House Brown, vowing it would never be recognized as a legitimate House. Years of guerrilla resistance and war nearly brought the world’s system of resource management crashing down. The Houses finally agreed to a peace treaty drawn up by the galvanized.
House Brown would have no voice in world affairs or the affairs of Houses, but they would be left alone. In exchange, the galvanized would return to the Houses; give up their rights to be considered human; and become servants, slaves, and subjects once again.
The galvanized had agreed to those terms. No one knew why.
I’d never once in my life met a person stitched like me.
Until this man. This stranger bleeding on my floor.