Thicker than Water – 14.6

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The cell was dark, dry, and spacious, with very nice furniture, all considered.  There was a desk and chair that would be fit for any of the more respected businessmen or politicians in Radham, a modest bed with nicer sheets than I’d ever had, a stocked bookshelf, and some basic lab equipment.

My hands moved through practiced motions, putting together smoke canisters.  We only had the materials for three, pieced together from canisters that were intended to be thrown at fires to extinguish them and from basic chemicals in the kits.

We only worked with the basics anyhow.  No education to draw from, only what Marv and Jamie had been able to impart, with a little bit of ingenuity and problem solving.

Problem solving could get us 90% of the way there.  The trick, it seemed, came down to either luck or having the right resources to tap.

We were in a very interesting place when it came to resources.

“Smoke bombs, smoke bombs,” Evette and I said.  “Smoke bomb with nerve poison, smoke bomb that suffocates, smoke bomb that nauseates, smoke bomb that suffocates, again…”

Pause.  Wait, listen.

We smiled, setting the four bombs in a line on the desk.

We reached out, and set one of the tall glass cylinders to spinning precariously on its end before snatching up a piece of paper.

“To… do,” we said, penning down the words.  “Get Mauer.  Capture.  Have a chat.  Kill or deliver him-”

We reached out and stopped the wobbling canister from toppling over and falling to the floor in the process.

“See how much damage we can do to our enemies and to ourselves in the process.  Wouldn’t be Sylvester if we didn’t get him hurt in the process, am I right?”

Only silence answered.

Wyvern had originally been intended to help with learning language and other things that were so frequently shaped in childhood and then ‘locked in’.  Academy students were often pushed by their families from a young age to learn their ratios and study texts, attend tutoring, enroll in academy prep schools, attend summer classes, and to treat every experience as a learning experience, without a spare moment to play or to draw.  They often reached the point where they could do the work, they could study well, but with all their prior experience, they hadn’t been equipped to have an original thought or idea.

When those students stumbled, if they’d curried enough favor, then that little green syringe would be dangled in front of their noses, with the promise that it would hurt more than anything the student had ever experienced, and it might give them the ability to cross the hurdle in front of them and revive parts of the brain that had atrophied in childhood.

We knew there was another use that had come up before.  Compulsive behaviors, habits, and surgeon’s jag, when those actions that someone performed a thousand times a day coupled with pressure to introduce a crippling compulsive twitch or jerk to the precise actions.  Wyvern could soften the brain to allow the person to work out the mental wrinkles and knots.

But it was a double edged sword.  Things that had worked before could so easily slide into that same domain.  Tics, new habits, forming deep grooves with very mundane actions or roles that were only temporary.  For most, it was one small dose to correct the major issue, then two or three doses more to steer back onto course, with the subject learning how to direct things and being very, very careful.

Or, in cases like mine, the doses were ongoing for long periods of time, and the risk of the wrong things crystallizing in a bad way was minimal.

Minimal wasn’t ‘nonexistent’, however.  And Evette and I had no idea if I was that much more susceptible to problems in this less stable state.

“Food,” we noted, penning it down.  “Still haven’t eaten.  Need food.”

We snuck a glance at Helen, who was in the corner.

She was Helen in the same way that a towel was a towel when it was soaking wet and wrung tight into a coil.  There was hair on the head and there was skin and a long neck and a pretty dress, there were arms and there were legs, and they were all roughly in the right positions, but even though the figure stood still, things were twisted and stretched as if she was mid-movement, everything turned around and wrinkled in action and bent straight.  Abstract, the distillation of the individual puzzle pieces that put a physical Helen together as a dream might provide in the midst of a flurry of chaotic events and impressions.

But the prison cell was quiet, the flurry had stopped.

Our Helen, silent and completely without a face.

We couldn’t let this crystallize.  We couldn’t fuss, let ourselves get upset, or give this moment any emotional resonance.  That would make it more likely to stay this way.

“Sugar.  Brain food.  Cake,” we spoke aloud, penning it down.

The hope that we might be able to snap our imaginary Helen back into being was dashed when the image didn’t respond to the prompt.

We couldn’t let ourselves be disappointed.  Disappointment could be an emotional connection, something that tied this impression of Helen to our emotions.  We had to control how we thought and felt, to avoid this broken image tainting the deep-set impressions of the Helen we knew.

The trick was to keep moving, and not dwell too long on any one point.

“We’ll need information.  Two ways we can go about that.  We’ll probably need to go after his people, see if we can’t trace them back to him.  We’ll need to get the shape of his approach.  What he’s doing, the moves he’s making, what his group structure looks like, the resources he has, the direction he’s thinking…”

“How we position in respect to that,” Gordon said.

“Yes!” Evette said.  Her glee mirrored my own relief that this was sort of working.

“And how we position in respect to that,” Evette and I said, noting it down on the paper.  The scrawled letters joined the other points that were scattered around the page, including a large, angular shape, labeled ‘the shape of his approach’.

I looked up at Gordon.

Gordon, in response, only stood there.  He wasn’t all twisted up and wrinkled into ambiguity like Helen was, but the spectre lacked a face.  There was only an irregular expanse of skin.

Nope!  Not about to dwell on that.  Couldn’t let myself worry about what happened if I lost that face in my head forever.  Were there even pictures of Gordon anywhere, to let me remind myself?  In Lambsbridge, perhaps, but that was a tricky place to get into.  A hell of a task.  In Radham Academy, in his files, perhaps.

I huffed out something that might have been a laugh if there had been any humor in the moment.  Radham academy, easy peasy place to go, if we needed a reminder.

“Focusing on the task at hand-” Evette started.

Yes.  The task at hand.

“Mauer.  We like Mauer,” she said.  “He’s fascinating, and he probably enjoys the brilliant moments where it all comes together just as much as we do.  We’ve run into him before, we know he likes the slow burn, setting everything up, then the flare.”

My hand shook as we brought the pen closer to the page.  We wrestled for a moment, working to try to get it steady enough to write something proper.

Giving up, we embraced the messiness, drew exaggerated, sketchy circles around ‘resources’ on the paper.  Then added notes.  Time, materials, people.

Multiple sketchy circles around time, then, leading to ‘moves’.

Together, we diagrammed it out, dipping the pen into the inkwell a few times to make some bolder, sloppier lines where needed.

It was likely indecipherable to anyone but us, but it was, on paper, the ‘shape’ of the problem.

“That scrawling,” Jamie’s voice came out of nowhere, “is not a good sign, Sy.  It’s worrisome.”

“Genius usually is, to a mere layperson,” Evette and I said.

“A mere layperson.  You two are lucky I’m a ghost, Sy, because I’d normally punch you in the shoulder for that.”

Evette and I grinned.

I looked for Jamie, and the spectre was there, intact as far as we could tell, but the image jittered, darting to the side, like a spot of light on my vision, remaining in my peripheral vision.

We took a deep breath.  In.  Out.

This was doable.  Disheartening, but it was progress.  We’d been thrown off balance when our guard was down, and it had hit us where we were already hurting.  The coherency had suffered.  I had built the images in the first place, and they were something we could rebuild.  But we couldn’t push, and we couldn’t let things settle in a bad way.  We would have to put off sleeping, make the most of our recent dose of Wyvern, and ideally, we would need a distraction.

It was hard to say if five seconds or a quarter hour had passed when the knock on the door sounded, but the sketched out ‘shape’ had doodled wings, courtesy of Evette, that hadn’t been there when Jamie started talking again.

“Come in,” Evette and I said.

The door was ajar, and someone pushed it open.

Doctors.  Ones with black coats; one male, one female.  Both young-ish.  Younger than thirty, which was pretty damn respectable.

“Sylvester?” the woman asked.  She wore a stylish dress beneath her lab coat, and her hair was coiffed with tight rolls down one side, the other side pinned.

“Yes,” we replied.

The man was a very staid, stoic man who looked more like a stitched than a man, with hollow cheeks, a long face, and deep-set eyes.  He was silent, frowning as he looked over the room.

“I’m Professor Bette Kinney, this is Professor Arandt.  We are apparently at your service.”

“You weren’t the doctors for any of the recently deceased nobles?”

The mention of the nobles’ deaths made Professor Kinney’s expression visibly darken.  “No.  We happened to be around.”

Evette smiled.  “You’re rolling the dice.”

“Beg pardon?”

“They had to have told you.  Full disclosure.  If you work with us, you’re putting your lives in the hands of a known enemy of the Crown.  I’m a fugitive, but the Lord Infante wants to equip us to do as much damage as possible to his enemy, to Mauer.”

My finger tapped the page that still lay on the desk.  Kinney gave it a dubious look.

“Us?” she asked.

“Yes,” Evette and I said.  “No.  Nevermind that.  You’re distracting from the point.”

“Evette was always going to be miserable at the social graces,” Gordon observed.  “That was a niche that Ashton was planned to fill.  If she made it and Ashton didn’t, I was going to be the face.  If Ashton made it and Evette didn’t, I was going to be the problem solver, but when the both of them didn’t make it…”

The pair looked uncomfortable.  Evette and I watched them as Gordon’s voice continued in the background.

“The point,” we picked up the so-called thread that had dangled, “Is that you know this is a risk, but the Infante asked if people were interested, and you said yes.  A random invite here is nice enough, but an opportunity to place yourself on a noble’s radar?  All you have to do is make it through the next few days without humiliating yourself, getting killed, or fates worse than death.”

“Essentially,” Kinney said.  “Except Professor Arandt-”

The gaunt Arandt interrupted, “I wasn’t ‘randomly’ invited.  I was coerced into helping a colleague, and I’m happy to have an unassailable excuse to fuck right off and do something else.  The risk of dying is a small price to pay for the confidence that my colleague is going to humiliate himself in front of twenty professors and five different nobles without my help.”

Kinney sighed.  “I can’t understand that mentality.  He may well die.”

“The mentality is that the asshole has reveled in being a festering cyst in my nethers for half of my life.  He placed second in the class every year I placed first, but he has enough rat bastard in him that he’s been able to reach up and snatch the positions, accolades and jobs I want most from me, take credit for my achievements,” Arandt said, his expression grim, a skeletal glower.  He didn’t smile in the slightest as he said, “This is the best day of my life.”

Evette and I, however, smiled.

“I like you,” we said, steering clear of the ‘we’.  “Let’s try to keep you alive.”

Arandt bowed slightly.

“And me?” Kinney asked.

We gave her a blank look.

“Nevermind,” she said.  “I couldn’t help but notice you were talking to yourself as we came in?”

Had I been?  I remembered pausing, noticing the doodles, but I hadn’t been talking, had I?  A blackout?

“Duncan,” Evette and I realized, aloud.  You bastard.

“Who?”

“No, I’m just thinking aloud,” I said.

We had to stop.  We drew in a deep breath, then centered ourselves.  We were erratic, all over the place, and things were spotty.  Evette was largely unstructured by design.

I had to slow us down.  Decide on a direction, lest everything we do in this state was left as messy and incoherent as the parchment we’d scrawled on.

“May I ask another, unrelated question?” Kinney asked.

“You can,” we said.

“Why the prison cell?  With the door open?”

“Because I wanted some space of my own with some quiet.  It was the Infante’s suggestion,” Evette and I said.  We paused, then added, “Eerily prescient.”

“Prescient,” Kinney said.  “I won’t ask.  We’re doing lab work with you?”

“For now, you can come with,” we said.  We clipped the canisters to my belt at my right side.

“Come with?” she asked.

“We’re investigating.  But we’re picking up my friend first,” We said.  We echoed August the Ogre as we spoke, voices firm, “Follow.”

It was fun to do that.

“Beg pardon?” Kinney asked.  “You may have the wrong idea if you think you can give me orders.”

We paused in the doorway, half-turning.

Arandt was the type to watch carefully before doing anything.  His caution might well have been why his nemesis of a coworker had been able to snatch opportunities away from him, but it earned my respect here.

Follow,” We said, with no subtlety, no grace, and no real manipulation that wasn’t granted to us by the situation alone.  “Or go and tell the Infante that you agreed to help and then decided you weren’t willing to.”

With Jamie lurking in one corner of my eye, Gordon faceless, and a wrung-out Helen, Evette and I led the way out of the cell.

The scene of the crime.

Starting from the first concrete point, and seeing where it led us.

It was the same area as the shooting.  The area had been blocked off, leaving it empty of all people, and a firm Academy presence had been set in place.  Soldiers and academy experiments filled the area.  Stitched with cleaning supplies were sloshing out buckets onto the street to help encourage the bits of bone and splinters of wood to find their way to the gutters and drains.

It was dark, with overcast skies, but there were lights here and there, even in late afternoon, and there would be witnesses who were in the buildings and watching the entire process.

It felt wasteful, this kind of presence being deployed to a place that Mauer wasn’t going to strike at again.

Shirley, Arandt, Kinney, the Lambs and I all entered one of the buildings and stepped into a lift.  After a word from Arandt, a team of stitched atop the lift began hauling on the pulley system, raising us up floor by floor.

We could smell the faint ozone wafting off of them.

“This is intimidating,” Shirley said.  “And I’m not sure I like the height, and the empty space beneath our feet.”

“You were never in the tall buildings near the theaters?” Evette and I asked her.

She shook her head.

“Heights never bothered us,” we replied.

“Are you actually using the royal we, now?” Kinney asked.

We being the Lambs,” we lied.  “I was a member of a team of experiments working for the Crown, once.”

We passed each individual floor.  Through the stylized wooden door of the elevator, which was very easy to see past, I could see the individual floors we were passing.  Each one had a different Lamb standing in the hallway, facing the elevator.

I was a member of the team.  Emphasis on was.  Once.

None of the Lambs were intact.  Intrusive images, abstraction, incompleteness, it riddled the whole package.

Evette and I watched them.  My heart rate was picking up, and it had nothing to do with what Shirley was complaining about.  Nothing to do with height.

“I’m not sure I understand what’s going on, Sylvester,” she said.

“I know,” we said.  “I owe you answers.”

We passed another two floors.  Nora and Lara, in turn.

I’d meant to ask Lillian what the inspiration for Nora’s name had been.  I knew Lara was derived from Larva.  Nora had me drawing a blank, and my mind wasn’t in the right frame to dig through and find the right connections.  I might have recruited Jamie’s perspective, but I wasn’t sure things were on a solid enough foundation.

Evette.  Just Evette, for now.

“Things made sense a few days ago,” Shirley said.

“Things were good, a few days ago,” Evette and I agreed.

“Something happened,” she said.

We didn’t volunteer a response.

“Months ago, you and I got to talking.  You helped me find a kernel of courage.  I thought, if I stayed with you, then I could repay you for that, by helping in small ways, and I knew I could learn things from you.  Because I admired you.”

The elevator passed a floor where Jamie remained out of view, peripheral.  I only barely caught Jamie saying, “Past tense.”

“I want to repay you, still,” she said.  “So long as I’m able, I’ll try to repay you.”

Arandt and Kinney were in the elevator with us.  Shirley wasn’t saying everything she wanted to say.  She knew full well that something was wrong.  Had we been alone, she no doubt would have said more.

She wanted to help.

The lift took us up to the higher floors before stopping.  We stepped out into a hallway.

These tall buildings were offputting.  These floors were too high off the ground, to the extent that it wasn’t a useful kind of height, where we could work our way downward to affect what lay below.  Things were out of reach, and it was oddly difficult to move downward, or upward, or through any of the hallways or rooms, without constant obstruction or space considerations – too much or too little.

Crown officers were waiting in the hallway.  Arandt handed one a note, and they waved us through.

“When you took this task,” Evette and I asked the pair, “Did you think you’d just have to do some lab work with a troublesome fugitive, or did you realize you’d have to go out into the field?”

“I didn’t expect it, but I can adapt,” Kinney said.

“Past experience?” Evette and I asked.

“I went on field trips,” she said.

Evette and I laughed, short, abrupt, and deeply offensive to the proud Professor.

“I didn’t care,” Arandt said.

“Didn’t care?” we asked him.

“About whether this was field work or lab work.”

Gordon spoke, “You have to appreciate the single-mindedness.”

We entered the room.

It was the scene of a battle.  The wall-crawling warbeasts had come tearing in through the windows, bringing broken glass and three-fourths of the frame into the room with them.  Each was roughly a hundred pounds, all muscle bound around four spike-like limbs, with a fanged head.  Light, mobile, and made of nothing but power and natural weaponry.

Roughly six had entered the room and summarily died as they were stabbed and shot at.  The sheer damage to the room and the wall around the windows suggested that something close to another six had been in the room at another time.  Deep gouges I could hide a hand or foot in carved through every surface and cut through furniture.  The force of the mass of muscular forms tearing through the wall had turned the windows into gaping holes.  The wind and a steady patter of rain blew into the room.  Eight to ten men had died here.

Shirley hung back, staying away from the bodies and the blood.

Four Crown officers, two doctors, and five different experiments were in the room.  The experiments wore masks with filters and heavy coverings, akin to robes, with hoods, leather boots and gloves.  They were also my height.

The officers marked down things in their books, the short experiments pawed through evidence and brought their faces down close to it, and even rubbed themselves in it.

Evette and I pointed, raising a quizzical eyebrow at our accompanying professors.

“Scratchers,” Professor Kinney said.  “Brought over from the heart of the Crown by the Infante, then replicated by his teams.  They can tell the difference between dirt from one patch of earth and dirt from a patch of earth on the other end of the same field.”

“Ah,” we said. “Enhanced senses?”

“No.  Another sense entirely.  The closest analogues would be smell or touch.”

“Enhanced hearing?”

“No,” Kinney said.

“I like this,” Evette added, “The investigation.  Taking it all in.”

It was good.  A relief.  Something to occupy the senses.

“I wish we could have seen this play out,” Helen said.  “The chaos, the looks on their faces.”

“Without being a part of it, you mean,” Jamie said.

“Do I mean?” Helen asked.

We turned my head to look at her.  She had a face now.  Her dress fit better, instead of being a choked mass of cloth.

Progress.

How long before we take another two long steps back?

We approached the guns that lay by the windows.  Destroyed.

“Intentionally destroyed,” we observed.  “By Mauer’s men?”

The Crown officer nearest me glanced in the direction of Kinney and Arandt.  He must have received a signal or a nod, because he answered, “Yes.  Built into the guns.  They twist a key and haul it out along with a band of metal, and it melts internal mechanisms.”

We looked across the floor, at broken glass, at rubble, and bits of flesh.  We picked our way carefully past the dead warbeasts.

Evette and I spotted a band of metal with a key attached lying beneath a warbeast,  and toed at it until it was out in the open.

The officer bent down and picked it up, carrying it over to the scratchers.

“You’re welcome,” Evette said, sneering.

I kept my mouth shut, but it was hard.  If I hadn’t been able to maneuver in very comfortable territory, doing something very much like I’d been doing all my life, I might have lapsed, and fallen too closely into step with the Lamb that wasn’t.

Helen chirped, “If I may say so, this is going much better than we anticipated.  Sylvester and Evette have been paired up for several hours, and nobody is dead yet.  Not even Sylvester.”

“I’m offended,” Evette said.

“You had to say it, Helen,” Gordon said.

“Doubly offended.”

“Just keep us alive, Evette,” Gordon said.

We finished picking our way over the broken bits of wall, furniture, and window frame.  We glanced through the open window at the incredible distance to the ground below, then pulled my head back.

The corner of the room we’d approached had an open door.  We stepped through, with the two professors a few paces behind us.

There was a bathroom, with a claw foot tub set at one end.

Two Academy doctors were tending to a grievously injured man who had been placed in the tub.  Bags and tubing with blood were hooked up to the man, along with more tubing and mystery fluids.

The man was muscular, his hair short, and he was missing more flesh than I could have carried in my two outstretched arms.  The wall-crawling warbeasts had done their damage.

Mauer’s man, captured alive, but not quite so well that he could be easily brought down and out of the building.

He was why we were here.

You,” he said, fixing his eyes on me.  He sounded remarkably well, all considered.  The fact that his genitals, stomach, upper thighs and some of his chest were all mangled didn’t seem to have put any waver into his voice.

“Me?” Evette and I asked.  “We’ve met?”

“You set the lab I was in on fire,” he accused.

“Ah,” we said.  That would have been in Lugh.

“Go fuck yourself,” he said.

The part of me that was Evette wondered momentarily if that was even possible on any level.  With enough work with spectres, enough disconnection from myself…

“I’d say you’re thoroughly fucked enough for the both of us,” we replied.

“I wish I could step in,” Gordon said.  “Negotiate.”

His face was back, we realized.

The relief was palpable, and put a smile on my face.

Only a moment later, we realized that the smile would seem taunting to someone we’d just accurately described as fucked.

“Fuck you,” the man said.

“You know they’ll get the answers out of you,” we told him.

“They’ll try.  They’ll find drugs and inject me, and they’ll push me, and maybe eventually I’ll slip.  But it won’t be soon.  It took them this long to get me conscious,” the man said.  “And don’t think you’ll do any better.”

“By the time someone figures out what you know, Mauer will be gone,” we said.

“He’s gone already.  But by the time someone figures out what I know, he’ll have a head start.”

A fanatic.  He would die for Mauer.

Mauer did a good job of fostering this kind of loyalty.

“Maybe,” we said.  “But you know who I am.  I’ve spent the entirety of my life getting answers.  Understand?  I’m a better torturer than some people who torture as a trade, on behalf of the Crown.  Because I grasp people.  I know how people tick, and I can find the weak point that breaks them in an instant.”

He narrowed his eyes.  It was clear he was faintly drug addled.  He’d been given chemicals to help him survive despite the damage that had filled the bathtub with enough blood to cover the less mangled bits of his unmentionables.

“Yeah,” he asked, setting his jaw.  “Some people aren’t that weak.”

“You’re a zealot,” we said.  “You believe, both in Mauer and in his cause.  A lot of the soldiers under him have been with him for a very long time.  And, to top it off, you’re winning, after getting two nobles in one day.  A task you were willing to die for.  All we have to do to break you is to target the one weak point in it all, and everything unravels.”

Evette, it seemed, like the monologues.

He was silent, forcing me to volunteer the nature of the weak point.  “Mauer.  I tell you one little thing, and you’ll know it’s true.  You’ll realize a fact that you’ve been keeping from yourself for years, and your world will crumble.”

“Try me,” he said.

We smiled, and we leaned forward, over the tub, shooing back the doctor that was working on the man.  One hand went on his shoulder for stability as we leaned close.

In his ear, we murmured, “Working on a double cross against the Crown, on Mauer’s behalf.  I want you to give me a location you know he isn’t.”

He frowned, looking up at us.

Gordon, too, was frowning, sitting on the ledge at the other end of the bathtub.  “You had to jinx us, Helen.”

We glanced back at the professors and crown officers at the other end of the bathroom.  Kinney was standing on her toes to look over and around and try to get some sense of what was going on between us.

“We’ll convince them Mauer just left.  That will give me time to take action.  I can set some things in place in the meantime.  But I need help convincing them I’m cooperating-”

“Sylvester,” Kinney interrupted.

“Look confused,” we whispered, before leaning back, turning to look at Kinney.

“What’s this?” she asked.  We saw her look between our conspirator and us.

She’d seen the mock fear.

“Give me another minute,” we said.

Leaning close, we provided some verbal instruction to the soldier on how to look properly horrified.

“Swear at me,” we urged him.

“Fuck you!” he raised his voice.  We realized a moment later it might have been genuine, because he reached for us with a good arm, seizing us and trying to drag us into the tub with his naked, bloody self.  “Fuck you!”

Hands seized me, and hauled us back and away from the tub.  The grips remained strong even after we were well away from the tub, securing me.

We stared the man down.  Willed him to cooperate.

If I were anyone else, I might have been able to manipulate it out of him.

The force of will proved fruitful.

A full minute passed, and we could see the surrender gradually take him over.

“There’s an apartment block on Thirty-first and Queensway,” he conceded.  “He won’t be there anymore, but there was enough stockpiled there that he wouldn’t have left right away either.  The tail might be warm.  Fuck him, if you’re not lying to me.”

We liked this guy, even if his loyalty wasn’t to me or to us.

We looked over at the professors.

“I guess we’re visiting the next location,” Arandt said.

“No,” we said.  We left the bathroom, stepping into the living room.  “The Crown police can go, confirm or deny.  But I’ve been thinking.  We need you in the lab.  We have ideas-”

And, we thought, We need you out of the way.

One of us can work on projects,” Arandt said.  “Depending on what it is you need.”

“Special stitched.  With gas inside.”

“It’s been done,” Arandt said.

“I need it done in a few hours,” we said.  “And we need something that can produce a disruptive sound, and we’ll need equipment.  Lockpicks, knives.”

Evette and I continued to ramble, but we were aware of the grumble of dissent.

“Turning on the Crown, just like that?” Gordon asked.

“I don’t object,” Jamie said.  “But it feels precarious.  A double-cross?”

“If this isn’t a quadruple cross by the time we’re done,” Evette and I mused, internally, “Then we’ve shamed ourselves.”

“A quadruple cross?”

“Getting everything lined up so that we can take out every major player in this city with one bullet, lined up to pass through all of the bodies,” Evette said.  “And we’ll see if we can’t find the Island with the missing children while we’re at it.”

“You’ll get us destroyed before you’ve set up half the cards,” Gordon observed.

“Probably.  But if we don’t get destroyed, it’s going to be glorious,” Evette said, clasping her hands together.

We blinked hard.  Focusing on reality.  We were standing in the room with all of the bodies, staring out the window.

The professors waited patiently by.

Another blackout?  No, this had been brief.

We turned to Shirley.  “Doing okay?”

It was the wrong question, awkward, out of place.

“Not so well.”

We reached out and took her hand.  It was infantile, but it reassured at the same time.  She smiled uncertainly at it.

“Let’s get out of here,” we said, feeling as if we’d failed, that the question and the hand holding were far, far too little, even misleading, considering what we needed in the greater scheme and solution to this puzzle.  We needed to give Shirley kindness, to reinforce the connection, lest she run away from us.

Chances were good we were going to need her to save us from ourselves.

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Thicker than Water – 14.5

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The carriages pulled into an enclosed space, and the light that was filtering in through the windows faded.

This was another protected space.  An area of the city the nobles had carved out, where raids like the one they had just weathered wouldn’t be possible.  Guards, more thorough countermeasures, and fortifications would abound.

Climbing out of the carriage, I was surprised by the surroundings.  Calling the space a stable or a garage felt wrong.  The ceiling arched, and there was space enough for twenty carriages and their stitched horses, with a wide path that a small parade could have passed down, running through the middle.  Said path was paved with stones, and rose up in a series of stairs that led into the building proper.  To the left and right of the stairs were arches, with stairs leading down into an unlit space.

But the reinforcement of living flesh was prominent here.  The walls had flesh-like growths, complete with circulatory systems, fatty tissue, and something respiratory.  They kept time, with one pulse a second, for the parts that pulsed, but they also breathed, expanding over five seconds, then contracting.  Whatever it was, it also served to hold the stones of the walls together.  Artificial tubes as large around as my leg ran into spaces, feeding other fluids into the wall, and large arrangements of wires and metal rigging seemed to be set into the flesh, running down to the individual spaces where the stitched horses were.

Jamie and I looked back at the carriage we’d just left, and we could see how the metal rigging was being connected to the horse by stitched with heavy, insulted gloves.

“I like this place,” Helen said, admiring the walls.

“Agreed,” Evette said.

“Focus on the nobles, all of you,” Gordon urged, his voice quiet.

“There’s no hurry,” Jamie said.  “Let them mourn.  They won’t be saying anything for a little while yet.  We might as well assess our options and escape routes in the meantime.”

“There could be clues you’re missing while we’re focused on a very neat station,” Gordon said.

Station worked, as a word to describe the space.

The doctors had all piled into the third most intact carriage.  Now they were administrating stitched in handling the care of the three bodies they’d had collected before we departed.

The nobles, with Marcella joining them, were standing on the other side of the path that divided the station.  Shirley was with them.

“People saw,” Gordon said.  “In the heart of the city, people saw nobles die.  The magnitude of that… even if a hundred of Mauer’s soldiers died to pull it off?  I could see them saying it was worth it, for the sheer damage they just caused.”

Marcella didn’t explain.  The other nobles didn’t ask.  The four of them watched, expressions as still as stone, as the three bodies were placed on stretchers, the stitched carrying them.  Doctors stayed by their dead nobles as the stretchers were carried out to Monte, Moth, the other noble, and Marcella.

The four nobles looked down at the bodies.

Jamie was right.  There was silence, and nobody talked, nobody moved.

Some of the doctors turned their heads.  They dropped to their knees, and the nobles in front of us did so a moment later.  Jamie and I took their cue and set one knee on the ground.

“There goes our chance to get away,” Gordon observed.

“There was never going to be one,” Jamie said.  “The moment we failed to get through the window and jump from the train, there was never going to be any getting away.”

“Unless we’d used the ambush to abandon Shirley,” Helen said.  “Which we can’t.”

“That’s taking Duncan’s path,” Gordon said.  “We destroy Sy, and it skews things in a bad way when it comes to the rest of us.  I might have a role, but I’m imagining a scene where we’re left with Helen in full-on bloodlust, Evette, Duncan, and maybe Mary in play.  I’d be so busy managing that nightmare I wouldn’t ever get a say.”

Evette sighed.

“We need Shirley,” Jamie said.

“He needs Shirley,” Helen said.

Shirley looked so scared.  She was kneeling, trying to bow lower than the Lady Moth without being prostrate.

Shirley had her gaps in education, but she knew how to act around nobles.  I wondered if her madam had ever trained the members of the house in the nuances of how to act around nobles, knowing that Tynewear might one day play host to them.

A bird took to the air above us.  That added to what I was able to make out in my peripheral vision, allowing Jamie and I to place the new arrivals.

The first was a young man, heavy, an ogre dressed up as a prince.  He was six times as large as I was, sheer physicality, but with a beautiful face, and crisp clothing.  His pants were tucked into socks, so they crumpled and puffed at the knee.  Those socks, in turn, that came up to the top of utterly massive calves that looked like they might let him grind granite underfoot.  He wore a dress shirt with suspenders and a belt.  His hair was neatly parted to one side and slicked down.

The slender woman next to him… I didn’t like nobles, but I’d found something I liked about her when I’d first seen her.  She did what the Lady Moth seemed so intent on doing, making herself into a physical and fashionable entity without going over the top, and she managed to sell herself as a Noble without being ostentatious.  A lot of that was how she moved, and her focus.  Her hair was black, swept over to one side, and her clothes were black silk, leather belts, and a shoulder ornamentation that looked like a roost for the falcon.  her hand on that same side was clad in a stylized falconer’s glove.

The raptor that was flying around the station would be hers, then.

The pair made their way down the stairs, leaving us kneeling, and approached the stitched, who had knelt while maintaining their hold on the stretchers.

A noble said something under his breath, and the stitched all remained on the ground, one foot and one knee planted on the stone path, but they lifted the stretchers up for a better view.

“Thank you,” the Ogre said.

The Doctors stood.  Heads still bowed, they gave instructions to the stitched.  As a group, they split up to enter the tunnels on either side of the stairwell, disappearing into an apparently unlit abyss.

“Follow,” the Ogre said.

The remaining doctors, nobles, Shirley and I all followed the Falconer and the Ogre into the building proper.

Veins and flesh held panels of glass as part of a greater skylight in the main hall of the building.  I could see the layout.  A castle, sprawling, with three of the taller buildings in the city sprouting from it, spearing toward the sky.  At the top of those towers, another castle was poised, suspended between them.

“Who handles this?” Jamie asked.  “I can do it, but…”

“I could,” Evette said.

“No,” Gordon said.

“I wouldn’t be the best choice,” Helen said.  “Sylvester likes the Falconer though.  If he wants to pursue her at all, practice his wiles, I could sit in.”

No,” Gordon said, again, in a different tone.  “And I think it’s left to me.  Jamie’s too set in deep thought, introspection, and he’s not quick enough on the draw.  No offense.”

“None taken.  I might rephrase that ‘not quick on the draw’ part, though.  Not because it bothers me, but because it’s easily misunderstood.”

“You’re right.  Noted.  Alright.”

Jamie fell back, joining the other Lambs.

We were faced with six nobles, their retinues, a great swathe of unfamiliar and hostile territory, and emotions were likely running high.  Theirs and ours.  Gordon had commented earlier on the situation, on the fact that they’d been hit in the heart of their territory.

The problem was, as Gordon and I turned the situation over in my head, there weren’t any weak points we could target that weren’t also weak points for us.  The insecurity of the nobles was just as likely to backfire on us and see us put to the sword.  The presence of enemies in the city would make them more guarded, less likely to offer us a weak point.

The Falconer’s bird, perched on her shoulder, watched us.  It was half again as large as any bird of prey I’d seen, and Avis had once had some very large eagles.  The bird of prey had a head of golden feathers, and a body of black ones.  Its talons and beak were oil black, adding to the contrast.  Modified.  Possibly a chimera.

Gordon and I assessed the thing, and judged that if we had to bolt, and if we couldn’t close a door behind us, that thing would probably win in a fight.

The entire building was dark stone, lit by light from outside, and biological growth reinforcing it, all of the same fleshy nature.  When the daylight faded, they would have light by other means, yet there were no torch sconces, no artificial lights.

It went back to the biological growths, stylized stretches of flesh, running along walls.  Veins twined their way between stones.  In the castle proper, the growths were more elegant, less like tumors or unidentifiable masses of flesh, and more akin to pillars.  The networks of veins and the beads of fatty tissue formed fractal patterns and geometric arrangements.  When the lights went out, the biological growths would likely provide bioluminescence.  The veins would light up.

But the placement of them had another purpose.  There was a strategy to it.  Something that an intruding agent or group might miss, after a lifetime of acclimating to the wooden growths that supported buildings across the Crown empire.  They were positioned at key junctions, and there was little doubt that they were loaded to the brim with biological weapons and agents.

None of the nobles talked.  It was as if the hierarchy left the Ogre with all of the power, here, and it was up to him to decide if conversation was permitted.  Even if the mood had allowed for talk, we doubted he would have said much.

The place was crowded.  There were stitched servants everywhere, perhaps a third of the people we saw were stitched, but every last one of them was work on par with Fray’s stitched, whatever her name had been.  Stitched without stitches, at least not in visible places, their nature only noticeable if one knew what to look for.  They wore uniforms, and they moved with purpose, attending to tasks up until a noble came into sight, at which point they stopped, stepped to the side of the wide corridors, and bowed or curtsied, freezing in place until we were past them.

Another third were alive.  They were hard to place, more important than servants, but not in charge, either.  Facilitators, if I had to guess.  Administrators, aristocrats, suppliers.  Political grease.

The final third of the people present were doctors, and there wasn’t a white coat to be seen.  It was like an Academy, almost, but the standard student or white coat had been replaced by a grey coat specialist, and the remainder wore black coats.  Professors, top of the heap.  The best at what they did.

If they hadn’t been doing as the servants did and been stepping to one side, heads bowed, Gordon and I imagined we would have heard heated debates, strict orders, and calls to action.

There was a power in surrounding oneself with smart people.  The Lambs were an indicator of that.  This place, this building, it was where the brightest minds gathered, one of the peaks from which the greatest ideas flowed down to the rest of the Crown States.  Professors looked forward to the day they got an invitation to join a discussion here and then they burned with envy for those who got to lead the discussions.

And, in exchange, the nobles could call on this collection of minds, name a task, and expect that the task would be seen to.

We watched as lord Monte spotted one group of professors, broke from the group, and leaned close, to whisper a few words in the ear of a man who had had ten other professors trailing in his wake.

Monte caught up with our group, returning to his prior position.  The man he’d spoken to broke into a run, heading in the direction we’d just come from.  His retinue followed.

Gordon and I glanced back, and saw, halfway down the corridor, that the professor was recruiting others, and sending others running elsewhere.  All business.

All hands on deck.

Leaving that isolated storm behind us, we reached the end of the main corridor.  Large double doors were framed by an arch of stone and fleshy growths.

The Ogre pushed the doors open.  We entered the garden, where the Infante waited.  The Falconer’s bird found its roost.

The area was a space beneath a partial dome of glass that kept the rain at bay while allowing sun and wind through, all framed in growths of wood and flesh.  The paths and the walls of the architecture at the boundary of the space looked to be cut obsidian, the plant life had been cultivated to grow in shades of red, magenta and violet.  The space, all in all, took  up roughly as much property as the grounds of the Lambsbridge orphanage had.

The red plants were eerie and ominous, in light of the plague that was sweeping across the Crown States.

The Infante, with sprightly eyes and a frame that dwarfed even the Ogre, wore only a ruffled collar and a simple black outfit.

Sitting in a chair near him was the Duke of Francis.  Intact, no damage, dressed as impressively as he’d ever been.

But, as I looked, the sharpness was gone, the light absent.  He moved his hands, placing one over the other in his lap, and the movement was slow.

It hardly mattered at this stage.  The concern was the Infante.  The lie we’d told, and the danger we were in.

Gordon and I raised up taller, confident, sure in ourselves.  It had the added benefit of putting us in a slightly better position to run if we needed to run.

“Lords Jeremy, Richard, and Edmund, then,” the Infante said, looking over the group.  His voice was terribly deep, magnified by the acoustics of this open space, and it seemed even deeper because the plants and the surroundings should have dampened noise, instead of strengthening it.

“Yes, father,” the Ogre said.  The Falconer walked over to her bird.

“Are their corpses salvageable?”

“No, father.  They’ll try, the bodies are only thirty minutes cold, but the damage is extensive.  It’s the new guns.”

“Go to the labs, August.  Don’t interrupt the man, but talk to Jeremy’s lead,” the Infante said.  “He’ll be upset, already thinking about leaving, if the revival isn’t possible.  If we don’t catch him, he’ll convince himself to leave by the finish of the mandatory three tries.  We want to keep him.”

“Yes, father,” ‘August’ said.

“Tell him that the Lady Charlotte needs an attending first.  That’s a move up for him.  A fresh start.  She was only just born.”

“London, uncle?” the Falconer asked.

“My brother will owe me one,” the Infante said.

Sent off by some signal Gordon and I didn’t see, August turned, striding past us and through the doors.  We turned to look, and he gave us a nasty look with his small, dark eyes as he closed the doors behind him.

“I heard about the attack as it happened,” the Infante said.  “I had some information about who it was, but no confirmation until just now.  An unfortunate end to your first proper outing, and to theirs.”

“Yes, Lord Infante,” Monte said.

My heart pounded.  Every single one of the Lambs was present, fixated on the Infante and on the other nobles around us.  A simple choice of phrasing could utterly destroy us.

“I see you’ve brought me a present.”

Gordon and I bent low into a bow.  “Lord Infante.  It is good to see you again.”

Setting the stage as best as we could.  We were caught in a river.  All we could do now was steer as best as we could, and hope we wouldn’t be dashed on the rocks.

“A fugitive,” Monte said.

“I’m well aware of who he is.  Sylvester Lambsbridge.  One of the Lambs of Radham.  Francis, you were intimately familiar with this one, were you not?”

Not good.  We saw Monte shoot us a sidelong glance.  The lack of familiarity was telling.  The first rock, and very easily the one that might sink us.

Gordon and I watched the Duke’s eye move.  There was a delay.  As if it took willful effort to direct his eye, to fixate on us.  Whether there was recognition or a complete mental blank, the man gave no indication.

“A pity you’re not up to talking,” the Infante spoke.  “Your counsel would have been appreciated.”

A heavy hand settled on the Duke’s shoulder.

“You may leave,” the Infante said.

“I wish that meant us,” Lara said, from the sidelines.  She stood near Lillian, who was leaning against a tree, arms folded, cross, her back to me.

“Lord Infante,” Monte said, not budging from where he stood.  “Sylvester Lambsbridge told us that he was doing work for you.  That we were to bring him to you.”

“Is that so?” the Infante asked.

Monte bowed deeper, then took his leave, joined by Moth and the others.

It left the Duke, the Infante, and the Falconer in the garden with Shirley and I.

“A shame about Jeremy,” the Infante said, as if he were speaking to the Duke.  “But I do like Montgomery.  Nascent promise, there.”

The Duke, striving to put in effort, moved his eye, looking up in the general direction of the Infante.

“I see a lot of the Baron Richmond in him, as a matter of fact,” the Infante said.

“What?” Gordon asked.  My lips remained closed.

The Infante set his eyes on me.  “Richmond was clever, once upon a time.  He could have climbed a fair way up the ladder, done more with himself, and done more for the Crown.  But he learned the wrong lessons along the way.  Tragic, but all too common.  His death at your hands was just.”

Gordon and I bowed deeper, acknowledging the statement.

“Montgomery could go either way,” the Infante said.  “Straighten up.  Look at me.”

We did.

“You lied to them, telling them you worked for me.”

“I did,” Gordon and I said.

“You have your audience.  Will I now find out that your companion there is plague infected?”

“No, my lord,” we said.  Have to take the subject off of Shirley.  “My understanding of you is that you appreciate strong, bold, meaningful strokes of the brush.  Cornered, my first thought was that, instead of dying, I could make myself useful to you.”

“Had you phrased that as being useful to me again, I might have had you killed,” the Infante said.

Easy enough to see what he was thinking about.  “With all due respect, Lord Infante, I took the death of the Baron Richmond to be a neutral thing.  As much good done as bad.”

“The bad, unfortunately, being ours to bear,” the Infante placed his other hand on the Duke’s other shoulder as he said that, standing behind the man in the chair.  He made the Duke look small.

“The act of killing the Baron was the nail in the coffin, my last act as a Lamb.  I was cornered by a former ally, I had to shoot-”

“Mary Cobourn.  In one knee,” the Infante finished for me.  “I’m well aware.  Faced with a strange boy with high aspirations and two dead noble ladies already killed by his hand, I sought to inform myself.  I asked after you, and I obtained my answers.”

“Yes, Lord Infante,” Gordon and I said.  We bowed, acknowledging him.

“I’ve remained aware of you as you cut a violent and explosive swathe through Tynewear.  I read your records and I put good minds to work on analyzing data, about Wyvern and similar drugs, to project forward and to reach conclusions that your doctors wouldn’t have found until five years after you expired.”

The Falconer was watching.  Very quiet.  Her eyes matched the Infante’s.  Dark, penetrating, and suggestive of something very clever going on beneath the surface.

The Infante continued, “When word of you being on a train heading south from Tynewear reached my ears, I had investigators track down people who were on that same train.  We traced things backward, in the midst of some of the greatest chaos this continent has ever seen outside of wartime.”

Gordon and I remained silent.

“I could make threats, but what good is a threat?  You’ve lived with Wyvern’s venomed stinger for all your life, promising pain today and lost sanity before you’re twenty-one.  I could threaten the life of Shirley Pope, hold her hostage, but you grew up with your fellow Lambs and you knew you would likely live to see them die.  They’ve been hostages all your life, and they remain hostages now.  You lost your childhood friend and brother Gordon to one pull of the trigger.  Jamie, another childhood friend and brother, lost to oblivion after a throw of the switch.  Threatening you and holding things you love hostage is old hat for you.  Those things have permeated every day of your existence for a long time now.”

Jamie loomed in my peripheral vision, to my left.  Gordon loomed in my right.

I wanted to say something, and I couldn’t.  I wanted Gordon and I to say something, and he wasn’t volunteering anything.

“You left them behind,” he said.  “All of the rest of the Lambs.  One by one, you’ll hear stories.  Your Mary Cobourn already has notes in her file.  Fatty deposits under her skin, in the armpit, behind one ear.  Moles.  In a year and a half, they will be noticeable.  Within six months of that point, she’ll be slowed or crippled by it.  In three years, she’ll be dead.”

I looked over in Mary’s direction, then wished I hadn’t.  My mind jumped straight to trying to paint her with the Infante’s brush, complete with lumps and blemishes, and in the effort to erase that part of the image, I blurred the picture and lost the clarity in her.

“Duncan reported to Professor Hayle early on that your Helen was becoming emotionally disturbed.  I’ve had other sources say that Ibbot is neglecting her as a project.  He invests too much energy into the political side of things, when his talent is solely limited to the art of biology.  She’ll soon reach a point where she requires more upkeep than he is willing to provide while he is so eager to seize greater opportunities, and the idea of a custom wife, pillow companion and personal weapon that he grew in a vat will lose out in the end.”

I didn’t look at Helen.  I didn’t want that image to be blurry like Mary’s had.

But the Infante kept talking on the subject.  “She will go to his lab for a standard appointment, bubbly, smiling and laughing.  That preferred personality is in her records.  She’ll be nonetheless obedient as he asks her to lay down across the counter and opens her up to examine her organs.  And I can assure you, that spiteful, vitriolic little man will be in the midst of palpating her insides with a scalpel lying within arm’s reach, and he will find his way to the decision that frees him to pursue his politics.  That is, if she doesn’t break before then, slip up, and lead him to the conclusion herself.  Whatever the case, he will make a single small cut, deep inside her, and she will go quiet and cold.”

Shirley shot me a nervous glance.  I remained very still.

“You’ve condemned yourself to a very lonely existence, Sylvester Lambsbridge,” he said.  “You’ve put considerable distance between yourself and the people you love to avoid having to see them go.  But word of their passing will find you, no matter where you hide, and you will, with your last vestiges of sanity, wish you had been there.”

He released the Duke’s shoulders, and he approached me.

I didn’t move as he placed his hands across my cheeks, cupping my head in his hands.

“What do I do with you, child?” he asked.  “I have all the resources in the Crown States at my disposal, and you’ve confounded me.  How do I invent you a punishment fit for hell when you seem so intent on flinging yourself there first?”

He knelt before me, and the weight of him made the thick black stones under my feet shift slightly, crunching with a stone against stone sound.

He embraced me.  Even kneeling, he was far taller than me, but he hugged me to his prodigious stomach.

“Wretched child,” he said.

I looked up at Shirley.

Gordon, Jamie, and Helen didn’t volunteer anything.  The other Lambs were unreachable, indistinct, or too far away for their individual reasons.

There were ways to salvage them.  I could work my head around it.  Dig for them if I really wanted them.  But to do that, I had to acknowledge that they were as fragile as they were.  That they were smoke.

I was legitimately afraid at how easily it had crumbled.

I hadn’t anticipated the Infante doing this.  I’d expected a challenge.

A challenge, I could rise to.

This wasn’t a challenge.  This was the epitome of what I’d hated, in the very earliest days, with Lacey and the other doctors.

Acknowledgement of my reality.

“Do you want something to occupy yourself with?” the Infante asked.

“Yes,” I spoke, finding a voice.  Belated, we added, “Lord Infante.”

“Then find and kill Mauer for me.  He’s in the city.”

“As you wish,” we said.

The Infante released us from the hold.  He gave us a measured look.  “Then take your companion with you.  I have no need for hostages, I have no need for threats.  I’ll give you a general direction, pointed away from me, and we’ll see if you do more damage to the other side than to mine.”

“If I may make a request?” we asked.

“I’d thought I was being generous enough, but you may.  My resources are at your disposal, should you want them.  I certainly have enough.”

“I’d like access to a lab,” Evette and I said.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Thicker than Water – 14.4

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

“-more permanent measure than what we’re doing now,” Duncan said.

“I don’t agree,” Gordon said.

“Of course you wouldn’t,” Duncan said, clearly exasperated.  “But, as I’ve been trying to outline for the past while-”

“This isn’t working,” Gordon said.  “There are clear weaknesses, it’s only going to break down further, and while we’re doing this, we aren’t resolving the problem, right?  That’s what you were going to say?  Again?”

“Yes.  And there’s the part where this problem may be actively getting worse as he leans on us as a crutch.  We all caught just how bad it got when we put Helen in charge.”

“Yes,” Gordon said.  “Nobody’s saying this is good or perfect.  But I’m loyal to Sy.”

“Of course you are.”

“Dunc, if you try that patronizing tone with me one more time, I will extinguish you, damage to Sy notwithstanding.”

“Be nice, Gordon,” Lillian said.

“You’re all too nice to him.  Far too nice, considering what he’s suggesting.”

“Don’t take me being quiet as me agreeing with him or tolerating him,” Jamie said, “I can’t stand him any more than Sy can.  He’s been improving, but this?  I can’t agree with this.  And I think I’m very well placed to comment on this.”

“The fact is,” Duncan said-

“Duncan,” Gordon interrupted, voice firm.  “Stop repeating yourself.  Say something different, if you’re going to say anything at all.”

“Is that your way of telling me to shut up?”

“My polite way,” Gordon said.

“Fine.  I’ll say something new.  Remember the rule?  I wasn’t there for it, but Lillian or Mary would have probably told me.  One Lamb can’t sacrifice themselves for another Lamb.  Because that’s not fair.  But one Lamb can sacrifice themselves for two or more Lambs, if the situation is dire.”

“We’re not Lambs, silly,” Helen said.  “We’re aspects of Sy, wrapped up in figments of memory.”

“And,” Jamie said, “Even if we were real, which we’re not, the rule doesn’t allow for one of the two to make the call for sacrifice on behalf of another.  If Sylvester and Mary’s lives were at stake, it would never be okay for Sylvester to decide to sacrifice me for the two of them.  I would, if there were absolutely no way out of the situation, of course, as would most of us-”

“I saw how you looked at me when you said that last bit,” Duncan said.

“Yes.  That was intentional.  I would, but it would never be okay for someone to decide to sacrifice me for their sake and the sake of someone else.”

“Okay, then,” Duncan said.  “Then I’ll rephrase.  Sylvester is self destructing.  He- Don’t get out of your seat, Gordon.  I’m not repeating myself.  I’m saying that we’re speeding haphazardly toward a situation where we all get extinguished, Sylvester included.  So maybe, maybe, it’s time to consider a more permanent solution than doing what we’re doing.”

“I half agree with you,” Evette said.  She paused.  “More than half agree.”

“You aren’t the only one, I don’t think,” Duncan said.  “Going by the eye contact I’ve had from some people, new recruits and veteran Lamb alike, I’d guess almost half of the group agree with me or are torn, and are not wanting to rock the boat by joining their voices to mine, or to yours.”

“He’s awake, you know,” Ashton said.  “He has been for two minutes, pretending to be asleep, while he gets over the effects of the tranquilizer.”

I opened my eyes.

I watched as the Lambs stirred, each one settling down, as if they’d been slouching or lying down or standing in the aisle before, but now were finding seats, ready to get down to business.  Lillian and the new Jamie, who had turned around to face the discussion, settled into their seats with their backs to me.

Duncan met my eyes for a moment, then turned to stare out the window, saying something under his breath to Ashton.

“I hope you’re rested,” Gordon said.

I blinked a few times, getting a sense of the surroundings.  We had stopped, and Leeds was once again sitting across from me, with the Lady Moth in the seat next to me, keeping me from the aisle.  The window to my left was sealed.

Jamie, Gordon, and Helen occupied the empty seats nearest me.  Evette stood on the seat behind Leeds, peering over top of it.  The window outside suggested we had arrived in New Amsterdam.  I could see the tall buildings, but from my seat, I couldn’t crane my head to see how tall they really were.

I took stock of them, the emotions, the clear distress that followed from the debate with Duncan, then looked across the aisle at Duncan once again.

“Sy,” Gordon warned.

Not that I was in a position to do anything.  My body was sluggish, and the noble was fast.  The sword point touched the hollow of my collarbone.

“You’ve somehow managed to seem concerned about something that isn’t us,” Lord Leeds said.

Jamie was already in the seat next to me.  He and I took a moment to adjust, then offered Leeds a small smile by way of response.

As I moved my head, I felt something strange.  I swallowed hard, testing.

“We fixed your throat,” he said.  “Our doctors did.”

I didn’t let my expression change any.

He didn’t react, didn’t offer me any tell.  He simply moved the sword, giving me three feather-light taps on the underside of my chin with the blade.  Bidding me to stand.

I did.

“Marcella,” Moth said, as she rose from her seat, “Watch this one.”

Indicating Shirley.

Shit flows downhill, I thought.

“Keep up,” Leeds said, as we approached the door of the train car.

The scene was akin to a dark mirror.  The nobles gathered at the end of one train car, in the covered space between cars, and in the next car, where the doctors were.  Several doctors filed through, filling the space between nobles, who spaced themselves out a fair amount.

There was a surprising degree of positioning, and the dark mirror was one that put the nobles in stark contrast to the Lambs.  Everything was deliberate, where the positioning was so fluid with the Lambs.

For us, it had always been something we naturally did.  Once we got to know each other and things became second nature, we would take up positions as the situation warranted, as comfort levels and skills in different fields dictated.

For the nobles, it felt mechanical, even as they did something very similar.  Everyone had a place they belonged, ordered by hierarchy.  They were, as far as I was aware, more similar to one another than individually specialized, and that informed how they moved, where they stood, and the order they fell into.

There were other parts.  The Lambs had never been tall.  Even when Gordon had died, he’d been approaching his later teens, he inevitably would have been tall when full grown, and he’d only been just a little shorter than the average man at that point.  That was another contrast.

The Lambs blended in.  These nobles did not.  They never would.

With a noble on either side of me, Leeds with his sword point touching me between the shoulder blades, we walked down the ramp that had been attached to the train, down to the train platform, and took our first steps into New Amsterdam.  Doctors quickly opened up tall umbrellas and stood beside their nobles, shielding them from the rain.  I was left with no umbrellas to shelter me, and the downpour soaked me through in a matter of seconds.

I turned my eyes skyward and let the water wash over me.  So many hours in the train without washing had left me dry, restless, and itchy.  In this, I felt more like myself.  The fact that it was a city of perpetual rain but not Radham made it feel more like familiar ground than I might have in Radham itself.

It was eerie to be looking up at the sky and to see the buildings spearing up in my peripheral vision.  I had seen buildings that were ten stories tall, but they were unusual things.  Brechwell had had towers, which might have been that height at their highest.  Here, it seemed like one in five buildings were about that tall, and another one in five were taller.

All of the individual spires that reached up in this manner made me think of the tines of an actual crown.  With the rain pounding down and the spires reaching upward, I felt an immense pressure, and there was something that felt like home in that, too.

The details captivated.  Everywhere I looked, I could see things.  Academy created life crawled on the outside of buildings, trimming branches and cleaning windows.  I could see buildings that were fascinating, because of the styles of architecture that I’d never seen before, because of the styles and building features that had no rightful place in the Crown Jewel of the Crown States.  Buildings that looked like they had been half demolished, and had churches rise proud out of the ruined stumps.

Churches.  I’d been warned, I’d heard tales, and seeing that anachorism in all its stone and stained glass still startled me.

I saw buildings that had biological reinforcement, which was hardly anything new, but the reinforcement was meat.  Spires of meat and stone that breathed.  Spires with bridges connecting them.  Castle features grew here and there like tumors on proud buildings, haphazardly thrown on.  I could see what I suspected were individual academies at various points in the cityscape, nearly hidden by the forest of tall buildings.

Everywhere I looked, there was crowd, but it was a messy, dark, jagged sort of crowd, the edges made ragged by the addition of countless works and experiments.

Everything about it surged, was growing, was alive, striving to break new ground.

I’d seen this before.  I’d seen the aftermath of that, too.  Drawing the analogy and then trying to wrap my head around this took my breath away.

It felt like home and it felt like an alien world, and that might have been because it had everything.

I took it all in, water running over me, and there was a stillness and a silence that made me feel even more disconnected from this city.

I looked closer, and I saw the Lambs.  Some were close.  Gordon, Helen, Evette, and Jamie.  Others were further away.

All were silent, all stared at me.

And as I realized why, as I looked for Lillian and Jamie and saw them standing beside one another, their backs to me, I lost what I’d nearly reclaimed.  The loss might have been intentional.  Self-sabotage.

I’d very nearly snapped out of the fugue that had held me for the duration of the train journey.

Jamie found his place beside me.  My focus turned to picking out the pertinent details, to assessing the situation.  Escape wasn’t possible, so I didn’t try, not yet.  Jamie was the right one to have at my side in this moment.

The doctors and the remainder of the nobles filed out.  A large stitched held Shirley in its arms.  As if we were a military regiment, everyone with their preordained places, Monte near the lead, with two doctors on each side of him, a row five people wide, two stitched carrying bags, then another row, with Moth and her three doctors, and so on, with me toward the middle, Marcella at the tail end with the overlarge stitched and Shirley.

We marched on, the sword periodically pricking me to keep me moving, and I took in all of the details I could.  There were so many.  The faces in the crowd as they bowed and curtsied en masse, when the nobles could only see the tops and backs of their heads, but I was short enough to see the faces beneath, staring, stricken with awe and fear.

People as far as a city block away moved to clear a path and bend the knee.

Ahead of me, I saw a noble peering over the crowd with a predatory eye.  He hadn’t spoken during the journey, except to add his voice to the discussion of what to do with me, out of earshot.  His hair was long and dark and flowed out from beneath a brimmed hat.  He wore a vest made out of what looked like spun gold cloth, which matched the band on his hat brim.

He walked at a leisurely pace, and he didn’t slow as he reached out.  He touched the face of someone in the crowd.  With three long fingers touching one side of a young woman’s chin, he drew her forward.  She stumbled but he didn’t let his fingers fall away.  She dropped her bag, leaving it behind, and she quickened her pace to match the casual walking speed of a man two feet taller than she was, though she was a grown woman of twenty or so.

She was beautiful, her hair pitch black, kept dry by a fashionable hat that was as wide as my arm was long.  The hand held her chin up and out, so it was raised, her back straight, her footsteps quick, as if she was being held off the ground and she had to stretch to touch the ground and propel herself forward.  Not that she was being held up.  Because I could see her in profile, I could see that her eyes were large, dark and very expressive.  The expression evidenced three different sorts of horror and terror.

If I had to guess, she had been slow to curtsy, and the noble, with a keen eye for beauty, had picked her out in advance.

It was as if those three fingertips had the same ability to find purchase as Helen’s did.  One touch was all it took, and the target was ensnared.  But the power being used here wasn’t physical power or perseverance.  It was purely one of influence and standing.

Fingers as long as my hand was from heel of the palm to fingertip reached out, and drew pins out of the young woman’s hat.  Freed where it had been pinned to her hair, the hat fell free, drifted my way, and was trampled under the feet of doctors.  The hat no longer shielded her from the rain, and water ran down her face and the neck exposed by her ‘up’ hairstyle, not so different from the Moth’s.

The fingers pulled out more pins, and the hair came free, falling out of its careful arrangement.

Finished with that, the noble settled a hand across one of her shoulders, guiding her forward.

She cast one quick glance back, over her shoulder, toward the family she’d just been pulled from, and I couldn’t see her face because of her hair and the angle.

Then she looked back over the other shoulder, into the thick of the procession, and her eye fell on me.

In the downpour, without her hat, her hair now falling free, hair stuck to her face, and her makeup ran, a streak of bold blues and black tracing down from her eyes to her chin.

It was a desperate look.  I almost saw hope in it, and that was a sad, sad thing.  She’d looked back at family, and had turned away, no doubt with the realization that there was no hope to be found there.  Her family couldn’t petition, nobody would call out and rescue her, no solace would be found.

But then she’d looked at me, and I was an unknown.  We feared the unknown because fear dwelt in the gaps, but she’d reached a point where her world had been turned upside-down in an instant, and in a world that was only fear and silent terror, the unknown potentially held saviors, just as it once potentially held monsters.

Even if the potential savior took the appearance of a rain-drenched boy four or five years her junior who walked with a sword pressed to his back.

We ignored the quarantine tents.  By the time we had put the station and the surrounding space behind us and reached the road, all traffic had stopped and parked.  People on both sides of the street bowed.

The nobles had brought a patch of stillness to this city that seemed so much like a pot that had boiled over.

A line of carriages extended down one side of the street, parked, and the crowd and other parked vehicles kept me from seeing where the line started and ended.

Six people climbed into each carriage.  With so many nobles and so many doctors, the stitched, Shirley, me, and the dark-eyed woman, the carriages filled up faster than seemed reasonable.

Every third carriage or so pulled out onto the road and started on its way with no passengers at all.

“Guards at the nearby buildings.  If they’re trying to maintain control over this city, then they’ve established this as a point to protect.  It’s likely impossible to get into any of the nearby buildings without getting past squadrons of armed men and countless checks,” Gordon observed.

“They established a routine,” Helen observed.  “This trick with the carriages is something usual for them.”

Helen speaking made me think about food, which made my stomach gurgle.

Nobody commented.

The noble in gold, the woman with the dark eyes, two Academy doctors, Leeds and I climbed into a single carriage.  I sat between Leeds and the noble in gold, facing the other three.

“You seem to be my designated jailor, my lord,” Jamie and I observed, to Leeds.

“I’ll gladly be your designated executioner,” he said.  “Quiet.”

We fell quiet.

Sitting one seat to the left and across from us, the woman with the dark eyes stared at her feet.  Tears ran down her cheeks.

“What’s your name?” the noble in gold asked, his voice soft.  The deeper speech sounds had a warm burr to them, rough in a way that evoked images of someone older than he was, or similar to the voices of those from regions of Crown Territory that had once spoken more guttural languages.  I had little doubt, hearing it, that it was a burr that had been designed, trained.

“M-mine, my lord?”

“Yes.”

“Therese, my lord.”

“Therese.  Good.  Are you of high birth, Therese?  A respected family line?” the noble asked.

“My lord, my father is a banker.  He works hard, he earns a good living, and he left me wanting for nothing, but he did so by working as hard as he did.”

“Not of a respected line, then, no.”

“No, my lord, but we routinely socialize with those who are.”

He stared at her, intent, and she was diminished in the process, like a flower might crumple and wilt as a flame drew close.

I could tell that she was doing her utmost to avoid sobbing or sheer hysteria.

“I will make you into an aristocrat,” the noble decided.

“My lord?  I don’t understand.”

“You’ll receive enough of a sum that you’ll never have to work again, and your children and your children’s children will be cared for solely on the interest that this sum generates.  You’ll need servants.  A manor.  Do you prefer older buildings or newer ones?”

“I don’t understand, my- my lords, I don’t know what’s happening-”

Her emotions were on the verge of spilling over.  She’d found a way to resign herself to her fate, and keep the emotions more or less restrained, but now that this was being offered to her, it looked very much like she might lose her mind.

“Miss Therese,” Jamie and I said, careful to address her as we might a young aristocrat.  Leeds’ sword moved closer to my throat.  We continued, acknowledging the warning and proceeding with care.  “I would recommend you play along.”

I’d nearly said ‘we’.

“Play?” she asked.  She looked at me, stunned.

Then, as if a belated thought process finished, she seemed to realize I had her best interests at heart.  She wasn’t adrift, she wasn’t isolated.  Her hope wasn’t ill-founded.

“I prefer older buildings, my lord,” she said.

“We’ll find you one that costs what someone like your father wouldn’t make in a lifetime.  The staff I provide you will counsel and follow your every whim in decorating the place.  You’ll need three charity projects at a minimum, to discuss with other aristocratic women of your standing,” the noble said.

“Yes, my lord,” she said.  Her eyes flicked back to me.

“What interests you?  Think of one, quick.  Or I shall think you’re dull.”

“You do not want him to think you’re dull,” Leeds spoke.  Following so soon after the behatted noble’s pronouncement, it was a one-two punch, something to keep her off balance.

A test of more than just quickness of the mind.

“My lord?” she said, and she stopped.  For a long instant, I thought she would stumble.  Then I saw a light in her eyes.  “The welfare of clones, my lord?”

“That is one I have never heard of before,” he said.  He smiled, his voice still warm as he instructed her, “Tell me of it.”

“My friend commented on it once, and it stuck with me,” she said.  She still looked bewildered, but talking on this topic seemed to center her.  “Clones are grown and raised to perform menial work.  Stitching carpets and clothing in factories where they sit in row and column with others like them.  The law doesn’t protect them, but says that they are not actually human, because they are not of woman born.”

“The law, in this instance, favors the corporations, which fund the city, which funds the law, you see,” the noble said.  “That sounds like a wonderful pursuit.  If you paint it as something that troubles children or child-like things, you could romanticize it.  In fact, I would see little trouble in giving you my backing for this task.  You could achieve real change, a footnote in history, but, even so, that isn’t to be understated.”

“Yes, my lord.  I would… be honored.  I still don’t understand.”

Beside me, Jamie sighed heavily.

I remained still.  The grip of the nobles was too strong.  Jamie and I working together couldn’t see any gaps, couldn’t make out any chances, weaknesses, or opportunities.

The forecast the Lambs had made in deciding whether to try for escape on the train or later seemed accurate.  These nobles weren’t about to make a silly mistake that would give me a chance to slip away.  No.

No, except maybe this farce with ‘Miss’ Therese.  Maybe there was a way there.

I wanted to believe that the city was so large, chaotic, and crowded, that if I slipped away, I could disappear into it.

I harbored doubts, all the same.  Jamie and I waited, watched, and listened carefully.

“Were you fond of horses as a child?”

“I was, my lord.  But New Amsterdam doesn’t allow much room for horses that don’t pull carriages.  Even then, it almost mandates the use of stitched ones.”

“Very true.  But I’m thinking of an estate with a stable.  We’ll get you started with three horses of a beautiful pedigree, racers, if that’s alright?  Fast as the wind, beautiful, healthy.”

“My lord, I fear it’s too much.”

As she said it, I could see the glimmer of fear on her face.  As if the more he said, the less likely it all was to happen.

“Not at all, not at all,” the noble dismissed her.  He waved her off.  “I pride myself on my generosity, you see.  Your beauty seems a rare and natural sort.  That should be rewarded with wealth and power.  I dream of putting Wallace’s law to work, of putting the beautiful together.  Survival of the powerful, but in this era, it is beauty and brilliance that offer real power, once circumstance is stripped away, yes?”

Hesitantly, she nodded.  “Yes, my lord.  I think I see.”

“Your family will be brought to you.  I saw your tearful look back at them.  The love was evident, you for them and them for you.  They’ll be treated nearly as kindly as you will be.  Yes?”

“Yes.  Thank you, my lord,” she said.  There were tears down her cheeks, now.  I didn’t judge them as tears of sadness, tears of fear, or tears of happiness.  Not one emotion alone.  The emotional cup was simply running over.

“You’ll need clothes.  I’ll have the finest tailor in the city whip a wardrobe up.  Etiquette lessons, so you don’t have to worry about any embarrassing faux pas or what fork to use.  Though you did say your father had raised you in good company.”

“Yes, my lord,” she said, smiling, still with tears streaming down her eyes.  “I would welcome refreshers, should you suggest them, but I think I could comport myself, given the need.”

“And there will be need.  But that’s good,” the noble said.  “That’s good.  We can dispense with that.  I have a good eye, yes?  I can pick them out, just like that.”

He was talking to Leeds.

“You can, Lord Bonn.”

Lord Bonn raised a finger, as if something had struck him.  “Medical care.  A doctor to look after you.  So that beauty remains fresh.  I know just the doctor.  Doctor Bath, your colleague, her name, the one from the Academy in Hanover State?  She was talented, nearly good enough to be my doctor, when I was looking for a replacement for Joseph.”

“You’re thinking of Betty, my lord,” the noble’s doctor said.

“Betty.  Just right.  Miss Therese, we’ll enlist Betty.  Head to toe care.  Tear just about everything out.  All of the fiddly organs, vitals, eyes, eardrum, inner ear, tongue, vocal chords.  We’ll get you sorted out.  Engineered replacements.  We can put Betty to task phoning and mailing around to see what the various academies have concocted.  If they have any inventive replacements for the heart or the uterus.  We’ll leave your skin intact, of course, and your brain.  Beauty and brains, so very important, yes?  We’ll find a way to do it all without leaving a blemish.”

The tears had come to a stop in the midst of the monologue.  Her mouth worked, but her voice didn’t.

“Your family will be with you every day up until you decide on a husband for yourself, I’ll have to insist on that, but it would be unfair to ask Betty to divide her attentions.  You and you alone will get to be special, as the matriach of a new aristocratic family in one of the proudest and most distinguished cities on this planet.”

She hunched forward, staring down at the floor of the carriage, leaning heavily on her knees.  I saw her rock a bit.  I met Jamie’s eyes briefly.

“Theresa,” Jamie and I said.

Manners, fugitive.  You’re addressing an aristocrat,” Lord Bonn said.

We thought that final word would be the breaking point.  It wasn’t.  She was trying so dearly to hold it together.

“I would like to hold your hair back, if I may?” Jamie and I asked.

There was no response at first.  Then a faint nod.

Leeds moved the sword out of my way as I leaned forward and to my left in my seat, reaching out and over.  My hands combed through her hair, gathering it up and pulling it out of the way.

She brought her hands to her mouth.  They couldn’t block what came any more than an arrangement of planks could bar a flood.  They tried, but what didn’t come out of the mouth came out of one nostril, and then she gave up.

The cup of emotion had run over again, but they were heavier, uglier emotions.  Nothing so clear as tears.

“I am so very fond of my dolls,” the Lord Bonn said, ignoring the snorts and coughing from his ‘doll’.

“I know, Lord Bonn,” Leeds replied.

I reached for a pocket, and a hand seized my wrist, hard.  Lord Bonn’s.

“Handkerchief,” Jamie and I said.

He held my wrist firm and searched my pocket himself.  He withdrew the handkerchief and offered it to me.

We dabbed at her nose, then one corner of her mouth.

“It would be a mercy to kill her here and now,” Evette said.

I couldn’t see her, the carriage was too crowded for the Lambs proper to fit within, but I heard her voice, and I heard the sentiment.

“Consequences be damned?” Jamie asked.  “We would die.”

“It might well be worth it,” she said.

I dabbed.  We dabbed.  The worst of it had been wiped away, but our ministration was more to offer comfort and caring than to clean, at this stage.

“I have to ask,” Jamie said, “Are you suggesting this because you care?  Stressing that you’ve never evidenced real compassion before…”

“I can’t grow?”

“Or are you suggesting,” Jamie asked, firm, “Because you want to throw us heedlessly into something reckless, something that will get Sylvester hurt or killed?”

“Ah!  You got me, clear as day, transfixed through the heart, I’m foiled!”

“Be serious.  This is serious,” Jamie said.

Evette appeared, wedged between Therese and one of the doctors, leaning forward to match Jamie’s position, where Jamie sat between me and Leeds.  She’d aged down to match Jamie.

“Doing nothing,” she said, “Waiting, and biding our time, it’s not going to get us out of this.  At the very least, give up the seat.”

“To you?”

“To anyone.”

“There’s no escape,” Jamie said  “Not from this.  Not from this many nobles.  The situation we’re going into, we need to face it armed with as much information as we can.  So what we’re going to do is we’re going to sit, we’re going to watch, listen, and gather what we can so we’re equipped to act if and when there’s a moment.”

“And if there isn’t?”

The arguing of the two overlapped with what Bonn was saying to Leeds, “…color code my dolls.  I was thinking blue, perhaps, with the black hair, but then I think of her passion, the clones that need rights and salvation.  There is so much we could do with that.  I’ll have to get out a book of flowers, and find out if there’s anything that inspires me.”

“Perhaps,” Leeds said.  He was only entertaining his peer at this point, not truly listening.

I closed my eyes, letting everything wash over me.

The sound was one of a snapping branch, the whoosh of an aborted breath, then a violent skittering sound.

All conversation stopped.  Eyes turned to the object that rolled across the floor.

A dense metal center, with spines of metal extending out in all directions.  Fine wire extended between each spine.  Altogether, it looked like the upper half of an umbrella.

The carriage came to a stop.  I heard screams outside.

Then, in short succession, two more splintering sounds.  These were regular bullets, powerful ones capable of punching past a handspan’s width of wood and still flying true enough for the bullets to embed in the floor or opposite door of the carriage.

“No,” Bonn said.

As the next barrage opened, that deep-thinking, pattern-seeking part of my brain that was currently reaching out for Jamie kept count.  I wondered if each volley would be twice as numerous as the last.  But as bullets punched into the carriage, and I tracked the sound, they added up well past four, up to six, then seven.  Two or three more struck, ambiguous in how they came at once, so the part of my brain that was keeping count tried to count the sounds, and lost track of the numbers.

Bonn threw his head to the left, violently, cracking it against the metal-reinforced doorframe.  Not intentionally, I realized.  He’d been struck, a bullet to the head.  Ruining brains and beauty both in an instant.

The bullets came from both sides.  There was no running, no escaping.  Getting low to take cover would have been mad, because the bullets were coming down at diagonals.  A doctor caught one of the expanding bullets, which had already partially opened as it plunged through the outside of the wagon, with the bladed metal sinking into his thigh before opening the rest of the way.

Jamie and I watched as Therese jumped and flinched.  She had already reached the breaking point, and this was too much.

As the hail of bullets struck at the carriage, half of the bullets getting lost in the deep wood of the carriage exterior, we calmly reached out and placed my hands over Therese’s ears.

It did nothing for the feeling of the impacts, but we saw her shut her eyes, we felt her hands press over my hands, adding her strength to mine as if she could make us press hard enough to shut out all of the noise.

An expanding bullet grazed me and opened late.

The bullets had stopped coming from the right side of the carriage.  Leeds noticed a moment after we did.  He looked at me, then reached for the door, hauling it open, stepping outside and disappearing from sight.  His doctors were right behind him.

We waited, watching, noticed a pause of sorts in the barrage, and then shifted my hands away from Therese’s ears.  We took her hand, and dragged her behind me.  She was bigger and stronger than me, but she came willingly, looking back only to stare at the body of the Lord Bonn.  We left that dark, enclosed space of the carriage, and stepped out onto the street, our backs pressed to the side of the carriage for cover.

Panic.  A crowd fled.  Authorities approached.  Doctors were out and trying to give care.  One caught a bullet as Jamie and I watched.

This wasn’t the entire convoy.  It was one segment.  Five carriages, black and otherwise nondescript, but built sturdy.  We’d been targeted, and we’d been targeted by people who knew what they were doing.

“Therese,” I said.

She looked at me.  One of her hands was clasped to her upper arm, which was bleeding badly.  A bullet had gone through and through.

We bent over, picked up one of the expanding bullets, and used it to saw at the fabric of her sleeve.

“You’re going to run.  Go find your family.  Get your father.  Leave the city.  If he works at a bank, it might be a good idea to embezzle funds.  Gather as much as you can, get everyone you want to see again, bring them and run.  Cut all ties to this life.  You have been given a second chance.”

We’d removed the sleeve and reduced it to cloth strips.  We packed up and bound her wound as best as we were able.  My experience from Tynewear was coming in handy.  My hands knew how to do this.

“Come with me,” she said.  “They called you a fugitive.”

I thought of Shirley.

“They’ll kill her out of spite,” Gordon said.  “If she wasn’t killed in the barrage.”

“I agree,” Evette said.  “It’s how they operate.”

“I can’t help but notice she’s recommending the plan, again, that brings the highest chance of you getting murdered,” Jamie said.

“Without Shirley, I don’t think Sy will last very long,” Helen said, her voice soft, nearly drowned out.  I didn’t know where she was.

The rate of shots slowed to a near stop.  I peeked around the back of the carriage.

Like a living organism, the city had produced countermeasures to that which threatened it.  They moved like wolves might, as pack animals, with loping, lunging movements, strength, and ferocity, but they did it along the sides of buildings, headless things that were simply four spindly limbs with webbings of meat and muscle connecting them.  Jamie and I counted twenty.

An automatic, pre-prepared response to the snipers.

“Can’t,” Jamie and I said.  “We- I have someone else to save.”

She hugged her arms to her body.  I saw her close her eyes, and imagined she was summoning up the courage to bolt.

“Thank you,” Therese said.  “Thank you for your gentleness, in such a trying time.”

I felt a kneejerk reaction.  I wanted to reject it, clearly, without question.  To spit at that kindness, somehow.  It was an old feeling, nostalgic in a bad way.

I was reminded of Lacey.  I thought of how I had reacted when she’d been the one to show gentleness.

Now I was in that role.

I swallowed hard, and, grasping, I blamed Jamie.  It was him who had taken the action, who had noticed and held her hair and offered the handkerchief, who had told her to escape.

“Thank you,” Jamie and I said, though if I’d been able to let him use my lips without owning any of it, I would have.  “You should go.  Run.”

I injected enough force into that last word that it gave her the impetus to act.  She ran.

The Lambs were so scattered.  It was hard to track them all.  I could look places, see the dying horse, with Abby kneeling next to it.  Emmett, standing atop a wagon, staring in the direction of the shooters.  I saw Mary, taking note of all the guns.

Jamie was right next to me, but in the chaos- I couldn’t leverage him.

I looked for Gordon, instead.  For Helen.

Gordon was standing guard near Leeds, watching the noble.

Leeds had been shot.  He’d dropped to one knee by the nose of the next carriage over.  An expanding bullet.  It had torn into his hip, burrowing into the hollow of his pelvic bone.  He was working methodically to extract it.

As he saw my approach, he reached for his sword.

“The Infante is expecting us,” I said.  I didn’t bother correcting ‘us’ to ‘me’.  “This is really very inconvenient, my lord.”

He looked at me curiously, and in his pain and agony, his expression betrayed more than it had in all our prior discussion.  Confoundment.

The word was Jamie’s suggestion.  But it was Gordon who I tapped into, as I saw that weakness.

“Get my doctors, then,” Leeds told me.

Out of pain, or perhaps concern for how close the barbs of the expanding bullet were to something vital, Leeds looked down.

We looked left, looked right, assessed the situation.  That done, Gordon and I lunged forward, kicking with all of our strength.

The core of his body weakened by the injury, the noble didn’t quite have what he needed to stay upright.  He sprawled, falling to one side, his hand embedded in his wound, forcing him to catch himself with one elbow.

“Brat!” he spat the word.  He reached for his sword with his other hand.

A bullet caught him at the base of the skull, expanding on impact, doing horrific damage in the process.  His lips peeled back as tooth, tongue, and mangled flesh unfolded in front of his mouth, in the midst of a violent and very thick spray of blood.

Gordon and I didn’t worry about staying under cover or the possibility of incoming fire.  We looked in the direction the shot had come from, and saw it being overrun by the wall-crawling pincer wolves, a pack of them plunging into a single window to attack what lay within.

Whoever it was, they’d waited, taken their time, and made their shot count.

“Is that a noble sacrifice?” Gordon asked.  He looked down at the ruined body, and shot me a mean smirk.

“Something like that,” I said, mumbling.

I checked the carriage, then skipped the next, because it was the carriage we’d been in.  I didn’t worry about getting shot.  The shooters weren’t being indiscriminate anymore.  The ones who were still there, if there were any, were doing what Leeds’ killer had done, waiting and making sure, because they knew full well what price they were paying.

I checked the third carriage, and found doctors huddled inside.  Two were holding a carriage door that had torn free up against the wall, as an added barrier.

“Would be nice if there was a way to set fire to the carriage and keep them from getting out,” Gordon observed.  “Or something in that vein.”

Would be nice, I thought.

I left the group behind.

The fourth carriage.

Marcella was there, with one of the huge stitched.  The other had been shot.  Another noble I couldn’t name was lying on the ground, dead.

Gordon and I ignored her, checking inside.

Empty.

She grabbed me by one shoulder, hauling me around.  She pressed a very pretty little pistol against my forehead.

Gordon and I didn’t flinch, and we spoke with confidence.  “The Infante is expecting us.  He won’t brook excuses.”

It’s the only way to reunite with Shirley.

“I actually almost believe you,” Marcella said.  She double checked over her shoulder, then led me away.

There were no more shots, nobody who had lasted this long and positioned themselves to put a bullet in her back.  The attack had concluded.  Three nobles dead out of four, for our little caravan.

“Let’s go,” she told us.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Thicker than Water – 14.3

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

The young lord Leeds sat across from me, his narrow sword laying across his lap.  The other nobles were at the far end of the train car, talking among themselves.

Leeds was tall, but that wasn’t unusual.  All of the nobles but the ‘Lady Moth’ were.  His hair was immaculately slicked back, his skin lacked any sort of blemish, and he sat with such perfect stillness that I might have thought he had died on the spot.

That would have been quite the thing to deal with.

I shifted the position of my hand.  Leeds’ hand moved almost in unison, as if there were strings attached to me, and any movement on my part made for an equal and matching reaction on his.

If I moved my hand in any way that put me in a better position to grab the sword, his hand moved closer to the handle.

No other part of him moved.  No tells, no tricks.

The other Lambs sat around us, but he couldn’t see them.

“In practice,” Gordon observed, “this is working better than the discussion was.”

“Agreed,” Evette said.  She was still standing on the seat behind Leeds, arm draped over the top of it, looking down at the rest of us.  Her other arm dangled, touching Gordon’s hair.

Helen sat beside Gordon.  Jamie sat beside me.

“Sylvester is good at a number of things,” Jamie said.  I kept my mouth shut as he talked.  “Action, acrobatics, fiddly things with his hands-”

Fiddly things? I thought.

He cracked a smile.  “social manipulation, thinking fast, assessing and investigating a situation, consciously or subconsciously, making mental connections, problem solving, presentation, I could go on.  He’s clever.”

“Too clever, sometimes,” Gordon said.

“Shh, be kind,” Helen said.  “Sylvester is in a rough spot.  Don’t kick him while he’s down.”

“He’s resilient,” Gordon said.

“Point is,” Jamie said, patiently, “Right now, he’s doing what he always does.  He has the same capabilities, but they’re divided between us.  There might be a small advantage if he needs to switch from one methodology to another quickly, but we’re in a bad place when he needs something like an aggressive approach-”

Jamie indicated Gordon.

“-With some mental connections while he’s at it,” Jamie finished, indicating himself.

“Or when he needs to lean on me,” Evette said.  “We’ll be in a bad place then.”

“I think it’s best that we don’t put you front and center in Sy’s head,” Gordon said.

“Agreed,” Jamie said.  Helen nodded.

“We’ll see,” Evette said.  She turned, looking at the others at the other end of the train car, while my eyes remained on Leeds.  “They’re figuring out what to do with us.”

“So are we,” Gordon observed.  “What are we doing with us?”

Evette spoke, “Even if they finish that discussion by deciding we’re lying, they probably won’t jump straight to killing us.”

“Not much we can do if they do,” Gordon observed.  “We broke their stride just as they were handing us back to Monte for him to kill.  That was good.  Are we counting on being able to slip away?  With Shirley?”

“Shirley is a snarl,” Jamie said.

Marcella, the blonde noblelady, stepped out of the car, passing into the train car where the doctors were.

Gordon spoke, “I think we need to do something with Leeds.  If we can put some distance between ourselves and the nobles here, we can tap into other resources.”

“I think we should wait,” Helen said.  “Bide our time.”

“Really?” Gordon asked.  “We’re going to argue this?  They’re nobles.  If we bide our time, there might not be any weak points or opportunities that pop up for us to exploit.  We just end up getting closer and closer to a terminally bad situation.”

Helen twisted around to better look at Leeds.  “I think there might not be any weak points or opportunities for us to exploit in the here and now.”

“Unless we create one,” Gordon said.

“Me?” Helen asked.

“You,” Gordon said.  “If there’s no objection?”

“I’ll just wait my turn,” Evette said.

“You’re not getting a turn,” Gordon said.  “Now be quiet.”

Jamie vacated the seat next to me.  Helen collapsed into it.

I put the whole of my focus into her, letting the others become blurs in the background, vague sentiments and images.

Helen, as I brought her into sharper focus in my mind’s eye, demanded that I tax my imaginary senses.  Helen was art in life.  She was, in my estimation, more beautiful than half of the nobles present, just in how well she was put together, how easy she was to look at and how captivating she could be when she’d drawn in the eye.  Even then, she had them beat, because I was pretty sure that most of these young, attractive nobles were leaning on the exotic clothes and context.  Helen could look like a force of nature while wearing a potato sack.

She smelled good.  The sensory inputs were important.  I let my eyes close, and I tried to push my brain to create the smell of Helen.  She could naturally produce a scent that other women strove for with chemicals and bottles, and then augmented it with something more artificial and mild.

Not as forced as Ashton, but attention had been given over to everything.

In training my senses to capture her essence, I pushed more of my thought processes into getting more out of the senses I did have.  The taste in the air, of lingering sweat and humanity, and the taste and smell of the noble sitting across from me.

Helen was a paradox.  The human brain had a part to it that reacted on instinct, that pushed for the most basic needs.  Warmth, food, water, sex.  There was a primal center, and for Helen, that primal center was front and center.  Everything else was camouflage that let her draw nearer until she could take what it was she wanted.

She was driven by very simple wants and needs.  But those wants and needs were characteristically things that were wanted and needed now.  Society and civilization and social niceties kept us from snatching up all the food we could eat and stuffing our faces with them, from mashing our lips against the lips of each attractive person we saw.

But for Helen, it was different.  That same process that made her need and want also made her very capable of holding back from partaking.  The patience was built into her on the ground level.

As I constructed the illusion, trying to figure out how she would move and act in a more complex dynamic, I felt a blade touch my throat.  It scraped skin as it moved slightly.

I opened my eyes at my own leisure.

Leeds was holding the sword.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Resting my eyes,” Helen and I said, lying easily.  I continued putting the mental picture together.

“No,” he said.  “I don’t think someone would be able to rest their eyes in your shoes.”

Control of expression, control of my body.  Look at him, how he was looking at me, and decide.

No sooner did I decide that I didn’t need to put on any persona at all than I let my body and expression empty of all Sylvester.  All of the pain, all of the will, all of the character.

“Careful,” I heard Gordon say, from a far away place, and he wasn’t talking about the sword or the noble.

It wasn’t a perfect emptying.  Remnants remained.  Wyvern let me bend my brain in the directions I needed it, and this wasn’t that difficult.

The next part, the key part, was to turn my brain to its tasks.  I had to pick out the things I needed and wanted.

Food was secondary.  None of the cake or cookies Shirley had been getting, hungry as I was.

Safety.  I needed safety.  Physical safety.  Escape.

I needed mental safety.  My focus turned to the nobles at the other end of the car, who were staring at me and the sword at my throat.  It extended beyond that, to the train car next door.  To Shirley.  Without her, I was liable to unravel.

The key, I assumed, was to savor.  I was here, what I wanted was there.  The space between was tantalizing.  The time between was.  So long as I wanted it badly enough that I could taste it, the present me and the future me were so close as to be indistinguishable, and there was no contradiction in being a creature of want and being a patient creature.

And wanting something badly enough to taste it was not a stretch when I was already recreating distinct smells and sensations in my mind’s eye.

The others were talking in stern tones.  I could catch the cadence of it, in the background.  There were two sides to this argument.  The more aggressive side was winning.

“You’re the third in the hierarchy,” Helen and I said.

“You’re the one with the sword to his throat,” Leeds told me.  “I would address that first.”

Helen and I looked down at the gleaming length of the blade.

We looked up to meet his eyes.  My eyes were cold, dispassionate.  I was Helen without the mask on.

Gut feeling told me that the noble would respect this more than the act.

“I’m going to assume you found a way to give yourself a dose of one drug or another, based on the things I’m seeing,” Leeds said.  “Narrowed pupil, change in breathing.”

My breathing was slower.  I was calmer.

Monte approached, traveling down half the aisle before asking, “Is there a problem?”

“I don’t think so,” Leeds said.  “He may have found a way to dose himself with something without moving his hands or feet.”

“Wouldn’t surprise me,” Monte said.  “Ask if you need help.  We’re just waiting on Marcella.”

Leeds didn’t say or do a thing to express just how little he wanted to do that.  I still knew.

Establish a personal relationship.

There was no good, no bad.  Reach out.

I let a slow smile creep over my otherwise blank face.

Leeds kept his face so under control that his eye didn’t even flicker a hair one way or the other.

“I’m not worried,” Helen and I said.  “I’ve let the genie out of the bottle.  I’ve mentioned the Infante.”

“You bolted when you first saw us,” Leeds said.  “Now you’re claiming you’re safe.  My peers will be saying the same thing.”

I adjusted, letting an eyebrow twitch.  I started the movement of my mouth, then forced it to stop.  Not even a twitch, there, but there would be a hint in the way my muscles shifted, a faint change in the way the light hit my cheek.

He would almost certainly read it as a touch of humor.  As if I’d found what he said funny.

It was like Helen’s reaching hand, looking to close the distance, to get a fingerhold, which could snag on clothing, and allow for the grasp.

Only in this case, I needed to inject enough small doubts to give myself an avenue out.

My eye went back to the door Marcella had gone through, I visualized Shirley on the other side.

“Look at me,” Leeds said.

The amount of time it took to look at him mattered.  I could have snapped my eyes to his, and I could have taken long seconds to do it, and both could have been confident and intimidating in their own ways.

I took the middle road, but I didn’t lock eye contact.  I gave him the once over, looking at vest, shirt, pants, shoes, at the handle of the sword, then his face.

It would be nice to be a girl.  I could try feminine wiles.

I’d had that thought before.  That conversation, with Jamie.  It had been stirred up by my interactions with him, the memory part of my crystallized impression of him, locked in a different part of my brain than the one that handled the rest of my memories.

I didn’t have feminine wiles.  I was just a little too old to play the child.  I was a ‘young man’, a ‘lad’, a ‘boy’, but never a ‘boy’ in the tone that was reserved for the small, more as an epithet.

While I was trying to figure out how to get a hook in him and create an opening, I picked up on something with instinct.  It might have been prey instinct, except I didn’t feel very prey at the moment.

He was thinking about killing me.

I could follow his thought process all the way through.  Kill me, cut my throat.  Fuck the Infante, fuck his peers.  Just be done with the problem.  He would say I tried to run.

I turned my eyes toward the others, and again, I used the smallest of expressions, a faint lowering of the eyebrows, drawing them together, a pinching together of the lips.

Concern.

Believe that they’re coming.

I saw the faint movement of the sword.  It wasn’t the attack.  It was Leeds holding himself back.

This little trick would only work until he was sure he didn’t hear them, that they weren’t looking or doing something.  He would realize I was up to something, that I was successfully manipulating him, and I would die.

The door of the train car opened.  A terrified Shirley was brought through, past the five other nobles, with Marcella and a doctor right behind her.

I saw Marcella hand Monte a large piece of folded paper.  I recognized the image on the upper half.  It was my portrait.  The wanted poster.  They must have had it in the staff car.

I couldn’t dwell on that.  My timing had been about right, stalling Leeds.  Leeds couldn’t kill me now, especially now that the others were paying attention to me.

“My lord,” Shirley said.  Fear made her voice almost nonexistent.  She strained to speak louder and more clearly, and her voice only broke.  “My lord, my lady.”

She tried to curtsy to each one while still moving forward quickly enough to appease the crowd.

It was a mercy of sorts when she was able to move ahead of the nobles, eyes like dinner plates, as she walked down the aisle to me.

“My lord,” she said, still sounding deathly afraid.  She gave Leeds a curtsy.  She didn’t curtsy for me.  “Sylvester.”

“Sit,” Monte said.  He’d finished reading over the note at the bottom end of the wanted poster and handed the paper to one of the nobles I hadn’t placed yet.

Leeds moved the sword away from my throat, raising it up and out of the way, to give Shirley room to pass to her seat.

The other six nobles were stepping out of the aisle, allowing the doctor to come through.  He stopped a distance away, beside Monte.  One of his personal attendants, it seemed.

Shirley sat next to me.  She very carefully avoided looking at me.

“Poor thing,” Helen murmured.

I looked at Shirley, I reached out, took her hand in mine, and squeezed it.

I was disconnected enough internally that I had to frame what I was trying to express.

Reassurance.

I had very low expectations that the reassurance would be warranted, but the more confident Shirley was, the less likely we were to have a disaster.

“You guessed the lord Infante was in New Amsterdam,” Monte said.  “But that’s not a difficult guess to make, if sufficiently educated.  But the idea of you being here on an errand to see the lord Infante doesn’t hold up.”

“He tried to run, earlier,” Leeds said.

Shirley’s hand moved under mine.  A reaction.

“Why did you try to run?” Monte asked.

“I’m not permitted to say,” Helen and I said.

“Really, now,” Marcella said.  She was standing next to the Lady Moth.  “We’re nobles.  If we ask, you say.”

I could see the other Lambs more distinctly, in the background.  Jamie wanted in.  He had something to say.

Gordon seized Jamie’s wrist and shook his head.

We couldn’t afford to give up the act.

Helen and I turned back to humor, instead.  That look as if, if we had far less self control, we would be laughing at this situation.  I wanted to project power, to draw on the Infante’s, and put these people on their back foot.

I saw Monte and Leeds exchange a glance.  They’d come to a conclusion, and now there was doubt.

“Do we take Helen out?” Jamie asked.  He wanted in so badly.

“I don’t know,” Gordon said.  “We have an opening, but-”

The window had passed.  There wasn’t room to discuss, to switch patterns, when things were so time sensitive.

Monte moved his hand, indicating me.

The doctor they’d brought out of the last train car approached.  He paused.  “It’s an experiment?”

“It is,” Monte said, without looking away from me.

“Will it lash out?”

“It could,” Monte said.  He stared me down.  “If it does, it dies.”

Helen and I kept my expression still and maintained a look that lacked any concern at all.

The doctor reached into his coat and withdrew a set of calipers.  He touched them to the bridge of my nose, then pinched.  He moved them to the corner of my jaw, where the flesh was soft, and pinched, noting the measurements each time.

The third measurement was of the jaw bone itself.

Wait, I’d had this examination before.

I reached for the memory and floundered.

Helen vacated the seat.  Jamie rushed into it.

The machinery of my mind began clunking, shifting directions here and there, a wet, biological sort of clock taking on its own dimensions.

The Attendant Doctor continued his work, the calipers pinching into the top and then the underside of my wrist.  The pinch was brutal enough that I thought it would puncture through and bite into my artery there.  The complex mechanical calipers had fluid and hydraulics as part of the design, so there was some give, but the doctor wasn’t forgiving in the least.

I could remember a session with Lillian giving me this same examination.  Some different body parts here and there.

“Heh,” Jamie made a noise.  It wasn’t a wholly happy noise.  There was something behind it, much like how the recollection of Lillian was bittersweet.

Not like that, I thought.  The fixation in the moment and the so-far-useless eye for openings was giving way to a slower, more careful way at looking at the bigger picture.

She had told me I needed to put on more weight.  Just after going for the thigh.

There had been a few before that.  He might not go for the thigh.  I forgot how exactly it went.  Was it better to be firmer or weaker?

I couldn’t go weaker, but if I could throw off his numbers…

I very carefully tensed my leg, well in advance of him reaching for it.  I relaxed it, then tensed it, just a little harder than before.

He poked at my stomach, then moved to the thigh with the calipers.

He frowned slightly as he recorded the number.

“I also haven’t eaten today,” I commented.

“Quiet,” Monte said.

The doctor moved over to Shirley.  I didn’t miss the slight pause as he looked her over.

I doubted Shirley did either.  Still, she submitted to his measurements.

“We’ll entertain you,” Monte said.  “And we’ll assume you are indeed in service to the Infante.  We’ll deliver you to him.  Tranquilized.  He’ll warrant a higher dose, Attendant.  He’s resistant to drugs and poisons, according to that poster.  He has a lifetime of tolerances built up from being a lab rat, injected with some very noxious chemicals.”

“I’ll account for that,” the Attendant said.  “But he’s underweight, and the lack of food in his stomach does matter.”

“I’ll trust your expertise, Attendant,” Monte said.

Damn it, I thought.

The seven nobles stared me down in relative silence as the doctor finished measuring Shirley.  He reached into a deep pocket, retrieved a syringe, and then slammed it into my chest.

I gasped, from surprise and the pain.

I could feel the contents spread out, numbing.

“There was something I was going to say,” Jamie said.  “Provide some doubt.”

I drew in a deep breath, exhaled.

I wobbled a bit.  Part of it was my recognition that I was under the influence and exaggerating a touch.

“I think…” Jamie said, very slowly, “We can talk as we go under.  Try to remember how you smirked, with Helen, but don’t hold back… not now, but soon.”

The doctor didn’t slam the needle into Shirley’s chest.  He was actually gentle, finding a vein in the arm.  Her dose was half the size of mine.

“What I’ve been piecing together, what we’ve been piecing together,” Jamie spoke to me, “Is that these nobles are very small.  They identify by their families.  The Mothmonts.  By places.  Leeds.  But they sure as hell aren’t major players in those families or places.  Monte is the one with the highest rank and he’s only a ‘lord’.  They’re small.”

Shirley squeezed my hand, looking for reassurance.

“It’ll be okay, Shirley,” Jamie and I spoke.  As if our tongue was looser than it was, maintaining confidence.  None of Helen’s act, but a person succumbing to drugs was a sloppy enough picture that it worked on its own.

Jamie spoke, launching off from the tail end of that sentence, while my lips remained shut.  “But they’re operating in a cluster.  The way they talked about the train stops, about having to return home, and the timing, they had places to be, a schedule.  They were on an errand.  Maybe for the lord Infante, and maybe it was big, maybe it was a mid-level errand and they just don’t feel the need to brag about it, but they aren’t carrying it with them.  So why are they in a group of seven?”

I could feel the drugs taking hold.  I didn’t feel like I was passing out, but I had to pretend to be.

“They’re not just small nobles.  They’re brand new nobles.  They’ve probably been raised by their families in houses like Richmond House was for the Baron.  This might be some of their first exposure to the world, their first time being expected to act.”

“They’re insecure,” Gordon observed.  “It would have been a nice realization to have in the beginning.  We could have anticipated some of the violence they directed our way, and we could have used that.  It could have been the in we needed.”

“But,” Evette said, from the seats to our far right, on the other side of the aisle, “We didn’t, we couldn’t.  No use dwelling on it.  Sylvester’s broken.  We’ll make do.”

“You’re not going to say you want to be in control?” Gordon asked.

“No,” Evette said.  She grinned.  “Well, yes.  But not now.  There isn’t a lot we can do now, and Jamie’s talking us through that.”

“Right,” Helen said.  “Shh.”

There were a long few seconds of silence.  My body was heavy with the drug.

Jamie spoke, and in the haze of the tranquilizer, his voice was very similar to the voice in my head, “They’re insecure nobles, only exposed to the proper world in the last few years, and we want to unsettle them.  So, let’s say…”

“He said,” Jamie and I spoke, mumbling, “The Mothmonts don’t face the firing squad yet.  For now he wants you alive and he wants me alive, so…”

Monte lunged forward, shouldering his attendant doctor aside.  He grabbed me by the collar, pressing a blade to skin.

“…We’re okay for now.  Not to worry, my lord,” Jamie and I said.

I slumped over, letting all of the muscles in my upper body go slack.  It wasn’t hard to manage.  They wanted to, with the tranquilizer coursing through me.

It was just on the edge of knocking me out.  I wondered if tensing my leg had done anything, or if my tolerance was higher than he had estimated.  Possibly both.

My head lolled, and Monte shook me.

There was a long pause.

“Thank you Attendant,” lord Monte said.  “I know this business is menial for a man of your talents.  See to it that they don’t die on the journey, keep quiet and don’t speculate on what you heard, and I’ll end your rotation in my service six months early.  You’ll have a year and six months to use as you see fit before I see you again.”

“You’re too kind, my lord” the Attendant spoke.  I could tell from the way he was speaking that he was bowing deeply.  “I make it routine habit to put all matters outside of science outside my head at the first opportunity.  You can count on my silence.”

“Good.  Then leave us,” Monte said.

The man’s footsteps retreated from the car.  The door at the end opened and then closed.

“What he said was trickery, lord Monte,” Leeds said.

“Trickery is very possible,” one of the others said.

“The firing squad?” The Lady Moth asked.

I had to pull myself back from the brink of actually passing out..  Their voices had almost lulled me into letting my defenses down.

“Nobles have been getting shot.  The rebellion leader with the grotesque arm.  Ex-soldier.  He made the guns that took off half of the Duke of Francis’ head, I can’t imagine what else they would be referencing,” Monte said.

“Trickery, lord Monte,” Leeds stressed.

Marcella spoke in that grating voice of hers, over-enunciating here and there and injecting an accent into her words, “His woman here didn’t know anything about where he was going or who he was seeing.  No contradictions.  He saw his friends in West Corinth and was upset after.  They’re hunting him.”

There are advantages to not telling your friends what you’re up to, I thought.

Then I thought about how some thinking in that vein had spoiled so many things so very recently, and I felt less victorious.

Moth spoke, “What he just said, pretending to be working for the Infante, being expected, and now this?  It implies collusion between the rebellion soldier with the guns and the lord Infante.”

“What you just suggested is treason enough to get us all executed, my Lady,” Leeds said.  “The lord Infante primarily operates in the capacity of magistrate and judge.  Particularly over other nobles.  He wouldn’t be shy about using the guillotine.”

“He said yet,” Monte said.  “We don’t face the firing squad yet.”

“He didn’t say it was you two, either,” Leeds said.  “Be rational, my lord.”

Monte’s voice was as strained as a noble’s voice ever was.  “A difficult thing to do, given the stakes.  I’ve been floated over the ocean to come to this place, which no self-respecting noble besides the Duke bothered with, we’ve been going to and fro trying to placate the elements of the Academy who are getting too cocky for their own good.  Now we return to New Amsterdam amid noise of rebellion and people making monsters in their basements and bathtubs, a fugitive with a story, and possible conspiracy involving a man who may very well wear the Crown in my lifetime, and I’m being asked to be rational?”

“The fact is, my lord,” Leeds said, very calmly, “If such a conspiracy exists, then there is little to nothing we can do about it.  If he wants us dead, then we die.  If he has a greater plan that he has not deigned to share with us, one that involves a supposed rebel leader who is killing nobles, then we are to smile, bow, and accept that this is our lot.”

“No,” Monte said, the word short.  “You would not be saying the same thing if it was you.”

“I would.  I promise you this, my lord.  But there is no decision we could make here that would change the course of events.  We cannot kill him.  We cannot keep him secret and keep him to ourselves.  From the moment we get off this train, eyes will be on us.  If we hesitate to bring the fugitive to the Lord Infante, then he will wonder why.  We’re being tested on our loyalty and ability as it is.  We can’t fail in something like this.”

“We ‘ave to bring him, my lord,” Marcella said.  “And this girl, hm?”

“Hm,” Monte said.

“If you might have guns to your heads in the future, my lord, my lady, we can’t give the lord Infante the excuse to use the guillotine in the here and now instead.”

“Yes,” Monte said.  “Yes, dear sister?”

“Yes,” the Lady Moth said.  She didn’t sound happy about it.

“And,” Leeds said, pointedly, “We shall keep our eyes open, our hearts loyal to the Crown, and we shall be guarded.”

The conversation moved on to other things.  I started to lose my ability to track it.

“That will have to do,” Jamie said.

“Shh,” Helen said.  “Sleep, Sylvester.  You won’t be able to stay awake the entire time.  Let it happen now.”

I wondered if the real Helen would suggest that, or if my tired and abused mind was telling me lies because it wanted so badly to sleep.  All the same, I let myself succumb to the tranquilizer, hoping I would be awake by the time we arrived in New Amsterdam.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Thicker than Water – 14.2

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

“Fugitive,” the noble said.

“Ah,” Gordon said.  “That’s no good.”

I exhaled, as much as I was able, with the cane pressing against my throat.

The young man who was sitting across from me looked as though he had just had a team of hairdressers, a barber, and a tailor just finish working on him.  His black hair was slicked back, the faint messiness at the front of his hair and over his ears looked sculpted.  It was late, but his chin was clean of even the shadow of stubble.  Chin and cheekbones were sculpted, giving his face a mask-like appearance that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.  He wore a white collared shirt with ornate silver trim at the edges of the collar, a tie, vest, and a long black coat.  The silver ornamentation extended to his cufflinks, embossed buttons, the buckles of his shoes, and, now that I looked, to the irises of his eyes.

He was the biggest threat, so I fixed the whole of my attention on him.

“What a shame,” he said.  “By bringing you in, we’re denying a good citizen the ability to do the same.  There was good money placed on you, sir.  Good money the Crown was willing to part with, a sum that could have raised someone up from obscurity to aristocracy.”

“Wouldn’t it be nice if we could kill them all?” Helen asked.  “Make a lovely bloody mess.”

“Not practical,” Gordon said.  “We need to play along for now.  We kill them later.”

“Lord Monte,” one of the two girls in the group spoke, with a posh accent that pronounced ‘Monte’ as “Mont-ay’.  I didn’t take my eyes off of ‘Monte’ as she continued, “If you talk about the citizens of the Crown in that way, they might get offended.”

She made it sound like play.  As if to set up Monte for a retort, a joke at the citizen’s expenses.

But he was more focused on me than on verbal wordplay or making light of the citizen’s feelings.

“You don’t look like much, do you?” Monte with the silver ornamentation spoke, studying me.  “But you certainly did something to deserve being worth that reward money.”

Jamie’s voice overlapped with his, “Think.  Gordon’s right, we need to play along, and we’re getting swept up in the observations without picking out the things we can use.  You used Wyvern to shut out the world, Sy, but we need you to access the world again.”

I stared into Monte’s silver eyes, and I was reminded of how I’d met Lillian’s, when she and I had been so close.  It was a painful reminder, but it was a barb that helped wake me up to reality, connect this situation to the way I’d been thinking there.

The emotional equivalent of reaching out, seizing a knife by the blade, and squeezing.

Something must have changed in my expression, because Monte said, “There you are.”

“Good evening,” I said.

“Titles!” Jamie urged.

“No titles,” Evette said.  Evette was now behind Monte’s seat, arms folded over the top of the seats.  Her chin had been resting on her forearm, but now her head was raised just enough to let her talk.  “Look at him, look at them.  They’re deferring.  The woman, the way she talked, you know He’s the leader of this pack.  Your instincts said to focus on him for a reason.”

Whatever the case, the window of opportunity had passed.

The cane moved from my Adam’s apple to the side.  It jerked, pressing in hard, just beside my windpipe.  Had it been sharp, a thrust of that force would have gone right through my neck to the seat behind me.

He knew where nerve clusters, veins, and arteries were, I was guessing.

“Customarily,” Monte said, “One addresses a noble lord in a more appropriate manner.”

Already, my vision was suffering for the continued press of the cane.  It was crumbling to black at the edges, especially around my left eye.

“Stay strong, he won’t kill you this quickly,” Gordon said.  “Bend the knee, Sy.”

“Bend the knee,” Jamie echoed.

I looked up at Evette.  Her chin rested on her arm, now.  She only smiled.

“Ah,” I managed.

Monte let up with the cane.  I took a second to let my vision start to go back to normal, the light returning at the periphery.

“My apologies,” I said.

Monte declined his head in acknowledgement of my apology.

“Good evening to you,” I said, looking again at Evette.  “Monte.”

The cane stabbed forward before I was even done uttering the word.  Fast reflexes.  The butt end of it thrust past my teeth and into my open mouth, then stabbed at the soft flesh at the back of my throat.

My eyes went wide.  The contact there and the natural physiological reactions mandated that I gag and upchuck, but the fact that I hadn’t eaten in recent memory, giving my lunch to Shirley instead, and the fact that I’d dulled my senses and put myself into a kind of hibernation mode meant I was only barely able to repress my reaction.

My hands went out, gripping the armrests to either side of me, as he pressed hard, the back of my neck being compressed against my pillowed seat back.

He kept me like that, my breath coming in short, pained gasps, while he continued to stare me down.  The others stood on the sidelines, quiet and analytical.  Even bemused.

“I don’t think Evette gives very good advice,” Ashton commented.

“I’m inclined to agree,” Gordon said.  He gave Evette a pointed look.  “Why are you even here?

Evette spoke, “You’re all here for Sy, you’re paying attention to him, you know him.  I’m more focused on them.  You’re in lockstep, you work together, and one of us has to be a little unconventional.”

Distant, sitting back, the problems beyond.  That made a degree of sense.

Monte might have sensed that my focus was elsewhere, because he rotated the cane, still pressing it against the soft tissue at the back of my throat.  I’d already been bleeding, no doubt, but now there was actual damage.  He was grinding the tissue there much as someone might do to make absolutely sure that the bug underfoot was being extinguished.

“Ow,” Helen said.  Jamie had his face in one hand, beside her.

“I did want this to be my chance to show Sylvester what he could do if he just did things right the first time around,” Gordon commented.

Evette commented, “Which translates to you being informed by a fragment of Sy’s personality that wants to be fantastic at everything he does.”

“Well, yes, but we’re glossing over that,” Gordon said.

I started to raise my hands, intending to grab the cane.

“No, Sy,” Gordon said.  He put his arm out, between my hands and the cane.  “You’re not going to win that battle of strength, not when he has the leverage and most certainly not when you’re you.  You took Evette’s advice.  See it through, at least.”

I lowered my hands, settling them into my lap, and clasped them there, as if I’d never been more comfortable.

“Good.  Upside,” Gordon said, “Is we’ve made this a battle of wills.  There’s room to move to make that a battle of wits.”

“Monte has an image to maintain,” Evette said.  “He wants to resolve that image.  The hope is that he realizes he can’t just extinguish us without turning us into… a kind of martyr, I suppose?  Our last action would be a mad, curious kind of defiance of him, and our deaths would seal it in the memories of his peers.  That would nettle him.  More a loss than a win.”

Helen leaned over, peering along the cane and into my open mouth.  “There’s a fair amount of blood.  Even with Sy’s tolerances, he’s going to choke soon, or ingest so much of his own blood that he reflexively vomits.  He might be able to suppress that, I know, but-”

“He might not,” Gordon said.  “Damn it.  Okay.  That’s the nature of the battlefield then.  Will Monte take an out if we give it to him?”

“No guarantee,” Jamie said.

“I don’t think so,” Evette said.  “They barely even recognize us, let alone recognize us as an enemy.”

“Alright,” Gordon said.  “Damn it to hell.”

The train rattled as it bumped over some mild obstruction on the tracks.  I involuntarily winced as the cane shifted even more than it had been.

If he was going to say anything, it would be now.

He was true to form.  Monte spoke, “Shall we stay like this all the way to New Amsterdam?  My arm won’t get tired.  I can smell the blood coming from the back of your throat.  I can see your muscles moving as you hold yourself back from gagging.  If you try to vomit, you might tear your own throat open.  How many hours is it?”

“Long enough,” one of the other nobles said.  A man, wearing only a vest over a collared shirt.  His blond hair was damp from the rain of Radham.

“This is dull, Monte,” one of the other nobles said.  The second of the two young ladies.  She was the shortest of the group, with black hair, intense blue eyes, and a light fur ruff at her collar, built into her dress.  Where the fur ruff might have been too warm for summer, the fact that her hair was an ‘up’ style that exposed her neck and that her dress was open backed and mid-thigh in length made up for it.  The series of careful balances continued, as she wore just enough tasteful jewelry to make up for the minimal quantity of cloth.  She, too, had chosen silver.

The dress tied at the back, behind the neck.  The elaborate tie looked like a small set of wings.

“She called him Monte.  Is she testing him?” Jamie asked.

“There’s a greater game afoot,” Gordon said.  “That’s their interplay.”

Monte stood, and his hand slid down the length of the cane as he approached.

“And they’re related,” Helen commented.

“See, fugitive,” Monte said, his voice low.  “My sister, she can call me by my name.  But my friends and peers?  Even they know enough to call me lord.”

You,” Gordon pointed at Evette.

“You got angry at me last time.  My lips are sealed.”

“Good.  This is a power game, contest of wills.  I think… there has to be a way out of this.”

“I can think of one, but it’s a case of frying pan and fire,” Jamie said.

No,” Gordon said.  “There has to be a straightforward solution.  Helen?  Please?  Ideas?”

“Charm him?” Helen offered.

“Yes, because Sylvester is such a darling,” Evette said.

Gordon gave her a warning look and a stern point that threatened future repercussions.  Evette clapped a hand over her mouth.

“I don’t think that’s going to work,” Gordon said.

Nothing is going to work,” Jamie said, “Sylvester is Sylvester, we’re not him.  As a composite, we’re a mess, we’re functioning too slowly.  He’s turning to us because he just had to face the hard reality that being Sylvester often doesn’t work out.  He doesn’t want to be him, so…”

“He’s being us,” Helen said.  “And it’s like it was back in Brechwell, when he was missing you, he’s not very good at being you.  That’s why we’re stumbling.”

I suppressed a cough as I failed to swallow the blood that was making its way down the back of my throat.

“We don’t have another option,” Gordon said.  “At least not right now.  And we’re out of time.”

Prey instinct, again.

Something in Monte’s demeanor had tipped Gordon off.  The cane came free, sliding out of my mouth.

“Were you going to say something?” Monte asked.

“He knows full well that was a cough,” Helen said, indignant.

I started to speak, and felt the pain in my throat, the blood, and coughed fairly violently, turning my head and coughing into my hand.

“He’s sensitive to his sister’s boredom,” Gordon guessed.  “And we need an answer to give, now.  Jamie, the frying pan, the fire, does it buy us time before the fire?”

“Yes, it definitely does, but… the timing is wrong.  It’s a gamble as is, but it could be disastrous.”

“Damn it,” Gordon said, for the third time.  He watched as I continued coughing.  “You’re sure?”

“Positive.”

“Cease your barking and speak, boy,” Monte said, imperious.  His hand gripped my hair and pushed my head back against the seat.  The movement of my head made my throat hurt, and the shift in angle forced blood out of the open wound, which only exacerbated the problem.

He’d known about the veins and nerve clusters.  He had to know he was demanding I speak while I was helpless to do so.

“Violence?” Gordon asked.  “Stupid question.  Threaten?  No.”

“Can’t negotiate,” Helen said.

“Can’t play them off each other,” Gordon said.

“Bargain?” Jamie suggested.

“Would be too close to begging.  And if he’s anything like I think he is, he hears begging often enough,” Gordon said.  “And we don’t know what they want.”

“No tools available,” Evette said.  “We have a knife, the packet of poison from Lillian’s bra in his pocket.  Nothing too useful.  There’s the cloak?  If we were quick, we could use the distraction and slip under the seats.  No…”

“Thank you for contributing,” Gordon said.  “And I agree, no.  We’re not that quick, and there’s nowhere to go.”

“And Shirley,” Evette pointed out.

“And that,” Gordon agreed.

I regained my breathing.  I swallowed, hard, and didn’t make myself cough any further.

I could tell that their patience had run thin.

Nothing to give me? I thought.

“Sorry,” Jamie said, his voice quiet.

Fine.

I looked up at Evette.

Don’t,” Gordon said, sounding pained.  “Don’t take cues from her.”

“I confess,” I managed, and my voice was hoarse, my throat much abused and heavy with fluid.  “If your friends and peers have the sense to call you Lord, I must be exempt from that same rule, because I am not your friend, and I am most certainly not your peer.”

Ah, I could see, the way his face changed.

He didn’t like the response.

All that remained was for him to figure out the best way to punish me.

But his sister broke into laughter.  My eyes moved, and I saw smiles spread across several faces.

“I like him,” the sister said.

“You are notorious for your horrible taste, dear sister,” Monte said.  He had to be taking note of the expressions of his peers.  His sister’s response had disarmed him.  He couldn’t take action now without seeming petty.

“And you’ve grandstanded long enough,” she said.  She moved down the aisle, gave her brother a light push, and flounced down into the first available seat, sitting across from me.  “And this is my first time meeting a notorious criminal.  Hello notorious criminal.”

“Sylvester,” I croaked.  I suppressed a cough.

“Sylvester,” the sister said.  The others were drawing nearer.  The spectres of the Lambs moved to accommodate the group.

“Monte is the leader, he gets first pickings,” Gordon commented.  “But if he doesn’t maintain that standing, the power moves to the next figure in the hierarchy.  We have hours left on this train, several stops, and they’ll keep rotating out until they find an excuse to eat us alive.”

The sister was shooing at her brother, talking, “Sit.  I don’t like it when you’re looming over me like that.”

“I’ll stand, thank you,” he said.  “And I’ll point out that insolence can’t go unanswered.”

“It won’t,” she said.  She met my eyes, “But damage to the body is one of the least meaningful ways to destroy a man in our modern era.”

“There’s a wedge,” Gordon said, quick.  The second half of the thought was mine to complete.

Divide them.

“I quite agree,” I said.  “I’m rather resistant to pain, so physical torture doesn’t work very well in the short term, either-”

“My lady,” Helen whispered in my ear.

“-My lady,” I finished, seamlessly.  I gave her a small smile.

The sister looked up at her brother, offering him a polite smile, followed by a very smug, “Hm.”

“Yes, dear sister,” Monte said.  “I know.  You catch more flies with honey.  But this involvement soils the honey.”

The sister rolled her eyes.

“Don’t be a sore loser now, Monte,” one of the other nobles said.  The blond male that had been doing most of the talking.

“Third in the hierarchy,” Jamie guessed.

“Sylvester,” the sister said, as if she was trying on the word.

“Yes, my lady,” I said.  I suppressed a cough.  With my luck, I would have spat a fine spray of blood into her face in the process.

“What did you do?” the sister asked.

“Wow her,” Gordon said.  He sounded dejected.  “Might as well.”

“I murdered the Baron, for a start,” I said.

Her mouth made a very neat, practiced ‘o’ of surprise.  I was put in mind of Helen.  “That was you.

“It was,” I said.  “I’ve done quite a bit else.  Much of it in service to the Academies, not nearly as exciting.”

Exciting is not the word I would use for murder of a noble,” Monte said.

“How curious,” the blond noble said, ignoring his friend.  “You say in service to the Academies.  Not in service to the Crown.  Is this the way it is normally said?”

“Misstep,” Jamie said.

“No,” Gordon said, “We need to wow them.  Buy time.  Try…”

When I spoke, it was in coordination with Gordon, and the response was for the sister, not for the blond noble.  I shifted my body language to match my words, to use the very same key pieces of body language I’d taught Shirley to convey attention, power, and the same sort of intensity I’d used to ensnare Lillian.

Another painful barb, that.  A firm grip on the knife blade, emotionally.

But necessary.

Gordon’s voice in my head overlapped with my words in reality, “…I might be the wrong person to ask, my lord, given I’ve just admitted to murdering one of you.”

“Are you flirting with a noble?” Helen asked, caught between incredulity and horror.  I ignored Lillian and Jamie, who had been sitting in the background, their backs to me.  Were they turning around?  Reacting?  What would I feel, if I let myself recognize that and my internal responses to it?

“That’s flirting?” Jamie asked.

Another self-inflicted barb.  The innocence, bubbling to the fore alongside thoughts of Jamie.  I missed the innocence we had in the early days.  I’d grasped for it, in a way.

The sister crossed one leg over the other, so they folded over at the knee, her hands clasped in her lap.

“You’re a hard one to get a read on,” she said.

“I’ve been told that,” I said.

“You’re more methodical than I thought you’d be, at first glance,” she said.  “You think before you say or do anything.  I even suspect you feigned coughing for longer than you needed to, to work out what you were doing.  I suppose that’s necessary for an assassin, but it feels very mechanical.  Like a stitched, albeit a clever one.”

“Because we’re handling this by committee,” Jamie said.  “Gordon.  Take over.  You call the shots.  One person at a time.”

“It’s going to be unbalanced,” Evette said.

“Shh,” Helen shushed.

“I’m an experiment, after all, my lady,” I said.  “But I can be more fluid, if that would please you.”

“We’ll see,” she said.  A non-answer.  Then, abrupt, “I’ll confess, I thought this time on the train would be a bore.  Our trip out was dreary, but it was at least broken up with stops here and there.  But one long, straight trip back?  Ghastly.  To think we’d claim a train car for ourselves, resign ourselves to drink and discussion, and find a wanted fugitive instead.”

“I’ll strive to entertain,” Gordon and I said.  Care was being taken to emphasize certain words without actually putting stress on them.  The last word or two of each sentence was key.

“I’m sure you will,” she said.  “About your traveling companion, who was getting you tea…”

“No,” Jamie said, in the background.

“Shirley,” Gordon and I said, without flinching.

“Aiding and abetting a known fugitive.  I’m thinking, for punishment, a bidding.”

“And how would that work, dear sister?” Monte cut in.  His sister gave him an annoyed look at the very calculated intrusion.

“Each member of our group here has our own doctors, who are occupying the next car and keeping miss Shirley company.  There are twenty four doctors in that train car.  Many were the top of their class in their respective years and Academies.  They can bid with ideas, from their polished, Academy-trained brains.  The doctor who can devise the most fiendish punishment for miss Shirley gets a reward.  Predicated, mind you, on their follow through after the fact.”

“I imagine,” Gordon and I said, “that if they can’t follow through, they’ll be discarded.  Or perhaps, you could offer up the reward to any of the doctors who can follow through, but using the doctor who failed as the subject, this time.”

The sister smiled, looking at her companions.  “I do like the way he thinks.”

“My lady,” Gordon and I said, “I am honored by the compliment.”

I’d very nearly said we.  I was fairly certain that would have been a disaster.

Every ‘my lady’ was a jab at Monte, a courtesy we’d refused to give him.  Gordon and I were both calculating how much we could push him before he snapped.

How did that play out?

The moment we gave any evidence that there was something we wanted or valued, he was liable to dash our hopes and take that from us.

Strengths, weaknesses, attack, defense.  That was the focus right now.

“Can we participate, my lady?” the blond asked.

“We.  In the bidding?” the sister asked.

“Yes.”

“This is bad,” Gordon observed.  I was in agreement.  If there was a way to keep the young nobles out of it, build the idea up and then deflate it, or make it too complicated to see through, or to buy time, at the very least, then there was a way out, and Shirley could be okay.

Not so, if they had a personal stake in seeing this through.

“I think so, Lord Leeds,” the sister decided.

Lord Leeds, the blond noble, smiled.

“What would you do, my lady?” I pressed.  Deny the enemy the chance to maneuver, don’t give them time.  Force them to act without enough time to reason.

“Me?” she asked.  “In this sort of game, it’s a disadvantage to go first.  I only encourage the others to top me.”

“It’s only fair that you set the bar, as the inventor of the game,” I said.  “Besides, I suspect you’re more interested in seeing the creative efforts of others.  I imagine you have an idea in mind already.”

She wanted us to be fluid, less mechanical.  Now we were responding faster, ready with answers the moment she spoke.  Throughout, we maintained the eye contact, the confident body language, the faint mirroring of her own body language here and there.

And she had to know that we were moving to force her hand.  If she said that no, she didn’t have an idea in mind already, then she looked ignorant, she forfeited power in the eyes of her peers.

Where the eye contact, the body language, and all of the word choice up to this point were important was in making this more of a tease than an attack.  It wasn’t so different from how I’d approached Lillian.  ‘I know you’re capable of handling this.’

I could handle teasing, as painful as it was to execute.

So could Gordon, for that matter.  His teasing had been a different sort.  Natural, less manipulative, and more because people had been drawn to him automatically, and all he’d had to do was step back and let them follow.

She knew what I was doing.

“We take that young lady, who was helping prepare the tea, the biscuits, and the plate of cake, and we make her a warbeast,” the sister said.  “Transplant her brain, or take her body and build up the warbeast around her, extending her nervous system.  Whatever road we take to the destination, she should be elephantine, ugly, slow, and securely confined.  One of the brood beasts, good only for rutting once a season, followed by pregnancy and the birth of a generation of warbeasts for the Crown.”

“A fair start,” Leeds said.  “I’m sure I’ll best you after I think for a moment.”

“Can’t let him,” Jamie observed.

“Shh,” Helen whispered.

“I’m sure you will, Lord Leeds,” Gordon and I said.  We turned to the sister.  “It doesn’t seem terribly fair that you have no consequences for losing the contest.  How do we decide if it can be followed through on?”

“The nice thing about maintaining the status that we do,” the sister said, “Is that when the scales are unbalanced, we’re invariably on top.”

“Existence is unfair, but it’s unfair in your favor?” Gordon and I asked.

“Exactly.  I have a team of doctors at my disposal.  The three of them can work on making my project a reality,” she said.  She gave me the same smug smile that she’d given her brother.  “I find it very telling that you jumped straight to finding objections and flaws in my design.  Are you not keen for my bidding game?”

“More like a game is more fun if there’s something at stake, my lady.  What if we said that if they couldn’t make it a reality, one of them would be executed at random?”

“Perfect,” she said.

She hadn’t hesitated a second.  Was there no loyalty to the doctors that maintained her, or was she an effective bluffer?

“It does become a charade, though,” Gordon and I said.  “A farce, to have twenty-four doctors submit their individual ideas, to be independently judged-”

“-And a long train journey to manage it,” she said, without missing a beat.  “Your reluctance is showing through, Sylvester.”

“That isn’t where I was going with my objection,” Gordon and I said.  It was so hard to avoid saying ‘we’ while still maintaining the independent schematic in my head.  Gordon was a machine of memories and ideas and impressions that required constant attention to maintain.

I paused, making use of the hanging thread of my statement to reorganize, to get everything straight, before Gordon and I said, “I’m saying that the doctors will intentionally fail.  They know full well that existence isn’t fair, as you just said, and they would throw the game rather than slight any of you.  A lot of work to tally their responses, when they won’t take your game seriously.”

“He does have a point,” Monte said.

“Oh, shush, dear brother,” the sister said, waving him off.

“The game only works with the seven of you as participants, or the twenty four doctors,” Gordon and I said.

We need them to favor the doctors, then take the joy out of the idea, focus on the work and execution of it.

“We’ll have the contest among us, then,” the sister said.

“Damn it,” Gordon said.  I kept my own mouth closed, my poker face intact.

The sister smiled.  “I just had my pick, so I think I get to choose who goes next…”

“There’s a way,” Jamie said, “I- Let me.”

“Your synergy with Sylvester is terrible,” Helen said.  “You work together as a pair only because you’re so different.”

“That was the other Jamie.”

“Do you remember Brechwell?  Do you remember how bad he was at emulating you?” Gordon asked.

“I remember,” Jamie said.  There was none of the new Jamie’s characteristic annoyance of having to reaffirm that fact.  It made me wonder if the new Jamie’s annoyance was fueled by the fact that his predecessor…

No, that was still too painful to dwell on.

Gordon ceded control.  Jamie stepped in.

I shifted my approach.

Not attack, not defense, nothing direct.  We’d gathered the materials.  We needed to draw on what we’d already established.  I already knew what we wanted to use.

Jamie and I patiently watched as the sister seemed to decide on the other girl as the next to take her turn.  The taller, blonde noblewoman, the only other girl in the group of seven.

The finger pointed, the sister enjoying her moment.  “Marcella, dear.”

“My lady,” Marcella said, curtsying in the aisle.

Patience, timing.  I leaned forward, knowing the movement would draw attention.  They were still wary of me sprinting for freedom.

Jamie and I spoke, and in it, I felt a moment of the playfulness we’d enjoyed, roughhousing, teasing each other.

Not a barb.  No fierce gripping of a knife, that made me feel pain while sharpening my focus in the moment.

Just a sad, dull ache.

“My lady Marcella,” we said.  “What’s your greatest fear?”

“I beg your pardon?” the sister asked, startled.

Beside her, Monte chuckled.

“Isn’t that the trick of the game?” Jamie and I asked.  “In devising horrific fates for others, you reach deep inside, and to recognize what others might find horrifying, you tap into what you yourself fear.  To win the game, you have to dig deeper into your mind, memories, and self.  In the doing, you reveal vulnerabilities.  Even when one wins, it’s a bittersweet victory.  That is, unless you trust your friends to keep confidence.”

Monte’s chuckle continued, picking up as I said that last part.

“I do believe you’re suggesting something unsavory about my character, now,” the sister said, to me.

Ah, this was tricky.  The diplomatic riposte.  I could say yes, and she would kill me for the insult, or I could say no, back down, and risk letting her recoup and continue forward.

Were I dancing with Gordon in the here and now, we might have said no, maintained our stance, as part of the conversation, and tried to steer things as it continued, so that that one sour note Jamie and I had seeded it with would recur, spoil things, and create divides we could use.

But I wasn’t.

Yes was an answer, so was no, but silence was the third option that remained at our disposal.

Patience.

Let one second pass, confident, accusatory.

I’d expected Monte to take the bait.  He didn’t.

It was Leeds.

“Not to worry, Moth,” the blond noble said.  “Our collective lips are sealed.”

Joining his strength to mine, to bring down the Lady.

Moth, though, was a curious appellation.

Moth, Leeds, I thought.  Then, Monte?

Nicknames.  Place names.

No.  Mothmont.  The place was named after the people.

Members of the branch of the family that the school was named after.

Nothing we could use, but a detail to file away later.

Monte’s chuckle died.  “You walked yourself into that one, dear sister, with your made up punishment.  It would be like you, to fear being grotesque, huge, and good for nothing but-”

And,” Moth said, very pointedly, “It would be crass to imply any more.”

“I don’t think you’re going to find any more takers in your game,” Monte said.

The Lady Moth pouted, the expression very calculating.  “True.  I had my try of it.”

“Shall I have my try?” the Lord Leeds asked.

“No,” she replied.  Her affront was feigned as well.  “No, that wouldn’t be fitting.  We’ve toyed around, but at the end of the day, my dear brother is the highest ranking nobleborn on this train.”

The pause was a loaded one.

She was passing the lead back to Monte.  Not everyone would get their try.

I’d insulted her, and now Monte had no reason to play, no reason to tear me down strategically before finishing me off.

“My idea about the cloak, and going under the seat?” Evette murmured.

“Won’t work,” Gordon said, his voice soft.

Fire and frying pan, I thought.

The timing was good enough, and the situation dire enough to warrant the gamble.

The first part of the gamble was plain.  If our educated guess was correct.

“Unfortunately,” Jamie and I said, “You are not the highest power in play here, Lord Monte.”

The sheer audacity of what I’d said gave him momentary pause.

“We’re on our way to New Amsterdam for a meeting with the Lord Infante,” Jamie and I said, with confidence, our voices still ragged.

The sheer audacity of that bought me another moment of life.  Then Monte said what Jamie been worried about him saying, “The Lord Infante is not in New Amsterdam, fugitive, so that meeting is unlikely and impossible.”

My eyes and the eyes of every phantasmal Lamb in the train car turned his way.

“He is,” we said.  “And I’m sure he’ll thank you for delivering us securely to him.”

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Thicker than Water – 14.1

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The trains had been outfitted with more seats, to make up for the higher demand on the lines that were still active.  Less leg room, less aisle space.  The new benches had armrests placed to divide them, constraining how many people could sit on each bench, with an eye toward encouraging more people per bench.

Considering that the force that was pushing so many people to take the trains and get away from the west coast was a plague, pressing so many people in together seemed like a poor idea.

The train car had been crowded for far, far too long.  It had been the kind of crowded that spilled over, the sort of crowded that ruined everything it touched.  Children had crawled underfoot, conversations had risen to a shouting volume just so their participants could be heard.  Even with windows open, the human smell and the noise had been compounded by the enclosed space.

I’d turned to Wyvern to shut out the most obnoxious and offensive of the stimuli, curled up, and lost myself in thinking about nothing in particular.

I had just enough room to curl up in one seat with my satchel wedged in between my side and the armrest, a short barrier to block off the rest of the world.  It was warm, but I still kept my hooded raincoat draped over me.  A blanket, with the hood rolled up to be a makeshift pillow.  My legs were pulled up beneath me, my head rested against the window, my eyes tracking everything that was going on outside.

Getting on the train meant a full physical checkup.  Getting off the train meant the same.  The sole saving grace of this plague was that the physical signs were often early and obvious.  We had stopped at a station, and the exodus of passengers were currently being sorted out by gender on the station platform, being directed into separate booths and buildings.

“Excuse me,” the train’s conductor said, behind me.

It was easier not to move, to pretend to be asleep.

I watched through the window as a mother was reluctantly separated from her child.  Heat was making tempers hotter, fuses shorter.

I saw shadows move as a hand reached for me.

“Oh,” Shirley said, from her seat across from me.  The seats were arranged so that one set of three chairs faced another, and when the train was most crowded, space for knees and feet alternated between a row of seats and the row facing it.

Shirley must have been half-asleep too, given the slowness of her response.  She had a line of sight to see my face, even looked me in the eye, but she still said, “No need to wake him.  He’s with me.”

“Ah, very good.  This is Radham.  I thought, since the young gentleman had a raincoat, he might be doing what many Radham natives do and prepared his raincoat well in advance.  I wanted to ensure he didn’t sleep through his stop.”

This was Radham?

I hadn’t even recognized Radham?  The quarantine buildings were new and blocked a large share of the view, but even so, it caught me off guard.

“We aren’t getting off here, no.  Passing through.”

“Very good.  I’ll double check your ticket… you’ve come a fair way already.”

“We’ve been on the train for a day and a half, now.”

“And you’ll be on the train for a while yet, it seems.  His is the same?”

“Yes.”

“That’ll do just fine.  Are you familiar with this stretch of the journey?”

“Not at all.”

“We’ll be hitting mostly rural towns and smaller cities, and if nothing has changed from the last few weeks, we’ll bleed more passengers than we take on.  The hour is late, and it’s a quiet leg of the journey.  The next stretch of the journey should be quieter and less crowded, but you’ll notice we’ll spend as much time stopped as we spend moving.  For the stops that don’t have their own, the doctors in the first car set up our own quarantine tent for checks.”

“They have to get everything set up?  Tent, tables?”

“All of it, every time.  But I’ll be at your disposal.  We have books, if you’re a reader, and I can bring you tea and treats on request.  Blankets, too, if you want to try sleeping through the night.”

“Does everyone get such dedicated service?”

“No, not everyone does, heh.  But it’s really no trouble when the cars are as empty as they are.  I’ll be asking about tea in about half an hour, if you don’t request some any sooner, but until then I’ll be at the other end of the car, cleaning up.  We should be moving in fifteen minutes.”

“That’s all very reassuring to know, especially as I’m not a frequent traveler.  Thank you kindly, sir.”

“You’re very welcome.  But, just to let you know, there may be something of an inconvenience.  The train car, given how empty it is, might be commandeered.  If it looks like that might be the case, I’ll try to warn you in advance.  I wouldn’t want you harassed.”

“Everything is so very astir, isn’t it?” Shirley asked.

“Very much so.  Any city with an Academy is more astir than most.  You have a nice evening, ma’am, and I’ll bring the tea trolley along in a bit.”

I could hear the man’s footsteps recede.

When he was out of earshot, Shirley murmured, “I dare say that man fancies me.”

I looked away from the quarantine buildings and the sprawl of Radham and met her eyes.  She gave me a smile.

“I did that right?” she asked.  “We are continuing on?”

I nodded.

“Okay,” she said, letting out a small exhalation of relief.  “That’s good.  I don’t want to press you for answers, but I do wish I knew more about what we were doing here.”

“I know,” I said.

I looked out at the city as the train started moving.

Radham.  It hadn’t changed so much, but it was no longer a place that felt like home.  I heaved no sigh of relief as the train slowed and then stopped, knowing I was mostly free to do as I pleased for the next while.  No calibration of my thoughts to think about the times I wasn’t free, and to plot how to handle them, like my appointments, and what to say the next time I saw Hayle.

There was no adjustment of thought patterns or pace as we arrived here, anymore.  There was no fondness.  I’d said my goodbyes to it.

Not the final goodbye, I thought.  I would come back.  I’d started my journey here, and before I ended the journey, I would get answers, and I would see some injustices answered.

But not now.  Especially not when I felt so raw, and when every direction of thinking seemed to hurt.

I heard the door shut at the far end of the train car.  A group made their way down the narrow aisle.

They stopped by Shirley and I.

“We can’t all cluster here.  It would be madness.”

“That’s true.”

“Three, maybe four people?”

“Sounds right.”

“Thinking about this logically… the new recruits aren’t that talkative, because they’re that new, we don’t want to inflict Duncan on Sy, and Mary is hostile to him unless we feed her a task to accomplish.  Jamie and Lillian won’t talk to Sy.  That cuts down the options.  How many people are we using here?  Me, if there’s no objection.  Helen?”

“I’ll sit, Gordon,” Helen said.  She wore the same dress she’d been wearing as I last saw her.

Gordon crossed his arms.  He wore a white shirt with no sleeves, and heavy pants tucked into boots.  Clothes like a laborer might wear.  It showed off the seams in his body.  Sweat more than pomade or oil helped to slick his golden hair back, and his eyes were intense.

“Good.  Then who else?  Evette?  Ashton?”

“I’ll sit,” Evette said.  She’d taken on an appearance very different from Abby’s, more stable than she’d been, once upon a time.  Abby was a bit of a country girl at heart, so Evette had reached out and seized on something that seemed more ‘mad artist’.  Elbow length gloves, stockings, black shorts with suspenders, and a white blouse, with her hair cut to a length that exposed the back of her neck, while remaining long enough to cover much of her face and ears.  There was more emphasis on hiding the defects, and I wasn’t sure what had provoked her to start doing that in my mind’s eye.

She had a dark circle under her one visible eye, and her lips were thin.  She put her bag on the floor in front of her seat and sat down, using the bag as a kind of footstool to prop her feet on.

“Ashton isn’t that familiar a face,” young Jamie said.  “I’ll take the fourth seat.”

“Is that a good idea?” Gordon asked.

“I think it will be okay.”

“Alright.  Keep an ear out, Ashton?  Pay attention?”

“I can do that.”

Gordon, Helen, Evette, and Jamie sat in the seats near Shirley and me.  Ashton sat on the other side of the aisle with the other would-be Lambs: the twins, Emmett, Abby, and her pet.  Mary, the newer Jamie, Lillian, and Duncan sat at nearby seats and benches.  Mary sat so she could twist around and follow what was being said.  Duncan paid more attention to the younger crowd.

Lillian and Jamie sat with their backs to me.

“Priority number one,” Gordon said.

“And we’re straight to business,” Jamie commented.  The younger Jamie.  Softer around the edges.  Somehow more able to work with the dynamic, however it presented.

“I think the first point of order,” Helen said, gesturing while using her control over her voice to sound very imperious and ladylike.  “Would be tea.”

I saw Mary’s head turn, eyes narrowing, as if she wasn’t sure if Helen was making fun of her with the voice or not.

Jamie, meanwhile, only sat in his seat next to Shirley, curled up in a similar way to me, but facing the group.  He smiled, apparently content to watch the discourse.

The difference of Jamie’s age to the newer Jamie was startling and painful to see.  He’d been erased in the midst of the summer months, some time ago, and it was summer now.  He’d been erased, and the Lambs had been taken off duty until the subsequent spring, when we’d gone to Brechwell, and faced down Fray.  A season later, the next summer, the one year anniversary, had been damnably quiet, leaving me little to do to keep myself occupied, except to enjoy Lillian’s company and make initial overtures at getting to know Ashton and the new Jamie.

Then, at the cusp of fall and winter, it had been Lugh.  The Primordials, Mauer, and the Duke being shot.  I remembered snow had been falling as I left the Lambs behind, broke it off with Lillian, and went after the Baron.

This Spring had been Tynewear.  Now it was summer again.  That meant we were at, just past, or just approaching the two year anniversary of losing the first Jamie.

He looked so young, so insecure, hugging that book of his.  He was shorter than me, which was a feat, considering I perpetually lurked at the lowest bounds of typical height for a boy my age.  I could look at him and tell, by body language alone, that he was more introspective.

I’d left him behind at some point, and I hated that that was the case.

“There are bigger priorities than tea,” Gordon said.

“It was such a mess earlier, they can’t even fit trolleys down these aisles, the servers came in with trays of sandwiches and it was such bedlam,” Helen said.

“I know, I was as aware of what was going on as you were.  We were there in a manner of speaking,” Gordon said.  “First come, first serve.”

“And,” Helen said, holding up a finger, “the fact is that Sylvester does not always look after the essentials.  He represses the essentials.  His need for sleep, his need for food, his need for whole and physical well-being.”

“You’re not wrong,” Gordon said.  “I was more concerned about having a plan by the time we get off this train.”

“It’s a dangerous situation, and we’re not prepared for it,” Evette said.

Exactly,” Gordon said.  “Thank you, Evette.”

“I can see where Helen is coming from,” Jamie said.  “We’re sitting here and talking for a reason.”

“Hold on.  We as in all of us, or we as in us four, specifically?” Gordon asked.

“Us four,” Jamie and Helen said, at the same time.

“Why am I taking charge in this discussion if you’re just going to go and agree with Helen and be on the same page like that?  I thought I’d have to roll up my sleeves and force you all to work together.”

“Helen and I want the same thing,” Jamie said.  “We want to look after Sy.  He wants to look after himself.  Ever since he faced down Sub Rosa and truly believed he would die, he’s had a drive to live.”

Ever since I nearly saw you die at Sub Rosa’s hands, I’ve wanted to ensure that each of you live as well.  But I lost you, Jamie.  I lost you, Gordon.

“And that drive to live starts with the basics,” Helen pronounced.  She and I spoke in unison.  “Tea.”

“Hm?” Shirley asked, raising her head.

“If it’s no trouble, I’m… pretty famished.  Could I trouble you to take that fellow up on the tea?  And any snacks to go along with?”

“I’d be happy to,” Shirley said.  “I was just thinking I wanted an excuse to exercise my legs.”

“And cake,” Helen said.

“Could you get something with sugar as well?” I asked.

“That will do,” Helen said.

“Sugar?” Shirley asked.  “You mean in the tea, or-”

“Cake, or biscuits, or candy, or something sweet for that fast rush of energy.”  I tapped my head.  “I need fuel.”

She smiled, stood, and walked down the aisle.

“I like her,” Jamie said.  “I’m glad Sy brought her.”

“She’s adorable,” Helen said, “And she’s bringing tea and treats without complaint.  That gets almost anyone into my good books.”

“But she needs and wants answers that Sy isn’t giving,” Evette said.

Jamie raised a hand, pointing at Evette.  “I know we don’t want to harp on some of the most recent lessons Sy has learned, but I’d really rather not see him make the same mistake while we’re still reeling from the last ones.”

“A lack of consideration?” Gordon asked.  “Maybe.  But I remember what it was like in my doctor’s lab in the months before I died.  Or Sy remembers, because he visited now and then.  They’d go exploring, carve me open, dig through my parts, working to shore things up so they’d last a little bit longer, and while they were fixing the one thing, they’d find another two things that were wrong, and while they were fixing those-”

“A routine, minor surgery would become a day-long exercise,” Jamie finished.  “One without any actual resolution.  At a certain point, they had to cut their losses, accept that some things were bad, and they had to let things be bad.”

“I see your point,” Evette told Gordon.  “You’re worried that will happen here?”

“Let’s stay on topic,” Gordon said.  “Tea should be coming soon.  Let’s get as much figured out as we can, before they arrive with the tea and we’re distracted by eating and drinking.  Because there’s a lot to figure out.”

Evette leaned forward, “Starting with what Emmett said.”

A Day and a Half Earlier

Emmett made his way into the bathroom, shutting and locking the door behind him.  He stopped at the mirror, brushed at his short hair with his fingers, then set about unbuttoning the fly of his pants, standing before the toilet.

“Emmett.”

It said a lot about Emmett’s character that he didn’t jump a mile into the air.

It said more that I could hear the stream hit the water.  He wasn’t a shy lad.

I was standing on a half-inch thick wooden board that framed a part of the building exterior, just to the left of the open window, one hand gripping the sill to help hold my back and buttocks flat against the wall.

The thrill of the moment wasn’t wholly there.  The game of dealing with the Lambs had been soured, at least in the short term.

I waited for his response, and when he didn’t give it, I said, “About that tidbit of information you were offering.  I do believe I have something you guys want.”

“Mm hmm,” Emmett made a noise.

Had they trained him to be this hard to get a response out of, knowing it would infuriate me much as Rick had, or was it just his nature?

“I know you guys want Lillian back,” I said, “But I’m going to need that tidbit.  And I’m going to want Pierre freed.”

“Yep,” Emmett said.

A part of me wanted to hit him.  I was not in the mood.  The reflexive desire to strike out or react to his non-utterances was almost enough for me to fall from my perch on the wall.

“Yes, you’re agreeing to the deal, yes you acknowledge my demands, or…?”

“Yes.  I agree to the deal.”

“Just like that.”

“We thought you would do this.”

It made sense.  They knew what I wanted, and they knew what I had to offer.

“Not this soon, I imagine,” I said.

“No,” Emmett agreed.

He finished his leak, and I could hear the rustle of clothes as he did up the buttons of his pants.  The kid must have had some camel in him, to be storing up that much water.

He was surprisingly difficult to engage.  Anyone else, I could stir them up into a proper conversation, but Emmett gave me the impression of someone who decided their own pace, then met it.  I wondered if it had to do with his Bruno-level strength coupled with his young age.  Was there a story there?

No.  I had to stop myself.

It didn’t matter.  The whole thing with the Lambs was tainted.  I couldn’t blindly assume that me being involved in their lives would be for the better.

Emmett was Emmett.  I would leave that be.  I was here for answers.

I took note of the quiet on the other side.

“I took inspiration from the Devil,” I said.  “I don’t know where Lillian is, at the moment.  So if you’re thinking about shoving your fist through the window or the wall and trying to grab me, think again.”

“I wasn’t,” Emmett said.  “And I’m not that strong.”

“Okay,” I said.  I spun out a lie, “Well, getting her back requires that I give you the key right here and right now, and then I go to the right time and the right place to meet the people that have her.  Then I can send her to you.  I’ll want to see Pierre free, and I’ll need you to pony up that information.”

“That’s all very complicated.”

“Yes, well, I like complicated,” I said.  “It’s what I do.”

I wasn’t on my game.  My stride had been broken and I hadn’t yet found it again.  I wondered if he had the savvy to tell.

“It’s a deal,” Emmett said, “But it still would have been a deal if you hadn’t done the complicated things with right times and right places.”

“Really.”

“Yes.  I trust you, and I think you trust us.  You were a Lamb.”

Were.  Past tense.

If he even had a glimmer of how much of a punch to the gut that was, given recent events…

I had to bite my tongue.

Emmett, mercifully, started to explain.  “My parents gave custody of me over to the Academy to see if the Academy could save me.  They’d rather never see me again and give me a chance than me have no chance.  The Academy started to work on me right away.”

“You said that much before, essentially,” I said.

“Think they probably did the same thing to you, before giving you Wyvern.  To Jamie, before hooking him up to Caterpillar.”

I remained silent.

“They talked about things while I was in the room.  Things they thought I would forget.  They had an argument once, about how to handle my file as it pertained to the block.”

“The block,” I said, committing it to memory.  Which made me think… “Memory block, or-“

“Block, as in a place.  They were very concerned about sanctions and losing their place in the Academy.  One man wanted to send me there, just to be safe.  Another wanted to send the file there, along with a letter explaining their approach to my case.”

“Where?” I asked.

“Gomer’s Island.”

“New Amsterdam,” I said.  I closed my eyes.  It had to be just about the biggest possible single location to damn well have to search.

“Sylvester,” Emmett said.  “The drug that they gave me to try and alter my memory?  It came from the same place.”

“The Island.”

“Yes.”

That painted more of a picture.  It was like the Academies to centralize activities of a given sort.  Had they centralized the kidnapping and child-experimentation angle?  At least partially?

“Do you know why I’m telling you this?” Emmett asked.

“Lillian,” I said.  Saying her name hurt.  I kept flashing back to that look on her face, the sound of her voice as she’d said she didn’t like the person she was when she was with me.

“No,” Emmett said, his voice taking me away from that dark spiral-shaped line of thinking.

I listened, waiting.

“When I told the other Lambs what I knew, and when I heard them talking about what the Baron and you had spoken about.  They agreed.  This is important.  This should stop.  They, we were unanimous.”

I nodded, knowing he couldn’t see.

“You’re going to go there.  We know this,” Emmett said.  “And we’re going to follow you.  But if you do escape from us again, and if you do find some answers or hold bad people accountable…”

“…It’s not a bad thing?” I asked.

He was silent, on the other side of the wall.

Was it because he was naturally taciturn, and he’d already uttered the three hundred and sixty-five words he was permitted for the year, or because there was a streak of loyalty in him that kept him from finishing the thought?

“Noted,” I said.

The emotional turmoil crystallized in my gut, pushed down until it compressed into something hard-edged, heavy, and painful to bear.  I had a goal.  Something to occupy my attention.

“I’m sorry your time with Lillian didn’t go well,” Emmett said.

My head snapped around.  That jagged, black mess of emotion in my middle lurched skyward, catching my breath, my heart, and bringing everything into sharp relief.

I froze.  I willed it all to stop.  If I didn’t move, didn’t think, then it wouldn’t hurt.

Lillian is already back with them.

Just like that.

“Pierre?”

“Already free.  I’m sorry I wasn’t clearer, before.”

“And-“

“Jamie is free.  Elsewhere.”

I winced at that.

This information he was so freely giving was… what?  Pity?

No.  I somehow couldn’t imagine Emmett giving me this of his own will.  Nor would he be so condescending to poor, broken, sad Sylvester.  I didn’t get the impression that that was how he thought or acted.

Perhaps Lillian had asked this of him.  I could see that.  I could see her treating it as an apology to me, when an apology wasn’t even expected or needed.

I wanted to scream in frustration, let all the feelings out.  Instead, I let that bristling ugliness sink slowly from my chest cavity to the lowest part of my stomach.

“You’re giving me a headstart?” I asked, to break the silence.

“Yes.  We have to talk to the Academy either way.”

I processed that, thinking.

Lillian was supposed to be kept away from the Lambs for two days.  But they were giving me the headstart that that would have afforded me.  They had presumably freed Pierre, and they were giving me the info I’d wanted without a fight.

Yes.  Between Jamie and Lillian, they were extending a kind of apology.

“I keep thinking that you’re going to abruptly leave,” Emmett said.  “Will you let me know when you do?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Okay,” he said.  “I’m not much of a talker.”

I smiled to myself.  “I know.”

I would have to leave soon.  The fear of being spotted and caught by other forces was only part of it.  Another part, knowing that Lillian was somewhere in this very building, and Jamie was somewhere outside of it, it meant I had to leave if I wanted to get away from this.

“Emmett,” I said.  “I need favors.  And I know I’m not in a position to bargain.”

I felt so far from the mighty Lamb that I’d painted myself to be, as I’d taunted them all.

“I’d have to hear the favors before agreeing.”

“Can you tell me if you told Jamie any of what you told me?  About Gomer’s Island, in New Amsterdam?”

“No.  The conversation with him was brief.  He-“

“I don’t want to know,” I said.  “Please.  No is enough.”

“That might have been the first time in years that I’ve been interrupted,” Emmett mused aloud.  “Or been told I’m talking too much.”

“Sorry.”

“Mm,” Emmett grunted.

I wanted to ask him not to tell Jamie.  To keep it a secret and to let me go.

I was aware of how monumentally unfair it was of me to do that.  To black Jamie out.

“Did it sound like he said goodbye?” I asked.  “Like he was leaving?  Or that he had plans?”

“Do you want the long answer or the short one?”

“Short,” I said, hating myself for my cowardice.

“Then yes, to all three questions.”

I nodded, and made sure my exhalation of relief was silent, and that Emmett wouldn’t hear.

“The city.  In case it wasn’t clear, two days here should be enough time to build a compelling case to bring back to Radham.  Most of it has been uprooted or disturbed enough it shouldn’t take much looking to find.  There’s a collection of files and folders you can use in the cellar of the Devil’s headquarters.  His underlings can point the way to the building.  Was the auditorium or something?  Bookstore?  My memory isn’t strong.  But once you get that, you should be able to control the city.”

“Mm.”

“The orphanage is almost done as a project.  It has two people in charge, it has some children to get started, but still needs some staff and organization.  I left it incomplete on purpose.  Put your own personal touches on it, wrap it up?  Use the control that the Devil’s papers give.  I won’t say it will only take a few days to make the orphanage operational, but they are still delivering mail, and you should be able to get it started on the right foot.  If you have to, sell it to the Academy as a way to keep tabs on me, because I’m going to be smuggling kids in need to that place and places like it soon.”

“Okay, Sylvester.  We already talked a little about that.”

I nodded.

“Because that’s related to how we got started.  Working with the mice, learning from them, teaching them.  It’s important.”

“I think they know it’s important, Sylvester.  It sounded like it.”

I swallowed around the lump in my throat.

“I’m leaving now, Emmett.”

“Goodbye, Sylvester.  It was interesting to meet you.”

I hopped down from my perch to the road below, where I was joined by the host of spectres, leaving behind the warm building.

“Shirley gets us settled.  She has legitimacy, she’s not a fugitive, Sylvester gives her the money, and focuses on starting the investigation.  Probably with the mice.”

“Trouble is, you have to look at how complicated New Amsterdam is as a city,” Jamie said.  “It’s a jarring city, an anachorism.  The seat of the Academy’s power in the Crown States, and, just as an example…”

He hesitated, in that way that he used to do, trying to dredge up the information.

Evette picked up the slack.  “The very name, New Amsterdam.”

“Yes,” Jamie said.  “That.  When they won the war for the Crown States, they took a city named after an English city, and gave it its original name.  Just to show that they could, to display that control.  Even if it made the city sound less Crown and more foreign.”

Gordon spoke, “Or the fact that it’s where the Nobles and Academy elite gather, the, as you say, seat of the Academy’s power in the Crown States, and yet it’s one of the places where the Academy’s hold is weakest.  Too big, too unwieldy.”

“Too messy,” Evette said, smiling.

The door at the far end of the car arrived.

“Shirley!” Helen perked up.  “And tea!  And treats!”

Then, just as fast, she was deathly serious.  The Lambs, as a group, rose to their feet.

They were reacting to something I couldn’t see.  Prey instinct was giving me some miniscule details, something about the weight of the footsteps, the sounds or lack thereof, or that I was belatedly putting things together and realizing that Shirley should have been back by now.

“Not tea,” Helen said, as I let my feet drop to the floor and stood.

Crown Police?  Was I caught?

As I moved toward the aisle, I could see them.

Not police after all.

Just seven other passengers, going to the same place I was.

So this was what the conductor had been saying when he’d said we might have to leave the car to make room.  I’d thought military, but no.

Seven young men and women, adolescents, to look at them.  All tall, most gorgeous, and all wearing the finest and most modern fashions I’d seen, no doubt custom made to their individual forms.  They had intensity in their eyes and cold, mask-like expressions.

“Window,” Gordon said.

I bolted.  The window was open, and the train was going full-speed.  The fact that I could see the upper halves of trees and not the bottom halves suggested it was a slope, and it was a fall that was likely to kill me.

Preferable to this.

One hand on the side of the window, one hand on the bottom, I moved to launch myself out.

The hook-end of a cane caught me by the neck.  I was wrenched back, stumbling, then neatly deposited in the middle of the three seats.  The one that Jamie had been sitting in.

The young noble took a seat opposite me.  He raised a long leg and propped one foot up on the seat to my left, then moved his cane so it was the other way around, bottom end facing me.

I moved to escape, and the cane caught me again.  I froze, pinned where I was, the end of the cane pressing against my adam’s apple.

“Sy’s not at his best,” Helen commented, from the sidelines.

“He really, really, really isn’t,” Gordon said.

Go fuck your dead self, Gordon.

“I think…” Jamie said, weighing his words, “I think we’re on point, here.”

“Provided he and Shirley survive the remainder of this train journey,” Evette commented.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Black Sheep – 13.11

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The windows were all open, sheer curtains billowing and glowing with the afternoon sunlight.  It was still unbearably hot, but that made the wind that blew in one set of windows and out the other a very pleasant thing.  Stronger than a breeze, and very refreshing.

I closed my eyes and enjoyed the moment.  The greater set of games had been played and won, and things were just about as perfect as they could get.  If I could have captured and held on to the moment to preserve it, I would have.

I opened my eyes and looked at Lillian.  Her ankles and wrists were bound, but the bindings were loose, leaving room to move while still looping behind a post that ran up to the peaked center of the room.  She could have her arms at her sides or behind her, but she wouldn’t be able to reach forward.  Right now, she knelt, slumped forward, but she would be able to stand if she wanted to.

The skin of her arms was still faintly mottled from where the external-muscle sleeves had pressed down on it.  She had had a haircut recently, but the hair was kept out of her face with a white hairband.  I didn’t miss the pearl earrings studding her earlobes.  Her uniform shirt was a light fabric, short sleeved, with a collar, with buttons running down the front.  Her skirt was pleated, leaving only her knees and upper calves bare.  Her shoes were girl’s shoes, but meant for running on streets and fields, with buckles.

For just the moment, she looked very at peace, unconscious.  There were bandages at her knees.

Looking at her was very pleasant.  I perched on my stool, feet on the upper rungs, trying to imagine how the conversation would go.

I heard footsteps, and a part of me immediately snapped to thinking about Mary, about the other Lambs and if I was followed.  I didn’t know enough about what some of the new recruits were capable of.  Abby, the twins, if Emmett had any capabilities, or if Helen had been augmented any further.  My hand reached for the gun I’d put on a tea trolley.

Jamie, not an enemy.

“Still asleep?” he asked.  He was carrying two glasses of water.  His hair was tied back, which was just about the only real accommodation he’d made to the heat.  His shirt was still buttoned all the way up, and he wore brown slacks.  No shoes, though.

Not that I was much better.  I did have the sanity to undo some of the buttons on my shirt and roll up the sleeves.  I’d changed slacks to a tidier black pair and I’d put on sandals.

“Yeah,” I said.  Then, with some fondness, I said, “She was running around so hard, and she picked a fight with me, even.  She must be exhausted.”

“I know you want to be left alone, but I was thinking back to you bustling around and I didn’t remember the tap being turned on.  You wanted water.”

“I did.  I would have gone to get it, but I didn’t want her to wake up alone,” I said.  “Thank you.  I appreciate it.”

“No trouble.”

“I appreciate all of this.  The help, the information, putting the pieces together.”

He extended the glasses my way.  I took them, and they were deliciously cold.  I set one on the trolley, before drinking from the other.

Jamie lingered.  Odd behavior for someone who knew I wanted to be left alone with Lil.  I looked at him and arched an eyebrow.

“I don’t quite know,” he said.

Then he turned and left.

The wind picked up.  I stared at the door that Jamie had passed through, trying to figure out what he’d been about to say, and I eventually gave up and smiled.  I’d get answers later.

I’d finished my glass of water before Lillian stirred awake.  She started with sounds, which didn’t surprise me.  I smiled again, thinking about the countless times she had woken up beside me.

Lillian raised her head, blinked, and then stared at me.  It took her a moment to wrap her head around the situation.  She moved her arms and tugged against her bonds.

“Ahhh,” she said, under her breath.  “Son of a bitch.”

“I’d say this is payback for trying to stick me with the syringes you hid in these sleeves, but that would be a lie.  I had this in mind from the beginning.”

Lillian bowed her head, and let out a low sound that mingled a groan with a growl.

I picked up the glass, stepped down off the stool, and approached her.  I leaned down, and spoke in her ear, “The retribution for that little stunt will have to come later.”

She tested the bonds a few times, with more intensity on each try, before she gave up.

“Come on,” I said.  “Stand up.  I’ve got some water for you.  You’ll want to stay hydrated.”

I let her make her own way to her feet.  She stood straighter, and met my eyes.  A level and very unimpressed glare, to match my smile.

I started to move the glass toward her lips, but she spoke.  “You have to keep me hydrated so I don’t pass out in the midst of our torture session, hm?”

Torture session?” I asked.

“Mm hmm,” she said.  “You’ll stand there or sit there and torment me with words, while I’m helpless to fight back.  Torture.”

“I’m pretty sure there’s a hammer and some nails lying around up here,” I said, indicating the rest of the room.  It wasn’t quite an attic, but it was being used for storage, and there were tools and boxes here and there, among various personal knick-knacks, which were mostly empty picture frames and stopped clocks.  “If you’d like, we can nix the conversation part, and I could nail your toes to the floor.”

“Would you?” Lillian asked.  “That would be preferable, please and thank you.”

She was trying to keep her expression stern, but there was a faint glimmer of amusement there.

“The new Lambs are cute,” I said.

“They’re not Lambs, you know,” Lillian said.

“Oh, I know.  But I think the odds are good that those odd goods will wind up together in some capacity.”

“I hope so,” Lillian said.  “They were all leading such lonely existences.”

“Existence is lonely,” I said.  I put the glass to her lips, and tipped it to allow her to drink.  Hydration was good.  She was beaded with miniscule little droplets of sweat.  When the sheer curtains billowed in and the light slipped through, she seemed to glitter.  I fixated on the glittering along the length of her throat as I said, “That’s what makes it so wonderful and bittersweet when we’re able to find each other and cling to each other in the midst of it all.”

Lillian, watching me looking at her, made a noise.  I moved the glass away so she wouldn’t sputter and choke.

She settled for clearing her throat, taking a moment to respond.

“You’re different, Sylvester,” she said.

“Only natural,” I said.  “I’ve been operating independently for a while now.”

“Semi-independent,” Lillian said, quiet.

“True.  But I don’t think of my relationship with Jamie as a dependency.  It might be, but I’d prefer to think of it as a partnership.”

“He’s okay?  I assume he’s the one who did these bandages,” Lillian said, lifting one leg that had a bandage at the knee.

“That was me,” I said.

“Oh.  You’ve picked up some skills, then.”

“Jamie is as good as can be expected,” I said.  “He caught the plague, whatever they were calling it.  Ravage?”

Lillian nodded.  “That’s one of the names.”

“I had to cut it out.  Caterpillar is… pretty done as a project, I’m afraid.  There’s only Jamie.  Which is still pretty darn amazing, in the grand scheme of things.  He helped me get you up here and tied up.  He’ll be around, if you need him, want him, or if you want to talk when we’re done here, which I imagine you will.”

“When we’re done what, Sylvester?”

“Ah,” I said.  “That requires explanation, and it launches us into a whole dialogue and series of options.  I was hoping to enjoy more small talk first.”

“What’s going on, Sylvester?  What am I doing here?”

“Do you want more water?” I asked, “Not deflecting.  Just asking before I put it down.”

She shook her head.  I walked over to the trolley and put it down, picked up the stool, and moved it closer to Lillian.  I perched on it again.

“Standing gets tiring, especially when you’ve been running around for several days straight.  You’re free to sit, if you want.  Or I suppose you’d have to kneel, really.”

“You’re such a gentleman, Sylvester,” she said.  She remained standing.

“Do you want me to be a gentleman, Lil?  Because I can switch gears and do that.  I can find you something to sit on.”

“I don’t want to sit, and don’t call me Lil.”

“Don’t call me Sylvester,” I retorted.

She set her jaw.  Stubborn.

“Right.  The reason you’re here is that I wanted to talk.  That’s the short answer.  The long answer is that you’re staying here for two days, two nights.  Just long enough that the others will be close to panicking, the Academy will ask questions, and they’ll ask you to come back.  There will be a minor inquisition, not as bad as the last one, I don’t think, and the Lambs will be stalled.  All in all, it gives Jamie and me a chance to get lost while you all bounce back.  I’ve given them a project for the meantime-”

Two days, Sylvester?”

“And two nights.  And then I give you back,” I said.  “About the project, the orphange is only three-quarters done, so I figured-”

“I only have enough of a leash to last me a day,” Lillian said.  “One pill.”

“Ah,” I said.  I paused, considering.  “That might be a problem.  Figures, the Academy would do something like that.”

“Very sorry to disappoint,” Lillian said, with a measure of satisfaction.

“I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it,” I said.  I was not looking forward to cutting my time with Lillian short in order to go rob the Lambs, especially not if they were anticipating me.  Cutting it short to give her back to them early was worse, because it would mean letting the Academy win.

“I’m so very angry at you, Sylvester.”

“That’s allowed, Lil.”

“You’ve put us in such a bad situation, too.  Hayle told us that-”

“Ah!” I said, “Ah, ah, ah!”

She stopped.

“None of that.  In fact, I’ll need to hammer out the ground rules, Lil.”

“Ground rules,” she said, in disbelief.

“Here’s the deal, Lil.  None of that.  No talking about what Hayle said, how he’s twisting your arms, possible punishments… if it comes to that, I’m going to gag you.  There will be no discussion between you and me.  I’ll keep you for however long I end up keeping you, then I’ll let you go, and that will be that.”

“Tempting,” Lillian said, dryly.

“Which brings me to the first key point of our discussion.  I’m going to ask you this, and I’m going to ask you again later.  I’m giving you the choice, Lil.  I can stay, and we can keep talking, or, hell, I can stay and you can be gagged if you so choose.  Or…”

Lillian didn’t take the bait.  She just stared at me.

“Or,” I continued, “I leave, and I send Jamie in.  You can talk with him about whatever.  He can give you the update on how I’m doing, how he’s doing, you can tell him about the Lambs, old and new, and he’ll fill me in after.  You can even count it as a win, Lil, Because I’ll be stewing in frustration about not getting to see you.  You follow?”

“Gee whiz, Sylvester,” Lillian said, her words at odds with the lack of playfulness in her voice, “I can stay stuck here while you talk circles around me, or I can get rid of you.  I wonder.

“For the record, Jamie will probably draw a line in the sand about you talking about Hayle and what he’s doing.”

I let the question hang.  I wasn’t wholly positive I knew what answer she would give.  A lot depended on how raw her feelings were, beneath the facade she was showing me.

I waited, thinking, while Lillian mulled over her decision.

After a minute, I ran out of patience.

“For all that you were talking just a bit ago, you don’t seem to be very quick about answering.”

“Shut up, Sylvester.”

“Harsh words.”

“Stay,” she said.  “It doesn’t really matter, and you’ll have to ungag me at some point to give me food and water.  I can talk then.  You’ll have to hear me out eventually.”

“I can get some wax to put in my ears.  We do have a bag, tubing and a needle to give you water without having to remove the gag, if need be, among other things,” I said.  “We’re not having that particular discussion, Lil.  This is where I’m going to be exceptionally unfair to you.  If you were to catch me fair and square, then I’d be the one who was tied up, and you’d be the one who was free to lecture at me.  But you didn’t.  So you aren’t.  Those are the rules.”

“Somehow I don’t remember agreeing to any terms of engagement,” Lillian said.

I shrugged.  “They’re the rules.  Take them or leave them.”

I could see her considering.

I ventured, “If I end up going back to Radham, I’m going to wither away and die.  I don’t have it in me, Lil.  I’m pretty sure they’ll kill Jamie in an effort to salvage what they can of the Caterpillar.  So please don’t bring it up.  Don’t make me feel even more like shit.  Whatever Hayle might have said, it’s not an option.  I’ve got a few years left.  Jamie’s got less than that, I think.  We have every intention of spending that time free, and I plan to do everything in my power to ensure the Lambs aren’t punished for that in the meantime.”

The consideration on her part stopped.  The wind picked up, and I closed my eyes, enjoying the present moment, while putting those thoughts momentarily out of my head.

But my brain ticked forward into other things I wanted to say, when I was sitting close enough to Lillian to smell her, to reach out and touch her.  All of the countless nights of the past half-a-year of tossing and turning and reaching out to pull her closer and finding that half of the bed empty, I wanted to make up for it right here, right now.

“Sy,” Lillian said, at the same time, I said, “If-”

In the awkward moment that followed, I got up, moved the gun and the sleeves from the trolley to the nearby table, so that only the glasses were on it, and rolled it on its squeaky wheels until it was closer.  I poured some of Lillian’s water into my glass and drank it.

“I don’t even know what I was going to say, Sy.  You go first.”

I offered her her glass again, and she shook her head.

I drew in a deep breath, then said, “If there was a way I could have stayed, Lillian, stayed with you, then I would have.  I hope you know that.”

She didn’t respond to that.  She looked very uncomfortable, more than anything.  As I looked at her, trying to decipher it, she seemed to become even more uneasy.  I looked away, staring out the window.

The silence was hard to manage.  I wasn’t sure how to move forward from this.

Help me out, I thought.

It was a well-practiced exercise at this point, to conceptualize Lillian, her appearance and mannerisms, her way of moving, her personality and patterns of behavior, and to twist them into a very fierce imagining of what Lillian might be like if the circumstances were different, if she wasn’t tied to the pillar.  If she wanted to be here.

The spectre of Lillian came to stand behind Lillian, leaning past the pillar to wrap her arms around the real Lillian’s shoulders, head tilted so it touched Lillian’s head, a gentle embrace.

“I know that you would have stayed if you could,” the spectre said.

“Yeah,” I said, in response to the silence and the imaginings.  “So that’s the rule.  If, at some point, the Lambs decide to catch me and bring me in, then it’s already a conclusion, and you can let me know just how badly inconvenienced you’ve been by my rebelliousness.  But until then, if you say anything on the subject, I’m going to have to gag you.”

More silence from Lillian.

“Don’t be too hard on me,” the spectre suggested.

“…With one of my socks, maybe, which I imagine is still very dirty and sweaty from me running around all day,” I said, smiling.

Lillian looked up.  She and the spectre were nearly in sync, asking, “Seriously, Sy?”

“Or a pair of underwear,” I said, still smiling.

“What?  How would that even work?  Your underwear or mine?” Lillian asked.

My smile became an ever-widening grin, as I watched her expression morph through several different emotions, ranging from disbelief that the question had passed through her lips, to anger at herself, then confusion, then something mingling shame with depression.

“I walked into that,” she said.

“Actually, that was very much you, Lillian, I didn’t plan for you to waltz right into it, I just brought up underwear to embarrass you and lighten the moment.”

She hung her head a little, staring at the floor.

“Wow, though.  That’s where your mind goes, is it?  It’s-”

“Sy.  Please.”

I stopped, still smiling.  I perched on the stool and leaned forward, “Okay.  In all seriousness, Lillian.  This situation, right here, you tied up and completely at my mercy?  Has it ever crossed your mind before?”

“Yes,” the spectre admitted, while Lillian struggled to get her mental footing.

“How many times?  Once?  Ten times?” I stretched it out, enjoying her squirming, the spectre’s expression and body language a representation of what Lillian was keeping hidden.  “Too many times to count?”

“Water,” Lillian said.  “I would like a drink of water.  And a change of subject, please.”

“I can give you the water,” I said, teasing. “I kind of like the current subject.”

“Change of subject,” Lillian said, more firmly.  “And I won’t bring up Hayle or his offer.”

I picked up the glass.  I weighed it in my hand.

Lillian was so beautiful in this moment, cheeks flushed, hair a little bit in disarray.  I wanted to say I knew she had already resolved not to bring up Hayle’s offer again.  I could say no, I could push.  Again, the thought of making up for all of those nights she hadn’t been lying beside me took over.  She probably wouldn’t even be that upset over it.

“Okay,” I said.  “In the interest of being a gentleman.”

I leaned forward on the stool until it might have tipped forward, offering the glass.  I tipped the contents between her lips.

“Thank you,” Lillian said.

“Your end-of-year project is going well?” I asked, looking at the sleeves.

“Yes,” Lillian said, “It is, thank you.  I could hammer home the fact that I’ve had a lot of free time to spend in my lab, studying, but I won’t.”

“Thank you,” I said.  “I’d guessed that much, for the record.  And I’m sorry for your free time.”

“It’s been nice, as a matter of fact.  Lonely, but nice.  Mary was training me in hand to hand in the downtime, and I was getting caught up in a way I haven’t for a while.”

“I thought the training might be the case after dealing with you earlier,” I said.  “You put up a fight.  I thought for a moment I wouldn’t be able to grab you.  I was actually genuinely worried for that moment.”

“And then you confiscated the syringe, which I had taken off of one of your errant orphans.”

“And stuck in your waistband,” I said.  “Yes.  And I stuck you with it.”

“When it counted, earlier, and when facing you, I didn’t quite have the courage to make myself move and to hurt people,” Lillian said.  “I’m still a scaredy cat in the end.”

“You did fine,” I said.  “Just about everyone did.  I’m not sure about Abby, but I don’t even know who or what she is, except that she loves animals of all kinds.”

“She was supposed to serve as someone who could decipher, even better than you can.  Human nature, animal nature, read body language, read tone and expression.  If she’d worked, she would be better at cracking people than you are.  As is, she’s good with animals.”

“Nothing like Evette, then.”

Lillian smiled. “We brought her because of her physical similarities to Evette.  Jamie had a picture of Evette in one of his notebooks, and described how you used to sleep on the floor by her vat.”

“Dirty,” I said, but I smiled.  “I like that she liked the lamb I left for them.  I had no plans for them to keep it.  But when they did, and they went up into the tower where I couldn’t follow or listen in, I scrambled to get everything together so there would be more animals waiting when they left the building.  I’m so pleased I was able to.”

“Duncan was bothered by the chicken.”

“I thought there was a chance they’d pick up more pets and have more dead weight if I included variety.”

“That’s what I said,” Lillian said.  “He thought it was a jab.”

I struck my forehead with the heel of my hand.  “It could have been, too!  I could have said something to him, needled him.  I feel so dumb!”

“You were hard on him as it was.”

I snorted, then looked for a change of topic.  “I still have to get the details about what Emmett knows from him.”

“You do,” Lillian said.  “I’m sure you’ll manage.”

Her disposition had improved considerably.  The flush still hadn’t entirely left her cheeks, which was important.

“Now’s a good time for what you’re thinking about,” Lillian-the-spectre murmured.

“Speaking of,” I said.

“Speaking of?” the real Lillian asked.

“Of managing.  As much as I would very much like to be able to be in this room and watching you for the duration of your stay, I don’t think I’m capable.  That means, well, I need to make sure you don’t have any tools or tricks that could deal with those bonds while I’m looking the other way.”

“What?” Lillian asked, caught off guard by the change in topic.

“I’m going to need to frisk you,” I said.

“What?” she asked, again.  “No.”

“Yes,” I said.

“No!  Sy, you little shit, that’s not-”

“-negotiable,” I said.  “Not negotiable.  But, like I said a few minutes ago, you do very much have the option of kicking me out of the room.  I can go get Jamie, he can take over, and I’m positive he’ll be an absolute gentleman for you.”

“And you won’t?”

“I’ll try,” I said.  “But I’m not very practiced.  So if you give me the signal to go ahead and we leave Jamie where he’s at, then you do so at your peril.”

I met her eyes as I said it, giving her my most serious look in the process.  I saw the flush start to return to her cheekbones.

Before she could back out, I ventured, “I highly recommend you ask for Jamie.”

“Are you that perilous?” Lillian asked.

“I don’t think so, but you’re a scaredy cat and a crybaby, and I think we’re on good terms right now.  I don’t want you getting mad at me again.  You’ll be stuck here with me for at least the whole night and part of tomorrow.”

“Scaredy cat and crybaby,” she said.

I smiled.

“You could have searched me while I was unconscious.”

“I could have,” I said.  “But that would have been rude.”

Her body language and expression told enough of a story that I knew I didn’t need to look at the spectre for clues or validation.  Not that the spectre was anything but a fun way of exercising what I already knew.

“I want to see you try and fail at being a gentleman,” she challenged.

I smiled, and stepped away from the stool, bending into a small bow.

“Good start,” she said.

“About your presumption of failure on my part?  You forget.  I’m on Wyvern.  I can be and do anything, given a chance to adjust,” I said.  “May I have one of your feet, please?”

“My feet?” Lillian asked.

She raised her leg, sticking out one shoe as much as she was able before the rope tugged taut.

I dropped down to my knees, and took hold of her ankle and foot.  I unbuckled the straps to her shoe, then took it off, setting it on the lower shelf of the tea trolley.  That done, I took hold of her sock by the top edge, and peeled it off.

I didn’t look up at Lillian, because her leg being raised like it was, me kneeling at her feet, I was in a position to look up her skirt, and that wouldn’t be gentlemanly.

Her silence in the moment spoke volumes, however.

I let go of her foot, and she offered the other.  I unbuckled and removed the other shoe.  As I peeled off the sock, taking care as I did so, I revealed the scalpel that Lillian had tucked in there.

“Taking lessons from Mary?” I asked, collecting the scalpel in one hand as I took the sock in the other.

“Not at all,” Lillian said.

“I name thee a liar!” I pronounced, picking up the second shoe.  I flicked it, hard.  The blade flicked out of the sole, coming to a stop in a position where it stuck out in front of the toe.

“Oh.  You recognized it?” Lillian asked.

“Recognized?” I asked.

“They’re Mary’s shoes.  She outgrew them and lent them to me for today.”

“No.  I recognized the thickness of the soles.  I never paid that much attention to Mary’s clothes, except to think of how fancy they were.  I paid more attention to what you wore.  I still have a vague recollection of all your different nightgowns, now that I think about it.”

“Careful, gentleman Sy.  You’re slipping.”

I set the shoes together on the trolley, and draped the socks over them.  I held on to the scalpel until I’d straightened, and placed it on the top.  I took a position in front of Lillian, our noses a few centimeters apart.

“I beg your pardon,” I said.

“Wh-” she started.  She stopped as my hand seized the front of her skirt, balling it up in my fist.  I pulled at it, until the waistband was a short span away from her waist.  Had I looked down, I could likely have seen everything clear from the bottom of her button up shirt to her knees, but I didn’t look down.  My eyes were locked to hers.

With my other hand, I ran my fingers along the inside of the waistband.

I could see the dilation of her eyes change, the pupils expanding.  She didn’t break eye contact any more than I did.

“What’s this?” I asked, as I found the first obstacle.  A twist of metal, which held three thin vials.

Lillian was silent.  She did all of her communicating with her eyes and the flush of her cheeks.

“Yeah,” I said.  I put the vials on top of the trolley.   I switched hands, using the tension of my finger against the waistband to hold it away from her body, touching the clothes while not touching her.  “And another.  Look at that.”

I’d discovered a syringe, pre-loaded with a half-dose of fluid.  I set it on the table.

“Excuse me,” I said, as my finger traveled along the circumference of the waistband, reaching further back.

At the last moment, before my hand would have struck the post, she pushed her pelvis out, toward me, giving me room to reach the waistband that would otherwise have been pressed between her rear end and the post she was loosely bound to.

“Just because you’re saying ‘beg your pardon’ and ‘excuse me’, doesn’t mean you’re actually being gentlemanly,” she said.

“Being polite about this is just one of the rules.  I’ll touch your clothes, because that’s necessary when searching someone like I have to search you, but I won’t touch you unless you make the first move, give your consent, or ask.”

“Is that so?” Lillian asked

“It is so,” I said. “And it is also so that you can, at any time, ask for me to go away.  I can go get Jamie, and he can wrap up.”

She didn’t respond to that.

I withdrew the rectangular cloth bag of pills that had been clipped to the underside of the waistband.  I examined the pills.

Rather than break eye contact, I held up the baggy beside her head and shook it, trusting my peripheral vision.  “There are no little yellow pills in here, sadly.  It would be nice to extend the leash some.”

She didn’t flinch or look away as I angled the bag and let the contents clatter on the trolley.

My fingers traced the inside edge of the bottom of her shirt, and again, she pushed her body out toward me to assist as I reached behind her.  Nothing.

This was a different kind of dance, but the maintained eye contact made it an intimate one.  Less two dancers separating and joining back together, as I might dance with Mary on a battlefield, more of a dance where each person held the other in their own ways, and didn’t let go from start to finish.  What we were saying, the interplay, and the things we weren’t saying helped preserve the illusion.  It would be so easy to say the wrong thing and break the spell.

If Lillian talked about Hayle.

If I drew too much attention to the fact that she was playing along.

My fingers grazed the buttons on her shirt, checking them by texture, and slipped into the spaces between to check that nothing had been placed there.

Even with the wind, I could hear her every breath, faint but real.  I was aware of the shift in light and dark as the sheer curtains moved and let more sunlight in.

I reached the top button, and moved up to check the collar of her shirt.

At the front of her collar, where the corners were, I found a pair of blades, each one like a razor, but with a solid edge along one side, no longer than a few centimeters.  I dropped them on the trolley.

At the back of her collar, there was a punching blade with a reservoir.  It was little more than a triangle of steel with a ‘T’ shaped bit of metal on the end.  I imagined it could be loaded with poison or a drug.

“That last one was actually very uncomfortable when leaning back against this post,” Lillian commented.

I was very aware of how close her lips were to mine.  I could feel her breath as she spoke.

But my gentleman’s rules were as much for me as they were for her.  I obeyed the restrictions I’d set for myself.

My fingers traced her shoulders, then her sleeves, stopping at the ends.  I reached inside, between her arm and the sleeve, and checked there.

Left sleeve, secured with a pin, a little cloth baggie, scarcely taller or wider than my thumbnail.

I held it over the trolley, removed the pin, and squeezed out the contents, while holding eye contact with Lillian.

One yellow pill.

“The leash.”

“Mm hmm,” Lillian said.

I broke eye contact, stepping away.

“I’d like your permission to check your hands,” I said.

“My hands?”

“Gut feeling,” I said.

“What if I don’t give it, hm?”

“I’ll figure it out,” I told her.  “But this will go a lot smoother if you just say yes.  I’ll only touch your hands, for now.”

“Go ahead,” she said.

I caught the thumb of her left hand between the index and middle fingers of one of my hands, and used my other hand to trap the four fingers, holding them together, lined up in a row.

I checked the thumb first, running my fingers along the length of it, firmly, until I reached the pad.  I squeezed the pad, applying pressure as if I were milking a cow.

The needle slid out from beneath the thumbnail, beading with a droplet of something.

“Yeah,” I said.  I shifted my grip around, then checked her fingers.

Index, middle, and pinky fingers of her left hand all had weapons within.

“Why not this finger?” I asked, touching the other.

“Sentiment,” Lillian said.

“Fray did this, once upon a time.  I thought about you being inspired by that.  Somehow, when I imagined you preparing to beat me, this was always just something I assumed.”

Which wasn’t entirely true, if I admitted it to myself.  But something had prompted me to check as Jamie and I had been binding her hands.  I’d cheated before conducting this little exercise.

I left her behind, crossing the room to look for one of the canvas pouches that had tools or nails in them.  The inside of the first of the two bags I found was filthy, so I made a point of turning it inside out before sliding it over Lillian’s hand, a kind of protective mitten.  The fine syringe needles likely wouldn’t pierce the canvas, and with the canvas snug and bound in place, her hands would be more or less stuck balled into fists.  Even if she were able to pierce the canvas, she wouldn’t be able to stick me or Jamie with the needles.

I returned to my position, just in front of her, smiling.

“What now?” she asked.

I reached up, and with ginger care, I took hold of the half circle of her hairband, and lifted it off of her head.  I ran my fingers along it.

“Just a hairband, Sy,” Lillian said.  I could feel her breath.  Even without the hairband, it was warm enough that her sweat-damp hair was staying where it was

I set it down on the trolley.

I reached up to her ear, and the exercise of removing the earrings was delicate enough that I had to look away, working to remove the pearl studs without touching her ear.

“Just earrings, Sy,” she said, as I removed the first.

I worked on the second, and had enough of a sense of how to remove it that I didn’t need to look for the full duration of it.

I could see the fine hairs on her neck standing on end.

I held both earrings with one hand, pearls with tiny spears of metal sticking out of them.  With the spears pinched in between finger and thumb, I used the back of my hand to move her glass, and put the pearls into the ring of condensation that the underside had left.  I stirred them in that shallow puddle, leaving white trails.

“Just earrings,” I said, as they gradually dissolved.

“Also serviceable as a mild drug, mixed into water,” Lillian said.

“Mary did more than lend you a pair of shoes and give you some instruction in hand to hand,” I said.

“We spent a lot of time together over the past few months,” Lillian said.

“The earrings were cute,” I said.  “It would be nice if you wore stuff like that more.  But they weren’t very you.”

“I thought you’d be flattered, thinking they were for your benefit, and that you’d overlook them.”

I shook my head.

“Darn,” she said, without any pathos.

“I’d like to check your hair,” I said.  “With your permission.”

“You’ll figure out something if I say no, will you?”

“Probably.”

She leaned forward, staring down at my feet, offering me her head.

I ran my fingers through her hair, combing it with my fingernails.  I did two passes to be sure, then a third to comb it into her usual style, parted to one side, tucked behind her ears.  After a moment’s consideration, I replaced the hairband.

I upended a share of her glass of water into my cupped hand, leaving it only a quarter full.  Then I picked out one of the pills.

“Sterilization, if I remember right?” I asked.

“Yes, but… what are you doing?”

I didn’t answer right away.  I dropped the pill into the water, then rubbed my hands together.  The pill dissolved into the water, and I thoroughly washed my hands like that.

I dried them on my clean handkerchief.

“You could be more sterile than that,” Lillian observed.  “What are you doing?”

“Mouth,” I said.

“Mouth?” she asked, raising her eyebrows.

“Don’t look so surprised.  If you’ll allow me, I’m going to check the inside of your mouth.”

She didn’t protest or argue, but opened her mouth.

The spectre gnashed her teeth at me, playful.

I drew my knife, and held it in one hand, so the blade lay against my wrist, the handle extending forward.  Lillian pulled her head back as I extended it toward her mouth.

“To keep you from biting,” I said.  “Like you said, you’re still angry, right?”

Lillian relented.  I placed the handle of the knife between her molars on the one side, and ran my fingers along either side of her top and bottom teeth, then checked the wells between her cheeks and gums.  I switched sides, worked my way all the way back-

And felt something solid.

There was a catch, a fine, tiny lever, of the sort that might be tripped with the tongue.

False tooth.  I undid the catch, removed the tooth, and then removed the catch.

I set it all down on the table, removing the knife from her mouth.

“Son of a bitch,” Lillian said, as she looked down at it.

“Yeah, I know,” I said.  I wiped the saliva from my fingers on my shirt-front, drawing an ‘x’ as I did it.

Spectre Lillian smiled.  The real Lillian pretended not to notice.

I struck the false tooth with the blunt end of the knife.  It disintegrated.  I used the blade to nudge the individual pieces away from the tiny yellow pill that was nestled within.

“Two little yellow pills,” I said.

“Fancy that,” Lillian said.

“Guess you’re staying with me a little while longer,” I said.

She nodded, her expression unreadable.

The spectre, however, gave me a faltering smile.

“Was the plan to pop the tooth free, crack it between your teeth, and spit the yellow pill into my food or something?” I asked.

“Maybe,” Lillian said.

“How did I do?  Did I get all of it?”

“Do you seriously expect me to answer that?” Lillian asked.

“I’ll give you a choice,” I said.

“Another choice,” she said.

“You tell me what you hid, and I’ll remove it, or you do a very good job of sincerely telling me that you don’t have anything more, that I won, and I take you at your word…”

“You trailed off there.  What’s option three?”

“Option three is that you leave me no choice, I can’t take you at your word, and I have to assume you hid something in your undergarments, like Mary typically does.”

I saw her freeze a little with that.

“I did,” she said.

It was my turn to mentally stumble over her words.  A part of me expected her to claim it was a joke.

“In my bra.  A paper packet of poison,” she said, raising her chin a little.

A challenge.  Testing my limits as a gentleman.  Did she think it was her victory in more than one way?  That she’d hidden it successfully, and that she was going to make me balk?

The me she’d known might have, the Sylvester who had slept in her bed and taken her to dinner with her parents.

I stepped closer, one of my hands going to her top button, and I could see her shocked reaction.

“I guess you win,” I murmured in her ear, undoing the one button.

I started on the second.  I was very aware of her breathing, or the lack thereof.  She was very still.

“You can ask for Jamie at any time,” I reminded her, as I undid the second button.

“No need,” she said, in the smallest, tightest of voices.  The flush was full now.

Did she think this was a game of chicken?  That if she held firm, I would back off?

I reached inside her shirt, and I didn’t touch skin.  Wyvern coupled with weeks and months of training my hands with lockpicking and medical care and tool use and whiling away my time with playing with needles and coins and blades had left me with a great deal of confidence in my fingers and my sense of touch.

I didn’t touch skin, but I felt the fine beads of sweat that had collected on it, the fine, nearly-invisible white hairs that stood out from the skin, no doubt bristling from the goosebumps on the skin’s surface itself.  I felt the body heat, and judged my fingers’ distance from Lillian’s breast, as I moved my hand at a snail’s pace.

I had disarmed landmines with less care than I moved my hand over that tantalizing surface.  I operated with touch alone, my eyes fixed on Lillian’s.

My fingernail touched the strap of her bra, and I traced the nail along the strap’s edge, down to the bra itself, then along the edge.  It vibrated slightly and silently as the fingernail’s edge dragged along the stitching, the very edge of my finger touching the beads of sweat and fine hairs.

“Damn,” I murmured, into Lillian’s ear.  “I hoped there would be a little tag of paper sticking out I could grab.”

“Damn,” Lillian said, her voice even softer and tighter than before.  She was staring at my eyes, but in that moment, she was really staring well past me.  Her focus wasn’t on sight.

“I beg your pardon,” I said, reaching behind her with my other hand.  “With utmost sincerity.”

With one hand and a snapping motion of my fingers, I undid the clasp on her bra.  She jumped as if she’d been stabbed, and her focus returned to me, her eyes on mine.

I moved my fingers down, tracing more fine hairs and more waves of warm body heat, then crossed the void to the concave of the now loose bra cup.  With two fingers, I retrieved my prize, and maneuvered my hand out of her shirt.

I held up my prize between our faces, then flicked it through the air, letting it land on the trolley.  In the moment it smacked into place, the spell was broken, and she let out the breath she’d been holding in, shivering visibly as she did it.

Not a bad sort of shiver, either.

“If you cut me free from this post, I would pounce on you in an instant,” the spectre said.  “And get payback for all of the teasing you just put me through.”

Payback in the form of a beating, or in the form of making me follow through on every tease?

The spectre smiled.

“Can you imagine?” I asked Lillian.  “Next time, I’m going to have to assume you’ll be better with the hiding places.  I’ll have to be even more thorough.”

“What?  Next time?”

“I like you, Lillian,” I said.  “This isn’t the last time I’ll say hi.  I’ll nab you again, the next time the Lambs show.  We’ll have another conversation.  I’ll frisk you again, again, if you don’t want Jamie to handle it.”

“I don’t think it works that way, Sylvester,” Lillian said.

I’d let that ‘Sylvester’ slide.

“Naturally, you’ll do your best to work with the Lambs to counteract it, but that’s what makes it so interesting a challenge, do you see?”

“I don’t see at all,” Lillian said.

“I’ll kidnap you again, and then again.  And maybe kidnap Mary once just to say hi and make you a little jealous, even though she would scare me, if she were tied to a post in front of me.”

“Sy, no.”

“The Lambs are important to me,” I said.  “I want them in my life in some capacity or another.  And this week has been fantastic fun.  If this is the only capacity I can have you, then I’ll be damned if I’m not going to kidnap you at every opportunity.”

“It doesn’t work that way, Sy.”

“Then how does it work, Lillian?” I asked.  I stepped back, perching on the stool.  “Because the way I see it, this is utterly guiltless, for you.  You’re at my mercy.  If pressed, you can say you were innocent.  I got the upper hand.  You can even tell yourself that, if that makes it easier.  But I know you’ve enjoyed yourself in some capacity.”

Her eyes were fixed on the floor.  She responded to that last point with a faint nod, as if she wasn’t even aware she was doing it.

“So you-” I started, as she said, “You’ve-”

In the moment that followed, I quietly said, “Your turn.”

She did that faint nod again.

“You’ve ruined me, Sy.”

“Hm?”

“You’ve ruined me,” she said.

“Naw,” I replied.

She spoke, still staring at the floor, as if she wasn’t talking to me any more.  “Did you know I got a boyfriend?”

I blinked.

“I had two, as a matter of fact.”

“Not Duncan,” I said.

Lillian raised her head, giving me an incredulous look, “No!”

“Oh, good,” I said.

“He’s a year above me, working on his gray coat.  Tall, smart, well put together, a little bit athletic.  All of the girls in his year go weak in the knees over him when he walks down the hall.  He and I struck up a conversation, and he asked me out.  Me and… actually, I won’t name him.  You might hunt him down.”

I might.  That ‘tall’ comment was a barb.  Even now I was only Lillian’s height.

“We dated.  I was trying to fill a void, and I used him to do it, I admit it.  So many of those girls would kill me if I said it like that.  I, he and I, we messed around.  Kissed.”

If she was trying to make me jealous, it was working.

“It didn’t- it wasn’t the same.  The kisses were… nice enough, for kisses.  But they weren’t like the ones you gave me.  It was the same for spending time with him.  You were always so attentive, you paid attention to every little thing, catalogued everything you could use and you used it and… you made me feel cherished.  You make me feel like that here, while I’m tied to this dang post.”

Her bagged hands pulled at the restraints.  Her frustration seemed to flow out into the gesture.  Her hands shook a little as she stopped pulling, as if she was clenching each fist in the bag.

“You were my first love,” she said.  “I will never… never have someone who pays close attention to me like you did.  Never someone as sharp as you, never someone who kisses like you did.  I’m ruined, don’t you see?  Romance is ruined for me, because everything that waits for me pales, compared to this.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“I wanted to feel something like I felt with you.  He and I went further.  I let him put his hand up my shirt, this boy I didn’t even like, in the end.  Because I wanted to feel like I did when you kiss me.  That’s… that’s how ruined I am, don’t you see?”

“I don’t think you’re ruined at all,” I said.  “Not because of that.”

“And I’m supposed to be happy with this?” she asked.  There was a note of anger in her voice.  “With being kidnapped over and over?  Waiting months for, what, one or two days?”

“You’re not supposed to do anything,” I said.  “Sorry.  It was a good solution when I put it together in my head.  If you want something else, then… let me know what it is.  I’m adaptable.”

“My choice?” Lillian asked.

“Yes.”

“Would you kiss me, please?”

I wasted no time in stepping away from the stool, putting one hand on the side of her face, and kissing her like I’d been aching to do since I’d first carried her off.

I gave her light, teasing kisses, drawing her forward, retreating, tormenting her, making her ask.

Her lips still touched mine, moved against mine, as she murmured, “Real kisses.”

Real kisses.

I gave her what she wanted.  No butterfly-light brushes of lip against lip, but full contact, forceful enough to press her head back against the post.  She pushed her body against mine, pulled her arms forward against the restraints, as if she’d forgotten I’d tied them in the moment.

I was aware of the spectre, and allowed one of my eyes to watch her as she snapped her jaw shut.

My hands went to Lillian’s throat, fingers touching the corners of her jaw.  She moaned lightly into my mouth, and then I felt the tension at the corner of her jaw, as she opened it.

I pulled back.  The skin of my teeth wasn’t quite apropos, because it was her teeth, as she moved to bite me, hard.

Her head dropped.  My hands were still on her neck and face, and I could feel her shaking.

“What was that about?” I asked.

She didn’t respond.

“Okay,” I said.  “If you want, we can-”

“Don’t,” she said, without raising her head.

It was a fierce enough utterance that my hands dropped away from her neck and face.

She was crying, now.  I could see the first tear.  The angle of her head and her hair made it hard to see anything else.

“Please don’t,” I said.  “Don’t cry.  This was all pretty nice.”

She nodded, as if in agreement, then said, “I can’t.”

“Please,” I said.  “Whatever I can do, just-”

Don’t!” she said, raising her voice, suddenly tense.

I stopped, helpless.

“Stop… stop giving me choices,” she said.

I opened my mouth to speak, and I had no idea what to say.

“Stop.  Just stop,” she said.  “I can’t do this.”

The words didn’t come to my lips.  I backed away.  It was like night and day, this and before.

I didn’t know what to do.  All of the Wyvern augmented brain, just a day after my appointment with Jamie, and I was as clueless as the dumbest dumbfuck in the Crown States.

I saw the tears, saw Lillian start sobbing, and I turned away.

“Help,” I said.  “Jamie.”

A heartbeat passed.  I raised my voice, “Jamie!”

But he was already in the doorway.

He had to be just outside the door.

How long was he there?

Didn’t matter.  Lillian was hurting and I didn’t know how to make it stop.

“I don’t know what to do,” I confessed.

Jamie didn’t meet my eyes as he crossed the room, going to Lillian’s side.

She pressed her head into his chest.

“Get him out of here,” she said.

“Step outside, Sy,” Jamie said.  “I’ll be there soon.”

“I don’t know what happened,” I said.

“It’s fine,” he said.  “But step outside.”

I moved the trolley away, just to be safe, as I headed toward the door.  I paused, “She has retractable needles under her fingernails like Fray did.  Watch out.”

“I know, Sy.  I’ll be careful.  Just go.”

As I left the room, I heard Lillian’s voice, faint and small.

I don’t like the me that says yes to Sylvester.

Jamie’s reassurance was short, gentle, and I didn’t process it at all, because of how deep Lillian’s words had cut.

What was I supposed to do?

I made my way into the hallway, and ran my fingers through my hair.

I’d been honest.  I’d invited her to meet me halfway, and she’d agreed.  In the moment, she’d even seemed happy with it.  It was a bittersweet happiness, but… surely that had to be better than having nothing.  Loneliness and what Lillian had been talking about, being ruined without each other.

This was a compromise, and most compromises left both parties a little unhappy, but…

…They weren’t supposed to leave people like Lillian was right now.  Unhappy with herself.

What was I supposed to do?

Avoid Lillian?  Say goodbye for good?  Never touch her or kiss her again?

How was that better?  She herself had said it was bad.

Was I supposed to avoid the Lambs altogether?  I couldn’t see a way around things that didn’t rekindle at least a part of this hurt that I’d just seen in Lillian.

I ran my fingers through my hair, stopped halfway, and leaned against the wall.  The only sound I heard was the rustle of the sheer curtains and the indistinct murmurs of Jamie and Lillian’s voices.

“Just give me a moment?  Talk to him.  I know you want to,” Lillian said.  No longer whispering or murmuring.

“Sylvester can hold his own.  I’m worried about you.”

“No.  I need a moment to collect my thoughts.  I’m a mess, and I can’t even articulate why.”

“I think you did, and I’ll hardly judge you for being out of sorts.”

“Please?  Just a bit of quiet?  I won’t try to escape.”

“If you’re sure.”

“Thank you.”

I closed my eyes, listening as the footsteps approached.

Jamie gently closed the door behind him.

“Do you remember our conversation, back when we were dealing with the Devil’s men who had cornered the nanny and the mayor’s children?”

“Not really,” I said.

“I was worried about this sort of thing.  The weight of this sort of thing.”

Weight.  The word rang a faint and broken bell.  “I didn’t think you were talking about this.”

“I was.  I’ve alluded to it at other times.  While I was recuperating from the Ravage, then at the Brothel, twice, and back at Lambsbridge…”

I shook my head a little.

“That damn memory of yours, Sy.”

“Sorry,” I said.

“We’re all a little bit twisted, when it comes to matters of the heart,” he said.

“I remember that.  It was our first real, honest conversation.  I mean you and me, not me and the old Jamie.”

“Yeah,” Jamie said.  He looked in the direction of the door, cracked it open, peeking at Lillian, and then shut it.  He stayed there for a moment, his back to me, before turning around again.

“I don’t know what I did wrong.”

“You miscalculated.  You didn’t account for… how she felt.”

“Every step of the way, she gave the okay.  She wanted the kiss, she challenged me to fish for the packet.  She said I could search for the tooth, touch her hands, examine her shoes.  Her body language, all the while, right up until the end, it reinforced that.  She was happy in the moment.”

“It still wasn’t okay, Sy.”

“What is!?” I asked.  “What was I supposed to do that would make all that alright!?”

“Think beyond the moment, for once.  I know it’s not common practice for you, but think longer-term,” Jamie said.  “Think about Lillian having to go back to the Lambs, with her feelings for you rekindled and all stirred up.”

I set my jaw.

“And she has to live with the fact that she said yes, and that she was weak and romantic in the moment instead-”

“Stop,” I said, my voice firm.

Jamie stopped.  He fixed me with a level, unreadable stare.

“There’s nothing weak about Lillian.  There’s nothing bad about being romantic.”

“I agree,” Jamie said.  “But right now, she feels weak.  She wasn’t thinking straight, and let’s be entirely honest.  You aren’t exactly operating on a level playing field, are you?”

“Are you talking about the ropes?  Because-”

He stabbed his finger into my chest.  “I’m talking about you, Sy.  You.  You’re a manipulator.  Yes, she said yes.  But you led her to that answer.”

I shook my head.

“Are you saying you didn’t?”

“I’m saying- I might have.  But that’s hardly fair.”

“Existence isn’t fair, Sy.  Especially ours,” Jamie said.

“I’m me.  Manipulation is me.  I toy with people.  I toyed with her for years and she called it a lovely romance that she won’t ever be able to live up to.  Because that’s how she operates and that’s how I operate and that’s how we function as a pair.”

“There is no pair anymore, Sy.  You left her.  You can’t cling to the scraps that remain.”

“There’s more than scraps,” I said, more defensively than I might have liked.

“When you left the room, she said Hayle warned her about you, after your first kiss.  That she only just now realized why.  It’s not because you’ll cross the line.  It’s because you’re clever enough to redefine the line.  You have to realize that dragging out a half-relationship with Lillian isn’t going to make her happy in the long run.  Because I think, right there in that room, in that moment that your time with her took a turn, Lillian sure realized it.”

“What am I supposed to do, Jamie?  Because you can say ‘life isn’t fair’, but that’s a whole different ballpark from ‘Sylvester can never ever have a relationship, because that relationship will never be a level playing field’.  And that sounds pretty shitty.”

“I didn’t say that,” Jamie said.

I shook my head.

“There are people who can stand on a level playing field with you,” Jamie said.  “Experiments.”

“Mary?” I asked.  “Started down that road.  Would be even unhealthier than…” I flailed inarticulately in the direction of the door.

“It was good of you to realize that,” Jamie said, voice soft.

“I’m not about to wait for Abby or one of the twins to grow up.  I’ll be a goner before then.”

“Yeah,” Jamie said.

“So, what, you?” I asked, a little bitter.

Jamie was silent.  He didn’t meet my eyes.

“I like girls.  You and I both know very well that I like girls, Jamie.”

“I know.”

“So what, you want me to go find some back alley doctor, see if they can mess with my head, twist things around?  Would that make you happy?”

I realized the words that were coming out of my mouth as I spoke them.  This was a dark echo to a prior conversation.  One that had played through in my head at least once a night for years now.

“No need for something that extreme,” Jamie said.  “Not least because I don’t think your Wyvern-altered brain would do very well with people carving things up in there.”

“Then-”

“Sy,” he said.  “I’ve come to know you.  I’ve made peace with that.  With who you are.  I’m okay, I think.  Your company is good as-is.”

I stopped.  Then I found the words.  Because I couldn’t let the conversation end with that.

I spoke with more bitterness than I would have liked, “So all of this.  Your counsel, telling me how to deal with Lillian.  It’s biased.  Because you like me.”

“I do.  I wouldn’t have come to find you in Tynewear like I did if I didn’t like you at least a little.  And I am biased.  So you do have to take what I say with a grain of salt, here.”

I screwed up my face, scowling, then ran my hands through my hair again.

“Sometimes there are no compromises, Sy.  Sometimes the reality is that things just don’t work out, and you have to make peace with that.”

There would be no working things out with Lillian, if Jamie was right.

“Maybe… go for a walk, Sy?” Jamie suggested.  “I’ll do what I can to smooth things over with Lillian.  We’ll get things mostly normal, then decide where to go from there, once she’s able to have a conversation with us.”

I drew in a deep breath, and then sighed.

“Okay.  Thank you.”

I headed toward the stairs, to make my way out of the building.  Jamie, at the door, stopped.

“Sy.”

I turned to look up at him.

“Just so I know, there’s one thing I don’t get, and I want to talk to Lillian while armed with all the information.”

I nodded.

“How in the world is it you’re so damned clueless and innocent about matters, and then, there, with her, you’re different?  She even noticed it, almost right off the bat.  That you were flirting, that you were interested in a way that you usually aren’t.”

“Oh,” I said.  “That.”

“You’ve missed and inadvertently stumbled on rude innuendo a hundred times in the last six months.  I just can’t reconcile that with this.”

I put two fingers to my head, then turned them, as if I were turning a key in the lock.

“What?” Jamie asked.

“Wyvern,” I said.  “You gave me my appointment just yesterday.  I was anticipating this.  This time with Lillian.  So I took those feelings and ideas out of the box.”

“The box,” Jamie said.  There was a kind of horror on his face.

“Yeah.  Compartmentalized it, buried it, locked it away.”

“Sy, you can’t- you can’t do that.”

“Why not?” I asked, offended.

“Because it’s one thing if they warp you, if this messed up existence of ours and life with the Academy twists us around and makes us strange, but it’s something else altogether if you do it to yourself!”

I shook my head.

“That’s not f-” Jamie started.  He shook his head.  “That’s not good, Sy.  Why would you even do that in the first place?”

“Because of the nights I spent with Mary.  The nights I slept with Lillian?  At first, anyhow.  I guess I did it because I didn’t want to spoil that.  Didn’t want it to get weird, didn’t want to push them away.  Those moment, frozen in time, were good enough as they were.  I didn’t want to let those feelings push me to change that and risk breaking it.  So I made myself innocent.  More innocent.”

The horror was still on his face.  I didn’t quite understand it.

“You castrated yourself.”

“I didn’t castrate myself.  I… asserted control.  I left just enough of the less-innocent parts there because they seemed to amuse you and the others.  It’s really, really not that important, Jamie.  Hell, I halfway forgot about doing it until I started thinking about spending time with Lillian again, and making the most of it.”

Jamie, always rock solid, looked anything but in the moment, “You cannot alter yourself and then forget about it, Sy!”

“Obviously I didn’t.  I caught myself in time,” I said.

“You can’t- Sy, no.  That’s not fair.”

“You almost said that a bit ago.  That this wasn’t fair.  What’s not fair about it, Jamie?”

“I was here for you, Sy.  I left everything behind, I came to help you.  And I thought- I thought hey, you had feelings, you’d weighed them, you decided there was no chance with me, and that was fine.  But you didn’t even consider it.  Your feelings were put away, tucked in some dark corner of your mind and locked away.  I never had a chance to earn a place in your heart.”

I was supposed to say something back, but that last line drove it home.  Now I was the one who felt the horror that Jamie seemed to be evidencing, because it was dawning on me just why he felt that way.

It had taken longer to get there, but in the long run, this conversation was playing out just like my last conversation with Jamie.

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “But- you know I-”

I couldn’t bring myself to say it again.

“There was never a chance,” I said.  “Please trust me on that.”

“But you can’t know, can you?” Jamie asked.

“I don’t know.  I’m ninety-nine point nine percent sure.”

“I would have appreciated you letting me have that point-one percent chance,” Jamie said.  “I gave a lot to be here for you, maybe even years of my existence.  I don’t regret that, even now, but it sure would have been nice if you gave me that iota of a chance, in exchange.”

I could see the hurt.  I could see the damage I’d inadvertently done.  The wedge.

I didn’t know what to say, and there was no calling out for help, asking for some other person to come in from just around the corner and rescue me from this situation.

“Just tell me,” Jamie said.  “Tell me that, in the end, my feelings or the possibility of me having feelings wasn’t a reason you walled off that part of yourself.  That you didn’t throw up that barrier in between us.”

I opened my mouth, then closed it.

“You did,” he said.

I nodded.

“Just go for your walk, Sy,” he said.  “I’ll talk to Lillian.  I’ll… think things through.  We’ll talk later.”

“I knew this would happen,” I said.  “Or something like it.  That’s why I put that barrier there.  That there was a chance you would get jealous, or upset, or my feelings in another direction would push you away.  I put the barrier there because I valued you.  I thought it was safe take it down for Lillian, because she was a known element, except it wasn’t, and this conversation-”

“Stop talking, Sy,” Jamie said.

I stopped talking.

“Go for your walk.”

I turned, taking the stairs.

I went for my walk.  I spent an hour wandering the city, paying only minimal attention to the possibility that the Lambs were trying to track me or find me.

My thoughts were a mess.  I tried to organize them, but so many individual things seemed impossible to recover, impossible to salvage.

I was hurt and angry and against all logic and rationale, I resented Lillian and Jamie for making this so hard.

No compromise at all?  No flexibility?  Even the compromises I’d taken upon myself years ago were coming around to bite me.

It was dark by the time I finished my walk.  I had the wherewithal to be secretive as I made my way back to the building, making sure I wasn’t followed.

Hardly mattered.

No, it really didn’t matter at all.

I made my way up the stairs to that hallway and that room.  I wasn’t surprised in the slightest as I pushed the door open, and found the room empty.

No Lillian, no Jamie.

Two glasses and two lengths of rope sat on the trolley, but nothing littered it.  All of the pills and blades, large and small, had been picked up and put where they belonged.

On the table, the sleeves had been picked up and taken with.  The gun had been left there.  I picked it up and tucked it into my waistband.

I remained there, taking in the moment, for a very long time, the wind blowing in through the windows.

Would Jamie be back?  I had no earthly idea.

Could I endure the conversation when he did get back?  The hurt looks?  I had no idea.

Just in case, I found a scrap of paper, and scrawled out a short message.

It was shitty, and it was unfair.  He deserved better.

But I couldn’t endure the thought of waiting and him not showing up.  I couldn’t endure having that conversation if he did show up, and having it end in an interminable break.

I’d had that conversation in my head so many times by now that I couldn’t bear to give it more power than it had.  The eerie echo of it we’d just had was too telling, as it was.

Those who dwell in history are doomed to relive it, I thought to myself.

I looked down at my message.

Thanks for the last six months. – Sy.

I’d have to find Emmett before Jamie and Lillian did.  Get some answers, on the promise of getting Lillian back to them.  See if I couldn’t get Pierre in the bargain, while I was at it.  If I couldn’t, then I’d be directionless.

“At least I can’t let you guys down, eh?”

The assorted Lambs and would-be Lambs, apparitions, surrounded me.  Evette, Gordon, both Jamies, Mary, Lillian, Helen, Ashton, Duncan, Emmett, Abby, Nora, and Lara.

“I was stupid,” I said.  “Tried too hard to be a Lamb.  Hold on to the past, you know?”

I could picture the individual expressions, the body language.  I appreciated the sympathy, hollow as it was.

“Let’s get out of this damn city,” I said.  “Get ourselves into some trouble.”

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Black Sheep – 13.10 (Lamb)

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

I am a young lady of Mothmont, I am an exemplary killer.  I am a step above.

With the Lambs at my back, I can handle anything this world might throw at me.

Mary stared down into the eyes of the Devil.

I win.

“I used to be a businessman,” the Devil said.  “I used to be one of the best.  Chemicals were my stock in trade.  Chemicals and drugs.  When war happens, the demand goes up.  Both for the people on the ground and for the soldiers.  Sometimes I sold to both sides.  Sometimes one.”

His laugh bubbled out through his lips.  His eyes were unfocused.  Mary, straddling his chest, could feel his breaths.  He was slowing down.

The blood loss was catching up with him.  The laugh was delirious, and it seemed to take something out of him, because he was less as the laugh concluded.

“I thought I was ethical,” the Devil said.  He chuckled to himself.

His eyes weren’t focusing on her.  They weren’t focusing on anything much, now.  His bare chest rose and fell against her thighs.  That monstrous, tenacious strength was trickling out of him now.

The toes of each of her feet were propped against the ground, her stomach was tense.  She was very aware of where her body was, and the mental exercises she’d done outlined exactly how and where she needed to move if she needed to spring off him in any direction.

“I was a businessman,” he said.

“He’s repeating himself,” Lillian said.  “And Sylvester is putting distance between himself and us as we speak.  We got what we need.  We know where to go to rescue the hostages.”

“The escape route is upstairs,” Mary said.  “Go.  I’ll be right behind you, after I clean this up.  Show them, Emmett.”

“Okay.”

“Don’t take too long,” Lillian said.

Mary nodded.

“I was a businessman,” the Devil said.  “Then a warmonger.  I couldn’t do business without war to push it forward.  I diminished.  I made myself stronger, smarter, sharper.”

Mary stared down at him.  The others ascended the stairs to head further up the building.

The Devil rambled.  Was his life flashing before his eyes?  The individual scenes spilling out of his mouth as they flickered in his mind?

“I don’t care about any of that,” Mary said.  “But I know you’re the kind of man who likes to keep a card up his sleeve.  You’d keep a secret, another dead man’s switch that you didn’t even tell people about, to ensure that we pay in some fashion for winning.”

The Devil stopped his rambling.  His eyes rolled up into his head, then lolled over to one side.  He chuckled weakly.

“You’re thinking about it now,” Mary said.  “You can barely contain your glee.”

That prompted another weak chuckle.  As his life leaked away, this massive figure was starting to seem more like a child.

“The letters,” the Devil said.  “If I don’t send out the letters, then the house…”

He chuckled.

Mary slapped him.  He didn’t seem to feel it.

“If you don’t send the letters, then the house?”

“The house of cards.  I might lose, but nobody wins.”

Taking a cue from the Academy, are we? Mary thought.

“Those letters, those letters,” Mary said.  “Tell me about the letters.”

“I don’t want to tell you,” he said.  He almost sounded like he was regressing in age, his tone becoming more infantile.  Ashton’s influence would be part of that.  So would the drugs he’d taken.  “I want to keep it a seee-cret.”

“Such a good secret,” Mary said.  “You could rub it in my face.  You’re dying, Mr. Devil.  You’re dying, John Colby.  Soon the lights will go out.”

He blinked, as if trying to regain some measure of focus.

“You’re dying,” she hammered him with it.  She had to push herself to be less of a Lamb, more of the Lady.  It was like an old set of clothing that she was putting on after many, many months, and she was surprised it still fit, that it was still easy to move around in.  More emotion in her voice, more vulnerability showing, less… combativeness.  She leaned forward over him, her forearms resting against his chest, hands at his collarbone, her hair hanging down around his face.

He winced at the movement of the hair.  He looked up and focused enough to see her face.  The eyes that were wide and pleading, not dangerous.

“A hint,” he said.  He chuckled.  “All the letters.  They’re people I have under my thumb.  People who worked for me, some corrupt people and some people I corrupted.  I knew they wouldn’t always side with me, so I prepared to destroy each and every one of them if they tried to cross me.  Blackmail, and drugs that only I can supply, because only I know what they are.  Now I die, and the house of cards, it all comes tumbling down.”

“Oh no!” Mary said, feigning upset.

“Oh, yes!” the Devil said, indulging in his victory.  “My pawns will spread the right information if they don’t hear from me, and other people will never get the information they need.  They’ll lose their minds, if they don’t die.  Important people.”

“Unless someone finds your paperwork.”

“They won’t.  They can’t.  The letters are in a safe and the safe is in my headquarters, which the little brat burned down.”

Mary nodded.  Corrupt officials, officials that had allowed themselves to be corrupt, and people who had conceded to work with this madman.

Would it really be a loss, if their lives were utterly destroyed and they were removed from the picture?

Lillian wouldn’t want to be quite so cutthroat, but there was a reason she had suggested that Lillian leave before initiating this line of questioning.  If there was nothing that could be done, then Lillian would be upset over nothing.  If there was an option, then she could tell Lillian after, and they would find a solution.

A cold part of her, deep inside, wondered how hard she wanted to dig to see if there was an option.

That part of her identified well with Sylvester, and the very reason it was as easily felt as it was likely because Sylvester was on her mind.  When they had been in Warrick, hunting the Baron, she had known that she was influencing Sylvester, and Sylvester influencing her.  They had, how had Sylvester and Nora put it?  They had danced, and they had ruthlessly danced over a number of people along the way.

That wasn’t exclusive to Warrick or that mission, either.  He had been an influence all along.

She had paid close attention to that from the beginning.  ‘The beginning’ being the day he’d arrived in her life and had informed her that Mr. Percy held the strings that controlled her.

She had been aware when Sylvester had relinquished his control, stepping back to let the other Lambs reach out to her.

Gordon had helped her feel like less of a puppet and more like a girl.

Lillian, though.  Lillian was her friend and her heart.  As a stand-in for her own heart, she often thought about what Lillian would want and do.

“Unrecoverable,” she said.

“Un-re-coverable,” the Devil said.  Then he smiled, “Nooo.  But they would have to dig all day and all night to get it.  When the seasons change and the mess gets cleared up, long after the damage has been done, they’ll find my cellar and the papers will tell of what’s inside.  The story will be told all over again, rubbing salt in wounds, give truth to sus-sus-”

He stopped.

“Suspicion.”

“Suspicion, yes.  And the name of the drug that I used to control Robert, John, James, William and-”

“They’ll find it where?”

“My headquarters.  I liked my headquarters.  Oh, my more timid self was so upset that it burned.  Book collections, tidbits and trinkets from his travels.  He would be so sad to know he died like this.  As the monster within.”

“Where is the headquarters?”

“The winery.  It-”

He stopped as she lowered her knife to his face and started cutting.

“Oh,” he said.

Was this you, Sylvester?  Did you anticipate this part of it?  The Devil’s schemes, the countless measures we’d have to take into account?

Why?  What are you planning?  How far does this scheme go?

Since the beginning, Sylvester had manipulated her.  He was kind about it, encouraging her to grow.  A part of her had craved more, because it was what she knew.  She had, in nascent adolescence, seeing him as a boy and herself as a girl, invited him into a closet while she’d been wearing only her underclothes, because she wanted him to pull her strings.  He had refused to, in the end.

She was better for it, she knew.  But now things had turned around.  Sylvester was on the other side, and the manipulations were revolving around her in the form of Devils and children and a city turned upside-down.

She finished cutting, and she peeled the skin of the Devil’s face away.

The blood loss from that was enough that he was barely there by the time she was done.  She doubted he was capable of seeing anything, let alone focusing on anything.  With a flick of the knife, she severed the man’s jugular, then sprang to her feet.

As she made her way up the stairs, she folded the bloody mask, placed it between two pieces of paper and then put it into a small scroll case, tucking the case into a belt at her thigh.

Only a few of the Lambs were still at the top floor.  As Mary arrived, Emmett put the scrap of cloth over top of the rope and jumped, sliding over and down to the next building.

Only Lillian and Lara remained.

“Can I stay?” Lara asked.  “I can hide.  I’ll catch up with you after.  Or you can come back for me.  The police will have left.”

“No, honey,” Lillian said.  She spotted Mary, then returned her focus to Lara.  “If you stay, you’ll spend the entire time scared and upset you aren’t with us.”

Lara stood there, anxiously processing, trying to figure out a way.  Blood had soaked through much of her clothes.  Luckily, little to none of it was hers.

“There’s less fear this way,” Lillian said.  “It’s even kind of fun, but I understand if a fear of high places is one of your innate fears, but like the other innate fears, you have to fight past them sometimes.  Like when you and Nora fought back.”

“It’s not that,” Lara said.  She looked up, then winced as she got some sun in her eyes.  “It’s not one of my innate fears.  It’s a normal fear.  That’s why I don’t want to jump.  Because I might get used to it.  Then it won’t be a normal fear anymore.”

“You want to be afraid?” Lillian asked.

“Yes.  Sometimes.  To feel what others feel.”

Lillian looked at Mary, helpless.

“Go,” Mary said.  “We need to keep moving, and if the Crown police come around to look in this direction…”

She leaned over the edge.  It looked like the rubble of the fallen scaffolding had left relatively few people on the ground over here.  None were really looking up.

“Or if more come, they might see us.”

“We’ve been timing how we go over, so they’re less likely to spot us,” Lillian said.  “You’ll bring Lara?”

“Of course.”

Lillian nodded.

Mary took on the responsibility of checking to see if anyone was looking up as Lillian got her braided scrap of cloth out and put it over the top of the rope.

“Go.”

Lillian slid down and over along the rope-line.

Mary turned to Lara.  Lara flinched, backing away.

“You’re going to grab me and force me to go,” Lara said.  “Except I might claw at you.”

“I won’t,” Mary said.

Lara looked skeptical.

“Did you know, once upon a time, I hoped to become a teacher?”

“A teacher?”

“I would have trained the next generation of the puppeteer’s clones, I would have educated and instructed them, so they could be more effective tools.”

Lara nodded.  “Then you joined the Lambs.”

“I’ve been teaching Lillian things.  I’ve talked to Nora, too.”

“She told me.  She transcribed some.  But she didn’t always transcribe all of it, and I think that’s part of why she’s becoming different.”

“One day, when things are quieter, I’ll sit you both down and go over everything.  We’ll learn some self defense, we can talk about your philosophies and about mine, and I think you’ll both end up on the same page in the long run.”

Lara looked a little less unhappy at that idea.

“For now, let’s talk about fear.  You want to hold on to fear to feel more like a human?”

Lara nodded.  She was paying attention now.

“If you want to experience human fear, then you should experience overcoming it.  What it feels like after.”

“I dunno.”

“There will be more things to be afraid of in the future.  I’ll make you a promise.  Come over with me, and we’ll make it our own mutual mission to find something else that scares you.”

“I don’t know if there is one,” Lara said.

Mary bent down, and she picked up Lara, who didn’t resist.  “I guarantee there’s something.  It’s a spooky world out there.”

“Very spooky,” Lara said, and that seemed to be the admission that helped her make the leap.  She wrapped her arms and legs around Mary.  Mary could feel the claws and the spikes and blades within Lara’s shoulders that still hadn’t completely receded from her assault on the Devil.

The edges pressing against her skin, some even lightly piercing or scratching it, reminded her of her early childhood, working with Percy on her concealed carry of knives, poisons, and tools, figuring out where everything went so it would be comfortable and available.

Nostalgic.  She felt a twinge of fondness for Lara, in the wake of it.  An odd choice for a little sister.

Mary put the cloth Lillian had provided over top of the rope, checked the coast was clear, then stepped over the edge.

She dropped, hard, before the rope was taut enough, and then she moved at a diagonal, wind rushing against her face and through her hair while she felt the sensation of her stomach continuing to plummet to the ground.  They crossed the alley, then reached the rooftop on the other end.  Mary set her feet down, coming to a running stop.

She set Lara down.

“Bleeah,” Quinton greeted them.

“Yes.  Bleeaah.  Poor little Quinton,” Lara said, quiet.  She was shaking a little from the adrenaline.

“Poor Quinton?” Abby asked, sounding mildly alarmed.

“Having to spend so much time around Nora, without me near to make things better.  What a wretched few minutes that must have been.”

“The only wretched thing here is you,” Nora said.  “Look at you.  You have half the blood on your clothes that I do.  How hard did you really fight, coward weakling?”

“Hush, hush” Lillian said, intervening between the two, putting an oversized hand on each of their heads.  “Play after.  We still have to carry out our mission.”

“We’ve been talking while we wait,” Duncan told Mary. “The general feeling is that Sylvester isn’t going to have left yet.”

Mary nodded.

“We know about the orphanage.  Even if he is planning to run for it and leave this city, maybe he’ll still be getting ready to leave?”

“He’ll have packed things to be ready at any moment, if that’s the case,” Mary said.  Lillian and Helen nodded.

Duncan frowned.

“But he won’t have left yet,” Mary said.  “I think he’s still around.  He wants to tease us.  When he leaves, he’ll let us know where he’s going.”

Duncan nodded, “Alright.  Then the consensus was, if we wait too long, Sylvester is going to be too prepared.  It’s best to catch him off balance.  My group can split up, I’ll go get my dogs, we’ll each handle one of the gates, get them to call Hayle or something to give us some legitimacy, then my group will gather together after to figure out how to rescue the nanny.  Lacey can come with us, so she isn’t underfoot for you four.  The twins, Emmett, Abby, Lacey and I go, while you, Lillian, Ashton, and Helen go after Sy now.

“I can help with the nanny, I think,” Mary said.  She reached under her skirt for the scroll case and handed it over.  “Here.  A piece of the Devil.”

“A piece?” Duncan asked.  “Wait, I’m not sure I want the details… especially if it leads to me thinking about the size of that scroll case.”

“It’s recognizable,” Mary said.  “If they still balk, then tell them we know where the devil keeps his secrets and notes.  If they cooperate, secrets stay secret, and we’ll pass them the information the Devil has that they want to know.”

Duncan looked even less sure about his ability to handle things as she gave him the instructions, but he nodded.

“Ashton’s coming then,” Mary said.

“I’m mostly spent, but I’ll have one or two puffs ready soon,” Ashton said.  “And I want to see Sylvester.”

“And when Ashton says he wants something,” Duncan observed, dryly, “He really wants it quite a bit.”

Mary nodded.  The plan made a degree of sense.  They’d never really planned to use the new Lambs as anything but bait, not really.  The hope had been to flush Sylvester out of hiding and draw his interest.

“What about Emmett?” she asked.

“Emmett is new,” Lillian said.  “He doesn’t know all of the gestures, he might interrupt our flow.”

“Interrupting our flow against Sylvester is a good thing,” Mary said.  “It disrupts him too.”

“But,” Lillian said, “Remember that Sylvester could try getting the drop on Duncan or Lacey.  He might want to incapacitate us, remember?  To bog down the pursuit by making us drag someone with us.”

Mary frowned.

She liked Emmett.  Emmett did what he was supposed to, and he was disciplined on a level that extended to his whole personality.  He was the youngest, if the vat-grown weren’t counted, and yet he was amazingly mature.

She wanted to train him, to bring out the best he was capable of, and she suspected that the desire was at least partially informed by her experiences with Sylvester.  She didn’t know to what extent, or even how to draw the line between what part of it was what Percy had instilled in her in nurture and nature, and what part of it was Sylvester’s hand.

“Not Emmett, then,” Mary said.  “He can serve as a bodyguard.”

I’m not sure how effective a guard he’ll be for them.

“Ashton might throw Sy off,” Helen said.

“Ashton’s someone Sylvester got to know on some level,” Mary said.  “But I don’t want to stand around debating.  Every second we take is a second we’re giving him.”

“Good,” Lillian said.  “Let’s go.”

The groups separated.  They made their way down from the squat building to the road, and Duncan’s group headed northwards, while Mary led the group east, back toward the city center.

Just the Lambs, none of the last minute additions.  No Duncan, no Lacey.

She could still sense that general trap in operation around her.  A greater mechanism, the rows of buildings on either side of her like jaws of a blunted bear trap, waiting for her to step on the pressure plate.  People were potential landmines.  Sylvester’s allies, or manufactured enemies in service to the Devil.

She knew on a logical level that her knee had healed.  They’d given her the best doctors, and even had a few professors that hadn’t performed surgery in ages in the lab to offer counsel.  She should be as good as new, with no lasting damage, but she still felt the damage there.

We’re coming, Sylvester.

They made their way, jogging, checking constantly to make sure they wouldn’t get the attention of the local law, before Ashton pointed out a police wagon.  The back portion looked it was meant to hold warbeasts, with filthy blankets within.  The people who had manned it had no doubt headed to the tower.

Mary climbed up to the driver’s seat, while Helen and Lillian jumped on the sides.  Mary checked they had good handholds before getting the horses moving.

The cages had been covered with black cloth, and Helen and Lillian worked to drape the cloths, to better hide the ‘police’ markings that had been painted on the sides, as well as the crowns of gold and the stripes of blue that marked it as a police vehicle.

With only the black showing, the gold and blue mostly covered, it looked more funerary.  Mary intentionally took a route that would put them more out of sight, so they could lose the cages.

One by one, the cages were disconnected from the wagon, allowed to slide off the back and tumble into the street.

“Keep one,” Mary suggested.

“For Sylvester?” Lillian asked, and she laughed.

“No,” Helen said, before saying, “Careful.”

Lillian had to climb back out of the way to not be clipped by the last of the three cages.

“No need for cages,” Helen said.  “You have me.”

“We do,” Lillian said.  She fixed the cloth, then climbed over the divide to straddle the seat beside Mary.  She breathed out the words, “I have no idea what to feel right now.”

“I know what that’s like,” Ashton said.  “Try to pick a good feeling.”

“Mm,” Lillian made a sound.  “I want to slap him, as part of us summarily kicking his ass and wiping the smirk off his face.  Then call him names for about an hour.  While he’s gagged, and can’t say anything back.”

“I said a good feeling,” Ashton said.

“That is a good feeling, hon,” Lillian said.  She stroked Ashton’s head, careful not to mess with his hair.

“I want to see Jamie,” Ashton said.

“I agree,” Lillian said.  “But I can understand that you grew a great deal more attached to Jamie than any of us.”

“He was my first friend.  I wonder what he’s doing, and how Sylvester plans to use him.”

“He might not,” Helen said.  “He has to keep the act alive.”

“But he might,” Mary said.

Too many possibilities to cover.

Heads turned as the horse galloped, pulling them behind them.  The clip they were going was less sedate than was the norm, and Mary was young for a wagon driver.  Perhaps not so unusual in a city where farmer’s children might take on duties, but all put together, they were attention-grabbing, a curiosity.

That came second to the mission.  The hunt.

They were finally chasing him.  Finally, after months of looking.

And with that in mind, every set of eyes on them felt like they belonged to Sylvester, that they might, the moment the wagon had passed, somehow communicate a message, or set something in motion.

Yet, if she focused too much on them, then there was the risk that she’d miss another trap.

She had to trust herself.  That was the key.  She knew how her body functioned.  Her mental exercises and countless hours of practice had honed her ability to lay out a course of action and to carry them out, adapting at any step along the way.

“It feels like a trap waiting to be sprung,” Lillian said.

“Yes,” Mary said, validated that her friend was thinking along the same lines she was.

“He could try something at any moment.  He’ll be looking out for us.  And this… this orphanage of his, and I’m not even going to get into that because what in the King’s name is that about, but he placed it on the outskirts.  Remember how he gloated about how he knew where we’d arrive in the city, because there were only so many routes to take?  He mentioned it when we were talking about the places the Devil’s wagonfuls of children could come in.”

“I remember,” Mary said.

“As we get closer to this road out to the edge of town, we run more risk that he’ll try something.  He can set something up there…”

“But,” Helen said, “Remember, he wants to see us.  He wants us to show up.”

It wasn’t a reassuring statement.

Mary could feel her heartbeat quicken as they hit the country road.  There were no ambushes, no attacks, no tricks.

Almost, she wondered if he’d simply absconded.  If he’d bolted and left the city.

But then the building loomed, the top of it visible over a field of rust-red wheat.

Wooden cranes with crews, pallets, and counterweights were arranged around the building.  Construction material was everywhere, and the building itself was only mostly complete.  It was a manor, extensive and elaborate, with children sitting and playing in the yard out front.

“It’s a damn playground,” Lillian said.  “Those pallets, the construction work.  He damn well planned for the house to be in progress when we arrived.”

“I like it,” Ashton said.  “It’s a very interesting house.”

The fields of rust-red wheat extended around to either side of the house, in the space behind it, and in the field opposite the house, so the road effectively cut through it.  The fields offered virtually impenetrable cover, and they ensured that no matter which direction Sylvester ran, he could disappear.  He had to have been thinking about the fields when he set up the house.

“Odds on there being traps in the wheat?” Mary asked.

“Oh lords,” Lillian said.

Mary slowed the horses, then brought them to a stop out front.

There he was.  He stood in the front doorway, a cigarette in his hand, smoking, watching them.

Mary tied the reins, then hopped down.  The other Lambs were right behind her.

The squeals, laughs, and voices of the children stopped.

There were two dozen children out front.  By the time Mary, Helen, Lillian and Ashton had reached the point where the the driveway of the orphanage met the road, there was silence.

Each and every one of the children, some as young as eight, some nearly as old as Sylvester, stared, expressions blank.

Sylvester, meanwhile, only smiled, holding his cigarette.

“Cute,” Helen said.  “They’re acting.  He told them to act this way.”

“If we had some of the little ones with us, they’d be bothered by this,” Lillian observed.  “Actually, now I’m remembering Duncan’s misadventure with the two youths that pulled a gun on him, and I’m a touch bothered.”

“I don’t see what’s so strange about the way they’re acting,” Ashton said.

Behind them, one of the horses huffed, stamping the ground with her hooves.

When you want to look one way, he’ll act elsewhere.

Mary turned, reaching under her shirt to her belly.  There were two things there.  One was a knife, and one was her bola.

The man at the wagon was taller than most unmodified men, wore a button-up shirt and slacks, and had modified hands, feet, and head.  The head looked like an exceptionally poor taxidermy job of a very large rabbit.  The mouth yawned open as if it were perpetually screaming.

Sylvester’s limber assistant.

He saw her reacting and pulled away from the seat of the carriage, knife in hand.

Almost, almost, her instinct told her to respond to the image of a knife with a knife of her own.  Instead, she drew the bola.

The man twisted, turned, and bolted, while she started the bola spinning.  His sheer speed caught her off guard, as he headed for the back end of the wagon.  He’d be taking off down the road, or circling around the back of the wagon to head for the field, where he’d no doubt been waiting.

She threw, making the adjustments in the last fraction of a second to throw the bola.

It caught the rabbit man around the legs.  The summary fall looked brutal.

“Helen,” Mary said, pointing.  She followed up with gestures, hidden behind her back.

“On it,” Helen said, bouncing as she headed for the rabbit-man.

Already, Mary was striding toward the house, Lillian a step behind her.

When you want to go somewhere, he’ll upset your footing.

She deliberately stepped off of the path, nudging Lillian off the path as well.  She wasn’t positive she’d seen the playing children walking on it, and that made her suspicious.

The children stood.

Sylvester raised his arm.

One of the cranes moved in response, lowering, an empty pallet descending in the direction of the front door.

The children approached, expressions still blank, reaching for Mary and Lillian.

Mary drew her knife, and the children closest to her stopped in their tracks.

“Mary!” Lillian admonished, aghast.

Ashton pushed past them, reaching out to the crowd of children.

As the wooden pallet descended to Sylvester, Mary noted that many other cranes were using ropes, but this one was using chain.  She put away the knife.

With that, the children closest to her found courage and clutched at her clothes and her wrists.  She was stronger than even the largest of them, but there were a number of them.

“Ow,” one child said, as they grabbed at her skirt and cut themselves.  They pulled back.

She put all of her effort toward drawing closer to Ashton.

Sure enough, the grip slackened.  She found the strength to push through the crowd, and there was virtually no resistance.

Sylvester stepped onto the pallet.  Simultaneously, the thing began ascending.

Mary closed the distance at a full run, now.  She leaped, grabbing the top of a window shutter, then hauled herself up enough to get a foothold, springing over to grab the edge of the balcony over the front porch.

“You know, using Ashton is damn unfair,” Sylvester said.  “It’s practically cheating.”

She grabbed for one of the smaller posts of the balcony’s railing of the porch for a handhold, and it came free.  Only in the last moment did she manage to grab the edge of the balcony.  She dangled there for a moment before she began the arduous process of climbing up.

The post hadn’t been nailed, screwed, or otherwise fixed in place.  Loose, and no doubt intentionally so.  In frustration, she swept her hand against the remainder of the railing, knocking each and every one of the loose posts out of their housing and into the dense bushes that waited below.

“You were always the most graceful Lamb,” Sylvester taunted.

She twisted, reaching, and turned around.

When she pulled out a gun, and not a knife, the smirk dropped off of Sylvester’s face.

She didn’t shoot him.  She might have, but she didn’t have a clear line of sight to his knee.  Instead, dangling from one hand, aiming with the other, she shot at one corner of the pallet.

Mary fired six times in total, each shot hitting the mark and eliciting its screams from the crowd of children.

She didn’t wait to see the results.  She turned around, swung her legs forward, then used the momentum to raise up her upper body, shifting her grip to climb up onto the balcony.

The sound of creaking and the eventual snap as the chain tore through the damaged wood at one corner of the pallet put a grim smile on her face.

Sylvester still ascended.  The pallet was now askew, one corner very low, the other corner high, and the planks that made up the three foot by three foot wooden platform were arching a little under his weight.  He gestured up to the crane operator.

Mary focused on the climb.  Every piece of this building that she could use for climbing was suspect.  She looked at the building face with a fresh eye.  There were patches here and there that glistened in the sunlight.  There were shutters that lay there, inviting.

Stay focused.  The gap was growing.  Where was he going?

With the help of the crane operator, he could position himself wherever he wanted around the house.  He could even access the interior, through the incomplete portions.  There was cloth set up to keep the wind from blowing inside, but it was easy enough for the pallet to move adjacent and for Sylvester to climb past it.

Mary took the hard route, drawing a knife and using it as leverage for climbing, to reach the overhang above the balcony.

Helen had finished tying up the rabbit and attaching the man to the wagon, and was on her way back, and the horses – damn it, the horses were only partially attached to the wagon.  The rabbit had managed to cut some of the straps.  Ashton and Lillian were together, dealing with the children.  Ashton was handling a lot of the talking.

That was fine.  Mary gestured to Helen, and Helen ran right past Lillian and Ashton to start scaling the exterior of the house.

“It’s trapped, watch your handholds!” Mary called.

The building looked to be, going by the windows, two floors tall, with a section at the middle that was three stories tall, but the ceilings were particularly high, so it was as tall as a building with twice as many floors.

The similarities between this and the Devil’s tower didn’t escape Mary.

She climbed up onto the roof.  Below, Helen was grabbing at the slats of wood that lined the exterior of the house, grabbing each one from the underside and hauling herself up.

Sylvester was already out of reach.  There had to be a way to do this.

The speed with which the pallet had raised and fallen- he could only descend so fast.  That meant, if there was a good way to get up to him, somehow, keeping in mind that he was a solid thirty feet over her head-

“Helen!” Mary called out.  “Intercept him if he comes down!”

“Okay!” Helen said, with the musical enthusiasm of a cheery student answering a beloved teacher.

Mary ran across the roof, eye out for traps and snags.  She saw the odd patches of shingles and avoided them, running for the tower that held up the crane itself, while she reloaded her gun.

Did he not anticipate this?  There were no traps.  There was nothing complicating her climb.

Sylvester was signaling to be put down.  He didn’t look concerned as he watched her climb, but that didn’t say much.

If he wasn’t concerned, that could easily be amended.

She drew her gun, and Sylvester dropped down, holding the chain where the corner of the pallet was, low down enough that the entire pallet was between him and her.

She fired at one corner of the pallet again.  She might have chosen the one he was holding on to, but she was reasonably sure that would have killed him.

He didn’t deserve her being this nice, at this stage.

“Oh, come on!” Sylvester complained.  He shifted his weight, trying to swing the pallet from side to side, as if it were a pendulum, to make it a harder shot.  “Impolite.”

She was secretly proud of herself that all six shots landed, again.

It didn’t take any time for the corner of the pallet to fall away.  Sylvester was left standing on the edge of the pallet, as it hung down, connected at only the corners along one side.  His hands gripped the chain.

“Your aim is atrocious,” Sylvester commented, his voice ringing out.  “The Mary I knew would have managed to hit me already.  You keep on hitting the platform!”

Don’t tempt me, Mary thought, as she climbed.  The tower of the crane was well constructed, rife with handholds, and it was a quick climb.  She rose twice as fast as Sylvester was being lowered to the ground.

She reached the crane top, and scaled the underside, climbing up and over, to find her face to face with two Brunos, and a mess of winches and ropes.

“We don’t want any trouble,” the first of the Brunos said.  His hands pulled away from the mechanism.

Meaning Sylvester was trapped, suspended in mid-air.  Without the Brunos to work the winches, the crane didn’t move, and the platform remained where it was.

There was nothing below him except a very long drop to the roof or the house.  A thirty-foot drop onto the roof would have been bad enough, but it was gently sloped.  Mary doubted she could have landed it neatly and without injury, and she was more adroit than Sylvester.

She left the Brunos behind.  Running along the length of the crane to where the chain hung from, she let herself fall prematurely, reaching out to grab the chain.

In that moment, she saw Sylvester looking up at her.

If a path seems too easy, it’s a trap.

He was grinning like the duchess-fucked-cat with the canary.

He spread his arms, letting go from the chain, and leaped backward off of the platform.

“Helen!” Mary called out.

Helen, standing at the peak of the roof, was already running in Sylvester’s direction.

Mary wished dearly for a strong gust of wind to blow him off course.  It would be satisfying.  Tragic, of course, but satisfying.

As it was, he landed almost directly in the center of the cloth that covered the unfinished portion of the one wing of the house.

A blade glinted in his hand as he slashed it, allowing himself access into the house proper, while denying her the use of the same ‘net’ to drop down onto.  Helen followed him, just a few paces behind.

She was the one who was stuck.

“Lower me!” she called up to the Brunos.

They didn’t move.

She pointed the gun, which got them moving.  The chain began clicking as she was slowly lowered closer to the ground.  She climbed down to the damaged platform.

When she was fifteen feet above the sloping roof, she leaped for it.

Her feet scraped as she slid dangerously close to the gutter and the drop to the ground and bushes below.  Helen, who had disappeared behind Sylvester, was just now emerging.

“He locked doors behind him,” Helen said.  “He was heading toward the other end of the house.”

The other end of the house.

No.  That didn’t make sense.  What was there?  More mischief?

Mary turned, looking.  The front of the house was to her left.  The crowd of children was still there.  At the back were…

Two carriages, parked and waiting.

If the answer seems obvious

She headed for the front of the house at a dead run.  She let herself drop, sliding over the edge of the roof to catch the gutter, her body already contorting so she could swing herself over, passing herself over to the next gutter, the one that surrounded the overhang above the balcony.  She nearly lost her grip on the grease that Sylvester had arranged to put there, but it was an easy matter to maneuver her body and tumble onto the balcony itself.

She heard Ashton say, “Get him.  Help her.  People should treat girls nicer than that.”

Lillian.

Mary did away with all niceties, and leaped off the balcony onto the lawn below.  She grunted as she landed.

Sylvester was sitting in the doorway, an unconscious Lillian in his arms.  The children were approaching hesitantly.

If only Ashton had had a little more to go around, Sylvester’s own assets could have been dogpiling him this very moment.

“I want to point out-” Sylvester started.

Mary threw a knife.  Sylvester ducked his head – the only readily targetable part of his body.

“-I did get the drop on you after all, in a manner of speaking.”

He reached over, and hauled on a part of the doorframe.

A lever.

Mary forced herself to her feet, legs aching, and broke into a run, chasing.  There was no time to reach for a knife.

False floorboards were lifted out of place as Lillian was dragged by the hook Sylvester had attached to her clothes.  Sylvester ran alongside her, stooped over, one hand on her to help ensure she kept moving.

Mary gave chase, running, as Sylvester hopped up onto furniture.

She buried frustration with focus as every knife she threw at him hit a piece of furniture instead.  While Lillian was dragged underneath a coffee table, he kicked at a bowl, and more mechanisms kicked into motion, counterweights dropping as the walls began to fold in together, like great double doors.

Mary slipped past the first set of doors, then only barely scraped through the second, but she knew she was losing ground.  She saw the last set of doors closing, and turned, running to step onto the top of a heavy armchair, up to the staircase.  She used a knife, embedding it into wood rather than trust the rungs of the railing.

From there, she leaped over the last set of doors.

A final trap awaited.  Stretched across the open space above the doors were threads.  Not razor wire, but threads, a spiderwebbing or a loose net.  Enough to tangle her, not enough to be easily seen in the moment, with only the light shining in through the doors.

Stuck there, she watched as Sylvester disconnected the hooks from Lillian’s clothes, then dragged her out and away from the open back doors.

She cut at the threads, watching as he closed one of the back doors, sliding it over, then the other.  She could hear the sound of the lock with all the gravity of a death knell.

She disengaged herself from the threads, and dropped down to the sitting room.  She approached Ashton and Helen, who were now at the front door.

“They got Lillian,” Ashton observed.

Mary ignored him.  She ran outside, knowing full well what she’d see.

One carriage cutting through the field, taking a diagonal path until it reached the road.  From there, it headed toward the city.

The other carriage headed out to locations unknown, the same path through the field to the road, but going in the opposite direction.

“Next time,” Mary observed, “I’m going to shoot him.  No nonsense, just pull the trigger, put an end to my misery.”

“That’s no fun,” Helen said.

“Neither is this,” Mary said.  “Help me with the horses.  Can either of you ride?”

“Nothing that big,” Ashton said.  “And not without a saddle.”

“Damn it,” Mary said.  She avoided the path as she strode toward the carriage the rabbit had disabled.  As she reached the first horse, she cut at the straps and bindings that fastened it to the wagon.

The Rabbit, securely tied with one ankle handcuffed to a wheel spoke, was humming to himself.

“Look,” Ashton said.  He pointed.

There was a wagon on the road trundling down the path, a stitched beast pulling it at a good clip.

A working vehicle.

Mary hurried over, concealing her weapon.

“Problem?” the farmer asked, as she approached.  “Someone in trouble, was it?”

“Yes sir,” she said.  She revealed her knife.

“Terribly sorry,” Helen said, as she climbed up.  “But we need this.”

“I’m running an important errand!” the man said, raising his voice.  “Something of an emergency.”

“So is this,” Mary said, tense.  “Please step down.”

No,” the man said, stubborn.  “No, a child’s life may be at stake.  Your emergency might well be the same as mine, but I cannot and will not let you-”

Mary moved the knife, silencing the man.

“Your emergency is the same as ours?” Mary asked.

“I was asked to help.  A child in this very orphanage needs medicine, and that medicine is in town.”

“Sylvester,” Helen said.

He’s giving us a wagon?

She looked at the bigger picture.

The wagon, going in the direction of the city-

Did Sylvester hope they would take the easy route?  Hop on, head in the direction that was most convenient, into the city, and ignore the other wagon, because it would have meant turning a bulky wagon around on a narrow road?

“Go,” Mary said, “Ashton, Helen, go with the nice man.  Apologize to him for the knife.  Get the help we need.”

“What are you doing?” Helen asked.

“Going after the other carriage!”

Mothmont taught her useful things, and horseback riding was one of them.

She finished cutting the straps, the farmer’s wagon rolled past her as she worked, disappearing down the other end of the long, straight road.

Once the Crown’s police horse was freed, she mounted it bareback, managed the reins, and rode, as hard as she could, after the second carriage.

Helen’s and Ashton’s was liable to be empty.  But convincing the farmer to turn around would have been a waste.

This would have to do, and it had the added benefit of covering both bases.

Knives and items that she’d secured on her person were jolted and jarred by the hard ride in a way that acrobatics and most fighting didn’t manage.

Her focus was razor sharp as she first saw the dust the carriage had kicked up, and soon that dust dirtied the beads of sweat that covered her body.

Lillian was her friend, her heart.  Her most important person.

Lillian.

She willed Lillian to be in the carriage, as she caught up to it, then leaped on top of it.

A knife to the carriage driver’s throat worked to make him pull to a stop.  He remained cooperative as she climbed down to the side and hauled the door open.

Empty.

Of course it was empty.

She mounted her horse, turned it around, and rode in the opposite direction.  She didn’t go after Helen and Ashton.  She already knew what had occurred.

She made her way back to the orphanage, the around to the back field.

By the back door was a hatch.  She kicked it open, then descended the ramp down to the tunnel below.  There were multiple access points.

And one exit, heavy, reinforced, and locked.

To where?  She thought, in the same moment that she remembered, Fort city.

The place was probably riddled with the things.

She let her forehead rest against the door.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Black Sheep – 13.9 (Lamb)

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

There was discord, Duncan knew.  Too many new faces.  Too many people with stakes in things that weren’t even here, on the table.  Mary and Lillian were too focused on Sylvester.  The Twins on self preservation.  Ashton didn’t have a stake, and was very similar to Emmett in that.  Abby wasn’t here so much as she was following along and waiting until this was over and she could return to a more peaceful life.

Then there was Helen.  Because Helen could so rarely be counted in the same string of thought as the others.  Helen grabbed his attention, so often, but she was very rarely included in the same breath as others.

Helen scared him more than she had, before, and that was saying something.  The scientist in Duncan wanted to figure out why, to problem solve.  He might have wanted to hypothesize and test, but one did not test around Helen, no more than they tested around a snarling warbeast.  For now, he was content to observe, avoid giving her reasons to tease him, and keep his fingers well away from the bars of that particular cage.  Not physical bars, but ones that Ibbot had instilled, and that the Lambs had created.

He would be glad the bars were there and he wouldn’t do anything to test them.

The group descended to the second floor, where Mary was standing back from the stairway.  One of her hands held a length of metal with three threads of wire extending from the middle and each end, each thread taut as it extended down into the area below.  The other hand held a knife.

She pressed the knife to her mouth in a shushing motion.

Duncan looked at the stairs, and the thick cloud of smoke below.  Why were the Devil’s men staying down there when the stairway was clear?

As if to answer his question, a man came tearing up the stairs, through the hole in the floor.  He crested the top of the stairs, aiming his gun, and then lost his balance, a line of crimson appearing across his face.

Mary whipped her knife at him, impaling his throat just as he managed to catch his balance.  As he stopped in his tracks, dropping his gun to reach for his throat, she cast out the wire that was attached to the knife.  A bearing partway along the wire helped it move where she needed it, encircling his wrist before she gave it a tug, securing it in place.  She wrapped her end of wire around the metal bar.

The man, still standing, looked at her, then the rest of the Lambs, then gurgled.  Blood foamed around the knife that was still embedded there.

“Emmett,” Mary said.  “Would you?”

There was a sound of more footsteps.  Two more men were coming up the stairs.  Emmett charged the man at the top of the stairs, and gave him the boot.  He tumbled down the stairs, and Mary braced herself.  For all the weight that was a full grown man falling in the opposite direction, she didn’t seem to have much trouble.  And those other strings-

The wire moved as the victim or one of the people he’d collided with on his way down struggled.  Emmett hurried to Mary’s side to take over with the bar.

“Thank you, sir,” Mary said.

Lillian gestured.  Duncan caught the gesture for noise.

“Yes,” Mary said.  “We can talk.  I’ve got a few bodies piled on the stairs.  When they try to move them, I throw something at them.  After I got the first few-”

The Devil was shouting.  “Grab the bodies.  Bring them down!  Clear the way!”

“-They got less courageous about coming upstairs.  They got excited and more eager to leave the basement after someone asked what they should do if we use poison again.”

Emmett was fighting to keep his grip on the metal that had the strings attached.

“There are other strings there too.  They have to be cutting themselves to shreds,” Mary observed.  “You okay?”

Emmett gave her a nod.

Mary stepped past the top of the stairwell, throwing a knife mid-step, before stepping away.  Gunshots rang out, shooting up at an angle, hitting the ceiling.  Lara and Nora both shrieked, similar cries that were out of sync.  Even Abby was hunkering down.

“Be nice if they wasted all their bullets,” Mary said.  “But they’re pretty patient.  Not all that anxious to get out of there, even.”

“They’re biding their time?” Lillian asked.

“Devil wants to, but he doesn’t complain when his men decide to try to get up the stairs.  He seems content to wait us out,” Mary said.

Duncan frowned.  “Why doesn’t he just leave?”

“Sylvester handled that.  I saw him jump down to the fallen scaffolding.  He secured the door before heading back upstairs.  Dodged my bola the first time and the knife the second time, and had the audacity to toss me the smoke grenades.  If I wasn’t busy with this, I would have hit him.”

“You think he secured the door,” Duncan said.  “With Sylvester, we can’t know.”

“I know Sylvester, Duncan,” Mary said.  “I know how he operates.”

“Isn’t the very concept of what Sylvester is as an experiment to be someone who can alter themselves and their approach on a fluid level?”  Duncan challenged.

“Yes,” Mary said, “And a small handful of things remain constant.  He’s here, he’s playing with us, play-acting as if he were still a Lamb, and working with us.”

“The dance,” one of the twin experiments said.

“Dance, Nora?” Lillian asked.

“I told you, when Sylvester talked to Lacey and me, he said something about liking the dance, when everyone cooperates and moves like they’re part of a singular organism.  He didn’t use those words, exactly.”

“Yeah.  That’s it, exactly,” Mary said.

Duncan gave up.  Dealing with Sylvester was like being told to study one thing for a test, only to get a test sheet that covered of everything else.

There was a crash somewhere below them.  Furniture being destroyed, or something being taken to pieces.

The work at dragging Mary’s victims away from the stairs had stopped, and Emmett wasn’t fighting as hard to hold on any more.  Duncan had no idea if it had succeeded or failed, but Mary didn’t seem bothered.

Mary threw a knife at the floor, so it embedded itself in between two floorboards.  She stomped on the end, then used another knife handle to seize one of the wires that extended from Emmett’s bit of metal to the tangle of bodies that she’d piled on the stairs.  She transferred the wire to the knife on the floor.

A process of setting the wires down more permanently, so Emmett’s bit of metal didn’t have to be continually held.

Duncan had really not had many opportunities to see her in action.  Even when he had gone on his first mission, he had mostly seen the aftermath, not the action.

He’d seen some of Helen in action.

He glanced at Helen, and saw her staring at him.  She smiled, demeanor shifting, and he felt a chill.

“I think…” Mary said.  She crouched, binding a second wire to a knife she had embedded into the floor, “He’s expecting reinforcements.”

“He said something earlier, to his men,” Lillian said.  “It wasn’t about the carts and wagons full of kids?”

“Maybe the reinforcements were being handled by one of the names he mentioned.  Either way, I think we need to find a way to handle this.  There are twenty people down there with him,” Mary said.

“I can help,” Ashton said.

“No, honey,” Lillian said.  “I don’t want you standing that close to the stairs.”

“I can go down,” Ashton said.

“It’s too dangerous,” Mary said.  “I had to cut a few people who were groping around in the dark.  I don’t think you’re capable of holding your own, and they’ll likely have their noses and mouths covered.”

“The smoke,” Duncan added, thinking about the plan to mislead Sylvester into thinking that smoke and smoking were a counteragent to Ashton.

Anything that worked.

“I could still try.  There aren’t many gaps in the floor, like upstairs, but I could try.”

“Sure,” Duncan said.  “Calm them down.  Make them less likely to act.”

“Okay,” Ashton said.

Ashton sat cross-legged on the floor.

Hopefully this wouldn’t spoil the ruse, if Sylvester caught wind of it.

Where was Sylvester, anyhow?

As the question crossed his mind, he moved, almost as if he’d been pushed to.  As the others talked, Duncan walked around the perimeter of the room.  He split his attention between checking on his charges and keeping an eye out for Sylvester.

East of the building-in-construction, there was a sprawl of streets.  He could see Corinth Crown, and the various burned buildings.

“Emmett,” Abby said.  “Where is Quinton?”

“The ground level,” Emmett said.

“They knocked down the scaffolding,” Abby said.  “More things could fall down.  If Quinton is down there, he could get hurt!”

“I put a shelter up with the fallen scaffolding.”

“That’s not good enough!” Abby said.

“Abby,” Duncan said.  “Calm down.  We need to focus on the mission.”

“No,” Abby said, turning on him.  “You said.  It was a rule.  We all make it out of this okay.”

Duncan repressed his frustration.  Why did this all have to be so hard?

“We as in each of you, me, the Lambs,” Duncan said.  He was going to say more, but changed tacks as he saw Abby’s expression change, “Emmett says Quinton will be fine.  He’ll be fine.”

“He’ll be safe,” Emmett said.  “We couldn’t have him up here where there might be fighting.”

Abby tensed, head to toe.  Her features were funny, as if drawn by an artist who didn’t quite have a strong grasp of human proportions, or who had drawn every part of her face in isolation from the rest.  Normally he found himself looking past it, but when she was emotional and took on an expression he wasn’t used to, it snapped him back to reality.

The fact that she didn’t have much going on that was particularly unique or special made it all the easier to forget that she was an experiment.

“He’ll be safe,” Emmett said.

Duncan walked around to the south-facing window.  He could see the lake.  No sign of Sylvester lurking just to either side of the window, as he checked.

Sylvester would be listening in.

“Putting Quinton aside for the moment, I have poison,” Lillian said.  “It wouldn’t be hard to distribute it as a gas.”

“No,” Lacey said.

“I know it’s a no,” Lillian said, testy.  “Let me finish talking before you cut me off.  I’m brainstorming.”

Lacey remained silent.

Duncan took note of Emmett and the twins as he walked over to the east side of the building.  Emmett seemed to fit into things well, but while he was sharp and his memory had apparently given the Lambs something to use to manipulate Sylvester, Duncan worried about his long-term prospects with the group.  More than he worried about Abby’s, odd as it was.

The twins… Duncan took note of how they were standing.  Abby stood close to one.  Ashton stood close to the other.  A fair distance separated them.

Never once had he seen them together and not hand-in-hand or otherwise being close.  Each time they’d hit a city, the twins would be split between the Lambs and his group.  Every time they decided Sylvester wasn’t around and rendezvoused, the two girls would pull together as if they had magnets embedded in their chemistry.

He had been warned to avoid naming them, to avoid encouraging individualism.  Part of their language understanding was instinctive, but part of it wasn’t.  The pair of experiments were two test runs in one, which made project tracking difficult.  They were supposed to see if warbeasts couldn’t be raised with a human core and metamorphose into their combat-ready state at a later stage, to pick up more understanding of norms and niceties, more loyalty to their handlers, and more base intelligence.  That was the first test at hand.

The second was to ensure that they remained stable as a unit.  If they became independent and weren’t able to regularly communicate for long enough, then the less instinctive part of how they buzzed between one another risked becoming incoherent, one not being able to communicate to the other.

There were a lot of ways that project could fail.  Losing the ability to speak, deformations, a failed metamorphosis, breaking apart, becoming dangerous to their handlers, swinging too far one way or the other on the fear scale.  The original plan had been to raise them in complete isolation from the world.  Subsequent generations would have been eased into a wider exposure, refined in structure and development.

Closer to the stairs, Mary moved to throw a knife.  Emmett, relieved of his piece of metal, held up a hand for her to stop.  He picked up a stone from a pile of stones for construction, and hurled it down into the smokey oblivion.  From the other side of the room, Duncan could hear the impact.

“Save your knives,” Emmett said.

Mary gave him a nod.

If Duncan’s suspicions were right, the twins’ project would refined up until another war or crisis stirred, and then would be deemed ‘done’.  The experiments would be shown off to the higher-ups with a great deal of flourish and a whole unit ready to deploy to various points.

It was a good, ambitious, and very fragile project, and Hayle had made a good enough offer to convince the professors that were working on it to break from their plan.

Was this, the twins standing ten feet apart from one another, a sign of the first crack that would eventually see the crystal-fine structure shatter?

If this didn’t resolve by the mission’s end or have a simpler explanation, he would have to report it, the experiments would be sent in, and would either be secluded ad infinitum or recycled.

He didn’t like doing that, but not reporting it would be letting the project fail in another way, and that would be failing in his duties.

“If he isn’t-” Lacey said.

“I know,” Lillian retorted.  “I know.  He’s got all of Neller’s signs.  He’s a junkie.  One good hit of poison might be the push that makes his systems crumble and fail.  But it’s a tool we can use in other ways.”

“Okay.  Just don’t get those children killed because you want a swift resolution.”

“I wouldn’t,” Lillian said, firm.  “Ever.”

The discord, again.  The gaps between individual members of the group.  The original Lambs had worked so well together that it was now a detriment, something that pulled at them instead of pushed them together.  Memories.

Would he have to report this too?  Lillian wouldn’t want him to.  She would call it a betrayal.  But letting this continue… it wasn’t good as a project or enterprise.

He was in the middle of trying to think about what to do or say about it when he realized he had been staring out the west-facing window for nearly a minute without registering what he was seeing.  The window was open, to allow for air to flow into the building, or to allow the smoke to flow out.

He turned his head to the left, looking to the side of the window, and saw Sylvester leaning against the wall there, Quinton in his arms.

Sylvester turned his head to look at Duncan.

Something in Sylvester’s expression, it really bothered Duncan.  Condescension.  As if Sylvester was the most critical of teachers and Duncan was failing his class.  No lessons had been taught, no message conveyed, no syllabus outlined on a blackboard.  Yet this teacher, shorter than him, wild-haired, sneering, and surprisingly vicious when he wanted to be, was looking down on him.

I never liked you and you never liked me.

“Why don’t you come inside?”

“Mary will throw things at me.  Lillian will try to stab me.”

“You kind of deserve it,” Duncan said.

The conversation in the room had died at the sound of Duncan’s voice.  Heads had turned.  Only Mary and Emmett were fixated on the stairwell where the Devil was.

“And you have a hostage,” Duncan said.

“Mary can hit me with a knife without hitting the hostage,” Sylvester said.  “Nice try.  Also… take a look.”

Duncan followed Sylvester’s line of sight.

There was traffic.  Horses, carriages, all painted with white, blue, and gold.  Duncan didn’t need to read the words stenciled on the sides to grasp who and what they were.  The warbeasts that ran alongside the carriages, uniform in aesthetic and proportion, were pretty clear indicators on their own.

Duncan turned away from the window.  As he passed Abby, he put a hand on her shoulder, “Sylvester has Quinton.”

“Is that good?” Abby asked.  “Is that bad?”

“Good,” Mary said, her voice overlapping with Duncan’s for a moment as he launched into his speech.

“The Devil’s reinforcements are here.  It looks like a share of the Crown police.”

“He really does have everything under his thumb,” Lillian said.  She paused.  “This is what Sylvester was talking about.  The present, to better convince the Academy the Lambs are constructive even if we aren’t catching him.  The Devil, this city.  Uncovered corruption.”

“You realize,” Duncan said, “That if we let him do this, he can hold it over our heads?  That he could later tell the Academy that it was him who uncovered the situation and set this up?”

“We were the ones that cornered the Devil,” Mary said.  “Cut away his lieutenants and key assets.  Sylvester only ignited the situation and did the initial damage.”

“I’m offended!” Sylvester called out.

“Good!” Lillian retorted.

Sylvester laughed, a genuine, real sound.  Duncan could see the reactions on the faces of each of the others.  Fear, for Nora and Lara.  Suspicion, for Lacey.  Both Helen and Ashton smiled, Helen as if the moment had made her day, Ashton as if privately, to himself.  Mary and Lillian managed to look properly annoyed.  Abby- she was receptive to the moods of others.  She didn’t smile, but she looked less anxious in the moment.

In that stupid, simple exchange, two and a half words on Sylvester’s part, one word on Lillian’s, a laugh, and the changes in expressions, an idea crystallized for Duncan.  He made sense of something that he hadn’t fully wrapped his head around before.

Duncan had always prided himself on being a politician.  Around the time he’d started with the Academy, he realized the little lessons his parents had been instilling in him all along, about who to befriend, the families those people belonged to, or the connections they might open up, and he had started to talk to his parents about how to move, what to do.  Many times he saw his father, nowadays, a third to a half of what they talked about was strategy.  Sometimes his, sometimes his father recounted moves of recent days and weeks, and sometimes they talked about the family, how they could work in concert or do each other favors.

Befriending Lillian had been a move.  Being invited to this project had been a consequence of that move.  That he wasn’t sure it would work out wasn’t a good thing, but that wasn’t a fault of the move or the consequence of the move.  He’d had small and large successes buying his way into the good graces of innumerable departments and players on campus.  He’d made enemies too, but he was very, very happy with the balance of friends to enemies that he’d wrought.

Hearing Sylvester trade jibes with Lillian, seeing the way she had tried to stab him, knowing that she’d gone on dates with other boys in the time between Sylvester running and the start of their hunting him, Duncan still had little doubt she cared for him.

He didn’t want to call Sylvester his inverse.  Yes, Sylvester focused more on the short-term over Duncan’s long-term.  Yes, Sylvester was a bastard to everyone around him and somehow they liked him, while Duncan tried to help people wherever he could and seemed to fight an uphill battle.  That wasn’t it.

It wasn’t even that Duncan was investing in things that would see returns in five, ten, or twenty years, from his education to earning the goodwill of people who could well be his colleagues in the future, while Sylvester was reckless and vindictively poisoned or burned everything he touched because he didn’t have five, ten, or twenty years.

No.  He didn’t want to focus on that flipped-around perception because they were really very similar in what they did.  Duncan and Sylvester both manipulated.  They played a game.

But where Duncan played his game by reaching out, taking hold of the key piece, and moving it, tracking where everything was and what he had in stock, Sylvester was immersed in the game, standing in the midst of the board.

He was in the midst of this.

The process of grasping that idea was encapsulated in just a moment, but something clicked, and Duncan wasn’t sure how to use it, or if he even should.

“Come out of hiding, Sylvester,” Mary said.  “I don’t want to talk to you through a wall.”

“I notice that instruction didn’t come with promises you wouldn’t throw things at me.”

“I promise,” Mary said.

Sylvester stepped around the corner.  He carried Quinton, swaddled in a dark green sackcloth, the lamb’s chin resting on Sylvester’s shoulder.  He took in the room full of people.

Mary whipped her hand at him.  Sylvester didn’t flinch.  She held the knife, but she hadn’t actually thrown it.

“Ha,” he said.  “So cruel.  You almost woke Quinton, here.”

“I’m tempted,” she said.  “You shot me.”

“I do feel bad about that.”

“But for now, we need to figure out what to do about the reinforcements,” Mary said.

“Let them come,” Sylvester said.

“Play into our enemy’s hand?” Lillian asked.

Duncan didn’t know what to say.  He wasn’t a strategist on this level.  He didn’t have experience.  He’d never felt more out of his depth than in moments like this.  With his own team, it wasn’t so bad, but with the Lambs gathered, talking as if they could finish each other’s sentences, he felt paralyzed.

“We still need to get the Devil,” Mary said.  “He’s apparently happy to wait down there.  The police will arrive, they’ll come up the scaffolding that’s still intact, they’ll corner us, and that’s not a force we can overcome.”

“We could burn them out,” Helen said.

“We risk killing the Devil, at which point the hostages are doomed.  The headmaster’s children, at the very least,” Lillian said.

“He’s really very patient, for a rage-driven, drug-fueled lunatic,” Sylvester said.  “He’ll pick his moment soon.”

Emmet hurled some stones down the stairs at others who had rustled the bodies.  He ducked as men with guns opened fire.  Some wilder shots hit the underside of the floor but didn’t penetrate it.

The Devil could be heard speaking, his voice muffled.

Duncan felt detached, unable to do much.  Doing his best to wrangle that feeling, he made himself move, and approached Sylvester.

“What I’m saying is simple.  Let them come.  Destroy the reinforcements,” Sylvester said.  He stopped as Duncan drew nearer.  “Hello, Duncan.  Yes, I know you’re very happy to have me back, but the hugs will have to wait for later.”

“I’ll look forward to that,” Helen said.  Sylvester shot her a smile.

Duncan reached out, not for Sylvester but for Quinton.

“Oh.  That.  Nothing up your sleeve, Dunc?  No needles in your arms or other tricks?”

Really not in the mood for games, Duncan shook his head, unsmiling.

Sylvester helped transfer Quinton over to Duncan’s arms.  The damned animal bleated as it stirred away.   Duncan turned away, and carried the lamb over to Abby.  He had to kneel to deposit it by her.

He was used to her smile, at least.  She’d been smiling ever since the blighted creature had been left for them to collect.

“What was I saying?  Leave him with nothing.  You’ve already been working toward that, taking out his lieutenants.”

“My poison?” Lillian asked.

“That’s one way.  I was thinking… something a little more traditional.”

“You have something in mind?” Lillian asked, curt.  “Then stop bragging about how smart you are and make it happen.”

“Emmett,” Sylvester said.  “Mary, you too.  We could use Nora.  And Duncan…”

Sylvester looked at Duncan, kneeling by a smiling Abby and the Lamb.

“…Good where you are.  We’re good with just us three.  Rest of you, hold down the fort.  Almost literally, now that I think about it.”

Condescension?  Still there.  Duncan shrugged it off, and turned his focus to the stairway, which no longer had Emmett and Mary to guard it.

Lillian and Helen drew nearer.

Duncan drew the gun he had confiscated from Maurice and Noreen, and moved closer to the window, watching the approach.  They were only a block away.  Men were already getting out of the carriages, jogging alongside as the carriages slowed.

There were bystanders, and the police stopped to talk to them.  Bystanders pointed, talking, no doubt sharing how some of the scaffolding had fallen, while commenting on gunshots and the various dead bodies that now were arrayed around the scaffold and on the ground below.

Ashton approached.  He peered over the windowsill.

“What do you think?” Duncan asked.

“I’m spent,” Ashton said.

“What’s going on with Nora and Lara?”

“I don’t know.”

“Okay,” Duncan said.  “You did a good job.”

“I wouldn’t be so spent if I wasn’t helping them all the time.”

“I know.  But they need it, for now.”

“They’re getting close.”

“I know,” Duncan said.  He raised his hand to get Lillian’s attention, then signaled.

Threat.  Here.

“Ready?” Lillian asked.

“They’re not,” Lara said.

Lillian made a face, glanced up, and then looked at Duncan.  “Don’t look.”

Duncan raised an eyebrow, then turned his back to her.

“Lacey, would you give me a hand?   There.  That is not clearance to look, Duncan.”

He didn’t react.  There had to be sixty men out there, with four warbeasts.  They were just now approaching the door.

“They’re at the door.  Whatever Sylvester did to bar it, they’re about to undo that.”

“Damn it.  Okay.  You can look,” Lillian said, before turning to Lacey again.  “Near the elbow, solid, you can feel it.  It’s a pocket.  A little higher.”

Lacey had a paper packet in hand, sticking out between two fingers as she used two hands to free something from Lillian’s sleeve.  Duncan recognized the packet, in a general sense.  A measured dosage of one drug or another.  The name of it would be printed on it.

Lacey didn’t even ask.  She tore off the top of the packet, unscrewed the canister, and deposited the packet’s contents within.  She replaced the top, shook it, and then handed it back to Lillian.

“Perfect.”

Lillian went to the window, pulled a pin, and tossed the grenade in the direction of the front door.

“That buys us a minute, and not much longer.  At least it’ll make it burn to touch the door, and that will stop them.”

“No,” Ashton said, staring out the window.

Duncan peeked.

The scaffolding was shaking.

Duncan signaled.  Enemy.  Up.

He wished he knew the more nuanced signs.  He’d studied them, but the only one he’d had available to practice with was Ashton, and Ashton wasn’t that much more experienced.

A pair of individuals tried to bolt for the top of the stairs, while the distraction was occurring outside.  They didn’t make it.  When Mary had set the knives into the floor, she had done it in a way that let some of the threads cross over top of the stairway.  The men made it partway, then hit the heads, shoulders, and caught body parts on the wire.  They swore, backed off a bit, and then pointed guns, opening fire.  Helen and Lillian moved away from the opening in the floor.

Not caring so much about conserving ammunition.  The Devil knew this was the final move.

“Thirty seconds,” Lillian observed.  “That was a small canister of gas.”

“Stand back,” Ashton said.  “I’ll try to do what I can here.  Even if I’m spent.”

Duncan nodded.  He retreated from Ashton, putting himself with Lara and Abby.

“Twenty seconds,” Lillian said.  After a few moments, she said, “Fifteen.”

Another person made their way up to the top of the stairs.  He moved in a strange way, thrusting himself into the wires, arms limp at his sides.  Drugged?

They were coming up the scaffolding.  Duncan put himself closer to Lacey and Helen, ready to shoot if he had to.

“Still not a fan of going up high,” he said.  Leaves us with nowhere to go.

A man appeared on the scaffolding, visible from the window, and Duncan aimed, then fired.

He didn’t know if he hit the man or if the man had fast reflexes.  It only occurred to Duncan a moment later that the man had been wearing a uniform of the Crown Police.  This could all go so bad so quickly, if they didn’t massage the aftermath.

Duncan’s target peeked around the corner, pulled back before Duncan could pull the trigger.  He could see people on the ground, organizing, pointing.

“Get away from the walls!” Lara said.

The building shuddered, a rumble that fed into more rumbles.  Instinctively, he stepped back and away from the window.

He saw the dust and the first of the falling stones, then the cascading tumble of wood and stone.

Sylvester, Mary and Emmett had aimed the worst of it at the west side of the building, where the forces were greatest.  There had been a sixty men out there, and now there were forty or so.  The vast majority of those were close to the building, positioned just right to get caught in the urban avalanche.

With that tumble of wall and building material atop one side of the scaffolding, the vast majority of the scaffold came down, peeling away, collapsing, or tipping over.

Did Sylvester think about the fact that those police likely had families?  That some might have been forced into this, or ignorant?  When Duncan stepped closer to the window to look, he looked with an eye for how many were moving, struggling in the midst of the scattered rubble and how many were utterly still.

“Stairs,” Lara said, very quickly.

He turned back, looking.

The man who he’d seen pressing against the wire had taken things a step further.  The wire bit straight to bone, and some of the knives had come free of the floor.  There was a reason the man had been limp, a reason he had so mindlessly thrust himself into the wire.

He was already unconscious, for one, if not dead, and his body was being pushed.

The Devil shoved the body up and into the wire, and another came free.  The human shield had cleared most the way, and with a sweep of his arm and a slash of a long, heavy knife, Devil was able to clear the rest.  He stepped up into the room, near the east wall.  He tossed the human shield aside.

“The headmaster,” Lillian said.

Don’t talk to him.  Don’t draw his attention.

Helen was the one who did it instead.  She threw herself at the Devil, and he was quick to respond, slashing.  She seized the Devil’s knife arm with the hand that hadn’t been slashed.

He bodily slammed her into the wall.  Helen didn’t let go, but smiled.  She extended a leg, trying to hook it around his, and he slammed her into the wall again.

Some of the loose material from up above clattered as it dropped down.

“Let go,” he said.

That look in Helen’s eyes.  It called back to what he’d thought about how much scarier she was these days.  Would he be able to put his finger on it if he was in the midst of things, like Sylvester?

Duncan winced as the Devil bodily slammed Helen into the wall again, to keep her from getting too good a grip on him.

Lillian charged the Devil, threw a punch, right for the kidney.  But the man had seen her coming, and was already twisting.  He struck her with Helen’s swinging body, before anything could connect.  Lillian managed to scramble back before he swung a punch of his own.

Instinctively, Duncan raised his gun, pointing it at the man.

“Shoot, boy.  Risk killing me.  Kill all of those children,” the Devil said.  “Would your Sylvester forgive you?”

“I don’t give a damn about Sylvester,” Duncan said.

The Devil moved his wrist, with Helen dangling off of it.  Helen seized the opportunity to get a grip on the Devil’s forearm.  She was being held so she blocked Duncan’s shot.

“But you give a damn about her.  And about the children,” the Devil growled.  “No.  You don’t look like that confident a shot.”

Reaching behind his back, he drew a knife.

As he slashed for Helen’s wrists, she dropped away before it could cut through them.  He kicked and she stumbled back.

He kicked her, hard enough to send her flying out past the missing piece of wall at the side of the building, and over the edge.

Duncan aimed for the Devil’s leg and he fired.

The man barely flinched.  He didn’t even seem to slow down.  No, if anything, he seemed to pick up steam, moving toward the little ones, with scarcely a limp.

Toward Ashton, Abby, and Lara, who had clustered together with Quinton.

Knives appeared in the midst of his shoulders, his buttocks, and the backs of his legs, one a second.  Duncan turned to see Emmett and Mary at the top of the stairs with Sylvester.  Mary was throwing, and Sylvester looked like he’d thrown one too.

The Devil clearly didn’t feel pain, but his functioning did suffer.  He stumbled, and he lost his knives along the way, as knives struck hands and as he jerked in response to a well-placed hit at his shoulder.  He practically fell atop the trio.

One of his hands seized Lara by the face.  Lara, because she was the most afraid, and he preyed on fear.  As a large man, musclebound, monstrous, he crawled forward with an eerie tenacity, clearly aiming to go over the edge of the building, to jump down to the ground below, where the remaining Crown police would be picking themselves up off the ground.

As he crawled, he dragged Lara a few feet, then put immense weight on her face and head, almost ignoring the fact she existed.  Her sleeves turned crimson as she reached up to claw at his forearms, frantically scrabbling to do enough damage that he might let go.

Duncan didn’t trust his aim.  Mary was doing what she could, putting knives in key areas, each throw having a measurable effect, slowing him, but not quite keeping him from moving.

She put two knives in the base of his spine as he shifted position, and he sagged, the use of his legs clearly gone.  But then he hauled himself forward.

She didn’t want to kill the man.  Killing him meant others died.

But leaving him alive meant he could, fueled by drugs and fury, make it those two feet to the edge, tumble over, and take Lara with him.  They would land amid rubble and the officers still waiting outside.  If those officers were in his pocket, which they so clearly were, then they would give him care and he could do whatever he wanted to Lara.  He would win.

Ashton looked to Duncan, of all people, for answers, and Duncan didn’t have any.

He’d always gotten along with Ashton best.

Mary and Sylvester were crossing the room at a run.  Emmett was a few steps behind.

But it was Nora who moved the fastest, crossing the floor to throw herself at the Devil.  He held Lara with his left hand, and Nora attacked his right, furious, mad, with no strategy or direction except the intent to use every natural weapon available to her to lash out and do as much damage to him as possible.

The twins were supposed to have a ‘cornered rat’ reflex.  It wasn’t, however, supposed to extend to situations where the other was cornered.

The onslaught bought some time, if only partially because of the damage done, partially because of the fact that he saw more prey and instinctively reached for it, slowing his advance.

Mary appeared on his back, grabbing one of the knives that had embedded into his shoulder, and adjusting it.  He fell onto one side, narrowly missing falling atop Lara and crushing her under his mass.

What ensued wasn’t pretty, or graceful.  Two experiments clawing at the man desperately, Mary moving her knives to sever nerves while trying not to spill too much blood.

Somewhere, and there wasn’t a pretty or easily defined point in the midst of it, the Devil lost the fight.  Lara and Nora saw the opportunity and backed away, both trembling and streaked with blood, eyes wide.  Mary straddled the Devil’s chest, taking another few moments to sever key nerves and make sure he was no longer a threat.

Duncan went to his charges, to Nora and Lara first, slowing down as he approached them, in case their reflexive self-defense was still in effect.  He dropped to one knee in front of them.

“Are you hurt?” he asked.

Nora shook her head.  Lara nodded, touching her face.

“Okay,” Duncan said.  He looked over his shoulder, at Emmett, who was guarding the stairs, at Ashton, and Lacey, and at Lillian, who looked almost defeated.

Lillian wasn’t meant for this.  She’d used the sleeves to fight, but she hadn’t fought monsters with them.  They were a meager substitute for being made for the task of hunting and killing monsters.

Sylvester, apparently, had found the opportunity to duck away.

Duncan gave Lara’s face a quick examination, checking that the skull was intact, checking her jaw, the rigidity of her neck.  She submitted to the exam.

“Eyes functioning?  Problems?”

“Buzzy head,” she said.  “I got the sun in my eyes.”

“Okay,” he said.  He put his hand on her head.  “Whatever your disagreement was, put it aside.  Nora, look after Lara.  Lara, look after Nora.  Checkup later, for your head.”

They both gave him blank stares, but then Nora nodded.

Helen.  Helen was so often the afterthought, the exception, the one that was hard to include in summaries.  Duncan rose to his feet, approaching the wall that Helen had been kicked off of.  He was cautious as he drew nearer.

There were officers down there, many of them dusty, some bloody.  One had a gun out, pointing in Duncan’s general direction.  Another had a hand on that man’s wrist, as if to hold him back.

The fight at the edge of the wall, it saw Mary over the Devil, the Devil’s head and shoulders at the edge, now.    The Crown Police could see him, and they could see Mary.

Gathering what little confidence he had, Duncan drew closer to the edge.  There, he could see how the rubble from the fallen wall and scaffolding had barred the front door even further.

There were bodies there.  The door had been opened and some of the Devil’s men had been making their way out.

He could also see Helen.  She dangled from the edge.  She’d grabbed the edge as she went over, and she was still there.

“Hello,” she said.

“Hello, Helen,” Duncan said, still eyeing the police and the warbeasts on the ground.

“Help, pretty please?  I took a bad cut to my left hand, and it doesn’t grab things anymore.”

“Easily fixed,” Duncan said.  He crouched down, one hand on the wall, and reached down to grab the wrist of the hand that was holding the ledge.  She let go and her fingers snapped around his wrist.

She was surprisingly light as he hauled her up and back onto the second floor.

“Thank you kindly,” Helen said, before bending over to give him a kiss on the cheek.

Somehow not as threatening as usual.

Helen went straight to Lillian and Lacey for her medical care.

There was still so much dust in the air, and so much left undone. The police out there, the Devil, Sylvester…  Duncan looked over at the Devil and Mary.

“He’s not going to talk,” Mary said, “And he’s too big to move.”

“Ashton can handle it,” Duncan said.  “Emmett, come help.”

With Emmett’s help, soon joined by Lacey, who had to feel useless and dazed in this situation, Duncan dragged the Devil away from the edge and closer to the center of the room.

“Direct dose,” Duncan said, to Ashton.  “I know you’re spent, but we need something.”

Ashton nodded.  “You can always dig just a little bit deeper.”

Then he put one hand on the Devil’s chin and leaned over, face drawing closer.

“Ashton,” Lacey said.  “Do not kiss that man.  You don’t know where he’s been.”

Ashton paused.

“Nose,” Duncan said.  “And use your hand to funnel it.”

Ashton cupped his hand to form a circle, pressed it over the Devil’s nose, and then blew hard into it.

It would take a minute.

“I’m sorry we were late,” Mary said.  “We didn’t think it would get quite this bad this fast.  I thought my wires were good enough.”

“They were good.  He used a human shield,” Duncan said.  “Brute forced his way through.”

Mary frowned.  Even faced with a perfectly reasonable countermeasure, she still acted like it was a failure on her end.

“We were taking a minute to set up our escape route.  We have a way out of the building,” Mary said.  “One Sylvester has no doubt already used.”

Duncan nodded.

He stood, backing away from the scene, coming to stand by Lillian and Helen.  Abby had Quinton, which was mostly what she needed.  Nora had Lara and Lara had Nora.  Ashton had a task to do.

“Did you get hurt?” he asked Lillian.

“No.  Only my pride.”

“You did better than I did,” he said.

She didn’t argue.  She didn’t agree, either.

Instead, she approached the Devil, who was starting to slur out words in the rambling fashion that went hand in hand with having his inhibitions lowered and being beset with the compulsion to talk.

There was only Helen.

“Are you okay?” he asked her.

She showed him her bandaged hand.  “Only need a little bit of surgery.  Lillian can do that when we have ten minutes free.”

He nodded.

Having been through this brief, ugly, messy skirmish, he was concerned about where things stood.  He wasn’t very strong or skilled or useful in any capacity except for medicine, and Lillian and Lacey had that handled.

He didn’t want to be as disconnected.  Just moving the pieces and allocating resources.

He definitely didn’t want to be Sylvester, either.

But drawing a little closer, exposing himself to more risk, if it helped others, he could do that.

“But are you okay?” he asked, venturing, ready to be laughed at, teased, and mocked.  “You seem scarier lately.  I know Ibbot has everything handled, but…”

“He doesn’t have everything handled,” Helen said.

“Oh,” Duncan said.  He wasn’t sure what to say.  It was maybe the worst thing she could have said, and he wasn’t sure what to say that wouldn’t be trying to gainsay one of the more talented Professors in the Crown States.

“I heard you talking to the twins.  I saw what you did for Abby.  You’re doing something different.”

“I don’t know,” Duncan said.

He felt so dumb sometimes.

“Just…” he ventured.  “Bedside manner, I guess.”

“Well, thank you,” Helen said, leaning against the wall beside him, watching the ongoing struggle with the devil, hands clasped in front of her.  “Thank you for asking that.”

“Sure,” he said.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Black Sheep – 13.8 (Lamb)

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

-He’s here.-

“He’s here,” Lara whispered, translating, her eyes wide.  Her claws were biting into the wood she was lying on with enough force to cut through her sleeves and dig notches into the surface.

She was scared, she was overwhelmed, she was looking for Ashton and Abby and Duncan and Emmett for support, especially Ashton and Abby, because those two were like her and they were almost a trio and Ashton calmed her down with his spores while Abby calmed her down by being Abby.  But they weren’t here and she was with Helen and Mary now.

She’d suggested going with Helen and Mary, because she didn’t want to diverge.  If she always went with Duncan’s group and Nora always spent time with Mary’s group, then they would become different individuals, and different could be bad.  Ashton had said it wasn’t bad, but even though she didn’t remember her first sisters dying she remembered saying goodbye to the last two.

She and Nora called the first one as Whisper, because her communication wasn’t very strong, and the second one was Tremble, because her fear response was the strongest.  She remembered how they sounded, and the brief moments of contact they had had when moving between the tanks and the metal tables where they were measured and examined.  She remembered how they tasted when they were fed to her.

Her thoughts were running away from her.

She’d decided to do this, to go with the other group.  She’d chosen this.  She wished she hadn’t, but the decision had been made and she had a job to do.

Transcribing was good.  Focusing on that helped calm her down.  Talking and listening helped calm her.

“Elwes is on the way,” a man spoke to the Devil.

“With  everyone?”

“Everyone, Mr. Colby.”

“What about the Poke?”

“Still on his way, I presume.”

“If his excuse isn’t good, he’ll pay.  Meggot?”

“No word since he turned up in town.  They might have got him when they were going after the others.”

“He was a waste of breath.  Small loss,” the Devil spoke, his voice gravelly.  There was a pause.  “Lambs!”

Lara closed her eyes as her heart leaped in her chest.

“I assume the screams I heard outside were because of you!  I know you’re here!”

“He,” Mary murmured, in Lara’s ear, making her jump.  “You said he was here.  Sylvester?”

Sylvester? she thrummed the word out with the structures in her bones.

-Yes.- came the reply, picked up by the fine filaments that ran in parallel with her hair, picked up in part by her claws and some of the finer structures in her bones.  The word danced along her skull and the skin of her head like spoken words boomed in her ears.

“Yes,” she replied.

-He’s here to help.  Lillian says he wants to play at being a proper Lamb again.

“He wants to act like a Lamb again.  He’s helping.”

“Lambs!” the Devil bellowed.

She didn’t transcribe.  The voice was loud enough that Nora would be able to hear.  She watched the Devil stalk across the third floor of the building.  There were twenty-five men down there with him.  All of the men had weapons.

“I asked about you,” the Devil spoke.  “I know what you do.  Information gatherers and assassins.  Experiments.  What a complicated relationship you seem to have with Sylvester.  Is he with you now?”

Once Lara listened beyond the hoarse voice, she could tell that the man was talking funny.  Rambling.

It made her think of her creators.  They would uncork bottles in the lab on Friday nights and drink, and they would quickly get drunk.  This was like that.

“Do you share his concern for the well-being of children?” the Devil asked.  “I have to say, it was a clever thing.  A surprising number of this city’s children disappeared.  A clever disappearing act, not so long after he laid the bait.”

“Talker,” Mary murmured.

Lara relayed Mary’s message alongside everything the Devil was saying.

“But I buy and I supply to a number of cities.  It has been roughly a day since Sylvester and I had the talk in the auditorium.  Did you really think my reach was limited to this one city?”

Lara didn’t understand right away, but she saw Mary raise her head up and away from the floor, then lower it, lightly striking the floor with her forehead.

“They’re on their way to places all around the city.  Wagons and carts of children that were for sale.  And no, they aren’t coming to me.  If you want to help them, you’ll have to find them.”

Mary raised her head to bang the floor again.  Helen put out her hand, to intercept, softening the already faint impact.

“Sylvester, damn it,” Mary murmured.

“Harm me, and scores of children will die,” the Devil pronounced.  “Unless one of you feels brave.  A duel, one of you children against me.”

Mary moved to stand up.  Helen grabbed her arm.

No,” Helen whispered.

Lara finished relaying everything, then added, Mary wants to go.

-Lillian says no.

“Lillian says no,” Lara said.

Mary relented, letting Helen pull her back down to a position on the floor.

-What are we doing?  What’s happening?  Where’s Sylvester now?  I think he was moving down your way.

I don’t know! Lara exclaimed.

-You’re useless.  If we had real parents I bet they would kill themselves out of disappointment and shame.

Better than the trio of being useless, stupid and weak.  The world is worse off for having you in it.  Skip the parent part and kill yourself out of disappointment and shame, you wretch.

Having Nora talking to her was helping her to relax and stay centered.  She still gripped the floor, claws digging into wood, but she didn’t feel like she was going to lose her mind for an hour and come back to reality to find that an hour had passed.  Not that that ever happened, but sometimes the fear got so very bad she thought she might not be able to handle it.

“No takers?” the Devil called out.  “I know you’re listening.  Let’s see.  I have this notebook.  All the locations of where the wagonfuls of children are being taken, where the nanny is, written on eight pages.”

Lara transcribed.  She heard paper ripping.

“One page.  The writing is only on the one side.  One wagonful.  Unless I get a sign, I burn it.  The people there never get the message from me, the deadline comes and goes, and the children meet their end.”

Mary dropped her head down to the floor again.

“I didn’t specify how.  But I have people I go to for tasks like these.  I trust they’ll be creative.”

Mary looked at Helen.  This time, when Mary rose to her feet, Helen didn’t stop her.  Mary didn’t go straight down, but headed toward the open wall and the scaffold.  Approaching from the outside.

Lara peered through the boards, communicating, Mary is going.

-Lillian: Damn it.  This is not a good idea.  She wanted to go anyway, this just gives her a reason.-

The Devil was a big man, veins standing out, muscles etched out, with barely any fat.  His eyes were bloodshot, his hair messy.

He scared Lara.  She was scared of most things, yes, but this man stood out to her.  She had seen warbeasts that had been made to be scary, and somehow, even those Warbeasts didn’t seem to trigger most or all of her instinctive fears the same way that this man did.  The placement of his eyes, the veins, his size, the way he moved, the way he sounded-

He scares me so much. 

Strength.-

I’m scared for Mary.

-All of us here too.  But they trust her.  You bile stain.

Helen reached over and put a hand over one of Lara’s claws.  She didn’t blink once as she stared down at the proceedings.

The Devil was turning around.  He chuckled as he saw Mary standing in a window.

“Good,” he said.  “I didn’t think it would be a bitch of a girl.”

“It isn’t,” Mary said, in that way she sometimes did, that reminded Lara of her creators, very hoity-toity, capable of delivering verbal ripostes while still sounding   eminently calm and well-mannered.  “I’m a girl, no epithet warranted.”

The Devil undid the buttons on his shirt, one by one.  The garment barely fit him, and peeled off him more than anything.  He cast the shirt aside.

“I win, I get the little book,” Mary said.  “You win… you get me.  And you can use me to bait out the others, I assume.”

“They’re all out there, are they?” the Devil asked.  He indicated the scaffolding that Mary had stepped off of.  “I’m looking forward to taking a knife to that pretty face of yours.  Peel it off, then carve and smash the muscle and bone until there’s no chance that your fancy doctors can give you a good replacement.”

“I look forward to you trying,” Mary said.

The Devil gestured.  All of the men on the floor below backed off, clearing a space.

“No weapons,” he said.  “Hands, fists, feet.  Bite if you want to.”

Lara could see him bare his teeth in a smile.  They seemed oversized, misshapen.  Or was it an illusion?

“No weapons, then.  If you insist,” Mary said.

“It ends when you cry mercy,” he said.

“That’s not going to happen.  Given that we’re left with no alternatives, the real ending will have to be a surprise,” Mary said.

The Devil had to weigh something between twenty and twenty two stone, and it was all muscle, warped and drug-fueled.  Mary was a third of that.  Athletic, but not tuned to the same degree, and not as drugged.

“Come, now,” the Devil said.  “I’ll even let you make the first move.”

Mary crouched a little, legs tense, eyeing the room.  The floor was shaky in spots, Lara noticed.  There were places that could see Mary tripping or stumbling, giving the Devil his chance.  Ten meters separated them.

Mary dashed in the Devil’s direction.

“Shoot her,” the Devil ordered, the moment she had momentum.

Lara thought her heart would stop at the words, and the movement on the part of the men at the edges of the room, as they reached for guns.

Behind the Devil, a window shattered.  Lara couldn’t see what it was, through the gaps in the floorboards.  But it was a distraction.  Perhaps it bought Mary a fraction of a second.

Mary changed direction.  Too far into the room to reverse course and go for the window, she turned, running, and she leaped like a cat might, one hand going out, then down, as her legs rose.  The other hand flicked in the direction of the Devil, throwing out a knife.

Lara watched as Mary put a hand on the floor, gripped it, and hauled herself through one of the shakier patches of flooring to the floor below.  The notebook, pierced with a knife, was hauled in after her.

She spoke in a hushed whisper at the same time she communicated to Nora, “She’s okay!  I think!  She dove through the floor!  Sylvester threw something in there.”

“Gas,” Helen said.

Gas.

Nora’s noise of amusement and happiness was less bubbly than their laughing sound.

“Come on,” Helen said, standing carefully, giving Lara a hand in standing.

In that same moment, the Devil called out, “Spread out!  Move upstairs, downstairs.  Tear down the scaffold while you’re at it!”

-Lacey: I didn’t want to go up.  Now we’re cut off.

-Lillian: Don’t worry.  The Lambs like high places.  Rooftops, tall buildings.  We’ve got experience with this sort of thing.-

The gas that Sylvester had tossed in was spreading.  The men were vacating the floor below, and the Devil strode toward the ladder, heading downstairs.  He didn’t look upset.  If the book was important and he’d lost the book, why wasn’t he upset?

“The book was a fake, maybe.”

There was a brief pause before Nora reported, -Lillian: Probably.-

“Come on,” Helen said, giving Lara’s hand a squeeze.  “People are coming.  Let’s get you mostly hidden.  If I get excited, I don’t want you anywhere near me.  I might hurt you.”

“What?” Lara asked.

Helen reached over and pinched Lara’s cheek.  “Kidding.”

Helen led her over to one end of the room, where a cloth had been pinned up to keep the wind from blowing through too much.  Helen pulled the cloth down so it covered Lara.

“White drape, white Lara,” Helen said, plucking at Lara’s clothing.  “You’re almost camouflaged.”

Lara nodded.

There were people coming up the scaffolding, and some people climbing the ladders up to the fourth floor.

What if they came behind her?  What if they came up in front?  She couldn’t watch both sides without moving, but moving meant being more visible and obvious.

Swaddling herself further, she craned her head, looking up at the darker top floor, which was mostly beams and branches.  She couldn’t really make out the others, until Nora moved her head.

-What are you doing?  You’re a crime against all living things, natural and Academy made, you’re so pathetic.  Report.  What do you see?  What do you hear?  Be useful.

Was Nora really getting more mature, spending time around the other Lambs, gettng to talk to Sylvester like she did?  Lara was so spooked at what was going on she could barely think straight.  Nora was thinking about the right things.

Noises on the scaffolding to my left, you cretin.  People at the ladder to my left,   you imbecile.  They’re muttering to each other, so there’s more than one.  Maybe three.  Helen went to my right.  She might be climbing down and trying to catch them off guard.

-You forgot to keep insulting me.  You must have acknowledged that I’m the better sister.-

The dangerous people were so close.

Still, Lara had to spare an effort.  When they decided who made the cut, they should have terminated you and kept the sister with missing organs.  At least she might have been worth something for a few minutes before expiring.

There was a long pause.  A head crested the top of the ladder simultaneously as the matching arm and the hand that gripped a pistol.  The thug looked around, pointing the gun this way and that.

-Too much.- Nora communicated, and Nora’s words were as terrifying as the gun.

Am sorry.

-Too much.  You wrong our sister’s memories!– Nora stressed.

Am sorry.  Am scared.  Not thinking well.

If anyone should have been terminated, it is you, you sad little spasm of vat-meat.  Our sister with missing organs, at least, didn’t fancy a romance with cow plops.-

Nora’s titter of amusement was both reassuring and one-sided.  Lara’s attention was now consumed by the gunman, enough that she couldn’t reply.

The man with the gun was cautious as he got both feet on the floor.  The gun pointed this way and that as he edged his way around the empty floor.  He even pointed it up at one point, and Lara was certain he would see the others.

But the gun moved down, aiming at eye level.

As he edged around to one end of the room, to peek at the scaffolding, Helen seized him.  He disappeared around the edge of the broken wall.

The other man was just now coming up the ladder.  He saw the first get snatched by Helen, stiffened, then pointed his gun.  Not that it would have accomplished much.

The projectile dropped from above.  A knife, blade pointed downward.  It remained straight as it fell straight down on top of his head, penetrating the crown.  His grip on the ladder faltered, and he fell.  From the complaints, he fell on the people below.

Lara closed her eyes, and she could hear the grinding, meaty noises as Helen went to work.  She startled at the sound of footsteps, and then realized they were the footsteps of the others.  Lillian, Lacey, Abby, Ashton, Duncan, and Nora.

“Helen?” Lillian asked.

Lara poked her head out from her hiding place and pointed in the right direction.

Just about everyone fixated their attention on Helen, but Nora and Abby made a beeline straight for Lara.  Nora hugged her, tight.  Painful hug, when their ribs stuck out all knobby-like and touched each other, but it was a good hug too.  She felt her scalp tingle as her hair-like filaments touched some of Nora’s.

“Are you okay?” Abby asked.

Lara nodded.  After a moment, she broke the hug, then hugged Abby.  Because Abby cared and understood that even if there was no super-immediate danger, it was possible to be not-okay.

“I wanted to do something interesting with it,” Helen said.  She had some rope and was using it to help drag the first gunman’s body behind her, leaving a trail of blood and other bodily fluids.  Lillian was helping her, holding one part of the rope.  The man’s skin had been pulled at hard enough that it had torn free in places, his head, limbs, and body all twisted around until front and back were almost synonymous.  He was strangely rigid, for how broken he was.  Arms and legs had been broken and turned around until shattered bone found a hold in torn muscle and flesh, holding it in place.

Abby looked away from the sight.

Lacey said, “That begs the question… why?”

“Because.  I want them to see,” Helen said.  “We need to go help Mary.  She went down there, and they’re collapsing in on her.”

“Okay,” Lillian said.  “I’m still not connecting the thoughts.”

Helen worked with the rope, binding the body.  It was bloody enough that the rope was soon soaked through.  She handed the extra length of rope to Lacey and Duncan.  “Distraction.  Dangle it when Nora says.”

Which meant Lara was coming with, Lara realized.  She grit her teeth, and pulled away from Abby and Nora.

As she passed by Ashton, she felt a swelling of emotion, not bad, not fear or anything, and not quite calming.  Determination?

Maybe this was a bit of what courage felt like.

“Scaffolding,” Lara said, quiet, pointing across the floor to the other end from where Helen had been with her captive.  “People, I think.  Be careful.”

“Will do,” Duncan said, simply.

Hopefully bad people wouldn’t climb the outside of the tower and appear behind Duncan, Lacey, Abby, Ashton, and Nora.  Hopefully.

She hated ‘hope’.  Hope was so easily twisted by fear.  Hope was what fear ate, and she had so much fear to feed.

She hoped she and Nora could be happy and peaceful one day, with only occasional work on battlefields and in scary places.  She hoped they could pupate and enter their later forms and that everything would be okay.  She hoped they wouldn’t lose the ability to talk and be deemed useless.  She hoped they wouldn’t diverge and be labeled too different to use.

There were too many routes for the enemy to use, too many enemies.  Too much danger.  The Devil scared her, even though she knew he wasn’t the worst or most dangerous experiment the Lambs had faced.  He was the worst and most horrible thing she had ever seen in her life.

She was scared of heights, as she stepped onto the shaky scaffolding.  It was a different sort of fear.  Not a built-in fear, or a fear that was supported by those built-in fears.  It was an ordinary fear that was still big.

Would she have wings when she pupated?  She had asked once, and instead of answering, her creators had talked about it and gotten into arguments and they never gave her a straight answer.

What would it be like to have wings but also to be afraid of height?

Lillian and Helen were very careful as they made their way down the scaffolding, guiding Lara as they did it.  At some points Lara had to roll up her sleeves so she would have a better grip.

They stood on the shaky footing of wood and planks and bars and rope and approached the corner.  Lara hung back.

Lillian gestured.

Seeing the gesture, Helen translated, leaning close, and only barely vocalizing, such a faint whisper that a normal human throat might not have been able to make it.

“Seven.”

Further below, there was a crashing sound.  Scaffolding fell away from the building, disconnected.

Lara felt her heartbeat pick up.  She moved closer to the exterior wall of the building, and did her best to dig her claws into the cracks and gaps between stones.  If the rest of the scaffolding fell away, she didn’t want to fall with it.

Lillian gestured.  Helen translated, “Seven is too many for you and me.  Even with a distraction.”

“I can’t,” Lara said.

“And I wouldn’t ask you to,” Helen whispered.  She looked at Lillian while talking to Lara.  “They’re staying put.  Some are taking apart scaffolding where it’s connected to the building.  After what happened to the first two to go up…  We’re stuck.  It would be easier if we had Emmett.”

-Ashton is helping, just so you know.  And you need to know lots more things if you’re ever going to catch up, you streak of rectal mucus.

If I’m a streak of rectal mucus then you’re a pile of rancid cat puke.

-Well, I never!

Titter.

“Ashton’s helping,” Lara said, as quietly as she could manage.

A shake of the scaffolding drew Lara’s eyes downward.  She saw a hand gripping one of the poles of wood, and kicked at it.  The hand moved out of the way just in time.  It was soon joined by a second.  Lara squeaked.

The scaffolding creaked as Sylvester helped himself over the edge, placing himself within a few feet of Helen and Lara.  The two of them stood between Sylvester and Lillian.

“Hi, Sylvester,” Lillian said, her whisper very breathy, easily lost in the wind that blew through and around the building.

“Hi,” Sylvester said.  He smiled.

“Do us a favor?” Lillian asked, in that same breathy voice.

“Gladly.”

“Would you throw yourself off the scaffolding?  Nose-dive for the cobblestones down there?  It could be a good distraction.”

Lara clutched closer to Helen.

Sylvester only smiled.  “I’ll do you a favor, but it won’t be that one.”

“Drat.”

“Sorry,” he whispered.  He looked down at Lara.  “You’re not the one I talked to, I don’t think.  Meaning you’re… Lara?”

Lara nodded.

“Nice to meet you.”

“Stop flirting,” Lillian said.  “Where are Mary and Emmett?”

“First floor, and just above the first floor.  I dropped some smoke bombs and gave her a few more.  I hoped the smoke would climb more, scare the people further up to give you all some elbow room, ended up having to come myself when I couldn’t.  She’s fine for a long while down there, provided she doesn’t get sloppy and the Devil doesn’t stumble on her while blind from all the smoke.”

“Fine.  Are you going to help us here, or are you just here to make fun of us?”

“Can it be both?”

There were murmurs from within the building.  Lillian bit back her retort, then gestured it instead.

“I’m insulted,” Sylvester said.

Lillian pressed a finger to her lips.

“Seven people in there,” Helen translated.  “Helen takes three, Lillian take three, Sylvester takes one, if he can.”

Lillian looked at Lara, and gestured.

Lara didn’t need to know what the gesture meant, or to have Helen translate it.  She communicated to Nora, Now.

A moment later, there was a violent rustling, curses, and a gunshot.

Lillian, Helen, and Sylvester rounded the corner, throwing themselves into the tower interior.

Lara remained where she was, clinging to the wall, eyes closed.  She could hear the violence, and she had no idea which side was winning.

-Come.-

Lara hesitated.

But then Abby and Ashton appeared at the edge of the wall, and Abby reached out for Lara’s sleeve.  Abby gave it a tug.

Lara allowed herself to be drawn into the third floor tower room.  The others were all gathered, and the seven men were dead, unconscious, or bound.  Only Mary was absent.  Even Emmett was here.  The path down to the floor below was protected by a hatch.

“Having the time of your life?” Lillian asked, sourly.

“Fantastically good time,” Sylvester said, from the far end of the room.  “Devil’s down on the first floor with twelve soldiers.  Smoke bombs weren’t toxic, sadly.  Mary is keeping tabs on him.  Book was a fake, by the way.  Obviously.”

“We need to disable him,” Helen said.  “Say, by breaking his limbs.”

“Because you messed up, Sylvester.  You underestimated him,” Lillian accused.

Sylvester backed away a step, hands raised.  “Harsh words, harsh words.”

“There are wagonloads of children en route to this city.  Because you baited a lunatic and he took the bait.”

“Would you believe me if I said a gangly white rabbit is handling that right now?” Sylvester asked.

“I don’t know,” Lillian said.  “Are you lying?”

“Pierre has already set things in motion.  A few letters will slow things down just long enough, before they get vetted and found out to be false.  There are only so many points that people can use to access the city.  Only a few of those are convenient when coming from other cities, and in an era of plagues and war, it doesn’t take much to lock down travel to and from the city.”

“You’re shutting off your own exit from the city,” Lacey said.

“Yes.  And Mary is counting down the minutes before she drops another smoke bomb.  She’ll be running out soon, then she’s in a pinch.  So… I’m going to go handle that.”

“Sylvester,” Lillian said.  She approached him.  “Listen, about Jamie-”

“Let’s not talk about Jamie,” Sylvester said.  The smile dropped off his face.

“He was close to you.  He made a big sacrifice, and then he died because of it.”

“That’s… not kind of you to say,” Sylvester said.  “And I see that you’re edging closer to me.  I’m aware of what those arms of yours are capable of.  I did just see you punch three out of the four humors clean out of a fellow.”

Lara watched the dialogue, somehow feeling very concerned about it all.

“Does this help?” Lillian asked.  She undid the parts of the meat-sleeves that connected to her shoulders, letting them dangle from the elbow instead.  “I just want to talk to you like a human being for five seconds before we get caught up in everything again.”

“Not particularly, but if you’re going to stall me and say something, then it might as well be now.”

“Jamie mattered, Sylvester.  The old one and the new one.  We shouldn’t have lost him once, let alone twice.  Gordon mattered.  And Gordon was very firm about wanting us to keep fighting for good things.  You’re acting unhinged, operating alone like this.  Putting kids at risk?  You’re getting sloppy.”

“You know for a fact that isn’t true,” Sylvester said.

Lillian, close enough now, reached out to Sylvester.

The syringe sprang from her meat-hand, and Sylvester caught it, gripping it.  She produced the second a moment later, moving her arm, but Sylvester caught that too.

Emmett started forward, but stopped when Sylvester met his eyes.  Sylvester shook his head, before returning his focus to Lillian.

“I can read you like a book, Lil.”

“Don’t call me Lil.”

“Nice try, though.  I did see your syringe earlier today, so I knew to look out for it.”

Lillian jerked her arm to try to free it.  Sylvester hung on.

“Let’s go help Mary,” he said.  “See if we can’t handle the Devil.  Then you can hurry to the gates of the city and intercept the carts full of kids before they get delivered to unsavory types, and I’ll make my merry getaway.”

“Of course you have a gameplan, and of course you’re rubbing it in our faces.”

“Of course,” he said.  He let go of the syringes, stepping back and out onto the scaffold.

Lara watched as he ran away.

-I like Sylvester.- Nora communicated.

Thinking of the Devil and the ways that he’d seemed so spooky in a way that Lara found so many things spooky, Lara felt the same thing to a lesser degree with Sylvester.

It was worse because she had been put in the ugly position where she had to either stay silent and betray herself or speak up and deviate.  Lara decided on the latter.

I don’t.

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