Eighty-seven Four nodded. "Yes. We've lost one servant, already, a girl child, probably over eighteen, but not chipped. She ran away when Lord Ivan . . . ordered her into his bed."
The other Cyborgs had been walking up as they talked. And some of the servants.
Leonti bit his lip. "You see . . . everything has changed, now that we're out here, alone. No one is ever going to be chipped or cyborged. Ever."
Indrawn breaths all around.
"And depending on the Plague, we may wind up without Mentalists at all. Not just challenged and passed, but everyone. If the plague is here, the rule of the Families is over." He spread his hands. "Here. And I hope to hell no one ever finds this world again."
"But . . . if we still have power?" Vlasiy was looking lost.
"Then who ever that is can control one person at a time, as long as he's paying attention." Leonti dredged up something from those hated history lessons . . . "So there's going to be a turbulent time, for a while. Couple of years at the most, I guess, on account of the small population. I don't think the plague can hang around that long. It'll either die out, or it will have infected us all. And by then we'll know who, if anyone, still has mentalist abilities."
He looked around at the crowd he gathered. "And we can move away from them. And if I'm one of them, I'll understand, if you want to get away from me."
A snort from behind. Forty-nine squeezed his shoulder. "More like you'll be leading us all away to freedom."
The old Cyborg looked at the crowd, nodded. "Six Sixty-seven? How are you feeling?"
"Better than I've felt in years."
"Good. Vlasiy, why don't you take Six with you and check your step-mother and Darya, let them know they're family and all that. One-Oh-Three and Ten? You two are free until Anatoly returns."
Ten nodded. "I thought about running, but where to? To live alone for the rest of my life? The first half-assed Mentalist I meet will take me."
One-Oh-Three shrugged. "Exactly. We're better off here, with all the people we know. Even if," an apologetic nod to Leonti and Vlasiy, "some of them are brutal slavers."
Leonti nodded. "So for now, I guess we need a rotating guard. Thirteen? You still have the rifle?"
He shuffled his feet. "Without charge, we're pretty useless. I guess that's why Ninety-eight died." He stopped abruptly . . . "And the Lords didn't shield."
The crowd stirred uneasily. Leonti nodded. "I think the Plague took their power. I don't know about my father.
"So . . . keep the rifle . . . I do have to defer to my father, now that the emergency is past. But if he agrees, I'll distribute pistols to all of you." He paused. "I think I'll take inventory. Eighty-Seven? Father put you in charge of his Cyborgs. Why don't you other three take direction from him about who's on guard and so forth."
Everyone looked happy at that.
Eighty-Seven-Four gave him a faint bow. "Six, go with Lord Vlasiy and keep your eyes open up around the east end. Twenty-two, the west end. I'll be roaming around as well. Everyone else, get food and rest., because you'll be on duty tonight."
Fish for dinner, thankfully. Leonti didn't think he could have handled pork tonight.
But we're going to be eating a lot of it in the next few days.
The next day a car drove up to the campsite, turning and parking just out of the trees.
Two men got out and stepped to the side to look in the direction of the graves.
Leonti looked over toward his father.
"Berezin and Dryagin. Forty-nine, help me get up."
The Cyborg lifted Lord Klim to his feet.
His father hobbled away from the bower. Four careful steps on his stiff right leg. The two Mentalists down the hill were watching him, as he paused, grabbing a thin tree to steady himself.
Leonti swallowed. We must not look weak!
Armor. Compact. Flowing off his hand. A narrow blade. Up there!
A foot above his father's head, the top of the sapling fell, cut cleanly through.
His father's head turned a bit, to look at him. Leonti flattened his hand.
Lord Klim shifted his feet out of the line from the tree to Lionti, and he cut it through the base. Then the old man lifted his new staff and limped painfully down the hill.
Leonti took a deep breath. I hope, from this distance they couldn't tell that the power wasn't from Father.
He walked over to his pack, grabbed his best coat and hustled down the hill to listen.
His father stopped well away from the other True Men. "Well, bad news travels fast."
The younger guy--Lord Berezin had had the rejuvenation treatment and was probably double the age he looked--nodded. "What happened?"
"We walked out of here expecting to have to hike for hours to find game. We turned a corner of the trail less than a quarter mile out of the camp and were face-to-face with a herd of huge boars."
Father shook his head. "We weren't prepared. One savaged me before I got my shield up and started shooting. Volya and Ivan . . ." He looked over at the graves. "They never got their shields up, never sliced . . . I . . . think this camp had better quarantine itself for a few weeks."
Dryagin flinched back. "A wise precaution."
Father nodded. "I sent Lord Benedikt and Lord Anatoly off to explore down in the lower foothills and the valley before this happened. I think, if you would leave word along the road . . . When spotted, they should retreat and remain separate for several weeks."
Berezin's brows rose. "Indeed. A good idea. Please pass my condolences to the widows. And . . . we'll talk again in a few weeks."
Leonti watched them return to the car and leave without further ceremony. Why did he tell them he thought the Plague was here? Then enlightenment hit. Of course. No one will come near, to steal things or servants, if there's a chance of contagion. Father took advantage of people's fear to try to keep us safe.