“I think you’d better explain,” Mary said.
“We become Nobles. The plan at the start would have been to prop us up. Offer us up as a more battle-tested, flexible, dangerous sort of Noble. The kind that could trounce rebellions, that could use small amounts of power to do great things, best monsters, and test even the greatest minds. Better yet, we coordinate like no nobles taken separately could. We work together on an instinctive level.”
“The Twins worked together,” Mary said.
“The Twins failed. The Twins were relegated to bastarddom. I think they craved that natural cooperation. Something was missing. We strike that note.”
I looked to Hayle for confirmation.
He didn’t respond. He sat at his desk, arms folded before him. He looked very old and very tired.
I nodded. “Knowing Hayle and Fray, they left both options open. The Lambs who survive are poised as great weapons, massive inconveniences to the Crown and Academy. We and the Crown get an offer. Lambs become Lords and Ladies, we become an asset instead of an inconvenience. We get everything we want, we get power like we’ve never had it, and Hayle gets to leverage the one thing he has over us.”
“The expiration dates,” Lillian said.
I walked around the desk. “The expiration dates. He removes the gun that’s been held to our heads since we were small. That, or he hands it over to the Academy, so they can control us.”
“To what ends?” Lillian asked. “What’s the end goal?”
I looked back over my shoulder at the old Professor.
He was silent.
“Things have been untenable for a long time,” Fray said, from the opposite end of the desk as me, supplying the answer. “There was a balance once. Wollstone was the start. I personally suspect he was mythologized, the extent of his deeds and knowledge exaggerated to the Academy’s benefit, but all the same, his work was discovered and made known to the nobility. What formed was a partnership. Government and the Academy apparatus, enmeshed. Over and over again, that pairing is hammered in, so that one is rarely mentioned without the other.”
“At some point the Block became an essential part of things,” Lillian said.
“Yes,” Fray said. Cynthia was behind her. “I imagine that is when the balance shifted.”
“This is where I get a little stuck,” I paused as I walked around behind Mary, Ashton, and Lillian. “It’s where Hayle is sitting there, remaining quiet. He’s confirmed the main thrust of what he’s doing, but the god lurks there, ominous. It’s where you’re there, Fray, and I’m aware of the bits and pieces that you’ve threaded through everything. Bigger and more devastating than the rebel groups you propped up. You were up to something else. You had a greater plan at work, and I don’t know if it was a greater part of what you’re putting toward the Lambs to Lords gambit, or if it was a fallback. That’s the other god.”
“Gods?” Fray asked.
“On each of our prior visits, you were careful to ask me about my beliefs. What did I want, what did I believe in? What would prompt me to take the great leap of faith, if and when it counted? What was I here to do?”
“I did. I wanted to know what kind of Lord you might be, given the chance, Sylvester,” she said.
“Did I ever give you an answer?”
“You gave me several. I worry you’re giving me another, with this talk of gods.”
“It’s Sylvester’s metaphor,” Lillian said. “For the great, abstract, hard-to-comprehend forces you two represent, that could still ruin us. The Infante was the first. Sylvester named that god Power.”
“And Power is conquered. Securely in your hands,” Fray said. “I see, now.”
“Let me think, then. Control… you already have control. You had it once you co-opted the lesser Academies and aristocrats. Based on the thrust of Sylvester’s statement, I’m… the plot? Intrigue? Machinations?”
“Conspiracy,” Mary said.
“That would suffice. Yes. It was absolutely my job to keep pieces in play, remove others, strike a balance, distract, and now I’m here.”
“With cards up your sleeve.”
“Do you think I have cards up my sleeve, Sylvester?”
“The dissemination of Academy knowledge, the creation of primordials, the fact you were working with just about every rebel group… you were building things that weren’t solely for us.”
“Primordials played a part. Then and now.”
“In a way.”
“Will you do me a favor, Sylvester?” Mary asked.
I tilted my head to one side.
“Stand where I can see you and them at the same time?”
“I’m not a threat to you.”
“Please,” she said.
I crossed the room. I stood at the side, near the bookshelves. Torches and lanterns were lit throughout the Academy grounds. It looked like the Hag Nerve was being dealt with, and people were freer to move. Our people. I settled in where I stood, close to the skin suit.
“Hayle… well, if he’s another god, he’d have to be another great force. You’re not going to have power and then power again,” Fray said.
I shook my head.
“It wouldn’t suit Hayle either way. Neither would Control, as a repeated thing. It would need to be something that could rattle you, once you settled on this course of action. And you have settled. You were telling the truth about that.”
“I did. I was. I am.”
“I have my guess,” Fray said.
“You said you wanted what I wanted, out of Hayle,” Lillian said. “And I really just wanted answers. I wanted to ask why. I’m afraid of the answer. Maybe- maybe Sylvester is afraid of the answer too. Is that what you meant, Sy?”
I wanted to respond to her use of my name. That would have to wait.
“The unknown,” Fray said. “You can’t wrap things up in Radham without asking the questions. Professor Hayle’s relative silence up until now may stem from a concern about how you respond to the answers.”
“In part,” Hayle said.
“The unknown.” I nodded. “That works.”
“I’m quiet in part because this is a day I’ve seen coming for a very long time,” Professor Hayle said. “I’ve known you since the very beginning, Sylvester.”
“Who was I?”
“Who were you?”
“On the Block?”
“I couldn’t even tell you, Sylvester. It didn’t matter. I visited the Block, I walked down the row, talking to the Academy Doctors who had brought their quotas or looked after each of you. I browsed the paperwork, I made small talk with my peers. Tea was served, and we discussed the projects that their picks would be slated for. There was mention of a transplant of a child’s brain to the body of a specialized warbeast, they had their eye on one little girl with a vicious streak and a propensity for escape attempts for that.”
“It’s horrible,” Lillian said.
“If it makes you feel better, that one killed its creator,” Fray said.
“That does make me feel better,” Lillian said. “But it’s minor, when I know so many others suffer.”
“They did. They do. There were other Professors who wanted hale and hearty children for breeding programs, some who intended to test drugs that would alter how children grew, with an eye to gigantism and custom proportions. Most, however, wouldn’t tell me. It would show their hands before the bidding, you understand.”
It was the first of the dangerous questions that threatened to ruin us.
“The son of a Doctor. He pricked his finger with a needle containing a patient’s blood. The blood was tainted from one of the weapons used in the war to the south. It was primed to take the life of a soldier, it took your father, and in a roundabout way, Sylvester, it took your family.”
“I had a family?”
“You had an older brother and three sisters. You might have been the youngest, but memory fails me here, it was a little over a decade ago that I read the paper, and I read it with an eye to anything that might qualify or disqualify you for what we had in mind. You had a mother and a father. Your father passed, your mother couldn’t look after you all. I suspect she was told you’d get a life of some sort, even if it wasn’t the one you’d been born to.”
“A doctor’s son. Had things played out differently, if a man hadn’t pricked his finger, if a soldier hadn’t grown ill, I might have been a student.”
“One who might have attended Radham, even, given the location of that Block.”
I wasn’t sure what to make of that. Given the lack of a response, I wasn’t sure the voice had any ideas either.
“It was my second visit that I met you, months after the one prior, where I escorted my students to the Block and met… you have a new name for them, now that they wear skirts and dresses.”
“Jessie. But they weren’t Jessie then. They wouldn’t have been Jamie either.”
“I remember them, too,” Hayle said.
“I’d ask, but I think Jessie has had enough shadows of the past nipping at her heels.”
“I’d always hoped it would be constructive, not destructive. Building them up.”
If I hadn’t been in the picture, it might have.
“We tried to revive Genevieve’s Prophetissima project, we erased her connection to it. The Yggdrasil-G project was a failure to thrive. Your predecessor, Ashton. The Wyvern project was an easy one to sell, when budget was a concern and criticism of my project. I made my visit to the Block, looking for my Wyvern. I remember looking at you, you were wearing a paper smock. You glared at me, Sylvester.”
“I glared at you?”
“It was important that you glared at me,” Hayle said. “Do you know Wollstone’s last law?”
“I wasn’t aware they had a particular order,” Lillian said.
“It’s not one of the ones you’ll find in the textbooks,” Hayle said. “Not a law that they teach students. It’s been passed on by word of mouth or rumor to anyone taking on a particularly ambitious project. Wollstone created the stitched and created the means for us to work out the scripts and patterns of living beings.”
“He was killed by an advanced stitched of his, one with more memory and retention than the ones that preceded them. I’ve heard this.” I folded my arms.
“We lead secure lives. Professors retire late, if at all, and we don’t tend to visit the battlefields directly. What’s our most likely cause of death?”
“Your work,” Mary said.
She would be thinking of Percy.
“You glared at me, Sylvester, and I could see the expression you might wear when, after a dark and bloody affair, you walked into my office to confront me and ask me questions.”
“Why did it matter?”
“Because I didn’t want to forget that this was how it would end,” he said.
“When you made your bid for those badges of yours, I realized you were slipping away, that you might already be trying to find some measure of authority that might tip my hand for me.”
“You should have known what you were buying into, with that glaring child,” Genevieve Fray said.
“I should well have,” Hayle said. He met my eyes, staring at me.
He hadn’t touched his tea or biscuit. Slowly, surely, that tea would be getting cold.
“You can’t even know the depths of despair you subjected me to.”
“Every step of the way, every failure, every time it looked like the Lambs were lost or broken, I despaired,” he said.
My mouth for the voice to speak. Ashton beat me to it.
“Can I interrupt?” Ashton asked. He craned his head around, to look at the others, to look at me.
“What’s going through your mind, Ashton?” Fray asked.
“Thank you. If I understand you all correctly, Sylvester is going to kill Professor Hayle after this.”
“I hope he doesn’t, but I’m hardly in a position to stop him,” Hayle said. “I can try to negotiate, but he’s headstrong.”
“Okay, then I’ll ask my questions before anything happens or anyone decides. If your projects are what kills you, why aren’t you worried about me or Helen? Why is it Sy?”
“Helen’s hardly equipped to do much at this juncture.”
“That’s distasteful, Sy,” Ashton said, making a face. “My point stands.”
“It could be a rare fit of poetic fancy for an old man, but I’d like to think that projects such as Gordon’s, Helen’s, Jamie’s- Jessie’s-”
“Jamie is accurate too. Both. Jessie existing doesn’t mean Jamie didn’t.”
“They weren’t mine. They were under my oversight, but other students brought them into the world.”
“Oh,” Ashton said. “What about Doctor Fray? Who kills her?”
“Evette was mine but she never saw fruition. I do have my share of ownership in all of you,” Genevieve said. “But I’m not feeling as fatalistic as Professor Hayle.”
“Cards up your sleeve.”
“Not like you imagine, it’s not that kind of leverage, that might save my life.”
“We don’t get to kill anyone, then?” Ashton asked.
“You had opportunities earlier tonight,” Mary said.
“I was hoping that I could knock someone down and tie their hands, then make them suffocate with Helen held down over their faces. It might take some doing, but I think Helen would really enjoy it. She doesn’t have a lot to enjoy when she’s like this.”
“Let’s cross that bridge when we get to it,” Lillian said, gently. “It’s really nice that you’re thinking about Helen like that, even if that isn’t quite so nice. We have other things to get out of the way, first.”
“Okay. She’s important to me.”
“She’s important to all of us.”
“She is,” Lillian said.
“An ignoble way to die,” Fray observed, looking at Helen, who lay across Ashton’s lap.
“Do you deserve noble?” I asked.
“Perhaps not. Based on my colleagues’ parting words, I might not.”
“Isn’t it very Noble if Helen gets to deliver the kill, if that’s what we were raised to be?” Ashton asked.
“We’re not at that point yet,” Mary said. “We’re far from being Nobles, like this, and as much as Sylvester is talking like this is decided, I’m not so sure.”
“I might be on the same page as Mary here,” Lillian said.
I nodded to myself.
“Will that be a problem?” Lillian asked, looking at her former mentor and the Lambs’ nemesis. “What happens if they decide not to be Nobles?”
“Things have been out of my hands for some time,” Hayle said. “As far back as the night where your black coat was discussed, Doctor Garey. I’ve created my monster, as Wollstone created his. I unleashed it on the world and it has come home to roost. I can give it some clarity, but I doubt I can change it anymore.”
“It might have been further back than that.”
“When, do you think?”
I looked at Mary. “I might have seen the team as mine, when I extended one invitation to one enemy I respected.”
“I could see that. Not long before the badges.”
The badges. I’d nearly forgotten.
“Well, like I said, it’s well out of my hands. You’ll decide how to move forward, as you have been doing since you left, maybe even before them, what with your interactions with the Duke of Francis.”
I watched as Lillian drew in a deep breath. Her hands were clasped in front of her as she stood by the chairs, standing across from Hayle.
“I’d say this is where the dangerous questions begin, but I already asked about my origins, and we touched on Jessie and Jamie’s. Let’s have them begin in earnest.”
“So be it,” Hayle said. “Your questions?”
“I think Lillian should ask hers. Because once I start asking mine, we run the risk of a premature end.”
“I just have a few,” Lillian said.
“I was and am fond of you, Lillian,” Hayle said.
“What drove you to choose me? Had things happened differently, I could have been any one of the doctors out there. Students in service to the military that we killed or turned into Tangles, or the ones we used as stepping stones.”
“My dear Lillian,” Hayle said. “No.”
“Had you carried on like you were, I think you wouldn’t have had it in you. When I found you, you were close to quitting. When Sylvester turned his attention to you, you moved even closer to that decision. It was the other Lambs that pulled you back. Without the Lambs, you would have been a fine but minor Doctor from a lesser Academy like Beattle, I think. You have a good heart and you would have been a credit to your profession, serving a town or a neighborhood of a city. You wouldn’t have sought your black coat, and you wouldn’t have joined the military without the influence of the Lambs to drive you upward and forward.”
“I might have.”
“No, Lillian. I’ve known many students, and your fear is unfounded.”
“Why deny me my black coat, then?”
“He spoke to me about it,” Fray said. “About being a woman in the Academies, about the challenges, the expectations. The politics were wrong for it. The timing, the stance of your parents, your relationship to the Lambs project and the direction that project was going… it didn’t make sense.”
“It made sense to me,” Lillian said. She turned to Hayle. “I wanted it. I deserved it. I deserved the advanced commendations and Duncan did too. I gave you everything and you couldn’t give me that.”
“I could have,” Hayle said. “It would have destroyed you, because it wasn’t what you really wanted, and in that destruction, with the Lambs as fragile as they were, you would have taken them with you.”
“Did you know I was watching?”
“I thought it was possible, Sylvester. I wondered if you would barge in or sneak in. I thought you would take the Lambs with you in entirety if you left, or you’d transform if you stayed. I didn’t expect a partial leaving, or the transformation that went with it,” Hayle said. He turned back to Lillian. “I know my fate today depends on you all. I know I haven’t given you the answer you wanted. I know you may decide not to spare me because of that.”
“That was the day I lost my family,” Lillian said.
“I expect it was.”
“My parents, Sylvester, and Jamie.”
“I understand that.”
Lillian’s hands were clasped in front of her. Mary reached out to touch those hands.
“You can ask your questions, Sylvester,” Lillian said.
There were lights illuminating buildings across the campus. The rain continued to fall, streaking the windows, and the little droplets that were left in the way of the streaks glittered with the light of buildings and fires. Where water collected at the branches that ran through and around each window, the elongated blobs and narrow pools caught the light in lines, making those branches seem to glow.
One word that passed through my lips, the question only existing in the implicit.
“Not me,” Hayle said. “Not the Duke, not Fray, not Cynthia or her predecessor, not you. ”
I stared him down.
“I’m complicit only in that I agreed that the Caterpillar project should have several evolutions. That the slate would be wiped clean several times, each phase retaining the best that we could impart onto it. Jamie’s fate was very much expected as a thing that would happen.”
“The books? They were part of this evolution?”
“The books were another part of things, in more than one way, but the other plans fell by the wayside,” he said.
“The books were part of that sought-after evolution, yes, but I thought they could be a way to get the word out, that might slip the Academy’s notice for a time. Fiction, at first, then the facts would add up, in an undeniable detail, with codes only the most astute could find out.”
“He mentioned, once, that he might be chronicling our adventures in some form,” Lillian said.
“I mentioned it to him, yes,” Hayle said.
“I had the printing presses,” Fray said. “But that’s minor. Tertiary. We didn’t go that route.”
“You could, Sylvester,” she admitted. “I could tell you where the means to produce the books are, I’m sure the black wood and plague haven’t consumed them all.”
“You stole the second Jamie away before we could carry on with his evolution or make use of the books.” Hayle said. “The end result is your creation, not mine. As you suggested, the team was already yours.”
I nodded. “Gordon?”
“Yes. That was on my shoulders. He expressed interest in joining Genevieve. We started to sway him the other way, but he was already losing the vigor we wanted to see in him. We tried to encourage him. We thought he might shift stances after you’d lost Jessie, so we gave him the dog. It didn’t matter, the fight had gone out of him. He would have taken you in the opposite route you needed to travel.”
I watched Mary tighten her grip on her knife.
I was worried at the emotions that roiled in me, that the voice wasn’t elaborating on. I was worried at the dark feelings, that I might reach out to kill Hayle, the other answers be damned.
It would be so easy to murder the man, to murder Fray, and to let everything else fall by the wayside. There would be fallout, questions still left unanswered, and it would ruin us in the end.
“You killed Gordon,” Lillian said.
“We let him go,” Hayle said. “You and Genevieve discussed your beliefs. Had you given the wrong answers, we would have made a similar decision.”
“The girlfriend. She fed you the information on how he was doing.” There was emotion in the voice
“Shipman,” Lillian said, eyes wide, as she looked at me, then back to Hayle.
“She didn’t know the entirety of what she was doing when she answered my questions. I hope that informs any decisions you make about her,” Hayle said. “But yes.”
“The plague, then. Who was responsible in the end?”
“Mauer, in a way. The Infante, in another way. Me,” Fray said. “In that I expected something like it. It seems inevitable, with the primordials. They reach a point where they want to create tools.”
“Which brings us back to your cards.”
“It does,” Fray said.
“And it brings us back to the final, most dangerous question.”
“It does,” Fray said.
Outside the door, our lieutenants were talking. Others had joined them. Red was with them, as were Bea, and Junior, and Gordeux, and Rudy…
“Why?” Hayle asked.
“What was the end goal? Restoring balance? Sabotage? Reclaiming the world for humanity?”
Poor Lillian was so tense. Mary gripped that knife, had been gripping it since Gordon had come up.
“Does it matter?” Hayle asked.
“You are where you are. The decision is yours to make. You’ll decide what you do next.”
I looked between Hayle and Fray.
“You believe that.”
“It’s the safe answer,” Mary said.
I bit my tongue, thinking.
“It’s the answer the puppeteer gives to the puppet, because anything he says might give up more control than the doubt will,” she said. “It’s the only answer he can give that gives him a chance at staying alive.”
Thinking of Percy. She was always thinking of Percy when it counted.
Hayle wouldn’t say. So long as he remained that god, the unanswered questions, he had cause to live.
I’d already ceded control. I’d made a bargain with the voice in my head, after my thought processes and more had been consolidated by a dose given to me while I slept. I’d realized how this ended and I’d taken on one last role, giving that role a voice and giving myself over to that voice.
I lost little to nothing, in pushing myself, in taking everything I could dredge up, and trying to give it form.
I pieced together a Hayle from my impressions of the man.
I put that Hayle in the room, in a matching chair, with a matching cup of tea beside him.
I was careful to obey Mary’s wishes as I walked around the desk, until I stood where that Hayle stood. I leaned forward, planting my hands on the desk, so my head was level with Hayle’s.
“There are several answers, Lambs,” they said. “Several possibilities. Believe me, in taking on a project of this scale, I considered them all as end goals. I got to know each of you, and that desire to know you was part of my reason for keeping you as close as I did, when you first joined us, Mary Cobourn.”
The Lambs’ expressions were like stone as they watched me. The people in the hallway beyond were much the same.
“Because I know you,” they said, Hayle’s phantom and the voice together, “I know that if I tell you, knowing full well that you rebelled by carrying on your romance with Sylvester, Lillian, that you’re set on carving your own path, Mary, even if it’s one that cleaves close to your friends, and that Ashton is set on reinterpreting the world around him, even if it’s down to the paint on the walls and grass on the fields…”
Hayle was staring at me.
“…Anything I tell you, you’ll rebel against it, yet if I lie, you’ll know. Silence is the only answer. If I don’t tell you what to do, then there’s a chance that when all is said and done, you’ll end up there.”
“As we ended up here,” Mary said.
“That doesn’t seem terribly fair,” Ashton said.
“It isn’t,” Lillian said. “Because it always leaves that doubt. Was it us? Was it our goal? Or were we just working toward a finale that was set for us? We’ll never know.”
“We could stop,” Ashton said. “We could carve out a nice little area and protect it from plague and black wood, and we could lead nice, simple lives with the new Lambs. We could have all of our Doctors and scientists work on doing good things without worrying about war.”
“Can you?” Fray asked. “Knowing everything you do? Knowing what is happening in the rest of the world?”
“No,” Lillian said. Mary shook her head.
“No,” the voice said.
Lillian looked me in the eyes.
“The lack of an answer is dangerous. The answer is dangerous in another way.”
“Tell us,” she said. “If you’re speaking for Hayle, then give us the answer.”
I looked at Hayle.
“I’m yours, you’re right. I started with you, you end with me,” the voice said.
“I wonder who you are, then,” Hayle said. “Because I’m not positive you’re Sylvester.”
“I’m not. I’m every monster I’ve ever fought. Every enemy I’ve defeated. I’m Sylvester and I’m not. I’m the Noble that Sylvester will become.”
A frown creased the space between his eyes. “The Noble you describe sounds like a monstrous one.”
“Isn’t it?” the voice asked. “What a mistake you’ve made.”
We stuck a knife between his ribs, and swiftly backed away, bringing the knife with us, so the wound could bleed freely, air escaping his lungs.