Root and Branch – 19.9

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The moon was out, but it didn’t do much to help illuminate Hackthorn.  Bridges, overhangs, greenery, tall buildings and walls cast most of the Academy city into a shadow that triumphed over even the moonlight.  The light that did touch the buildings, bridges, and the houses down below was deceptive.  The large glass panes of the main building made the light filter and refract, creating suggestions of things that weren’t there.  The trees and hanging gardens, a factor yet again, moved in reaction to the wind, creating a shifting interplay of light and shadow below.

Some had gone to sleep.  Others were burning the midnight oil.

Not that it was actual midnight oil, really.  I could see who was awake because lights were on, and our people had kept track of where we’d seen them go, when & where they’d left the main building to venture into houses and other buildings in the city below.  Some of those buildings had fireplaces burning or lights on.  We’d taken the oil, firewood and candles where possible, so they would have had to throw books or pieces of broken furniture into the fireplaces.

I was standing in a room with a view, a balcony framed in glass.  Ashton was with me, and Professor Foss had a seat which positioned him to see everything that was unfolding.  His hands had been placed into buckets filled with a creamy bone white material.

The Infante stood near the Professor.

It was all about the pressure, leaning on them, making them work for even creature comforts.  It was summer and the nights were short, but darkness had a primal power.  Making them go the extra mile to stave off the dark had its merits.  They were in enemy territory – a city under siege.

Making them work to find places to sleep was another point of pressure.  The main building didn’t have so many.  We’d planned to divide and isolate them by group, our forces consolidated in a few points.  We would have targeted the aristocrats and the Nobles by separate measures.  As a consequence, there had always been an expectation that we would send some to the boy’s dorm and others to the guest building, where beds awaited them.

It would also have meant that things like the gossamer creature would have been tricky to use without risking harm to one of the other groups.

There were a lot of things that would have been convenient about things going according to plan, there.

Our primary targets, though, were the top-ranked professors, nobles, and aristocrats present.  Our hope had been to delay them, on the premise of Ferres wanting to discuss the impact of her immortality procedure, then to blow up the bridges.

It would have been twenty people at most gathered in the largest building, with empty houses and buildings at the foot of Hackthorn below.  Isolating, disorienting, with a lot of dark corners and hallways for a relatively small group to keep an eye on.

Instead, there were more than a thousand guests in that building, alongside some of ours.  We couldn’t attack effectively without risking hurting our own, and we had to temper our approach on the attrition front for much the same reason.  If we lost their loyalty now, then they might share information.

A thousand individuals needed to sleep.  Counters and surgical tables in the labs were only so comfortable.  Benches and tables in the main hall and the broader sets of stairs overlooking that area had much the same issue, and the added issue of being less private.  Clothing from luggage cases could be draped over the hard surfaces, but it was meager at best, and not everyone had access to their personal things.

Add the parasites and other creatures we’d released as we went, the light dusting of irritants and gas I’d released when we’d made our escape, and it made for uneasy rest.

They were venturing out to where there were beds.  No doubt the more levelheaded among them had noted the danger inherent in that.  But we’d known we were fighting an enemy that was proud, above all else.

All along the perimeter wall, I watched the little orange lights appear, then multiply.

“I rather like this part,” Ashton said, beside me.  The little orange lights glittered in his eyes.

“Me too, little man, me too.”

The larger of the orange lights were braziers.  The smaller were the heads of the arrows.  Little time was wasted in ensuring that the arrows were fired promptly.  Targets had already been decided in advance.

The first volley was in the air by the time the people in the main building managed to sound any kind of alarm.  They used horns, and the bass drone of the collected instruments filled the air.

Buildings had been treated to resist fire, and our removal of the stacks of firewood and the like meant there was a little less in the way of combustible targets.  But there were bales of hay for the feed of horses, stacks of crates and barrels, arrows sailed into buildings and found curtains, floorboards, and pieces of furniture.  Even with the wood being treated, there were places arrows could sink in and burn away with enough intensity that they would eventually start burning.

The flaming arrows weren’t solely targeted at the buildings they’d chosen to sleep in, but at the buildings that had the infrastructure for stitched servants to recharge, and at the outdoor buildings where warbeasts and other animals were being stabled.

The flames were starting to spread.  People were fleeing now, and some were releasing the animals from the stables.  There was an effort to get the stitched out of the burning building, hampered by the agitated stitched themselves.

“We should have set fire to the tall building down there,” Ashton said.

“The steeple?”

“Yeah,” Ashton said.

“We considered it, if I’m remembering right.  Given how your head works, I’m thinking your reasons are different from the rest of us.”

“It would be more symmetrical,” Ashton said.  “And it would flow better.  As it is now, it’s like a sentence that starts, pauses in the middle, and starts again.”

He used his hand, gesturing, to sort of illustrate what he meant.

“I can’t tell if you’re a genius or if it’s pure coincidence, but flow was my line of thinking too,” I said.  “More to do with the flow of people, creating the right balance of chaos.”

“Call it genius then,” Ashton said.

One of the buildings blew up.  The initial flare of the explosion illuminated the scattered figures on the street.  It was the middle of the night, they’d been stirred from their beds, there were freed horses and warbeasts here and there, and stitched had been released from one building, agitated from the fire.  In a strange city at the dead of night, even the ones with their wits about them didn’t necessarily know which way to run.

“More explosions would be nice too,” Ashton said.

“Agreed,” I said.  “Looks like the voltaic system that houses stitched just blew up.”

“Maybe,” Ashton said.

A new flash of light appeared at the girl’s dormitory.  A very bright point of white that sailed skyward.  It detonated in the sky, so bright it left a spark on my field of vision.  The brilliant, flickering flash quickly died out as the projectile sailed toward the ground.

The smoke and the deep shadows made it hard to track what was going on, but I saw Miss Muffet’s spider make its appearance.  Other experiments were venturing into the fray, more recognizable for the fact that they were very focused on what they were doing, and the enemy was more jumbled, trying to organize, forming into ranks or hurrying toward safer territory.  Fires lower to the ground helped cast long shadows for creatures that already had long limbs.  The poison apple, Miss Muffet’s spider, the giant, the nightmare that didn’t burn, the crimson bull…

“Jessie and Lil have done their part,” I said.  “Let’s walk.”

Ashton grabbed Professor Foss’ arm, striving to haul him to his feet.  I would have helped, but my hands remained bound.

“Stand up,” Ashton ordered.

The Professor remained in his seat, not cooperating.

“Ashton.”

Ashton turned his head.  He turned it away as another distant explosion occurred.  He sighed, as if he was very bothered he hadn’t seen.  He looked back in my direction.

“Do you have a knife?” I asked him.

That got me a nod.

I stuck out a foot, sticking Professor Foss in the upper thigh with the toe of my shoe.  “You can stick it there, and it won’t do too much harm.”

The Professor stood in the same moment Ashton drew the knife.

He stood there like that, glaring at me, then at Ashton, as if he could somehow maintain the veneer that he had some ability to resist.  I saw the eye contact break and his posture slip a fraction, as Ashton worked his magic or the Professor’s ability to lie to himself faltered.

“Come on,” Ashton said.  He tugged on the Professor’s arm.  I followed alongside, as we headed into the room, through it, and into the hallway.  Students were standing guard.

Probably more for me than for the Professor.

“Please come with us,” Ashton ordered them.  “Hold on to the professor for me while you’re at it, please.”

We made our way out of the building, and onto the perimeter wall.  We didn’t bring lights with us.  The fires were the focus, as were the gunshots, now, the warbeasts on both sides, and the soldiers fighting on the ground.  We had them running, we weren’t really pressing them, and we weren’t committing a terribly large amount of our forces.  We wanted to test them and to strain their resources.

But I kept an eye on the shadows, as best as I could.  While we acted in the dark, it was very possible that a clever Noble or Professor might try to do the same.

“Talk to me about Fray,” I said.

“Haven’t seen her in years,” the Professor said.

“You’re aware that if that’s true, you’re really not that useful to us?” I asked.

“Then I’m not useful to you,” he said.  “Are you going to throw me off the wall?”

There was something about the way he’d said that, that made me think he was too confident.

“Do you really want to tempt me?” I asked.  “Ashton here doesn’t give a damn, and I’m in restraints for a reason.  I’m sure a smart man like you has noticed.”

“I give a bit of a damn,” Ashton said.  His pale face changed as he squinted at me in the dark, arching his neck back to get a better look at my hands as I gestured.  He added, “I’d like to drop him from the wall into a place where there’s some light.”

“Some light, huh?”

“I want to see the stains and splatters he makes.  Oh!  Or we could cut his knees and elbows and drop him onto a roof.  We’ll make him crawl like that, and see the smears and stains he makes as he goes.  It’ll be so nice to look at.”

“Head games,” the Professor said.

“I said I was a genius earlier, but I’m not,” Ashton said.  “I’m a vehicle for pheromone discharges.  I have a scaffolded brain with a low H.S.-like-value, high mimickry and high liquidity.  I think someone like you might know what that means.”

“I have some ideas,” the Professor said, sounding very tired.

“I like the pretty patterns and colors, Professor,” Ashton said.  “And I’m not very adaptable in late stage growth, and I’m well past early stage, so you can do the math.  Eventually I won’t adapt at all, and I’ll turn inwards.  I’ll be stuck in an endless loop.  But for now I’m not, and I’m staying comfortable and doing what makes me happy.  And making you into interesting patterns would make me happy.”

“I’m not a vat grown shelf-head, and I honestly wouldn’t mind,” I said.

“These students you two have escorting me might disagree.”

“We were told to follow their orders.  If the two of them disagree, we follow Ashton over Sylvester.”

“Uh huh,” the Professor said.  The sound came out guttural, as much a groan as words.

“Fray,” I reminded him.

“You’re pretending there’s another answer.”

“I’m pretending that you’re acting like you’re untouchable when you really shouldn’t be that confident.”

“Shouldn’t I be?” he asked.

Professor Foss was older, his hair grown in white, curled at the edges in a mimicry of the wigs of old, which had been powdered to keep the bugs out.  He looked haggard, worn out by just the afternoon and evening in our company.

But there was something beyond that.  Even being on edge, with one escape and recapture, even with all the stressors and the need to focus and keep control of his faculties while Ashton worked on him, he was still fighting.

I couldn’t remember much of him, but I could draw on context and I could read him.  Being a Headmaster necessitated being a politician, as well as a Professor.  He struck me as the kind of politician who obstructed, and I knew that he hadn’t volunteered much on Fray, despite our suspicion of his involvement with her.

He was delaying and obstructing now.  The rhetorical questions, the way he steeled himself.

He would break, and I suspected he knew he would break, but he was determined to stall as much as possible.

“Lady whatshername,” I said.  “The one you gave into Fray’s care.”

“Claire,” Ashton supplied.

“Lady Claire.  She helped Fray and you backed her, you let Fray slip under the radar, even at the expense of the Academy.  You played your part, Professor.  Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but Lady Claire is here.  She’s over there in that building.”

“She was,” Ashton said.  “She was over there in that building.”

Our walk along the perimeter wall had brought us to a point that was very close to where the wall met the slope of the main building.  The doors and path down the cliffside to the harbor were all very near.  Students had clustered in the shadows here.  Mary was among them.

They were using ropes to lower barrels down the face of the wall.

“She-” Professor Foss started.  He stopped.

“She?” I asked.

He set his jaw.  He hadn’t meant to speak.  Ashton’s influence.

My focus shifted.  I wanted to pay attention to the nearby shadows.  It wasn’t good that I had to remain bound, but I was concerned that each hit from the Infante would be worse than the last, and I wasn’t positive that the Lambs being nearby would be a guarantee.

How long before I forgot them, or before I needed two Lambs with me at all times?

“She was pretty,” Ashton said.

“Was she?” I asked.  I wanted to fill the void, to keep up the patter.  Ashton had softened the wall, and now we needed to hammer at it.

“She looked nice.  Very asymmetrical,” Ashton said.  “But in a good way.  Clothes and hair asymmetrical.  I think I’d like to… what’s it called?  When you’re cooking meat and you cut it down the middle and open it up?”

“Butterflying,” Mary said, her voice soft.

“I’d like to butterfly the pretty Lady Claire,” Ashton said.  “Or it would be better if someone else could, and I could watch.”

“I could,” Mary and I said at the same time.

“Stop,” the Professor said.

I stopped.  We all waited.

“I know full well what you’re doing,” the man said.  “I know.  Let’s not play games.”

“Let’s cut to the chase, Professor,” I said.  “Let’s talk properly.  We know you will eventually.”

“And if I don’t, you’ll weaken my resistances, break down my willpower, and make me unable to keep the vivid imagery of one of the people I love most in the world being brutalized from my mind?”

“Not brutalized,” Ashton said.  “We could be gentle about it.  She could even be asleep, so she didn’t move too much while we carved bits out.”

Even in the dark, I could see the tension in the Professor’s neck.

“I’ve been in touch with Genevieve Fray,” he said.  “I don’t have much to say.  She’s not very active, she hasn’t been moving much, in part because there aren’t many places to go.”

“No idea what she’s planning, then?” I asked.

The Professor stared at me for a long moment.  “Whatever she’s doing, it’s near Radham, and if she’s wrapping it up, she’s intent on doing it where she got her start.  I thought at first that she was planning on doing what you seem to be doing here, getting her pieces arranged, being more patient about it, but I’m less sure about that as time goes on.”

I glanced at Mary.  “Radham was one of our planned stops, if we get out of here okay.”

“Who’s in the admin building?” she asked.

“Students, soldiers.  They’ll toot a horn if there’s trouble.  But nobody’s going to attack the main building,” I said.

Mary didn’t respond immediately.

“Ninety percent sure,” I said.  “We left a clear path to there when we decided not to burn the spire-”

“Steeple,” Ashton corrected.

“-And they’ll think it’s a trap.  I’m… eighty-five percent sure.”

Mary didn’t look impressed.

“What are you doing here, Sy?” she asked.

“I thought we’d stand guard while you work,” I said.

“You, the least combat capable member of the Lambs, with your hands tied behind your back, no less?” she asked, her tone wry.  “And Ashton, the second least combat capable Lamb?”

Ashton and I voiced very different protests at the same time.

“I’ve gotten better,” I said, when there was a moment.  “It’s predicated on opportunism, ambush, and debilitating the enemy, but still.”

“And I’m not the worst or second worst, even if I’m slow,” Ashton said.  “I’m good with guns.  Abby isn’t good at anything.”

“Weapons-wise,” I said.

“Yeah,” Ashton said.

Mary looked between us.  Something about her looked far gentler and less… difficult, than I’d seen in a long time.

It worried me, more than anything.  That Mary would let the hardness go any.  I wasn’t wholly sure what had predicated it.

The ending being in sight, perhaps.  Or an ending.  Mine being one such possibility.

“Keep us safe, then,” she said, still with that wry tone.  Sarcasm without the bite.

“I’ll try,” Ashton said, matching the wry tone with earnestness.

Mary grabbed the rope, then slid down it, over the other side of the wall.

I could only barely make out the pale blob that was Helen.  The two of them disappeared down the cliff, Helen so close to Mary that it looked like they’d get in each other’s way, get caught up in each other and drop off the cliff face to the rocks below.

Here and there, students in dark clothes were working with ropes, to lower down barrels and cases.

“Where does this go?” the Professor asked.

“We break you,” I said.

“Me specifically, or…”

“You, collectively.”

He nodded, as if there was no surprise in that.

“You break us,” he said.  “You could have poisoned the vast majority of us at the outset, if you had a mind to.  You could have made the gas you filled the dining hall with into something that killed.  You didn’t.”

“Some of ours in the enemy ranks,” I said.

“There were roads available to you that you didn’t take.  Now here we are.  I can see much of what’s ahead, but not all of it.”

“Your peers will get hungry,” I said.  “You’ll eat some of the warbeasts.  You’ll make what you can and use chemicals and experiments to come after us.  But we’ve left you all with very little, the numbers favor us, really, even if your strength is disproportionately higher on the face of things.  You’ll get desperate.”

On the one side of the wall, the enemy was retreating into the main building.  The lowest ranked students, doctors, aristocrats and experiments had taken up roost there, in hopes of some comfort or refuge, and they’d been denied it.  If we couldn’t divide them up, we’d force them to cram in together in the main building.  Maybe it would drive friction.

On the other side of the wall, I couldn’t see it, but Mary, Helen, and the team that had crawled down were carting off barrels and containers.  They would float them out to set points and they would release the chemicals, hopefully without exposing themselves to the stuff.

“The Academy and the Crown are proud, above all else.  You put a lot of stock in your ability to hold your heads high.  So the first stage of this?  We make you lower your heads.”

“All the better to chop at them with the headsman’s axe?” the Professor said, with the tone of someone who didn’t think that was a real possibility.  “To humiliate them?”

I was silent, watching the shadows.  Was that someone I saw, or a thick cloud of smoke?

“Or to collar them?” the Professor asked.

It was a person.  A figure.

The noble I’d seen before, who’d worn the red jacket.  He wasn’t wearing the jacket now – only a black silk shirt and pants tucked into boots.  He was watching the walltop.

“There are two types of control, you know,” the Professor said, behind me.  “The first is to rise up, so that when you act, you need only to reach down.  The effort is minimal, the cost of acting small compared to the impact earned.”

It was eerie that he said that as I looked at a Noble.  What had the man’s name been?  Carling?

“The other, the path I took at Kensford, in dealing with Genevieve Fray, was to bring the others down.  To allow ruin to befall other Academies while I kept the footing of Dame Cicely’s intact.  We were quick to develop countermeasures, to free key individuals from the leash.  Genevieve Fray promised, and it came to pass.”

Carling paused, and in that pause, I wondered if he’d made eye contact with me.  I couldn’t see well enough in the dark to tell.

Ashton, beside me, was looking in the same direction.  He didn’t seem too concerned, but the things that concerned him were a little different than the norm.

“Are you lowering others to your level, Lambs, or are you raising yourselves up?” the Professor asked.

Carling turned, and he strode into the smoke and darkness.  If he was making a play, it wouldn’t be immediate.

Carling, the pale Lady Gloria, Professor Gossamer.  There were others.  The smarter enemies that were watching and acting decisively rather than milling about.  They were coordinating, and I felt as though they were keeping pace with us so far.  The rest- not so much.  If anything, I felt like the minor struggles, the disorganization and the silly little things like aristocrats finding common beds to sleep in in the city itself were gambits.

“Remains to be seen,” I said.  “A lot depends on what your side ends up doing here.  But I think it’s key to note something.”

I was glad I’d come, so I could see the enemy, almost look them in the eyes.

The gossamer thing would drink the water we’d polluted, unless it was somehow able to take commands extensive enough to guide it away from water that might be poisoned, somewhere further down the coast, where it still had anchors.  It would attack once or twice more, and then it would drink, and it would die.

They’re going to make a play within a few hours, before their side is too weak from hunger.  It wasn’t an idea I had that was wholly based in logic or anything specific I’d noted.  But instinct suggested it was right.  It made the most sense, and it was the most inconvenient thing they could do.  It would coincide with the next, last attack from the Gossamer thing, before the thing had a chance to be poisoned or counteracted.  It would be decisive, one way or the other.

“It’s key to note something?” the Professor asked.

“Half of the Lambs are broken, dead, or dying,” I said.  “So if we bring you all down to our level, it’s not going to be pretty.”

“It’s not a pretty thing either, to raise yourself up to a better position, if you’re starting from a point marked by the dead, dying, and broken,” he said.

“I’m going to guess you’re not one for prayer,” I said.  “Being loyal to the Crown and all.”

“More than some,” he said.  “The school I run used to be a religious one, before the title changed.”

My voice was hard, and I was very cognizant of the Infante in the corner of my vision, intently staring through the gloom.  “Well, maybe say some words, then.  Because that ugliness, whichever way the plan goes, is going to include you, your Claire, and everything else you hold dear.”

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Root and Branch – 19.8

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It was like trying to fight a tidal wave with a sword and trying not to get wet in the process.  Students with improvised armor joined Jessie and I in trying to fend off the attack.  The gossamer had already made four more strikes, punching and tearing through walls, snagging on rubble it could pull down and cutting at the contents of the hallway, living or otherwise.

The gossamer strands didn’t follow consistent logic in how they moved once they went from rigid to soft.  Parts remained rigid, and the resulting kinks in the strands made the flow of it just a touch less predictable.  That lack of predictability combined with the stress and hurry of the moment made it easy to slip up.  We only had ten seconds to a minute to get from wherever we were to where it had impaled the building, then, if we arrived in time, only about that long to do any substantial damage.  After that, most of the strands would pull out, with only the anchoring points remaining.

We’d had only one good go of it, and three more where we’d arrived just late enough that there were only the anchoring strands remaining.  Cutting at the anchoring points slowed it down, and forced it to set down anchors elsewhere.

A dozen of us were assembled, armed with swords and axes.  Six of us were on one floor, and six more were on the floor below.  Damage to the wall and floor meant that the hallway on my floor was missing half of its width, the rest having tumbled through the gaping hole in the exterior wall.  The hole was wide enough to ride two carriages through abreast, and through it, I could see the sky and the fading, overcast daylight, the sheer drop to the ground far below, and a great deal of the gossamer creature, as it settled into position.

It was preparing for a fifth strike in this set of attacks.

I could see clear to the floor below, where Jessie was speaking to the others.  She was encouraging, giving advice, and describing things to watch out for.  I suspected a lot of it had to do with keeping mood up, keeping people focused, and not letting people dwell on the futility of what we were doing.

I remained silent.  I didn’t have the currency to really sell my group on anything.  They knew what to do, and any words from my lips would rankle, and we didn’t need any more negativity.

The students were nervous.  There had been almost twenty of us when we’d started defending against this attack.  Seven students had tried to fight off the gossamer creature and had suffered grave injuries for their trouble.  I secretly believed that one was probably a goner, based on the severity of the wounds.  Another one had returned to help, but most of them had taped and bandaged books around their extremities, hardcovers torn off, and the fellow who’d just returned had blood soaking through pages of one book at his arm, dripping from the gouge the strand had made in it.  The improvised armor was more the sort of thing to shield against momentary contact at best.

I gave my axe a test swing through the air.  It was one of the ones that was stowed for dealing with fires and defending against rogue experiments.

The gossamer thing was setting down more anchors, now.  Jessie’s encouraging words trailed off.

I wasn’t with her, we were hardly ‘dancing’, but I imagined we were very much on the same page.

For ten seconds, the only sound was the building creaking, the places where structural integrity had suffered groaning their agony.  The damaged floor I stood on was part of it, and I could feel the vibrations and protests of the building through my feet and legs.

The spike speared forth, and I was moving before it had made contact, running down the hallway.

This was a tricky thing to balance, wanting to be close enough to strike out, but not so close I was caught by the hazard.

I’d grown up with the Academy, trained as a Lamb to out-think the enemy and to keep up with the boys and girls I worked with.  I’d adapted to each of them, matched my footing to theirs, and then helped the enemies stumble and the allies step true.

This was an enemy I couldn’t out-think.  It had no brain.

It punched through the building, with a downward slant, very possibly striking through the tenth floor and exiting through the seventh, the hole in the wall facing the burned and black wood wastelands.

If it had penetrated the exterior wall of Hackthorn Academy, then we could well be exposed to the black wood, in the small but not infinitesimal chance that the wind blew the right particles across the wasteland and through the gap.

Something to address later.

By the time I’d reached the spike of gossamer, it was already unfurling.  Anchors were pulling at damaged sections of floor, dragging them away and down.  Jessie wouldn’t be able to do much, below.   The entire structure rumbled, rubble falling and furniture cascading.  It was the kind of damage that multiplied itself, one cascade of falling rubble leading to another.

I swung the axe, striking for the point where the hard section of the spike had started to unfurl.  If I struck at something as soft and light, it simply gave, going with the swing.  Strike at the hard part of the shaft, and it barely took any damage at all.

At the midway point between the two, the strands were soft enough to feel the axe, but were held in place by the firmer part elsewhere.

The blade of the axe crunched deep.  Strands peeled off on either side of the cut and immediately started fanning out through the air.

They were, going by the ones I’d seen and examined, much like Mary’s razor wire, but far finer.  Each strand was as thin as a hair, lighter, and took a serrated shape on three sides, sawing through everything it touched.  Seen from a distance, it seemed to cut through all it ran against with the same ease as fine, sharp knives might.  Here and there, it moved with enough force to scuff and score even stone and metal.

I moved back and away from the strands that were fanning out around me, and almost stumbled over the rug.  Long and narrow, it had ran down the middle of the hallway.  Now strands pulled at it, lifting it up and toward me.  A knee-high barrier to hamper my movements.  Purely accidental on the gossamer creature’s part, I knew, but it cost me a precious second.

My retreat was performed with even more care than usual, as I navigated the strands that continued to fill the space around me, each one so thin I could miss them in the wrong light or angle.  In the moment, my focus was wholly consumed by the need to watch each grouping of strands, to make sure I didn’t just have a way out that was clear, but that I had a way out when I got there.

I swung again, this time at a different grouping of strands.  A strand swiped against the handle, just a finger’s width away from my hand, and it dragged through the wood, carving a shallow groove into it, while threatening to pull the weapon from my hands.

But the blade of the axe caught the strands and slammed into the wooden interior wall, which helped to sever them.  I had to use my whole body to haul it free.

Others were joining in.  The floor was collapsing in the middle of the hallway, and I could see motion below.  More students, not from Jessie’s group, because they were on the other side of the spike.  They were using a visible gas.

It withdrew, and the motion caused the strands all around us to flail about and take to the air.

I backed well away.  Light streamed into the otherwise dark hallway through the hole in the outside wall.  Dust billowed through the hole in the inside wall, and I knew that if I waited for the cloud of dust to dissipate, braved the strands that littered the area, and stood at the edge of that hole, there was a chance I could see clean through the building.  Small chunks of stone and wood were still dropping here and there.

I brought the head of my axe to my hand, idly brushing my thumb along the length of the blade.  It was ragged, notched, and a little triangle of metal came free as my thumb touched it.

Outside, the gossamer thing was disconnecting all anchors, pulling back to go back to the main building.  I was a little out of breath, and my thinking was strange.  I was in an overly observant state, from my attention to the creature and its state, and I wanted to move slowly and gently as I adjusted my head.

Professor Gossamer was waiting.  He didn’t flinch as the thing settled, embracing the reclining lady of Hackthorn.  It was only there for a few seconds before he finished communicating his directives.  It departed in the direction he’d extended a finger, moving out toward the water.

It was only now that it had moved completely away from the building that I could see what we’d managed to do at the cost of one life, however many injuries, and some seriously concerning structural damage.  Some strands were clumping together in an unusual way – the gas had chilled or glued them together, and others had been cut short.  We’d maybe cut or hampered five percent of the strands, and even then we’d only cut them in half, or we’d glued them up temporarily at best.

If this continued, we’d be out of soldiers to throw at the thing before we reached the fifteen percent mark, and the building would crumble before we had pruned away a third of it.  None of which covered the actual danger of disposing of the strands we had cut.

It was gone, though.  We did have a reprieve.

“Everyone okay?” I asked.

“Two cuts,” one student reported.  “Nothing serious.”

“Good,” I said.

I left it at that.  Short and sweet.  Striding away from the scene, tossing my axe to the side, I took the hallway that had been reduced to a half of the width and jumped down to the next floor.  I reunited with Jessie.

“Two cuts,” I said.

“I heard,” Jessie said.  “Three injuries here.  Some stone came down from above and it made the strands billow out.  We didn’t all move fast enough.”

Students were using weapons and stray bits of wood to poke and prod strands, moving them over the edge where possible.  I could see the group of students further down the hallway, collecting the containers they’d used to produce the glue gas.

“Good work, guys,” I said.

I got a few curt nods and one salute before they went on their way, resupplying for another attempt, maybe planning something else.

Jessie and I maneuvered to a safe spot, where we could see the main building, watch the gossamer thing head out to the water, and still be free of any falling stones, pieces of wood, or free strands.

It also gave us the benefit of privacy.  I hesitated for a second, and then hugged Jessie.

Decompressing.  Easing down.  It felt good to hug and be hugged, to feel a head resting against my neck.

I didn’t want to taint the hug, so I broke away and took a second to take stock before speaking.

“It’s a living thing,” I said.

“It is,” Jessie said.  She was smiling a little.  “What’s your line of thinking?”

“I’m thinking it’s been sent to the water because it needs to eat and drink.  It doesn’t seem very active, but it has to consume some energy when it attacks.  If it has an inefficient body, it might have a hard time getting nutrients from the root of one strand to the end.”

“Going by what I’ve read, it probably uses salts to communicate.  Ocean water would give it most of what it needs.  It might fish while it’s there.”

“It’s not going to need to grab a huge hunk of meat or something and haul it to its mouth, then?”

“No,” Jessie said.  “I can’t imagine it would.”

“Does it need to rest?  Like actually stop, sleep, take it easy?”

“If I had to compare to other, similar things, most of which are aquatic, I’d say yes.  It’ll hunker down when it gets dark.  I’m just going by what I’ve read,” she said.

I watched as the thing made its slow retreat.  The wind blew from the water to the Academy, and the creature mostly moved by letting the wind blow it, waiting until strands blew in the direction it wanted to go, and anchored to the most solid objects in that direction.

“It grabs things.  Can we… give it something to grab and make it hold on?  I’m envisioning having it grab a pipe and then we roll up the pipe, get a bit of strand with it.”

“It would probably cut through pipe as it tugged on it,” Jessie said.

“Something else?  Thicker than pipe?”

“If it was anchored enough to hold the thing down, we might end up giving it leverage to tear down a good section of building.”

I nodded, trying to wrap my head around the problem from different angles and not seeing much.  I’d barely thought through the idea as I pitched it to Jessie, and I didn’t really disagree with her assessment.

I was tired, mentally and physically.  I wasn’t the only one who was, either.  It had been an intense twenty minutes.

This was bad, and it was bad in a way that went well beyond the fact that I didn’t have any good answers.  It was bad because it was taking up our time, energy, and resources, and it wasn’t occupying much of the enemy’s.  I’d hoped the inverse would be true, and that we could harass and pressure them.

We hadn’t left them much in the way of resources, but there were a lot of brains there, and they did have what they had brought with them.  In the stables, staircases, and in the main hall, there had been scattered cases of luggage and collections of medical supplies for the upkeep of nobles and experiments.

“Across that broken bridge, they’re getting organized,” I said.  “Establishing a chain of command, organizing, taking stock, and figuring out what we have planned.  They’ll be sorting through the medical supplies and searching through the building to find what we left behind.”

“We left traps,” Jessie said.

“We did,” I said.  “But once they finish searching the labs, they’ll get a sense of what they have available, and they’ll start acting.  A set number of supplies for the care of nobles.  The rest set aside to gamble with.”

“I suppose it is a gamble,” she said.  “Deciding what they can afford to lose, taking their shot with it, the best they can put together, after observing us…”

“Depending on who takes charge over there, it’s going to be a very effective, targeted attack, or they’re going to play it conservative.”

“Conservative would be bad,” Jessie said.

“Yeah,” I said.

I wished I had the binoculars.  Instead, I looked over the chasm between our building and the main building of Hackthorn.

“You’re focused a lot on the people in that building and not on the thing that’s putting holes in our headquarters.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Where’s your head at, Sy?”

Where was it?  If I’d been dwelling in situational awareness, my thinking in this moment was likely a bit of a swing too far into another kind of thinking.

“Trying to analyze what we’re up against.  Thinking, maybe, that if we can deal with them, somehow, we can behead the snake, leave the gossamer whatsit without anyone to give it commands.”

“Might be a tall order, Sy.”

“Yeah,” I said.  It was.  My dwelling on them was a little bit to do with me just wanting something I could figure out, a little bit to do with me veering too far into the problem solving part of my brain, as I moved away from situational awareness.  “How are you managing?”

“I’m tired, Sy.  I need and want to sleep, but it’s not the time for it.”

“This is going to take a while to play out.  It might be better to rest sooner than later.”

“That goes for you too, you know.  You’re worn out.”

I couldn’t deny that.

We stayed there, thinking, me idly tracing my fingers up and down Jessie’s forearm, then down to her fingers, my mind half with her and half with the problems before us.

“The good thing,” I said.  “We’ve turned the tables.”

“We’ve turned the tables in a lot of ways, Sy.  Turning their students against them is a big one.  Turning their Academy against them is another.  Which way are you thinking?”

“Well, the way I see it, we either win this one, or we drag them into a tie.”

Jessie considered that one for a moment.  She was about to respond when we heard a shout.

“Sy!  Jessie!”

“Here!” Jessie called out.

We made our way down the hall until we reached a part with a hole in the ceiling.  A student stood on the edge.

“A message from the girl’s dormitory,” the student said.  “You said to keep track of the lights?”

“That’d be Mary,” Jessie said to me.

“I remember that much.  Lillian’s there too, y’know.”

“Lillian’s going to be managing the countermeasures,” Jessie said.

“I remember that too.”

We met the student at the stairwell, and the guy handed Jessie a folded piece of paper.  The flashes were marked out in a pattern of dashes.  It mapped to our tap code, and to our system of gestures.  I couldn’t remember enough of it to translate it, but Jessie was able to go over the entire thing with a glance, then provide the translation.

“Mary wants to come over.  She thinks she can help.”

I glanced at Jessie.  It wouldn’t do to talk over her and get caught arguing when things were this tense, so I gestured.  Jessie just so happened to gesture at the same time.

Both of us wanted the other to go.  I supposed we were going to disagree regardless.

“Lillian’s over there, you can wind down, catch up with her, and you can make good use of the countermeasures, in case they try something.  You’ll get a chance to think,” Jessie said, quiet.  “If something springs to mind, you can have Lillian or someone pass a message using the code.”

“You need to rest,” I said.  “I work well with Mary.  We’re not going to get many chances to rest, and we’ll need your brain later, as we keep track of them all.”

Jessie set her lips in a firm line.

“I have some ideas,” I said.  I wasn’t wholly sure if I was lying.  “Not an actual plan, but the general shape of what we might end up doing, in my head.  It depends on a lot, like where the thing goes to sleep, if it goes to sleep, but it’d help if you were over there.”

“And you think you’d be more effective over here?”

“In the center.  Not the center-center, not the main building, but closer to where I can communicate with the other buildings and more of our people.”

Jessie nodded slowly.  “Okay.”

“Yeah?”

“I’ll swap places with Mary.”

“Be safe,” I said.

Jessie blew air out of her nose, hard.  “Says you.”

“You’re supposed to say something endearing,” I said, “But no, you say that in a tone like you were going to call me numbnuts or a whackadoodle or something.”

“And a hundred other things,” she said.  “You’re going to be okay?”

“I’ll manage,” I said.

She put a hand behind my neck and gave me a quick kiss on the lips.  Then she sprinted off, leaving me standing in the hallway.

I swallowed hard, my attention turning to the nearest window.  I could see the main building, and the dark shapes that were the people and experiments at the windows.

We can do this, I thought.  The Academy is ours, we have the resources.  We just need to deal with an overly ambitious spiderweb and whatever else they come up with to throw at us.

“You’re a child of the Academy, Sylvester.”

The voice was deep.  I’d completely forgotten he was there.  I’d forgotten to keep an eye out for him and to keep my eyes and attention one step removed from him.  In my fatigue, my thoughts completely elsewhere, I might well have provided the crack he needed to worm his way into my skull.

I set my jaw.

“You,” I said, to the doctor who had brought the message.  “Ashton and Professor F.  Where?”

“I’ll show you the way,” he said.

I would have liked to have a moment to myself, to think, digest, and see what I could do standalone.  I didn’t have it.  We walked briskly.

“Tell me what’s going on upstairs.  Distract me.”

“It’s not much.  My squad is background work.  Carting things around, taking turns keeping an eye on the girl’s dorm, in case they flash a message, writing it down.  We don’t want to stay too stable or let something slip past us, so we take turns going for walks, checking on all the people we’ve got stowed in the rooms here.”

The people in the rooms.  We’d gathered up all the students, faculty, and anyone else in Hackthorn who might not be cooperative, and we’d put them to sleep, collecting them in rooms.

“Sylvester,” the Infante spoke, standing in the doorway of a room with an open door.  The buckling of the structure around us had made the door pop open like a cork popped from a wine bottle.  The gossamer whatsit had struck the building somewhere upstairs, by the way the ceiling curved.

“What’s the mood like?” I asked the student.

“Not great.” he said.

He didn’t elaborate, and I wanted him to.  I wanted his words in my ears and my brain, so the Infante’s would have less room to work.

“Just keep talking.  It’s actually more helpful if you make less sense, or say more troublesome things, so go for it.”

“Huh?” he asked.

I waited, hoping he would take the prompt.

“I don’t know what to say.  It’s not far,” he said.

He had to be the laconic sort.

You’re a child of the Academy, Sylvester.  You’re ours.  You served us, once upon a time, and your heart was in it.  That is still a part of you.  The better times.  When you believed.

The damage to the building was so extensive.

“Did you see any attacks on the girl’s dormitory?  Any sign that they were using the distraction of the gossamer whichwhat to slip something past the radar?”

“Mostly quiet.  Only movement on the ground, and even then, not a lot.  Carting bodies to the main building.”

“Good,” I said.  “Anything else?”

“No.”

I couldn’t even articulate it.  That I really wanted him to keep going, to keep talking, because I felt like I was on a precipice.  Silly of me, to simply forget my circumstances because the Infante had been holding back and lurking in the depths of my brain.  Jessie had asked me if I was going to be okay, and I’d said yes, and there was a good chance I was going to be wrong on that count.

Ashton could engage my brain, keep that wheel turning.  Waiting for Mary and finding her would take too long.

You believed in what we could bring about in the future, Sylvester.  Because you recognized that the future is what concerns us most of all.  It is, after all, why we so often use children.  Our relationship to the future is complicated, and so is how we deal with the most vulnerable of humanity, who have so much potential.

You know you see that.  You’ve abused that yourself.

The voice was starting to sound less like the Infante and more like the voice in my own head.

“Oh, fuck,” the student said.

The damage done to the hallway was extensive.  This was where the spike had come through, and it was where the strands were worst.  Ones I’d cut, that were still anchored at points.  The wind blew in through the hole in the wall, making them dance this way and that.  Sword slashes minus the sword – just cuts in the air.

“Do you have a gun?” I asked the student.

“Huh?  No.  I don’t know how to use one.  Look, I don’t know what you’re on about, but we’ll have to take the long way around.”

Fatigue and pressure had worn me down.  I’d had the Infante with me for a week and change.  I’d grown accustomed to that tension and threat that he posed, and both of those things had ramped up just often enough to keep me on that edge.  I’d let my guard slip when other things claimed my attention.

I turned to speak to the student, intent on using every iota of body language and tone to convey just how serious I was, so I might tell him that he needed to take certain measures.

I came face to face with the Infante, instead.

His massive hand reached for my face.  He seized my head, and all went dark.

Dark.

I came to, and I hurt all over.  I felt warm and cold at the same time.  The ambient temperature was different, but I had company close enough that body heat transferred to me.

I was kneeling on the hard ground, and a knee rested against my windpipe.  A hand stroked my hair, and a blade touched my cheek.

Mary was sitting on a chair, the seat of which pressed against my shoulderblade.  Her leg was resting against my body and throat  to keep me upright, her foot in my lap.  The blade ensured I wasn’t a threat.  The hair thing-

Well, I’d add that to the one hundred things I didn’t know.

“How bad was it?” I asked.

“Your timing could have been better,” Mary said.  “You stabbed Ashton.”

I winced.  “Is he okay?”

“Gravely offended, but he’ll mend.  You let Professor Foss go.”

I winced.

“I caught him.  He’s in the next room.”

“Thank you.”

“You set fires, Sy.  Scared a lot of our people in the process.  Because they were at risk, and so were the people we stowed away.”

I nodded.

“You scared me, Sy.  Because you said an awful lot of things.  Except it wasn’t really you, was it?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  My voice was a hush.  “What did I say?”

“That our fates were foregone conclusions.  That we were as good as dead, with the expiration dates nigh.  There were other things.  A lot of pain, a lot of rage and sadness.  Except we were the enemy, and the actual enemy, you were saying they were the answer.”

I nodded.  I felt sick to my stomach.  I was so ashamed I wanted to curl up until I was so bound up in myself I could cease functioning.

I’d believed it once, a long time ago.  A part of me wanted to believe it again, to abandon the pain and hurt and embrace that time when things had been clearer, simpler, and when the Lambs had been near.

Mary’s fingers combed through my hair.

“I did get the drop on you after all,” she said, her voice light, an attempt at levity.

“Hah,” I said, with no humor at all.

“Is this a thing we’re going to have to be concerned about?  That one of our own, with no warning, could flip and do the most destructive, damaging things possible?”

“Looks like.”

“Is this where we lose you, Sy?”

“Could be.”

“How long did it take you to get this bad?”

“A week or so?  It’s not like I’ve been good for a few years now.”

“Alright then,” Mary said.  The knife moved so it was no longer pressing against one side of my face.  “We’ll work around it.”

I turned my head, trying to get a better look at her.

“I should have told you.”

“You do a lot of things you shouldn’t,” Mary said.  “I’ve stopped being so surprised.”

“Why aren’t you angrier?” I asked.  “You’ve been so angry for so long.”

“We look after each other,” Mary said.  “Right?  It’s always been how the Lambs were, right from the day I joined.  There was always the assumption that we had our weaknesses, and we accepted those.  I came to terms with this a long time ago.  Shooting me and making me crawl back to the Academy, after you left?  That surprised me.  It pushed me away.  But as long as you’re here, and it’s you being entirely you?  I accept that.”

“Me not being me is me being me?” I asked.

“We support and love each other, warts and all,” Mary said, stroking my hair.

“This is a pretty big wart,” I said.

She didn’t respond to that.  Her fingers continued moving through my hair, sometimes taking different courses, and it did a lot to calm my thoughts, even as the guilty feeling swelled in my upper chest.

“Come on,” she said.  “Stand.”

She stood from the chair, then grabbed me by one armpit, helping me to stand.  My hands were bound behind my back.

She didn’t free them, but she didn’t walk me with one hand firmly on my shackles like a Crown officer might walk a convict, either.

It was dark out.  Hours had passed.  Lights were on throughout our part of the Academy.  The exterior buildings, the perimeter wall.

There weren’t many lights on in the main building.

“The gossamer horror?”

“My knives and threads helped, but it only made three strikes before retreating.  It settled in for the night.”

“Where?”

Mary pointed into the darkness.  Down, in the midst of the city.

“It settled on the main building first, but then lost its hold and drifted down to the ground.  It’s guarded now,” she said.  “They devoted considerable resources to the task.”

There was an opportunity, I thought.  When they were moving to a position where they could guard it, we had a shot.  I missed itI occupied our resources.  The Infante did.

“Look at the enemy, Sy,” Mary said, moving her finger to point.

I looked at the main building.

There weren’t many lights on.  It was something of a surprise that there were any at all.

We hadn’t left them many candles.  We hadn’t left them much of anything.  Even the candles on the dining tables had been cut short, the truncated nature of them hidden in waxed paper stems.  They were either burning the little candlelight they had, or they’d devised another means, which consumed limited resources.

“Is it working?”  I asked.

“The siege is underway,” she said.  “Gossamer weapon aside, they’re holding back.  Not attacking. They’re waiting for a window of opportunity, if I had to guess.”

“Not ideal,” I observed, despite the lump in my throat.  “Any idea what they’re doing for food?”

“I think they’re using the supplies they brought with them.  Special feed for experiments going to nobles and Professors instead.  Lillian thinks they might be setting up protein farms and ways to get nutrients.”

I nodded.

Our enemy was being conservative, then.  It was the safer and more dangerous route of the two Jessie and I had discussed.  They’d recognized what we were doing, the noble Starling or whatever his name had been letting them know about the houses.  They were counteracting our plan to win by attrition by consolidating and producing resources.  It would come down to who broke first, or to who could outlast the other, rather than us trying to fend off their attacks while they withered away.

“We had signals from within.  Students lingered behind, and the enemy doesn’t have enough of the story to realize they’re ours.  Ferres is wounded.  There’s a schism in their ranks, as they try to decide what to do.  They tried to use chemicals from the lower labs, but Jessie and Junior swapped labels and containers.”

“Yeah.  My suggestion,” I said.

“It injured quite a few and ate through their good resources.”

“Yeah,” I said.  This was what we’d wanted.  I knew why Mary was showing and telling me this.

This was working.  What I’d helped to set in motion was working.  I just hoped I was here to see the resolution.

We took their students.  We took their Professor, and then their Academy.  We’re within arm’s reach of taking every Goddamned thing else there is left to take.

“First, we deal with the Gossamer thing,” I said.  “Then we shake them up a bit.”

Mary’s hand stroked my hair.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Root and Branch – 19.7

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

“Your timing is off,” Ashton said.  “Jessie, your timing is supposed to be good.”

“Not our fault,” I said.  “A guest recognized one of our actors.  Ferres thought she saw an opportunity.”

Jessie and I had reached the gate that was supposed to lead to the bridge and to the main hall.  Now it was only a short section of bridge that ended in splinters and rubble, the midsection gone.  The attachment points for the ropes were gone too.  I could vaguely map out the course we’d taken, the staggered descent to a point where we could safely swing beneath the bridge to the admin building, at which point we’d been towed in to the window.

Ashton was with this group, more because he knew the hand signals than anything.  He didn’t have a proper role at this point in time.  The Infante was near because, well, it was what he did, apparently.

Across the bridge, there was a crowd gathered near the window.  Professors, aristocrats, and those without combat experience.  I couldn’t make out much with the distance being what it was, but I could tell that they were agitated, and they were talking.  Unless they pulled out guns and started shooting, they weren’t a concern.  Even if they did, I wouldn’t mind too much.  It would take a rifle to get a bullet this far and the shots wouldn’t be accurate.  If they got lucky and hit one of us, it wouldn’t be good, but the chances were slim.

I kept one eye out all the same.  The Academy could produce all sorts.

But if they wanted to waste bullets, that wasn’t too bad either.

They weren’t the focus.  For now they were organizing, putting great minds to the problem.

I turned my attention to more crucial areas.  There were people on the ground, which meant they’d managed to get past the obstacles we’d set in their way and exit the gate of the main building.  They were moving in loose regiments as they stormed through the streets.  Much of the attention was on the ground level entrances to the main buildings.  That was a mistake – common logic would dictate that if we planned this, we’d know they would try.

I started paying more attention to the nature of the movements, tracking the patterns in this kicked anthill.  I began taking in a general sense of where the leaders were, and who the followers were.  I tried to pay attention to where the followers hesitated, as if that could highlight where the leadership was weaker.

There were some that were starting to break into homes and businesses on the ground level.

“They’re raiding the buildings,” I observed.

“Looks like,” Jessie said.  She lifted up her glasses to look down with clearer vision.

“One group,” I said.

“No,” Jessie said.  “Lots are doing it.  They’re clearing their flanks, making sure we don’t have experiments or soldiers waiting in the houses and alleys.”

“Mostly from the one group, I mean,” I said.  I moved closer to her, my arm resting against hers, and pointed.

“Okay, I see who you mean.”

We watched the little black dot that was the leader of that particular group.  It was taller than average, moving with leisure, and it was watching what the rest of the groups were doing at the main gate.  People slowed as they drew closer to him.

Tall dot was a noble, I was fairly sure.

“It’s… interesting that he’s taking that course of action.  It’s not flank clearing.”

“No,” Jessie said.

“What is it?” Ashton asked.  He dropped down onto his belly, crawling forward to look down over the edge of the crumbled, broken bridge.

“Well, the whole storming the gates or going on the offense is the most obvious path they could take, and one of the more pointless,” I said.  “What he’s doing isn’t obvious, and it’s… rather more pointful.  It’s maybe on the top five paths they could take that hurt us.  Third most pointful thing.”

“Please stop saying pointful,” Jessie said, her eyes still on the scene below.  “With my memory, I have to remember each and every butchery of Stateside English you commit.”

I snickered, and she elbowed me.

“He’s checking the surroundings, gathering information,” Jessie said.  “He’s going to find out very quickly that we’ve been through each and every one of those houses.”

“Ahhh,” Ashton said.

“Some of the nobles on the bridge we just blew up are climbing out of the rubble,” she observed.

“Really?” I asked.  “That’s pretty impressive.  Pick one out, make him or her our measuring stick?”

“I need binoculars,” she said.

Binoculars were offered by members of the larger group that had gathered at the open doors here.  Someone handed some to me.

Things had been tense for a while, the rebels not really trusting me, and this was perhaps the most unambiguous that they’d been in helping me out and giving me that benefit of a doubt.  The bridge explosion and the coordination thus far had apparently counted for something.

I focused on the rubble, and saw two nobles.  A young Lord had already emerged, and a young Lady was in the process of moving rubble to free her legs.  Both were dirty and both were bleeding in places.

The Lord began stripping down.  He stood there almost completely naked for a short time while he picked through the various dead in the wreckage, shaking their less tattered clothes free of dust before donning them.

The Lady was more hurt.  She crawled forth, made her way to the nearest piece of rubble she could sit on, and began tending to her injuries, including a smashed leg.  I couldn’t see much of what she was doing, given the angle and the distance.

They would look after themselves to the point they could show their faces without too much shame, and then they would rejoin the proceedings.

I glanced at the Infante.  He wasn’t standing as still anymore, and he’d been standing still for a week now.  He paced, and for all the world, it felt like he was going to turn to me any moment, make eye contact, and start talking at length, as if he’d bottled it all up inside, waiting for this moment.

I looked away.  Other focuses.

Tall dot was a tall young noble with a red jacket that he’d taken off and slung over one shoulder.  He had a blond beard that came to a sharp point, his hair was short but for a flourish of wavy hair that extended in front of his face, and he stood there with a battle axe resting on the ground.

He picked up the weapon as if it weighed nothing and used it to point at a side street.  Soldiers and the stitched that accompanied them moved down the street.

Then his head turned, and he looked up in our general direction.  I wondered if his eyesight was keen enough to see us without binoculars, or if he was simply taking in the bridge.

“What’s his name?” I asked.

“Lord Carling,” Jessie said.

“We know they know, now,” I said.  “The general thrust of what we’re doing, they found how we prepped the buildings.  Lord Carling’s going to pass on word soon.”

“It should take him about ten minutes to get from the bottom floor to the main hall, and then they’ll start moving with more purpose and direction,” Jessie said.  “I’ll feel a lot better about what we’re doing if we hear from Helen sooner than later.”

“She’s reliable,” I said.  Lord Carling was moving again, entering the front hallway of the building closest to him, one that had already been cleared out.  He emerged and walked straight for the gate leading to the main building.

Ten minutes, according to Jessie.

More students from downstairs were joining us now.  They peeked out and around the edges of the door, more wary of stray bullets than Jessie, Ashton and I were, and they took in the scene before retreating or making space for others to indulge their curiosity.

“Jessie?” one of them ventured.

“I’m guessing you’re going to tell me something about Professor Foss?” Jessie asked.

“He’s secured.  We have him in room six-oh-six.  Some of ours are examining him.”

“It seems to be in fashion to keep things under fingernails,” I said.  “We’ll want to be absolutely careful.”

“We put his feet in a bucket of cold casting gel, and we did the same for his hands, put them behind him and stuck them in a bucket that’s sitting on another chair.”

“Perfect,” I said.

Jessie stuck her toe into Ashton’s foot.  “You want to go babysit Professor Foss?  See if you can’t loosen his tongue if he wakes up?  We’ll be along in a short while, as soon as we can be mostly sure things have settled.”

“Alright.  If you need me I’ll be there,” Ashton said.  He rose to his feet, and stood there, rather precariously on the edge of the broken bridge.  My hand moved, ready to reach out and grab him if he tipped over the edge.  I kept it there while he stretched, and hoped that with people being suspicious of me, that it didn’t look as though I was preparing to push him off rather than save him.

“I like watching the dust settle,” Ashton said.

“Me too, Ashton, me too,” I said.

He smiled up at me, then left.  He hadn’t tipped over the edge, but I wasn’t ruling anything out.  His situational awareness could do with some work.

An unusual brain, that one.

Almost every set of eyes in the group watched him as he walked downstairs.  Something about the fumes he was putting off had their attention.

I’d trust him to know what he was doing.

On the ground, the armies at the gates were starting to make some headway.  Warbeasts that had been brought out of the stable were tearing through the wood for one of the dormitories, and stitched-managed battering rams slammed at others.

“Girl’s dormitory would be… Mary?”

“Mary, yes.”

Mary had set up the obstacles and carried out the sprinting retreat from the lower levels of the Academy.  She was most able to defend herself if something quick happened to leap from a window or dodge the experiments and the growing barricades that had been set in its path.

Mary now managed the defense at that point.  Stitched hammered at the gate, and the beam they collectively held was gradually punching holes in the wood rather than actually opening the gate.  They’d make a hole big enough to crawl through soon.

Jessie watched, very intent on what was going on.  The girl’s dormitory hadn’t been built to weather an attack.  Jessie’s speculation was that it had been a later addition, more Ferres’ slant on things than part of the original construction.

“You’re paying a lot of attention there,” I remarked to Jessie, my voice a murmur.

“If the defense fails there, it puts us in a bad spot,” Jessie said.

“And it has nothing to do with the imagery of the big, strong beam sinking in deep, the steady rhythm-”

“I will push you over the edge, Sy.”

She was threatening to kill me, sure, but she was smiling.

The team at the girl’s dormitory upended vats and buckets through windows, down onto the soldiers and stitched below them.

Some stitched stopped outright, dropping to hands and knees or kneeling at the street outside the dormitory.  Others backed away, with a scattered few failing or going still after they’d made it a few paces.  The non-stitched backed away.

The texture of the road and the sides of the building beneath the windows began to change.

Duncan’s group opened fire with rifles, targeting the shaggy warbeast that was clawing at the doors.  An explosive was tossed down from high above and exploded on contact with the ground, only a short distance from the warbeast.  It didn’t tear the creature to shreds, but the warbeast fell to its side and didn’t get back up.

We had half a dozen to a dozen individual tricks and tools prepared for each of the points we needed to defend.  Most of the major bridges were intact, still, but that could change if we needed it to, and the enemy no doubt knew it.

It was very likely they would try to cross the bridges after dark, which was only a few hours away.  They would wait until we got complacent.

They had their own tricks.  Things that could crawl up walls and the faces of buildings, the gossamer thing, warbeasts with other tools, people with machinery in them and machines with biology in them.

I glanced at the Infante.

“How many nobles?” I asked.

“Twelve arrived.  Five tried to cross the bridge here and only two climbed out, for what it’s worth.”

“Nine nobles, then,” I said, quiet.  “Lesser ones.”

Nine nobles, then.  If they came up with any plans, then the nobles would be the ones to carry them out, and they’d carry them out well.  This initial chaos was where we held the advantage, our ‘guests’ now realizing the shape of the situation around them.  That would change over the course of this engagement.

“Really wish we could get a signal from Helen on this one,” Jessie said.

“Do you want to go help her?  It’s not like Professor Moss is going anywhere.”

“Foss, Sy.”

“Sure.”

“And I don’t want to abandon our post here.  With Ashton downstairs, we’re the Lambs’ eyes and ears on this situation.”

I nodded.  “We’ll stay.  They’ll want to act.”

“Based on?” Jessie asked.

“It simply feels like it.  The way they’re moving in there, the way there were more people talking before and now there’s less, like some voices are starting to get more traction.  They’re winding toward a conclusion.”

“I don’t know how you do that, Sy.  I prefer the measurable things.”

“It’s why we work so well together,” I said.  I touched the underside of her chin and turned her head so I could kiss her.

She stopped kissing me back, but didn’t pull her lips away.  They brushed against mine as she said, “You’re provoking them.”

I chuckled, gave her a peck on the lips, and then turned.

On the other side of the broken bridge, the door was opening again.  The glass panes on the doors had broken when the bridge had, and now two people walked over the broken glass shards and wood splinters.

One was a professor.  He looked underweight and rather grim in demeanor, the kind of guy who became dour, intense, and who buried his feelings deeper as they got worse, when a crisis arose.  With the light filtering through clouds and the angle of the sun, the blond hair, and the glossy sheen of whatever had been used to put his hair back, he looked hairless.  Pale pate, pale skin, contrasted with dark clothing and coat.  Skeletal.

With the wind blowing, the black lab coat he wore fluttered, hard.  The rest of him was still as he glowered at us.  He stooped over a little.

He was joined by a woman a foot taller than him, and he wasn’t short.  Her hair was white, her lashes black and almost overly long, in a way that would have looked ridiculous had she not been so very well put together in every other respect.  Her nails were like daggers, and she held a fan.

“Guns out,” Jessie gave the order.  “Pass on word.  Don’t waste bullets, but open fire on him, now.”

“Guns?” I asked.  Students bumped into me in their hurry to get into position.  “We’re trying to go soft.”

I watched as the noble spoke to the Professor beside her.  Jessie and I stood back and out of the way as the students in the hallway organized, the group in front dropping to their knees.

Almost immediately, the rifles sounded.  I saw a glimpse of the Professor raising one hand before the Lady stepped in front of him, a body shield.

“Aim high!  Account for gravity!” I called out, raising my voice to be heard over the battery of gunshots.  “Like you practiced!”

The shots hit windows, the bridge, and they hit the Lady.  She felt the impact of them, but she didn’t step back or stagger.  They didn’t draw blood, either.

“That would be Lady Gloria,” Jessie said.

“And the Professor?”

“For lack of a better name?  Professor Gossamer,” Jessie said.

Ah.  That explains the shooting.

With the man’s hand gesture, the gossamer thing was drifting in our direction.  It set tendrils down at sections of the main building and on the perimeter wall.

“Stop shooting!” Jessie called out.  Gunfire stopped.  Jessie spoke in a lower voice, “Hold fire, be ready for orders to resume shooting at a designated target or to run, as need be.”

The gossamer thing was planting its strands at key points along the wall and the Hackthorn central building.  Directly below it, strands were weaving into a long, conical spike.

“Damn it,” I said.

It took effort to raise that spike, and the thing attached tendrils to places until it had the leverage.  The spike rose until it was parallel to the ground, aimed directly at us.

“Move!” Jessie called out.  “Scatter!”

A few more strands found places to grab, some of them on our building, and then it speared at us, pushing by going rigid and pulling by hauling in.

It targeted the hallway and doorway we’d been occupying, spearing into a point a dozen feet to the left of us, through much of the length of the hallway, and then a length of the wall to the side of us as we ran away.

Its forward momentum burned out, it unfurled the spike.  Behind us, strands as light as air made nail-on-slate sounds as they brushed stone and wall decoration.  They periodically went rigid, flexing, as they touched things, and that made the strands move more.

I saw places where the long rug that ran down the length of the hallway and the paper of paintings on the wall were sliced where the gossamer ran past them at the right angle, with sufficient duration of contact.

It was getting a grip, seizing wall and floor, slicing deep where it could and then going rigid to spear in at odd angles, fixing itself in places.

It was going to spear at us again.

The first stab had demolished twenty solid feet of exterior wall on the left side of the hallway and thirty-some feet of interior wall, along the right side of the hallway.  I wasn’t sure if anyone had been hurt, but I wouldn’t have been surprised.

“Can we burn it?” I asked.

“No,” Jessie said.

“Climb it?  No.  Slice ourselves up.”

“Right.”

“Shoot the head?  All the way up there?”

“The rifles fire eight hundred yards, but they’re not accurate at that distance.  As you saw.”

I looked back.  The strands were tensing.

“Heads up!” I roared the words.

The spike came in at a point that ran through the ceiling.  It was more direct, impaling with an eye of penetrating deeper into the building.  It had to have been halfway through the piercing motion before the fatter base of the cone-shaped spike was at a point where it might have made contact with any of us.

That was the good.  The bad was that wood and stone were breaking away.  Furniture from upstairs was falling through the damaged floors and ceiling.  The damage was at a point where it was causing more damage.  That was made all the worse by the unfurling of the cone, the strands making contact with loose rubble and stray items.  They cut some, attached to others, and did some combination of the two for others still.

The spike had separated the head of our group, mostly our riflemen, from the rear, more riflemen, Jessie, myself, and some scattered doctors.

“If we kill Professor Gossamer?” I asked.

“He has subordinates,” Jessie said.  “They’ll have some control, I think.”

“Then we need the control,” I said.

“We do,” she said.  She took a step back, grabbing my sleeve to haul me out of the way.  Strands were drawing close, and as they reached through the hallway, scraping against the edges of the hole in the wall, they were forcing our group to move away from the group further down the hall.  We were being separated.  Even if the gossamer withdrew entirely from the hallway, the floor had been sliced and littered with rubble, with more stones and pieces of wood clattering down to the ground every couple of seconds.  It was precarious footing, slow going, and there was a good chance of a large chair or a chunk of wood braining either of us as we made our way across.

I’d almost have been willing to take the risk, but the gossamer thing was nearby.

I moved closer to a window to look.

It was retreating?

“Sy,” Jessie said.  “Helen acted.”

From where we stood, it was hard to see much – especially with the hole being placed as high as it had been.  We ended up ducking into a side hallway, and taking a long way around, accessing the east-facing side of the admin building.

The gossamer thing was being directed to the cliffs.  In the water below, ships had crashed into one another.  Helen’s delay had no doubt been caused by the sea serpent that the one Academy had brought, and that creature looked wounded or dead as it remained still, lying in the surface waters.

Fires burned, boat crews scattered or dropped to the water.  Even with binoculars, the figures on the boats were as gnats and fleas.  Stitched would be boarding where they could board and fighting who they could fight.

Hackthorn, like all Academy institutions, had stitched to handle menial duties.  They cleaned, they did construction, they manufactured things, and they acted as soldiers.

With Hackthorn under our control, we’d given the stitched new directives.  We’d arranged the boats we did have out on the water, loaded the ones we could with volatile chemicals and crewed them with stitched.

There was no exit by water, now.  The gossamer thing was drifting to the water, very likely on orders to combat the enemy, but there was no specific enemy to fight.  For now, we had a reprieve.

Lord Carling would be telling the others by now.  He would be outlining what he’d found on the ground, in the houses and businesses.

Every house had been stripped of food.  Everything we’d deemed theoretically useful to the enemy had been relocated.  Citizens had been gathered in the dorms and admin buildings, drugged, and now rested in long slumber.

In the main building, labs were locked, the most essential items and ingredients put away.  Everything had been made to look proper and nice, but it was a hollow thing, the substance… not removed, but transplanted.

Helen had given the signal to close the harbor.  She could climb up the exterior wall to reach us again, when she was done, but she wouldn’t be done for at least the rest of the day and for the next night.  She would first hunt for key persons who swam for shore – captains and any guests who hadn’t wanted to join the party just yet.  Then she would sail the water, looking out for any late arrivals or chance visitors.

It served to keep her away from Ibbot and it gave her something she enjoyed doing.

The plan at this stage was simple.  The Lambs as a group excelled when it came to besieging an enemy, so we had orchestrated a siege, in a roundabout way, and we had rigged it against our opponents, preparing the battlefield in advance.

It was such a damn shame we couldn’t have gotten each major group to different sleeping areas and targeted them one by one.  Nobles, aristocrats, Professors and experiments all complemented each other in a dangerous way.

The trap had closed, and we were engaged in a mutual siege.  We had control over the key bridges, gates, and waypoints, and we had the food.  The poison gas in the buckets I’d knocked down would taint the feast we’d prepared for the guests.  They’d find nothing of substance in the houses.  We’d squirreled away things for enhanced noses to find, but we’d poisoned most in advance.

Much as we’d maintained a few windows in the alphabet-based series of ‘deaths’ for our actors, there would be a few pivotal moments in the minutes, hours, and even days that followed.  Their ability to handle the negativity that old rivalries and being under siege brought about would be one such pivoting moment.  Our ability to hold them off once we’d spent all of our accumulated tricks and special measures would be another.

The gossamer thing was drifting back toward us, and my instincts told me that there would be others -Noble or experiment- who would coordinate to take advantage of the distraction.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Root and Branch – 19.6

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“Your boy?”

It was a noble lady who had spoken, addressing the Professor with the long beard, who was so emotional, his face contorted in anger, that his head shook.

He’s my blood, m’lady,” the Professor spoke, and the act of speaking despite the clenched muscles and the tension in his face made each word something he produced with flecks of spittle.  His son flinched at each utterance.  “He is not my boy.”

Blood.  The word echoed the Infante’s to the extent I worried that this might be the moment where the monstrous figure next to me would cross the gap to the extent that he overlapped with me, and I would cease to be.

I worried he would say something more, and it would also reverberate and resound, finding echoes in the world around me, and so would the next thing, and the next, and the next.

Jessie took my hand, squeezing it.

Doctors and Professors I took to be the bearded Professor’s companions stood from their seats.

“My lady, Worrel’s son turned rebel last year,” one of the companions said.

There were murmurs throughout the hall.  I could see the tension on just about every student present.  Many of the ‘dead’ were standing now, Bea among them.  The crowd was eyeing them.  It wasn’t hard to draw conclusions.

“That boy?” the noble lady asked.

“I do believe so, my lady.”

“I was- was!  But only for a short time!” the boy called out.  His father had shifted his grip, the cradling of his son’s face becoming something closer to strangulation, and in response to his son’s words, he shook him with enough force to rattle his brain.  “I- please, my lady!  Father-”

“I am not your father!”

“I was a rebel, but only briefly!  They forced us to go with them, I left as soon as I was able!”

Good, I thought.  This is a good approach.

I leaned close to one of the doctors who had accompanied us, and murmured in his ear, “Go to Ferres.  Tell her there’s an incident.  She should send in the great wolf.  See if we can’t use it to fake-kill the kid, if warranted.”

The doctor nodded, hurrying off.

“I tried to reach out and let you know, but-”

He stopped as his father shook him again.  He was thrown to the ground, sprawling as he landed.  His father kicked him, hard, before he had even stopped reeling.

Not a single Professor, Noble, or aristocrat present spoke against this.

The kid was left coughing, and his first attempt at getting onto his hands and knees failed.  He remained on his side.

“I-”

More coughs.

Jessie was just as tense as I was.

“I talked to Ferres.  I told her about the rebels.  She didn’t think-”

He looked up at his father as he tried to get to his hands and feet again, and something about the way he’d moved made him start coughing again.

“-She didn’t think it would lead to anything.”

It was good, the direction he was taking, using the information he had, making the pitch, leaving things open ended.

The only problem was that he’d named Ferres, specifically.  Better to leave it more open, to refer to other Doctors and Professors.  If he could’ve named ones who we knew weren’t in attendance, better still.

That might have been asking too much, especially when I couldn’t have done it.  He was doing well, all considered, with everything on the line.  I would’ve liked to know his name, to do better by him if we came out of this alright.

I allowed myself to peek into Lab One, and saw a glimpse of Ferres making her way up the stairs.

“That doesn’t absolve you, you imbecile.  You’ve betrayed the Crown.  A hanging is the kindest justice you can hope for, and I’ll tell you this… I won’t be advocating for a hanging.”

“I served the Crown loyally, father, I-”

Professor Worrel kicked him again.  His voice was barely audible, more intended for his son than the audience.  “I shouldn’t have to correct you more than once.”

The kick hadn’t been the sort to incite coughing by hitting the ribs or diaphragm or whatever the first kick had done, but the movement in reaction to the kick did.  The boy took a second, then tried again.  “I served the Crown loyally, Professor.

“You left with them.  Others managed to run, others were left wounded and nearly dead because they fought and resisted.  They served the Crown loyally.  Your schooling, your upbringing, your tutors, all paid for by me, your learning and shelter for the past thirteen years was provided by the Academy and Crown.  You have not come close to paying back what you received, you have not come close to reaching the point where you can claim proper loyalty and service!”

Worrel was back to spitting with each word, now.  The student couldn’t maintain eye contact, and stared at the ground, looking galled.

“If I may?” Ferres asked.  She’d arrived at the top of the stairs, and she had the Wolf with her.

I could see her posture, the way she held herself.

It was the summation of what I’d seen a week ago, when she’d been in the lab, given her new arms and leg.

I squeezed Jessie’s hand harder.  “We might’ve lost her.”

“Ferres?”

I nodded, quickly, my thoughts turning to what we needed to do to cut our losses.

“I need a mirror,” Jessie said.  “Anything really reflective.”

I patted down my pockets, one eye on peering through the gaps in the screen of our entourage, who stood further up the stairs.

“Allow me to settle this for you,” Ferres said.  “That young man and I had no such conversation.”

If the room had been tense before, it was something worse now.  There were murmurs of conversation, a handful more people standing from benches and chairs.  The boy was tense now.  His father moved toward him, as if to kick him again, and he scrambled back and out of the way.  I couldn’t see him, but I knew he practically collided with the railing, from the way it reverberated.  His father didn’t pursue to lash out again, instead remaining where he was, glowering.  He had bushy eyebrows to go with the beard, and it made for a damned menacing glare.

I could hear rather than see Ferres walking, with the people in the way and my angle of view on the scene.

I could only hope that Ferres would at least hold to the ruse.  She had reasons to obey us – if she hadn’t, we wouldn’t have put her up there, but she had reasons to turn the tables on us too.  She wouldn’t ever be in a better position than this.

One of the doctors pulled a head-mounted reflector from a pocket, holding it out for Jessie.  She let go of my hand to take it, but she didn’t use it for anything.

“Tell me if it’s unsalvageable,” she whispered.

“I think we’ll know when it’s unsalvageable,” I whispered back.

One of the doctors who’d carried us up in the stretcher gave me a look over his shoulder, very clearly alarmed.

Which was entirely appropriate.

The murmur of conversation was dying down.

“A sword, anyone?” Ferres asked.  “Is anyone able to oblige me?”

“One second, Professor,” a young voice said.

Jessie met my eyes, then changed the angle of the mirror, catching a ray of light from the outside.  She set to angling it, aiming into one part of the crowd.

“We should question him first,” another voice from the crowd said.  “Find out who his friends are.”

“I know exactly who his friends are,” Ferres said.  “He has quite a few.”

I bit my lower lip.  Whatever Jessie was doing, she’d need it to work fast.

The boy ran, sprinting away, closer to us.  Ferres whistled, and, following two more strikes of shoe on floor from the running boy, the Wolf rammed into him.

This would have been a good time for Ferres to use the trick.  One of the stunts the Wolf had been taught was to seize someone and shake them violently, like a dog did a toy.  The trick was that the Wolf’s mouth was large, and with the right grip on a target, the shake would only break and dislocate limbs.  For the ‘actors’ Ferres had created to go up against the Wolf, the limbs were strong enough to withstand breakage, and so it was only a relatively painless dislocation.

I was sure our target would be happy to have his limbs broken and to be summarily unconscious than the alternatives Ferres was presenting.

“Did you have any idea, Ferres?”

“I entertained the idea.  We received a swathe of students from other Academies earlier in the season, and with the black wood claiming much of the region around us, verifying details was difficult.  My failure.”

“You said he had friends?” someone asked.  “Should we be concerned?”

“Yes,” Ferres said.  “You came with others, didn’t you?  Why don’t you tell our audience?”

Our audience.  That was the death knell, as much as her not using the Wolf to fake his murder.  This, as much as anything, was Ferres on her stage, indulging in her show.

“I came alone,” the student said.

I could hear the sword coming free of the sheath.  I saw a glimpse of Ferres, stalking toward the boy and Wolf.  The Wolf moved its paws, and I saw the boy, partially pinned down by a paw that rested on the length of his lab coat.

“No,” Ferres said.  “You didn’t.”

She put the sword through him.

My heart sank.

Jessie was holding a hand up, palm out.  She had dropped the hand with the mirror.

The room was relatively quiet, with rustling.  I could see the tension of students throughout, the avid disinterest of many of the Nobles at the main table, and the irritation and restlessness of the more prominent Professors.

There would be no ruse, no saving him.  Not with dozens upon dozens of eyes on the scene, fully aware of the particulars of anatomy.  Not with the Wolf being a better and more convincing alternative to sell the kill.

“You keep a messy house, Professor Ferres,” one of the other Professors spoke.

“With plague and black wood sweeping over the Crown States, refugees and other Academies clamoring for a place in my institution, mess is inevitable,” Ferres said.

“How many?”

“A dozen,” Ferres said.

A dozen.

“We all know who the Beattle traitors worked for,” Ferres said.

Jessie moved her hand, signalling.

This was Ferres’ play, her gambit.  She would claim she only wanted a dozen conspirators.  It was, to all Lamb-aligned rebels in earshot, an offer.  Play along, and she would only go after us.  Maybe our lieutenants.  She was offering the out, the escape from a situation that was clearly out of control.

“The Lambs are here!?  That’s not a messy house, you stupid bitch, that’s-”

A student at the edge of the room dropped her tray of tea.  It crashed into a counter filled with things that one of the guests had brought to keep their experiment companions in working order.  Or so the setup had been.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorr-”

The chemicals, tools, and machinery reacted to the hot liquid, and the entire setup billowed with noxious smoke.  It got worse before it got better, multiplying as it reached the table.

Someone had a gun drawn and started opening fire into the smoke, targeting the student.

That was going to be how it was, was it?  Too many smart, intelligent people in the room, who were too suspicious with the Lambs so recently mentioned.  They were willing to shoot at a student who might’ve simply made a mistake or an error in judgment, where others might have hesitated.

Still, the gunfire stopped as the roomful of people started to move to get clear of the smoke.  Not all did.  Some drew weapons, following scattered students who backed into the smoke rather than gravitate closer to nobles.

Jessie and I launched ourselves into the smoke at the same time, the moment it was close enough to us that we could slip in without necessarily being seen.

Jessie tugged on my arm.  I was to her left, closer to the larger expanse of the room but she tugged me to the right.  I went with the movement, and felt her give me more of a push to the right.

She was taking point here.  I was, going by my trajectory, heading for the source of the smoke.

The table with the assorted chemicals and pieces of now-noisily chugging machinery was in front of me.  I was slapped with the length of something as I drew near to it.  A belt, torn or loosened by a stray bullet.

What had Jessie wanted me to do here?

I heard the whimper and realized what Jessie had in mind.

The girl who’d dropped the tray was one of ours.  Jessie had signaled her with a flash of light from the reflected mirror, then used a hand sign to give the order.  She was supposed to have been one of the windows we’d had, who would’ve also bought time for others to arrive and set up the necessary props.

Blind, I bent low, fumbling for her.  I touched her face, then, dropping my hand deliberately to her shoulder next, so I wouldn’t grope her chest in a fumbling attempt to find her arm or hand, I put my hand over hers, where she was gripping her upper arm.  I felt the warmth of blood.

“I got you,” I said.  “How bad?”

“Grazed,” she said, “It all went wrong.”

“It’s okay,” I said.  It really wasn’t.

She put her head against my shoulder, shaking it hard.

“You did good,” I said.  She really had.

I pulled her to her feet and led her through the smoke, very aware we only had a minute before the smoke started to clear.  We’d opted to push the very boundaries of what we could get away with, in terms of how long we could keep a roomful of people under a cover of smoke and not have them get frustrated.

I headed for the railing that bounded the room, where ornate rails kept students from stumbling headlong into the glass walls and windows that framed the ‘shoulder’ of the reclining lady and allowed sunlight into the main hall.  I kept one arm around the girl as I counted the posts.

The fourth post had the hook.  I grabbed it, pulling it free, and braced myself against the natural pull of it.  It was all I could do to keep my feet on the ground.

Figures appeared out of the smoke.  I drew my knife, ready.

Students.  Ours.  Three, unless I was missing something with the smoke obscuring the details.

Another figure loomed, and it was something entirely different.  It was large enough that even with the diffuse light that illuminated the clouds of smoke, it still managed to form a pillar of shadow.  Ten feet tall.

If I’d been Jessie, I could have recalled everything that had been in the hall earlier, and I could have accounted for that.  I wasn’t.  I drew my knife, ready.

It moved in a lopsided kind of way.  It seemed to sense me before it saw me, and reacted, raising its arms.  If it didn’t have weapons, it had something like weapons as part of its design.

I backed up as it swiped through smoke, and I could smell the thing over the cloying burned grease smell of the cloud that now filled three quarters of the great hall.  It smelled of perfume.  As large and menacing as it was, it smelled nice, inviting.

On my second retreat, I bumped into the students that had clustered behind me.  It meant I didn’t move far enough back.  The swipe caught me across the face.

As the girl had said, a graze, but enough to alarm.

I hauled back on the rope and hook, and I felt the catch, the moment the mechanism had reached its limit, the switch flipped.  It began reeling me in, hard.

I went straight after the thing in the shadows, knees at my chest, ready to kick down and out at the arms if they swiped again, hoping at least to keep the damage localized to my feet and away from my vitals.

The hook was about as large as my head, and as I drew close to the thing, I got a glimpse of what I’d just thrown myself into combat with.

An attractive, feminine creature, its hair long and pale, its eyes without detail, with makeup heavy around the eyes.  The clawed, armored part of it was almost another creature it was plugged into, like Lillian’s meatsuit.

She was limping, already injured from a brief encounter with Jessie in the smoke, I realized.  I pushed the realization aside, my focus needed elsewhere – I almost smashed my face into hers in my rope-aided ascent.  From the glimpse of the many fangs I saw between her slightly parted lips, I was glad I hadn’t.

I used my body to crush the hook in closer to the thing’s body, guiding the hook at what I’d hoped would be her heart.  I caught the collarbone instead, impaling her, and bodily lifting the creature up with me.

It was a floating, loose movement, buoyed by the pull of the rope.  Vague and dreamlike as that moment was, a slow-motion movement through air, my passenger something beautiful and dangerous looking, it was a stark contrast to the grate of the metal hook on bone, the crack, crunch, and the summary break in that collarbone, marked a spray of blood.   She made a terrible sound, as if to further the stark contrast, and her mouth yawned open, a bear-trap mouth of fangs exposed, ready to tear my face open.

The hook slipped free, up, and, with the help of a frantic slap of my hand to better position it, my hands letting go of the hook to seize her shoulders instead, it buried deep in the underside of the creature’s chin.  She toppled back, crashing to the ground, and pulled me and the hook down with it.

It had lodged in around the jaw, and for now it was staying put, weighed down by a creature who was several feet taller and far more dense than I.  The slam of the hook into her jaw and the clack of her mouth closing as forcefully as it had had knocked her out, if the point of the hook through the roof of her mouth hadn’t outright killed her.

“Come,” I whispered.  “Come on.”

There were more people rushing toward us.  Some yelped as they realized the monster was there.

“Come on,” I said.  I reached for hands, guiding them in place.  “Hold tight.  Make sure you have grips.”

I was still arranging them, keeping an eye out for more trouble, very aware the smoke was clearing, and we were losing ground.  Another minute or two-

I heard gunshots.  The sound was different from before.  It still sounded far too loud in the enclosed space, as large as it was, but guns had a different sound when they weren’t fired at me.  There were other targets.  We had support.

Jessie arrived, dragging a body.  She had more students with her, and they were helping with the drag.  She had the hook but was being careful not to tug it too hard.

Professor Edmund Foss.

“One student here,” Jessie said.

“You guys are going to have to help,” I said.  “Kick, grab for handholds, but keep us moving.”

I could see, as the smoke thinned, the sheer number of forces that were massing at the edge of the smoke.  Nobles, experiments.

I directed one student to Jessie.  She made sure the boy had a grip on the rope there, set the hook in place around Foss’ belt, then gave it a firm haul back.

The rope reeled in, tugging Jessie up.  Her feet and the feet of students with her touched the branches that framed windows, seeking more traction.

I had already set the knife in place.  I kicked down, driving the knife into one side of the beautiful creature’s jaw.  It drove deep, cut something, but didn’t sever everything.  I kicked down again, aware of the shadows closing in, driving the heel of my foot between top and bottom row of teeth, exacerbating the damage done by the knife, kicked again-

The hook continued its pull against the jaw, and the end of the jaw came loose.  The hook tore through flesh, the jaw pulling free and away, before the hook slipped past the damaged end.  We rose into the air, no longer weighed down by the giant creature.

We rose faster than Jessie, who had one less student but one more full grown man pulling down on the rope.  Her hostage wasn’t helping either, not kicking at the wall or reaching out for branches to pull at.

My crew of four students and I reached the top before Jessie’s three students and one passenger did.  I clambered off, fumbling for the beam, and proceeded to help students let go of the rope and seize other parts of the beam structure above and over the dining hall.

It was havoc down there.  The smoke was clearing but wasn’t entirely gone, and it was immediately clear that Jessie had bid other students to activate their lettered experiments.  We’d had an entire play of surprise deaths, from A to Z, and many of them had been intended to cause comedic havoc.  Now they were weapons.  Pests among the enemy, a stitched that was arcing with voltaic power that was supposed to be limited to the nearby railing, but was instead flashing across the silverware and candlesticks on the tables nearest it.  There were others.

Our students were backing off.  Many, including Bea, had fled for one of the bridges.  They were shutting the gate, and the people below us were just now realizing it.  In places below, students and rebels were slipping away, setting up roadblocks and other obstacles.  It would buy them time to reach secure points, to run to the lowest-floor doors of dormitories and the admin building.

For all that this had gone bell-end, the casualties didn’t look too terribly bad.  Some had been shot, others were stuck, having made the mistake in judgment of sticking closer to the Nobles, Professors, and aristocrat guests.

This wasn’t what we’d been shooting for.  Our time to attack had been when the festivities here were over and people started retiring for the evening.

With people going to separate places to retire for the night, quarters of differing quality for different guests, we’d hoped to split them up and deal with them on a case-by-case basis.

I hauled on the rope, helping Jessie.  I hoped those below wouldn’t look up- people below were looking up.

But, at the very least, they were preoccupied.  They were aristocrats, and they had Nobles to serve, or they were Professors, and they’d brought weapons to show off, and now they were loosing the weapons on the attacking rebels.

People hiding in the rafters would have been the sort of suspicious activity that would’ve been more easily explained as something the magicians with their show had up their sleeve, had we been able to do this like we wanted.

Ibbot was still down there, somewhere.

“I’m good,” Jessie said, as I grabbed her armpit and helped her get to a position to climb up onto the broader ledge.  “Go rain hell on ’em.”

I nodded.  I turned away, ducking low so I wouldn’t bump my head on a part of the ceiling or stick it through a pane of glass, and hurried to where we’d stowed other countermeasures.

I was glad we had very little that was outright lethal.  I tipped over buckets, letting them fall.  I had four on their way to the ground before the first struck the floor.

They were very much like the smoke from the machine, but they were a little more noxious.

As the gas spread, people jumping onto tables to buy themselves seconds more before the gas smothered them, a handful drew pistols and fired blind.  One or two fired with targets in mind.

The bullets that didn’t hit wood hit the glass that encased the dining hall.  Glass broke, and it rained down in large shards and fragments.  It broke explosively on contact with the floor, furniture, and guests below us.

“Stop!” someone called out.  They spoke with a noble’s voice.  “No shooting until we can see!”

“To the stairs!”

I wasn’t positive if it was one of our own or not.  I remembered something planned in that vein, but I was lost on the particulars.

We made our way through the same hole that ‘F’ had fallen through.  A ‘student’ in our act had been designated to showcase the perils of breeding flying creatures, and had come in through one treated pane of glass, smacking hard into the floor, a dramatic faceplant.  Now we climbed through, working in threes and fours to move the unconscious body of Edmund Foss.

From the outside, I could see the various weapons and the massed armies of the Academy and Crown.  There were groups on the ground, and in the chaos, the students of ours that were fleeing were able to direct them indoors.  They would carry on like that until they met the first of the aristocrats or whoever was able to slip past the barricades, the stitched we’d turned to our side, and the experiments we’d put in place to scare and impede.  Then they would be informed that the fleeing students weren’t friendlies.

I could see the gossamer thing, and it was drawing close.  Whatever controlled it, it hadn’t received the order to attack.  Which was good, because it was not the sort of thing I wanted to be on the bad side of.

We moved carefully across branches and struts of the head of the Lady of Hackthorn.  There were more ropes and hooks waiting on the outside edge of the building.

“We’d planned to do this with just Sylvester and I,” Jessie said.  “The extra weight won’t be a problem, but that’s not really the concern.”

“What’s the concern?” the girl with the injured shoulder asked.

Jessie put the hook through Edmund Foss’ belt, once more.  “Grab on.  Twice as tight as you did in the dining hall.”

“Don’t look down,” I said.

I saw eyes widen.  Jessie elbowed me.

“Really don’t,” I said.  “But grab on, because if you stay, it’s going to be even scarier, I guarantee you.”

“And don’t grab where it’s knotted up there,” Jessie said.

They grabbed on.  Jessie and I freed the hooks from where we’d attached them to the exterior wall.

I drew in a deep breath and then stepped off the edge, pulling the others with me.

The rope was attached to the wall at set intervals.  The attachment wasn’t secure in the slightest.  With our weight pulling it down, it came free in jerks and starts, each one making my heart leap out of my chest, and I was a friend of high places, my natural and sensible dislike of birds aside.

I felt sorry for our passengers.

The rope kept coming undone, and, for two long, heart-pounding seconds, there was slack in it.  We were in freefall.

There were no more attachments to the exterior of the main building- only to the bridge that connected it to the admin building.

We swung from there, with a solid seventy-five paces of open space between us and any wall, our feet dangling above people who were so far away they were specks.  A ring with a rope attached to it slipped down from high above, looped around our rope, and it stopped at a knot just above my hands.  Had I been holding onto that knot, it would have struck my hands with enough force to break fingers.

The enemy was attacking the gate now, setting something strong and powerful at the door.  I could hear the crunches, the bangs, and the chops that were like axes on wood.  I could hear glass break, and knew that there were things that weren’t human that would be crawling out through the broken windows and onto the exterior, out toward the bridge, giving chase.

The swinging ceased.  The students at the window were hauling on the other rope the ring was fixed to – pulling us in.  Others provided gradual slack to our other rope.  In the process, we were eased in closer to the admin building.

“Just in time,” Davis said, meeting us at a waiting window.  “They’re coming over the bridge now.  There’s a lot more of them than we anticipated.”

“More is good,” I said.

Davis nodded.

We climbed in through the window.  One of the fellows with us had not enjoyed his ride.  Any gardens way down below had received fertilizer and watering.  He shuffled off.

“You’ve put up with a lot, being with us,” I told Davis.

“I really, really have,” he said.

“Would you do the honors?” I asked.

“Honors,” he said.  “People are going to die.”

But he reached for a leather cord at his neck, and he raised a whistle to his lips.

It wasn’t silent.  It didn’t matter who heard.

The bridge detonated, a rolling explosion that caught first at one end, then the middle, and finally at the end closest to the main building.  Wood, stone, the garden baskets that had lined either side, bits of metal and a portion of the enemy’s front-line capable troops tumbled through the open air.  I hoped there were some young nobles among them.

We’d wanted them divided into clear categories and groups before we dealt with them.  We’d wanted to be absolutely sure that most of our own were in the clear.

This would be… messier than we’d hoped.

“What was his name?” I asked.

“Bobby,” Jessie said, without needing to ask.

“Bobby Worrel, then?”

“Yeah,” Jessie said.  “I’m surprised you remembered the last name.”

“I’m going to forget it promptly, and he deserves a better last name, too, but I held it in my head to be sure I didn’t forget that.  We’ll deal with his dad.”

“Yeah,” one of the students with us said.

Bits of burning stone and wood were still falling.  I could see up and through the window to the dining hall, where trails of smoke were still filtering out to the open air.  A creature had reached the edge and managed to cling to it, but was too badly burned to do anything further.  I watched as it surrendered to its fate and fell.

I looked down at the unconscious Professor Foss.  I briefly met the Infante’s eyes.

This is our Academy, and it’s time you all learned that, I thought.  And that’s only the beginning.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Root and Branch – 19.5

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

No sign of Fray.  Mauer played his part.  The Infante and the major players are absent.

Well, the Infante was present.  He waited for me in the stairwell, not moving from his spot, his stare penetrating.  He kept the company of the Primordial Child.

The Lambs had split up, as moving from building to building was a laborious process.  There were three ways to get from building to building.  The first was to take one of the two arms or the leg that held up bridges, which necessitated passing through the main building, the body of the reclining woman, and walking past ninety percent of the guests.  For obvious reasons, we had to rule that option out.

The second option was to use the walltop road that formed the three-quarter circle connecting the Academy buildings around the perimeter.  Most of them were dormitories, and getting from, say, the boy’s first dormitory to the girl’s dormitory meant taking a curved road through two other buildings, one of which was the administration building, until reaching the destination.  What should be ten minutes of walking to get from boy to girl proved to be twenty or thirty in practice, notwithstanding obstacles, having to move out of the way if any carts were using the path, or trouble accessing the buildings, like when the administration building closed for the night.

The last option was making our way down to the ground, walking to the foot of whichever building one wanted to access, and then walking up.

Not a single option worked in the long-term, when the Academy was as occupied as it was.  We had access to the ground for the time being, but as the aristocrats and lesser professors started getting settled and got luggage put away, the city below us would teem with low level threats.

The layout was meant to hold up to siege and invasion, and the limited, easily controlled paths played a part in that, with the heart of the University being able to produce an endless tide of warbeasts, stitched, parasites, or the like, should an enemy try to hold a given point.

We rounded a corner, and the Infante was there again.  This time he kept the company of Dog and Catcher.  They weren’t children anymore, but were full size, with Dog being large enough to make the hallway cramped.

The pair fell into stride with us.

“Do you get that jump of emotion in your chest, when you’re on the verge of closing the deal?” Catcher asked.

I was silent.  Dog made a garbled sound of agreement.

“Dog and I were made to feel it.  Helen as well.  It was something they gave the Academy students, you know.”

I know.

“The kick.  For experiment and student both, they joined drug with reinforcement in reality.  The students were all given access to Wyvern in small amounts, enough to make them susceptible, just in time for the first of the most critical examinations.  We were given dosages of drugs for our first hunt.  Success?  The desire for it was etched into us.  Failure?  Etched in with Wyvern for the students, the weaker students not only weeded out but made into failures in every fucking sense of the word.  For us, it was withdrawal from the drugs and a lack of maintenance if we failed.  They ingrained us with the sense that if we could not be useful, we’d be left to rot, with no team to care for us.”

“I know,” I said.

“You know that they did the same to you, don’t you?  Except what they did with you was deny you access to your fellow Lambs.  In your explanations and stories, do you even realize that you tell the same story twice, but you’ll change it around?” Catcher asked.

I was silent.  It was my paradox, wasn’t it?  I was the liar, but liars needed a good memory to keep track of their deceptions.

Dog grunted.

“I don’t mean to get on your case, Sy,” Catcher said, in his grizzled burr.  “But you’ll tell a story about yourself and you’ll say you did what you did because of Wyvern, while you privately tell yourself you did it for the Lambs.  You’ll tell that same story a few months later, and you’ll say you did it for the Lambs, while you privately tell yourself you did it for the drug.  I’m telling you what you always knew.  I’m not trying to trick you or get at you, that’s not how I do things.”

Dog growled.

“Not how we do things.  Dog and I, we set our eye on something, and we see it through.  We’re straightforward.  I’m telling you straight, Sy, it’s one and the same.  Your Lambs, your addiction.  It’s never going to be good for you or them, and it was never going to go anywhere but a few broken hearts.  The only difference between us is that Dog and I are ugly, we came to terms with things early.  I never believed I could have a woman, or even a friend that wasn’t a proper experiment-”

I startled a bit as we turned a corner and the Infante was there.  He stared into my eyes.

Jessie touched my arm.  “It’s okay.”

I nodded.

“-And your Lillian doesn’t count as a proper experiment, Sy.  As much as you want her to, and as much as she wants to.  You have the unfortunate reality of looking human,” Catcher said.  “They got you young, and they got their hooks in deep.  There’s no getting those hooks out without a lot of blood.”

He was fiddling with a weird piece of metal, and I couldn’t figure out what the metal was supposed to be for.  It was barbed, at least.

If there’s going to be blood, I’ll be the one shedding it, at least, I thought.

“Goodbye, Sylvester,” Catcher said.

I felt a minor shock run through me at those words.

Goodbye?

“I don’t think we’ll talk again,” the gravelly voice said.

Dog, for his part, said his own farewell, almost incomprehensible.  And with that, they stopped walking.  Jessie and I left them behind.

I wanted to stop, to go back, and to ask, as stupid as it was.  I felt a loss even though they’d beleaguered me and targeted my weaknesses.  They were familiar and among all of the old enemies that were living in my head and making their appearances around or alongside the Infante, Dog and Catcher were some of the less bad ones.  Straightforward, not seductive, not too scary, not too dangerous to others.

Were they gone because there wasn’t time, or were they gone because I was going to soon find myself in a state where I couldn’t function in the same way?

I glanced at the Infante.  He remained still, biding his time.  He hadn’t made his move, yet his every appearance managed to make my heart jump, it felt like he was a great hammer, and he was chipping at me with his every appearance, that he had been for a long while.

At what stage did the chips become a crack and a crack become a breach in the wall?

“Sy?” Jessie asked.  “Who is it?”

Who was it?  I couldn’t bring myself to say.  Naming him might give him power.

“Dog and Catcher,” I said.  “Was I that obvious?”

“Not that obvious, but something was going on,” she said.

I nodded.

“Dog and Catcher aren’t too bad, are they?  Even at their worst, when they were hunting us, it wasn’t horrible.  We ate and drank with them.”

I blew air out of my nose hard.  “I forgot about that.”

“It’s one of the ones I hold on to, when you look like you need a refresher on a good memory,” Jessie said.

I reached out for her hand.

“Dog and Catcher aren’t bad.  They might even be one of the better ones.  But Catcher calls me Sy and it sounds so friendly it worms its way into my head, and between his gravelly voice and Dog’s size, it’s really hard to ignore them, so it wears at me.”

“Think about other things, then.”

We passed by a window.  I could see outside.  There was something there, and for all I could tell, it was a jellyfish sans jelly, a specter to rival nearly anything I’d ever seen before, all wisp and tendril, blowing in the wind.  Millions of gossamer spiderwebs organized by a great pattern might have achieved the effect.

It was like the ghost of a great warbeast I couldn’t remember, something of a scale that dwarfed Helen’s little brother, but so light it was a fraction of the mass.

“Okay.  Other things.  Is that real?” I asked, pointing.

“It’s real, Sy,” Jessie said.  She didn’t need to look; she’d seen it earlier.

“That’s good,” I said.  “Isn’t it?”

“It’s a theoretical exercise by Moraga Academy in the Californias.  While we were watching the gate, Lillian, Duncan, Mary and I were talking about what we could possibly do about it and we don’t really have any good ideas,” Jessie said.

“What Academy’s in the Californias?”

Jessie made a so-so gesture.  “Not so much a proper Academy.  Test ground, somewhere that something like that can be trialed without too much risk to Crown population.”

I waited until we passed another window to glance at the thing.

“It’s not bright.  Brain the size of your fist.  We don’t know what that brain perceives, or how it follows orders.  But those loose fibers?”

“The gossamer?”

“Gossamer is a good word for it.  It turns them hard.  There are fibers that’re nearly as long as Hackthorn is tall, and it makes them into a spear, leveraging the rest of the body to plunge that spear through a building.  Through exterior wall, interior walls, floor, and out the other exterior wall.”

I nodded.  We passed by labs with open doors.  I saw a dismembered Academy student that stared at us as we walked by.  A girl lay on a table, strapped down, while a team placed needles in her eyes.

“As far as we can figure, it’s just one more thing we have to take account of, and it’s going to stay in play,” Jessie said.

“We can’t burn it?  Chop it?”

“At best, we can penetrate its brain, and its brain is…”

“…way up there.  I see.  Fill me in on what you know at the next good opportunity,” I said.  “We’ll figure it out.”

“There are a lot of things that need figuring out, Sy.”

“Just throw them at me later, we’ll see what we can do,” I said.  “After.”

After.  There wasn’t a lot more time.  We’d arrived at our destination.

Lab One was too hazardous, so we’d made use of other labs, further down.  Now we walked among experiments, modified youths and children.  A young man was being strapped together, a symbiote or parasite embracing him as a kind of external suit that made him look morbidly obese. His fine clothes were folded beside him.  He was made up to look like an aristocrat’s brat.

A girl was topless and seemed not to care in the slightest about it.  Her makeup was being touched up, and the open wound at her chest was being smeared with something medical.  She looked my way and smiled.  The gaping hole where her heart was supposed to be, large enough for me to reach my hand through, was in plain view.

Was I supposed to know her?  I gave her a smile in response.  The ‘I know a secret’ kind of smile.

Jessie elbowed me.

“What?”

She elbowed me again.

What?  Not many of the students smile at me these days.  Wouldn’t do to lose friends.”

“Yes, yes, friends,” Jessie said.  “That’s what you were looking for.”

“You’re really going to dwell on this sort of thing now?” I asked.  “Are we going to bicker in front of everyone, on the literal eve of… everything going down?”

“It’s afternoon, not any kind of eve,” Jessie said.

“Alright, it seems we’re bickering today.”

“Please don’t,” Bea said, from the room at the end.

We looked at her, and she stood up, waving off the student who had been doing her makeup.  Bioluminescence etched her eyes, making them glow like coals, and lines of the same traced their way from her fingers to her elbow, crimson and bright, with her fingers the brightest, the skin around the edges of the crack painted dark to bring them out by way of contrast.  Her hair wasn’t her own.

She placed one hand at the doorframe, and it was a gesture.  Come.

We went.  Bea partially closed the door.

“We’re not really bickering,” I said.  “Just so it’s clear.  It’s just how we communicate.”

“Believe it or not, I’m very aware.  I don’t know how you two can do that,” she said.  “Or how most of the Lambs can.”

“Have to,” Jessie said.  “It’s either laugh or cry, and sometimes there’s no opportunity to laugh, sometimes there’s no opportunity to cry.  So you take what you can get, or you push for more of one than the other to prepare for later drought.”

“Do you really think there’s only going to be tears later?”

“I think,” Jessie said.  “If this doesn’t work out, we won’t be laughing.”

Bea nodded at that.

Her eye fell on me.  It was hard, critical.  She’d been there through the worst patch.

“I’m good,” I said.  “I’ve got them with me.

“You had them when you were whispering to yourself about needing to make Little Bo Peep bleed,” Bea said.

I winced.  I hadn’t, but I wasn’t about to argue the point.

“It wasn’t really us,” Jessie said.

Bea didn’t respond.  I didn’t either.  I suspected we were both thinking but not articulating the idea that there really wasn’t a difference between the people who were real and the people who weren’t, when I really lost it.

“Right,” Jessie said.  Perhaps she was thinking the same.  Her expression changed slightly, “Are you ready?”

“I always liked fire,” Bea said.  “Watching it, playing with it.  I’m either going to have the best, most terrifying time, or it’s going to be only the terrifying part.”

“Good luck,” I said.

Her response was a tight smile, and an opening of the door.

From the way some people looked away, we’d had eavesdroppers.  That was fine.

“They’re done with the first act.,” Jessie said.  “Final preparations, cover-ups, and get moving, just as you rehearsed.  Apple should start soon.  From there it’s all about the order you die in.”

Bea used a dropper to put drops in her eyes, temporarily clearing away the bioluminescence, checked the makeup was set, and then pulled long gloves on over her arms.  The fabric was supposed to go up in flame in an instant.

The boy with the parasite was getting help in putting on a heavy coat.  The moment it was done up, he spun in a circle, got thumbs ups, and then swiped an apple from a nearby basket before legging it up the stairs.  Bea urged another girl up the stairs, then followed.

Most of these people were student volunteers.  We hadn’t been able to conscience sending all of the other experiments to the ‘stage’.  Some had had their alterations reversed, making it impossible, and more were simply unwilling to put themselves through that.  It wasn’t acting, but reality played out to a razor’s edge, with the sharpest control that Professor Ferres’ science could enact.

The work we had applied to Bea had been meant for the nightmare, but with everything that had gone on, the original team of doctors had never been able to spare the time and effort to riddle out just how to make a horse burn the way they needed the nightmare to burn, and yet not die in the process.

Jessie had been able to dig up enough obscure, dark fairy tales for us to put something together.  Several of this batch were part of a series of cautionary tales, and we’d strung it out into a reinterpretation, wherein the old cautionary tales related to lab safety and the hazards of Academy life.  Bea was one of twenty-six actors who were going to die in improbable, grisly, and convincing manners.  She was ‘C’ for ‘Combustible’.

Ashton had wanted ‘C’ to be ‘choke’ and for Bea to take over ‘Fire’ or ‘Burn’, but in the shuffling of letters and an effort to use more Academy terms, and in small part because of Duncan’s insistence, we had moved that one over to ‘K’, for ‘Knock’.

And this, as they said, was the curtains rising.  The actors left as a group.

All of this was in the name of running out the clock, selling the idea that Ferres was involved, and in guiding the emotions of our audience.  It would be alarming at first, but one oddity or unusual thing would be followed by another, and with luck we could desensitize them.  Maybe, in a moment that counted, they would think for just a second that it was a joke.

Maybe.

The place was a flurry of actors getting dressed and artists doing final touches, of causes of death being hidden and primed.

 

This was only part of things.  There were a lot of reasons to do it and a lot of things that could go wrong.  As the Infante and I watched them make their way up the stairs, I was very aware that any one of them could choke.  Not just them, but any student in this school who we hadn’t sequestered away and put to sleep.  One short sentence could turn the tables.

We had measures in place, but the more I saw of the guests and the weapons and tools they’d brought to show off with and to protect themselves with, the more tenuous they felt.

“What are you thinking?” Jessie asked.

“That I can’t believe we thought we were going to pull this off with major players present.  The Infante, Hayle, the brain doc Ferres mentioned…”

“I think if they were planning to be here, they’d be scary, yes, but the others wouldn’t be so prickly.”

“Prickly?” I asked.  I thought about it.  “Yeah.  Their hackles are up.  They’re among peers, there’s no reason to bow or keep their swords sheathed.  They hold their swords up and they wave them around and if anyone flinches, it’s a win for the sword-waver.”

“You losing your mind again, Sy?  Because you’re incoherent.”

I elbowed her and she smiled.  We were watching everyone, Jessie looking out for details, while I was keeping an idle eye out for trouble, dissent, for people who were paying too little or too much attention to Jessie and me.

A student lagged behind.  She was younger.  Fourteen or so.  Lillian hadn’t been much younger when I’d been teasing her mercilessly and when she’d first faced down the monsters.

“It’s okay to be afraid,” Jessie said.

“We’re near the bottom floors and they’re at the top, and I can hear them,” she said.

I listened.  The clamor was indeed audible, albeit faint.  People on the stairs, things moving about, and the whisper-faint noise of the most recent round of applause.

Young ears.

“Stage fright is normal,” Jessie said.

“The trick,” I said, jumping in, “Is to realize that there’s two kinds of fear.”

“There’s a lot of kinds of fear,” she said.  “We studied the areas of the brain-”

“Not like that,” I said.  “Listen, there’s fear that makes you stand still, and there’s fear that makes you move.  The standing still fear is what you use when a warbeast is there, tense, and you’re not sure if it’s seen you.  You take the moment.  But the moving fear?  That’s what you use when the warbeast is running at you.”

Jessie gave me a look.

“It’s really, really easy to make your brain switch to the other track, understand?  Just… lift yourself up on your toes, like this, then drop down to the ground.  Bam.  The warbeast is chasing you, and you’re going.  And eventually, you get yourself to the point where you’re doing that without needing the jolt.  Where it’s always the moving kind of fear.  Because we don’t ever need that standing still fear in modern society.  Just give yourself that jolt, that push.  You’ll be fine.”

“I’ll try,” she said.

“Good.  We’re going to pull off something amazing, and this is only the beginning.”

“You should go,” Jessie said.

The girl went.  Another girl was waiting for her and took her hand, going up with her.

“We should go up too, to play our part and check on the others to make sure they’re playing their part,” Jessie said.

I nodded.

We rounded up a group of students who felt up to leaving the lab alone, and we moved as part of the group.

We didn’t even make it to the end of the long winding hallway that cut through the now-empty or mostly empty labs before we ran into trouble.

We’d tried to sequester off one of the stairwells, but the problem with trying that was that we were dealing with an awful lot of guests who were used to getting their way.

It was young aristocrats, with their entourages of stitched.

“I was asked to play tonight by Ferres herself!” one of them called out.

They were in our way.

“I understand, sir,” the Doctor in front of them said.  “But please, use the other stairwell.  We have some dangerous and fragile experiments going up and down this particular staircase.”

“Hold them back, clear the way,” the musician aristocrat said, in a tone that implied he couldn’t even fathom that she hadn’t already done it.

“If there was any possible way we could minimize the hassle to you, the Professors, and the Nobles, glory to the Crown, I would, sir.”

There were cries of dismay and alarm, with a few shrieks.

“A,” Jessie said.

There were two points where we needed to act.  Two points where, in an ideal world, we would need to walk among our targets and take action.  We’d left ourselves five windows among the twenty six letters of the alphabet, where they would be blinded or distracted enough that we felt at ease walking among them with minimal disguise.

‘F’ was the first one.

I tugged on Jessie’s hand as the young aristocrat went on a tirade.  Not listening, only asserting his power and how very impossible it was that he would have to go down to a lower floor, find his way to the other staircase, and then head back up.

We ducked into the first lab that still had students inside.  One of them had cracked open a bottle of something alcoholic that I could smell from across the room.  The students had been about to celebrate getting their child with springloaded eyeball needles or pre-prepared disembowelment out on schedule.

“Uh,” they said, as they saw us.

“Sorry,” I said.  “I know you did your part, you should be done, but we need help.”

“Fuck,” the one with the drink said.  “Is it bad?”

“It’s minor, but it’s the kind of problem that adds up.  We can’t get up the stairs without going through some people.  We can’t go to the other stairwell because that’s the one designated for all the people we want to avoid.”

“It’s throwing some crucial timing,” Jessie said.

“Do you have body bags?” I asked.  “Or a stretcher?”

“We can get them,” the young doctor said, already out of his chair, signaling the others.

“C,” Jessie said.  “Bea just had her turn, assuming timing’s right.”

I nodded.

We could have killed the aristocrats, but that was another sort of problem that swelled up and became a larger issue.  Especially if the man was scheduled to play music.

“D,” Jessie said, while the Doctors were still gone.

I frowned.

They arrived with the stretchers and body bags.  Jessie and I climbed in.

“If there’s a question or any small problem, just wink,” I said.  “If there’s a larger problem or if the wink doesn’t work, then take us to the nearest safe place.  Otherwise, our best destination is Lab One.”

“Lab One, got it.”

I lay down on the stretcher, arms at my side, and let them do up the front of the bag, sealing me in.

I closed my eyes and counted the steps.  I hadn’t counted the steps from the staircase to the small lab, but I had a sense of it.  Generally speaking, my instincts were good.

Pride goeth before the fall,” the voice was deep, but it wasn’t the sheer bass of it that made me shake so much as it was the clenching of my teeth, my desire to stay still, when we had to be within a few paces of the young aristocrat.

I’d been dreading the voice.

“Where are you going with those?” I heard the aristocrat asking.

There was silence.

“I… see,” he said.  “Carry on.”

Carry on, I thought.  Carry on.  Move forward, don’t dwell, the dwelling is the dangerous part.

Carry on, the most pretentious, desperate way to sound as though one was in control of the situation, when said like the musician aristocrat had said it.

I couldn’t gauge how much ground we were covering as we were carried up the stairs.  The footsteps on stairs were too much of a jumble, the pace weird.

I was very aware, however, when we stopped moving, and we didn’t start again.

The crash of glass and the thud of a body striking the ground near us marked ‘F’.

I could hear the initial nervous titter of laughter, maybe a panic response, followed by a more natural laughter.  They’d clued in.  Sooner than expected, but that wasn’t a bad thing.  The sooner they fell into the stride of this, the sooner they would get used to the violence.

That was the good.  The bad was that we’d missed our first window.

I could hear the whispers.  The doctors that held us were communicating.

This would be the worst time for a betrayal, I thought.  I could imagine them simply carrying us up to the main hall, where the vast majority of our guests had already assembled, and revealing us.

“This is macabre,” the musician said, very close by.  He’d followed us up.  “How am I supposed to play anything in the wake of this?

“You would have to ask Professor Ferres, sir,” a Doctor who was carrying us said.

“I might just.  Excuse me,” the musician said, saying those last two words in the least polite way possible.

“We can talk,” one of the Doctors whispered.  “Very quietly.”

“What’s happening?” Jessie asked.

“Professor Ferres is in Lab One, entertaining some people.  The aristocrat is talking to her now.  She doesn’t look pleased to be interrupted.”

“Listen,” I said.  “On I, the big cloud, you let us out, alright?”

“On I?  Got it.”

“Sy, we can go out, we can plant the hook, but if we can’t get back-”

Planting the hook.  We had invited certain people.  Whatever I’d done in… wherever the second orphanage had been, where Pierre and Charles or whoever were keeping our rescued mice safe, we were doing it here.  A hidden hook and rope.  I’d snagged Lillian like a fisherman.  The people we’d invited were supposed to be located at key seats, but there were no guarantees.

The trick, the key, was using one window of opportunity to place hooks as close to key targets as possible, sinking them into spaces in the floor.  The next window of opportunity, combined with clamor, noise, and distraction, would let us steal them away.  With luck, people would be out of their seats, the crowd would be a jumble, and these individuals wouldn’t be missed.

If we couldn’t do it flawlessly, we wouldn’t.  If we could, we’d remove some key players and, ideally, we’d turn some of the defenses and measures they’d brought to use against us against them, by co-opting the people in charge.

These were the preliminary moves.

I waited, tense.

G, H, and then I.  It was the countdown.  Jessie was better with timing, but I couldn’t look her way for cues.

“Your headmistress certainly brooks no nonsense,” the musician said.

I didn’t like that he was back.

I liked it even less that Jessie spoke, despite the fact that she was supposed to be a body in a bag.  Her voice was soft.  “Take us back.”

“Did you say something?” the musician asked.

“No,” the Doctor said.  “If she’s in a bad mood, we won’t get in her way.  Excuse me, sir.”

“Excused.”

We weren’t even all that far down the stairs before Jessie whispered again, “Out.”

They laid us down on the stairs and freed us.  Jessie stood, and gave me a hand, as I was on less even footing.

“The timing is screwed up,” she said.  “We need eyes on this.”

I looked at the Doctors.  “Is the musician alone?”

“They sent his entourage down the other way,” the Doctor said.

“Then go up the stairs, make a small crowd, blocking Ferres’ view of the musician.

“You’re sure?” the Doctor asked.

“Please,” Jessie said, with a rare note of urgency in her voice.

We followed our group up again, coordinating with signs, the stretchers and body bags behind and below us.  The moment the group had blocked the view of the musician, Jessie and I knifed him.

We pulled him to the ground, my hand finding his mouth at the first opportunity, and we stuck him with knives repeatedly.

I could hear the conversation, though I couldn’t quite make out words, and my heart sank.

This wasn’t when people were supposed to be having hushed, intense conversations in the midst of hundreds of Nobles, aristocrats, Professors and Doctors.

We edged closer until we could peer over the stairs at the scene.

It was a man in a black lab coat, his beard was long, full, and more appropriate to a wizard of myth than a man of science.  He was stooped over, his hands out to cup the face of one of our actors.  One of the early letters.

I could see the family resemblance, the expression on the older man’s face, the alarm and fear on the face of the student.

We’d asked each and every last one of them twice, thrice, and then a fourth time, if there was the slightest chance that anyone might be in attendance who might recognize them.

Blood always runs through,” the Infante murmured in my ear, his voice deep.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Root and Branch – 19.4

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Red had her arms crossed.

“If you decided you were up for it, it would make all the difference.”

She shrugged.

“If this was a week ago, I think I’d be handling this differently,” I said.

She didn’t speak, but she made fleeting eye contact.

I’d lost my mind and threatened to raze Hackthorn to the ground, and she hadn’t been that wary of me then.

“As little as a week ago, I’d be manipulating you, I think.  This would be easier.  I could empower you, make you feel like it was almost your idea.  You’d be happier, really.  Most of the time, when I manipulated people for their benefit, they were happier.  But, uh, I think right now it would be too hypocritical.  I’m not sure enough of anything to really feel like I could plot out your course of action and guarantee you’d be better off for it.  So I’m just asking.  If you decide no, that’s fine.”

“I’ll think about it,” Red said.

I nodded.

She was the only one I was willing to work with at this stage, who I even dared to broach the subject to.

“Thank you,” I told her.

She shrugged, noncommital, and I left things like that.

The sheer number of students heading up  and down the stairs throughout both stairwells was impressive and shocking – from the looks of it, and from what I could see looking past the glass walls of Lab One and through the windows, students and rebels were heading down to the ground, crossing the city below, and making their way into the buildings on the very ground level, to climb up.

All to minimize the foot traffic moving through the space that served as the dining hall.

Mary watched all of this unfold, standing with her back to the door, so she could keep an eye on Lillian and another eye on me.  When I passed her and stepped into the surgical theater, directly beneath the dining hall and the tables where our ‘guest’ was currently being entertained, Mary followed me in.  The door swung closed.

I’d almost expected Ferres to complain.  She didn’t.  I’d had more expectations that she would comment, needle and nettle.  She remained quiet, aside from the occasional sound, as she was supplied with parts.  It was a quick and dirty job, and I watched as Lillian worked with Junior’s team, laying the groundwork for voltaic limbs and extremities, hooking up a voltaic organ to power them.  Tubes were pulled free, blood and sweat wiped away, a spare hand attached in stages before being drawn together.

The fact that she remained silent against my expectations bothered me.  I would very much have preferred it if I had a keen sense of what she would do.

I might have tilted my brain in one direction or another, to better anticipate Ferres, but I was cognizant of the Infante’s presence, as he stood in the shadows, his face illuminated by the spotlight of voltaic lighting that allowed the doctors and students to clearly see what they were working on.

If I pushed myself to focus hard on body language, or on analyzing Ferres’ word choice, or even choosing words that would prickle her and slip through her defenses, then that might well be the action that prompted the Infante’s reaction, the flame to the fat, the spark to the tinder, meat for the carnivore.

Instead, I moved gently, thought carefully, and focused on observing.

It was, I imagined, very much as if Ferres was being remodeled on the fly in the same fashion that Hackthorn was.  Triage, but for the individual and her institution.

Well, it was our institution now.

Mary arrived with the clothes we’d sent her to get.  She had an eye for style, I knew, and I trusted her to slip past the dining area to access the administration’s quarters.

“What’s going on upstairs?” I asked.

“They’re gathered.  They’re having their tea.  It won’t be long before Headmaster Foss starts getting antsy.  For now he’s occupying himself with idle observations of the school.”

“Any crises?”

“Mabel’s group handled the burned building.  He was already at the landing of the stairs when they got the last of it in place.  They tore up the gardens and draped the greenery over the burned areas of the building.  The burned bridge was the opposite.  They dropped the plant-based portion of it completely, let it fall to the city below.  Shirley’s people were at the ground and had it cleaned up before anyone glanced outside.”

“That’s good,” I said.

“He’s getting antsy.  I wouldn’t say he suspects anything, but he’s making comments and I’m worried his prey instinct is up.  There not being enough members of faculty is playing a role.  Your, ah, father?  He’s there, and he’s making some conversation.”

I smiled.

“Move your arm,” Lillian instructed, still speaking softly.

Ferres did.

“With your fingers, touch-”

“I know the procedures,” Ferres said.  She touched thumb to fingertips, one after another, back and forth.  “Eight out of ten, if I had to gauge the response.”

One of the other young Doctors fiddled with the voltaic organ, a rectangular block of meat contained within a metal frame that outlined only the edges and corners.  I saw Ferres’ arm jump, and saw her wince with the pain.

It must have hurt a lot.  The ongoing surgery had barely elicited a reaction from her.  She had broken a sweat, occasionally reacting reflexively, but some things couldn’t be suppressed.

“Again,” Lillian said.

I thought for a moment that the doctor with the organ would jolt her again, but it was an instruction meant for Ferres.  She repeated the hand motion.

“Nine,” Ferres said.  “No need to adjust further.  I’ll manage, and the brain will adapt to my benefit.”

“Any pain?” Lillian asked.

“Pain is fine,” I said.  “We just need her functional.”

“Minimal pain,” Ferres said.  “I imagine it’s all exactly what I should expect for surgery of this nature and for a voltaic transplant.  A thrum of pain, sitting at a two, something between a three and a four for the surgical sites.”

“Does anything feel especially out of place?” Lillian asked.  “Does it feel square?”

“Square,” Ferres said.  She laughed, and it was the kind of laugh someone with broken ribs managed.  Her ribs weren’t broken, but she limited herself to the gentlest, lightest of sounds of amusement, as if anything else would level her.

Lillian didn’t flinch and didn’t comment on the laughter.

“At least hereabouts, when we’re teaching the very young children about Academy work, and we check the numbers or check their stitching we ask if it’s square,” Ferres said.  “That does take me back to when I first learned, and when I taught the youngest students.”

“How do you make that leap from being a child, working with children, to carving them up for the amusement of others.”

“Stand,” Junior instructed, before Ferres replied.  He held the sheet that was draped over Ferres to protect the woman’s modesty, his fingers holding the corners at a point between her shoulderblades, the top of the sheet passing under her armpits and just over the tops of breasts that should not belong to a woman of Ferres’ age.

Ferres dropped her feet to the tiled floor and stood, first with support, and then without.  “Was that what you were doing, Doctor Garey?  You set up that target for me to take my shot at?”

“Something like that,” Lillian said.

“Right knee, it doesn’t feel steady when I put my weight on it,” Ferres said.  As she said it, one of our Doctors who had been working with Junior and Lillian made a face, alarm and guilt.  His work, then.

“Brace it,” Lillian said.

“Brace?” Junior asked.

“There’s no time for more surgery,” Lillian said.

She had less of an idea where things were, so she remained by the table with Ferres and I while everyone else found what was needed.  Mary and I stood near the door, keeping an eye out.

Junior held the sheet, periodically switching the hand he held it with, as his arm grew tired.  Ferres could have taken the sheet from him had she wanted, but she was declining to.  She was more the experiment than the doctor, barely clothed, freshly worked on, still with smears of antiseptics and blood here and there.

“There weren’t many young ladies in the Academy when I joined,” Ferres said.  “We were few and far between.  Many of us corresponded, simply to reach out to others that, we hoped, would understand the trials and tribulations.”

“Are you trying to draw common ground, Professor Ferres?” Lillian asked.  “Because I’ve seen and talked to some of the children you experimented on.  Some of them are so disturbed at what they experienced beneath your scalpel that they don’t want to get surgery to fix it.”

“I could say something in response to that about how good art persists,” Ferres said.

“Careful,” I spoke, jumping in.

It served to break up the conversation.  Both Lillian and Ferres looked at me.

“Is that directed at me or her?” Lillian asked.

“Both of you.  I’m saying it to Ferres because she’s baiting you, and I’m saying it to you because she’s baiting you.”

“It’s fine,” Lillian said.  “Like I said, you want to find common ground, Professor?  It’s a long, long way to travel if you want me to reach that point.”

“No,” Ferres said.  “I wouldn’t presume common ground.  You and I don’t have much in common.  I would say-”

“Careful,” I cut in, almost reflexively.

Ferres stopped.

“She didn’t say anything,” Junior said.

Lillian, meanwhile, was quiet.

“Her body language,” I said.  “She might as well have been drawing her fist back, ready to sock Lillian, for all of her tells.  Except it wasn’t a fist.  It was words.”

“I was only going to say that Lillian shares a great deal in common with you and your Lambs, Sylvester,” Ferres said.

You were going to put it in much worse words than that, and you probably planned to draw parallels between Lillian’s lack of concern for your comfort and my treatment of you.

The other young doctors and students arrived with the straps, rods, and screws that formed the brace.   Ferres moved the sheet away from her one leg so they had room to work, and Lillian backed off, joining Mary and me.

“Hitting home?” I asked.

“What?” Lillian asked.

“You reacted to Ferres.  I could see it in how you approached the work.  You were gentler at the start, but you got more… ruthlessly efficient as the work continued.”

I left out the part where I really liked seeing Lillian working efficiently, lost in her work.  Probably more than was healthy, as a matter of fact.

“There’s a time limit,” Lillian said.  “I felt the pressure of the clock.”

“Okay,” I said.  You’re still not the best of liars.

She looked my way, and then sighed.

“She could’ve done so much good with her status and position,” Lillian said.

“Yup,” I said.

“And I can’t help but wonder, if I didn’t have the Lambs, would that have happened?  I walked a different path than most students.  I- I saw more of the end result, really.  I think Duncan was on that path.  The climb, reaching that point where you’ve climbed the mountain, you look down, and… everyone that gave you the reasons at the beginning is very distant and very small.”

“I think you have a good heart,” Mary said.  Her gaze was fixated on Ferres.  The brace was in place, supporting the knee, keeping everything aligned, and the screws were being tightened, with Ferres only grimacing slightly at the tightness of it.  A strap around the lower thigh, one around the upper calf, and rods and hinges held everything in place.  “I don’t think you would have become like her.”

“I appreciate that thought,” Lillian said.  She didn’t sound wholly convinced.

“Makes me think about Fray,” I said.  “Who might have sent our guest upstairs.  Did her fall mean that she was forced to come to terms with the people at the foot of the mountain?”

“Is that a rhetorical question?” Lillian asked.

“Not in the slightest,” I said.  “Fray’s always been a tricky person for me to wrap my head around.  In my head-”

I stopped.

“In your head?” Lillian prodded.  She touched my upper arm.  “I don’t want to pry, but I want to know what’s going on.”

“She never made sense to me.  It was as if I couldn’t see her from the right angle, she was always fractured and I couldn’t pull it together, exactly.  She was meant to communicate something.”

“I’m not sure I can picture it,” she said.

“For what it’s worth,” Mary said, “I didn’t get the impression Fray was humbled.”

I nodded.

The word ‘humbled’ struck a chord in me.  Maybe it was my recent experience, maybe it was that we were having this quiet conversation while Ferres stood with only a sheet protecting her modesty, her body stained, students wiping the stains away, with attention primarily given to the extremities and the parts clothing wouldn’t cover.  Her chin was high, and for all I could tell, she hadn’t been properly humbled, not by shitting herself in a bathtub or losing her hands, not by words she had heard or spoken.

Broken, yes.  I could remember her writhing on the floor, screaming the words that she might have thought would provoke me to finish her off.  I could see the look on her face even now, the look of someone only a few strides from… how had she put it?  The end of her story.

But not humbled.

“It’s a good word, humbled,” I said.  “And I think I agree.”

“She was a person with a mission,” Mary said.  “I understood that.  I didn’t understand what the mission was, but I understood that.”

“Yeah,” I said. “That sums it up well.”

Ferres was being dressed now.  The male doctors and students looked very out of their element in the process, Ferres wasn’t contributing much, with her hands being newly mended and her body somewhat inflexible.  That left much of the task to the only young lady present who wasn’t a Lamb.  Junior was at least rigging the voltaic organ to a series of straps.  Ferres’ dress was voluminous enough to hide it, so long as it hung to one side or behind her buttocks, and would also serve to hide the brace at her knee.

Lillian seemed to decide something, and broke away, going to help dress the Headmistress of Hackthorn.

I watched Ferres, trying to study her.  I knew she was dangerous.  She’d been broken, and we were piecing her together, and every step seemed to give her twice the strength she’d had.  I knew we had leverage in the form of Betty, but that had been called sharply into question when Ferres had provoked me, screaming those words at me as she struggled, with Betty in plain view.

“She and Percy would have made a good pair,” Mary said.

“Fray or our headmistress here?”

“The headmistress.”

“Yeah,” I said.

I felt a little validated that Mary had been analyzing our enemy as well.  Eyes on her from another angle.

“Do me a favor?” I asked.  “Come with?”

“I was going to stay with Lillian, in case the Professor here tried something,” Mary said.

My eyes moved across the room.  I found the Infante amid the small crowd.  Lillian was giving orders now, instructing doctors in that quiet, damaged voice of hers, much as she’d done during the surgery.

Like the surgery, and much like the practice was in field medicine, Lillian was figuring out what took the highest priority.  She had things to learn in bending the small team of doctors to her will, but it wasn’t an insurmountable obstacle, by the looks of it.  She knew how to work with a team.  It was a question of adapting that knowledge to a new team.

The Infante stood in the midst of it.  As if it was all at his behest.  He claimed the scene and he took my attention.  He placed himself close to Lillian, and in that, he indirectly threatened her.

“I don’t trust myself alone,” I said.  “But I trust Lillian.  Ferres isn’t in a position to do anything that isn’t very subtle, and Lillian has some experience with subtle.”

Mary frowned.  Anyone else might have chewed a lip, tapped a finger or a foot.  Mary, instead, remained very still, her fingers moving idly around a blade without a handle.

“If that’s a problem, maybe you could step out and find Jessie?  I’ll wait here with Lillian in the meantime.”

“I’ll come with,” Mary said.

“Thank you,” I said.

We gestured at Lillian as we made our exit.

A quick check confirmed that Emmett was the one keeping an eye on upstairs.

For all the darkness and the quiet of the surgery theater, the expressions, gestures, instructions both unspoken and uttered in near-whispers by way of Lillian’s lips, the sunlight streamed through the windows and illuminated everything.  Footsteps and conversations made everything feel alive, buzzing with activity and controlled chaos.

I walked up the stairs and peeked, looking past where Emmett was staying more out of sight, watching proceedings.

It was a stark contrast to the rest of the Academy.  There were crowds of students, but they were seated, eating.  The foot traffic was minimal, everything was posed.  The guests stood apart, mostly women and young ladies in uniforms different from the Hackthorn standard, but with a few elderly gentlemen among them.

The young lady who was sitting near the man I took to be the Headmaster of Dame Cicely’s was familiar, but I couldn’t place her.  If others hadn’t alerted me then it wasn’t too important, probably.

Probably.

I tried to think back to that series of events.  The headmaster, Edmund Frost, had his name been?  I hadn’t been reminded recently enough.  Who had he been tied to?

“Going okay?” I asked Emmett.

He gave me a one-shoulder shrug.

“Yeah,” I said.

Professor Edmund had come with an escort.  The creations stood, lined up against the wall.  Men, all of them, their skin a shiny black, their faces lost in a morass of chitin.  Each stood lopsided, and they matched one another in the slants of their bodies, each of them pulled to one side by a matching growth of bone, great scythes that served as their weapons.  Silver had been inlaid into each scythe, decorating them.  They wore pants and no boots.

When one reacted to a stimulus, they all reacted.  Someone moved too close, and a head turned, jerking to face the trespassing student, and fourteen other heads turned a half-second later.

I could very easily imagine that squadron killing a hundred or two hundred of our rebels and students before being put down.  All it would take was an order.

But they were still, Edmund Frost was at his table with his tea, sitting in one of the comfortable seats that had been brought from elsewhere.  He leaned forward, both hands around his cup of tea, talking earnestly with Duncan.  His voice didn’t reach me at the top of the stairwell.

My ‘father’ was a distance away, talking to others, though they seemed disinterested.

Ashton sat a short distance away, on a bench at another table just a few feet from Duncan, his back to Duncan’s.  He was hard to recognize, as his hair had been painted black.  Shoe polish, if I had to guess, or something Duncan carried with him.

Frost looked to be engaged enough.  The wheels had been greased, and he had Duncan’s full attention.

My concern lay with Frost’s companions.  The young lady looked restless, the faculty, friends, and senior students who had joined Frost for this journey appeared much the same.  I worried my ‘father’ was doing more harm than good, at this stage.  By being there, he was doing something to draw attention to the fact that faculty were very much absent.

There was only so much Ashton could do.  Frost might be more complacent, his thoughts occupied and his defenses down, but the thoughts of his entourage weren’t being occupied.  Some, I noted, a very small few, had migrated to different points in the hall, possibly to get away from my ‘father’, the boorish drunk aristocrat.

Some, I realized, might already have wandered off to visit other parts of the Academy.  Our work in hiding damage and setting the stage elsewhere would be tested, if that were the case.

Even if there was nothing blatant, if we let Frost go and the people who’d accompanied him collected their thoughts enough to articulate just what had felt hollow or wrong about Hackthorn, then he might report to others elsewhere.

“Walk with me,” I said, taking Mary’s hand.

The moment she realized where I was taking her, she reached up.  Her ribbons came undone, and a moment later, her hair was in a different sort of order, not quite tied up.

We walked onto the floor of the dining hall, perpendicular to the table with Frost and the others.

“Gesturing,” I said, speaking as much to make it look like we were an organic part of things as much as to communicate to Mary.  My free hand moved, giving instructions to others.  First to Duncan, then to Ashton, and to my ‘father’.

In order: Raise the stage slow, soon; loosen the hold; go away.

Nobody shouted.  We made our way to the staircase on the opposite end of the dining hall, and I led us in a wider circle, just so we could glance back the way we’d come.

Nobody else at that table was staring or looking concerned.

For that to happen, they would have had to see our faces, made a connection.  Ashton, I hoped, was dulling the edges of their focus.

But Ashton would let up.  My ‘father’ would leave.  For the next few minutes, Duncan would scale up the talk and talk big.

If we played this wrong, then it would backfire.  I’d just asked the heat to be turned up, this pot would boil, and given a chance, it would boil over.

But the tension and restlessness concerned me.  We were out of time.

We headed back down the stairs.  Back to Lab One.

This was the moment.  Ferres had her stage.

Ferres and Lillian were making their way out of the surgical theater.  Ferres was dressed, her makeup done.  She wore a long dress that billowed a little at the waist, and a long, exaggerated, fashionable lab coat, the kind worn to special events where a lab coat wouldn’t do but where her status had to be established.  I could imagine she might’ve worn it to a wedding for an aristocrat in her area, perhaps.

Her hair was perhaps underdone, but there wasn’t much to be done about that.

Simpler would be better.

Jessie emerged from the stables.  She had the Wolf with her.  The Big Bad Wolf, the Black Wolf, the wolf that was a theme through a hundred tales, almost elephantine in size, its fur not wholly fur, but instead something sculpted, to twist and curl in aesthetically pleasing ways.

“Just the Wolf?” I asked.

“Everything else is injured.  The Wolf is too, but the fur hides it.”

I nodded.

The situation was so precariously balanced.  Frost, the students, the veneer of the Academy.

Ferres held all of the power.

I was acting on the premise that her pride in her art was greater than her pride, and seeing her be pieced together and find her composure as quickly as she had was concerning me.  She stood tall in a way that I wasn’t sure she’d managed since I’d first captured her.

Sure, she’d stood at her normal height and posture and she’d managed to appear normal to her students while acting out her ordinary days, but it wasn’t about that.

I turned my attention to Red.

Half deer, half rabbit, all prey, but she’d reversed that role.  I’d done everything I could to reverse the role.  For just the briefest span, she’d been one of the chief figures in power.  She’d had all she could ask for, not that she’d asked for more than companionship, drink, and revenge.

Past tense.

I watched her turn her head, looking at the Wolf.

Her attention shifted.  Her eyes were empty of light and passion as she looked at Ferres, as if she could kill the woman right then and there, with scarcely a blink.

“She can feel pain?” Red asked.

“Yes,” Lillian said.

Red nodded, digesting that.

The Lambs present were glancing at me.  Waiting for me to step in.  This was a dimension of the dance, the social interplay, the roles.  When I was able to imagine the Lambs, I could finish their sentences.  I knew who would jump in to speak on a subject, and the kinds of things they would say.

They expected me to fill this void.  Lab One was in suspension, at the same time we were surrounded by the movement of the students who were using the stairwells.

Red bent down, and she picked up her wood axe.  She hefted the weight of it in her hands, then gave it a small practice swing, with no strength behind it.

“When I’m done, I’m going to put this in the bitch professor,” Red said.

“I’m not sure-” Jessie started.

“That’s my condition.  I’m going to hatchet her.  Maybe I’ll take her hand.  Maybe I’ll give her a few whacks.  You can patch her up later.  But she doesn’t get to experience this without some fear.”

The problem with that, I thought, is that the threat gives Ferres even less reason to press forwardShe has more reason to take us down with her, match our violence and brutality with her own.

We needed Ferres’ cooperation, and we needed Red’s.  She was the only one old enough that still had her modifications, who I also trusted to cooperate and listen to me on some level.  We really only had the Wolf, and that left us few options in who else we could put on the stage.

“Okay,” I said.  “If nobody disagrees, then okay.”

Ferres didn’t speak up.  The Lambs that were present didn’t either.

“Then… let the actors take the stage.”

I saw tension at Red’s jaw as she turned at a right angle, striding for the stairs.

Jessie spoke, her voice barely audible, and the wolf turned as well.  It loped, its movements seemingly far slower than Red’s, though it covered a roughly equivalent distance with each movement.

It was as though they had practiced it a hundred times.

With Jessie’s memory, I might have remembered the exact count.  Wolf and prey had been calibrated on a biological level, much as the clockwork Punch and Judy emerged from the fancy clocks as the hour hit, to carry out their mechanical choreography.

The Lambs divided into two groups.  Half followed Red, me among them.  The other half followed the Wolf.  Students further up and below us on the staircases fell silent and still, and it was a change in volume and movement that communicated to students standing near the stairs.  Heads turned to see why, then fell silent in turn.

I took up a spot where I could peer through gaps in the crowd, sitting on one of the stairs near the top, opposite Emmett.  Jessie stood beside me, slouching against the railing, head bent low to peer through the gaps with me.  For our faces to be recognized, our targets would have to ignore Red, focus on the crowd instead, and see our faces in the background there.

It was a question of what drew the eye.  Virtually every student present wore the pristine white uniforms.  Red wore, well, red.

Students saw the wood axe she carried, and some of them remembered her as one of my agents of chaos and violence.  It played a part in them falling silent, the fear that added just a little bit more tension to the scene.

Professor Edmund had turned, his eye on Red as she let the wood axe dangle from one hand, her head bent.  Murmurs and cries of alarm marked the arrival of the Wolf, in a place I couldn’t see for several long moments.

Even more than Red, the Wolf had been a real and visible danger to many students present.

Red’s hand shook as she gripped the wood axe.

We need to do this.  We need to sell Edmund on this.  We need Ferres to not sell us up the river.

The Wolf moved.  Red moved perpendicular to it, into the sea of tables and benches, students and faculty.

Students cleared out of the way, scrambling, as Red went up, over, and under both table and bench, each step placed carefully.

The Wolf got close enough that it looked like it might stampede through the students.  At the last second, Red changed direction, and the Wolf responded by batting at a table with one paw, sending it tumbling in Red’s direction.

It collided with a wall, and for just an instant, for just about everyone present, it looked as though the deciding blow had been delivered, quick and undeniable.

Red emerged from the small gap where the table wasn’t flush with the portion of wall near the ground.  She dashed, and the Wolf was already moving to intercept her.  It collided with her, snapping its teeth, and only the fact that the length of the axe bounced off of a tooth kept Red’s arm from being caught.

For the next several moments, it was all snapping teeth, broken benches, and Red staying a hair’s breadth away from danger.

I hadn’t imagined it would be this narrow, this very precise.

It was a dance, and it wasn’t so different from the ones I’d enjoyed with any of the Lambs.  Improvisation played a role, the stages we danced on changed, and only the fact that we knew each other remained a constant.

This was a dark dance.  Ferres was the choreographer.

Ferres had yet to step in.

And Edmund… well, he’d been alarmed enough at one juncture to stand in his seat.  His lady companion gripped his arm, tense.

The scene continued, and I looked away as the Wolf struck Red, sending her stumbling hard into the corner of a table.  She dropped her wood axe, and scrambled to pick it up again before the Wolf could close the distance.

Unwilling to be an onlooker and trust that this would play out as I hoped, I walked away.  I took stairs two at a time, and Jessie followed.

I heard a hard collision from upstairs before I was even halfway across Lab One.  I heard the massed intake of breath.

“Betty,” I spoke, before I was even around the corner.

“Further down,” Jessie said.

They were gathered in the stable, all at the end, where snapping and snarling beasts could discourage visitors from poking their nose in too deep.  Caged.

Betty was among the elite students and faculty members who stood and sat on bare wood and sparse hay.

She flinched as she saw me.

She was the Lillian that Lillian had worried about becoming.  The mountain climber, who’d lost sight of ground.

“Ferres is up there.  When Red and the Wolf are done, Ferres is going to speak.  She’s going to let slip that the Academy is in danger, she’s going to rally allies, and in the process, she’s going to spark a fight that’s going to see hundreds dead.”

Betty barely reacted.

“Ferres will die, I guarantee this.  The visitors will die.  So will my people.  So I’m going to ask you… are you willing to step in?”

“You want me to stop Ferres?  When she might stop you?”

“There are a small few individuals in the Crown States who are equipped to stop the Lambs right now,” I said.  “Ferres isn’t one of them.”

Sylvester is one, I thought.

“We could slow you down, couldn’t we?” A faculty member asked.

“You’d all set us back, don’t get me wrong.  All the same, giving up your life, Ferres’ life, the other students’ lives just to set us back is a pretty grim proposition, isn’t it?”

Somewhere up on the floor above, a piece of glass broke.

I wouldn’t have asked Red if I’d known it would be this grim.

I should have known.

“You used me as a pawn to get Ferres to listen to you before,” Betty said.

“Yes.”

“You changed my face, you cut my nose, you… you took me.  You held me there, kept me prisoner while the warbeasts and experiments roamed loose, and you held me like that for days.”

“I did,” I said.

“You- when are you going to stop asking things of me?” Betty asked, her voice hollow.  “When are you going to stop taking?”

I wanted to answer, to cut through the question and to challenge her, but I could see how frail she was.

I knew that every moment we delayed, Red was either battling the Wolf, or if the fight had concluded, then Ferres would be getting her chance to speak.

But, even with that knowledge, I was prepared to wait.  I wasn’t pushing my brain to the limits to do it, but I thought I could see something in how Betty was acting.

“Don’t go,” a faculty member in the cage said.  “Don’t give them anything they want.”

“You’re trying to make a point,” Betty said.  To me, not the faculty member.  He didn’t have his position and he didn’t have authority to make her listen.  Betty went on, “But… it’s not like that.”

“What’s not like that?” Jessie asked, from behind me.

“It’s not equivalent, how you’re treating us, and how we treated you.

I swallowed hard.

“I’ll go,” she said.  “I’ll talk to Ferres.”

“Just go.  Stand by her,” I said.

Betty nodded.

“I’ll go too, if it counts for anything,” one of the boys said.

“Just two of you,” I said.

Jessie unlocked the cage.  I held a knife and a gun to keep the rest from surging out of the broad cage.

Betty and the boy joined Jessie and I in jogging in the direction of the stairs.

I didn’t see the final moments.  A few seconds faster, and we might have.

Red was on the ground, bleeding from various scrapes and contusions.  She had fallen, and in the process, she’d lost her weapon.  I hadn’t seen how that played out, how Wolf and prey had positioned themselves to have it go this way, specifically.

The weapon, falling to the ground, had skidded across the floor and come to a rest not far from Professor Edward Frost, or whatever his name was.

He bent down to pick it up.  He was frozen in time, caught between three decisions.  One was to fight off the monster and save the girl.  To become part of the story.  Another was to retreat.  The third option…

Well, to his credit, I didn’t take him to be the type to make Red experience the nightmare ending that had been scripted for her from the beginning of her stay at Hackthorn.

it seemed like that was the moment the spell was broken and he recalled where he was.

The second that happened, the Wolf lunged for him.  He flinched, and jaws closed around him.

The bottom end of the axe caught in lower teeth, the head of the axe between fangs at the upper row.  The Wolf strained its jaws, aiming to close them, and the handle of the axe threatened to splinter and break.

“Alright, Ferres, it was a good show!” Frost called out.  “Enough of this!”

The headmistress of Hackthorn didn’t make her appearance.  She was supposed to be at the other stairwell.

“Ferres!” he called out, with a little more alarm in his voice.

He turned his head, and I knew that he was about to give the order for the entourage of scythe experiments to move in.  The only thing that stopped him was perhaps the danger of escalating things when he was within arm’s reach of being bitten in half.

“Welcome to Hackthorn, Headmaster Foss,” Ferres spoke.  She finally made her appearance.  “I believe this is your first proper visit?”

“What’s your game!?” he called out.

I gave Betty the smallest of nudges.  She strode toward Ferres.  The boy was only a step behind.

I saw Ferres notice them.  I saw them come to stand beside her.  They were a little unkempt, not the best picture we could have put forward.

But Ferres unrestrained wasn’t a good picture either.

I saw Ferres turn briefly in our direction, as if looking for meaning or cue, but Jessie and I were safely hidden in the crowd.

“No game,” she said.  “Only a story for you to tell, so close to reality that it’s almost indistinguishable from it.”

She snapped her fingers.  The Wolf backed off, leaving Foss to sag a little.

It was Duncan that started the applause, a fierce clapping that was picked up by Ashton, and by others.

It swept over the hall.  Only the guests didn’t clap.

I could see from Foss’ expression that he would’ve liked to call her out, to insult her, or question her sanity.

But to do so would be to admit he was unnerved, to draw attention to his weakness in the moment.  To play along…

I watched as Professor Edmund Foss started clapping.  The rest of his people joined in.

It almost seemed to get louder, with the accord of it, the fact that everyone present, be they enemy or ally, was on the same page in their relief, if for different reasons, that the show had struck home for everyone here, again, if for different reasons.

Applause shook the main hall of Hackthorn.  Student, Doctor, Professor, soldier and experiment.

Applause shook the main hall of Hackthorn.  Lesser nobles, Doctors, Professors, students, soldiers, experiments, and more.  More still filed into the space, each bringing their entourage, each bringing their own protection.

Lillian’s hand found mine, clutching it tight.  Just beyond the window, an experiment perched on the wall, big enough to eat the Wolf in one swallow.

Nobles were taking a break from talking among one another.  Aristocrats were gathered in their periphery.  Lesser professors and professors without their own individual responsibilities were gathered for Ferres’ show and big reveal.  Food spread out across the tables, the best we could provide.

One of the Academies hadn’t even brought a boat, instead arriving on the back of a sea creature with a castle on its back.

It was everyone we didn’t want.  Too many, with too many combined resources among them.  We were already outnumbered, and there were still boats on the water, waiting for an opportunity to unload their passengers.

I gripped Lillian’s hand just as hard as she gripped mine.

Helen’s head turned.  She nudged Jessie, and with the pair standing in front and to the side of me, I could see the motion of it.  I could follow the angles of their heads and see why.  Ibbot was here.

Frost was, too.

The applause died down, and with it, the Lambs ducked our heads down, turned away, and set to work.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Root and Branch – 19.3

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Mary, Nora, and I reached the Lambs just in time to see the ship pulling into the harbor.

The Lambs, Emmett, Bea, and the Treasurer were all at the tower that stood over the gate.  A zig-zag path led from the harbor, up the cliffs and into to the backside of Hackthorn.

“He was on the deck, I’ve seen his portrait and Jamie wrote about him,” Jessie said.  “Edmund Foss.”

“Can we bar the doors?  Pretend not to notice him?” Lillian asked, her voice still soft.  It was as if she was trying to whisper so as not to be heard by a guy who was a speck to anyone that wasn’t holding binoculars.

“We could,” Jessie said.  “They’d go back and tell others.”

“Can we work with that?” Lillian asked.  “Isn’t it easier to work with a little bit of negative opinion of one man, compared to… whatever happens if he comes inside?”

I spoke, “They’d say that Ferres is rude, she has something to hide, the report of a discovery of true immortality is the dying effort of an older Professor to be relevant again as the Crown States ceases to be.  Everyone turns their attention to other things, with only a few intrepid, irrelevant individuals and second-in-commands investigating.  Some of the most pivotal players have already backed out, this threatens to take all of the meat out of the plan.”

“Nora passed on that Edmund was with Fray, back in the day?” Jessie asked.

“She did,” Mary said.  “What does that mean for us?”

Jessie spoke, “We don’t know to what degree they might’ve been collaborating, if it was self-serving in the moment or something bigger, but you Lambs discussed it then and came to the conclusion he was a Fray plant.  There might be an ongoing relationship even today.”

“We have to assume he’s not,” I said.  “If we act buddy-buddy and we’re wrong, it’s the end.  We’re forced to capture him, others get suspicious, we don’t get any advantage worth talking about, and the Infante might even clue into what we’re doing.  We observe from a distance and if we find out something about Fray then that’s great, but for now we take this as an early check-in from the Academy.”

“If we take it as that, we’re definitely not ready,” Duncan said.  “We’re not close to being able to invite someone in and talk to them.  Half the place is in ruins, the other half is a mess, we’ve got prisoners everywhere.”

“Not everywhere,” Ashton said.

“Not the time for pedantry, Ashton,” Duncan said.

“We invite him in,” I said.  “Which is going to be… what, ten minutes from now?”

“Sixteen minutes,” Jessie said.  “We can stall and make it twenty.  But twenty isn’t a lot.”

“Twenty has to do,” I said.  “We can do this.”

“You have ideas?” Jessie asked.

“Absolutely,” I said.  I’d thought for the time it took me to run to the tower.  Now I was figuring out which thoughts to tie up and which needed more attention.  It was a question of priorities.  “Duncan, you, Bea, Ashton, Emmett, Lara, and the Treasurer-”

“I have a name,” the Treasurer said.  He looked far more unhappy than he should have for the misplacement of a name.  I suspected he was holding onto hard feelings from the prior week’s events.

“You guys stay.  We’ll communicate via. Nora.  Everyone else with me.”

“Are you sure?” Lillian asked.

“Why the doubt?” I asked.

She didn’t have an immediate answer for me.  I wondered if she didn’t trust me, if she was trying to articulate that she hadn’t seen me in good form for a while.

“I’ll say why I doubt,” Bea said.  “You told me once you cause as much havoc as you can and then you have the benefit of being better at handling the consequences and better at knowing what’s going on when it comes to working out a resolution.”

“That sounds like something I’d say,” I said.  I looked down at the boat.  How much time was this going to cost us?

“It’s pretty much the context I met you in.  The problem is this is something where we need to build something,” she said.  “Not to tear it all down.”

Mary glanced at me.  “She’s not wrong.  You really think we can do this?  Twenty minutes to transform the Academy into something respectable, that passes muster with someone like Edmund Foss?”

“No,” I said.  “Twenty minutes to transform the Academy into a place that’s in the midst of preparation for a major event.”

“It’s less than twenty minutes,” Jessie said.

“Which is all the more reason to move,” I said.  “Unless someone else has a better idea?”

I could see it.  The Treasurer was about to voice an objection, the objection would need to be answered, and we’d lose half of a minute.

“Go,” Duncan cut in.

I went, the others following.  I wasn’t fast, and my recent spar with Mary had done a number on me.  Jessie appeared beside me, taking my hand.  She wasn’t holding me up, but she was providing me some support.  I was sure if I needed it, she’d help support me in a more practical way.

I was aware that Lillian and Mary were with us.  A part of me wanted to analyze them and their reactions.  I couldn’t afford to.  There was too much to do.

The act of moving away from this scene where I could watch my opponents and analyze them felt like I was stepping through one of the windows and falling onto the cliffs.  I didn’t have a good read on Edmund, I didn’t know why he was here, what he wanted, and what would satisfy or compel him.

I was so focused on what was happening outside and what was happening fifteen minutes from now that I wasn’t focused at all on the present.  We turned a corner, and I saw the Infante, squarely in front of me, back to me.

I hesitated.

Jessie’s hand tugging mine gave me the impetus to get moving again, where I might very well have remained in paralyzed silence for a full minute.

I needed to distract myself.

“Nora, pass this on?” I asked.

“Alright,” Nora said.  She oddly seemed more at ease when moving than when standing still.  It was as if she were built to be perpetually in motion, moving with the support of her arms and claws, back arched slightly, head sticking out more forward than up.

“Tasks, roles, responsibilities.  Duncan, you’re taking point.  He’s never met you and I don’t think the Lambs have been gone long enough for word to get out about you.  Based on what we’ve seen cross Ferres’ desk, there might not be wanted posters either.  Get yourself into a Hackthorn Academy uniform.  Bea?  Pass on word, all guards and soldiers in the city need to hide, while still holding the peace.  Talk to Shirley.”

“Got it.”

“Treasurer and Davis need to gather everyone who’s trustworthy, who’s educated and who’s proper.  Get Davis, he’ll look good and he’ll make a good complement to Duncan.”

“Why?” Nora asked.  “Treasurer asks.”

“That’s going to be the crowd we put in directly in front of him.  He’ll like that, being from Cicely’s.  Girls are especially good.  Ashton?  I asked you to stay back because this guy’s never met you.  He’s going to meet you in passing, and he’s going to get a whiff of you.  Not enough of anything to make him look back and wonder about anything-”

Nora was making noise.  I paused.

“Ashton is trying to interrupt you,” she said.  “He says he’ll do just fine.  He doesn’t tell you how to be a jerk, you shouldn’t tell him how to do his thing.”

I wondered how much of that was Nora’s license and how much of it was Ashton.  If it was the latter, who or where had he got that from?

Whatever.

“Great,” I said.  “Slow our target down, treat him well, get him to talk about his Academy and how much better it is.  Get him to the tea room or the dining hall in the main building, slow him down.  He spent the last while traveling, and sitting in carriages and boats makes people want to sit around.  Ironically.”

“What do we say?” Lillian asked.  “He’s going to ask for particulars.”

“We be coy, Duncan says,” Nora said.  “Why would Ferres give away the show?  It’s her big moment, the kind all Professors hope to have.”

“Exactly,” I said.  “Even beyond that, Ferres is a showman, she likes her art.  We need to put that in front of Edmund’s face.  Art.  The quality.  Lillian and Jessie are headed to the labs.  Lillian identifies everything of top quality that the Academy can boast.  We parade that in front of him.  Jessie knows the keywords to control the warbeasts.  Those were top notch, the control, the theatrics of having a giant wolf or spider in our complete control, more than the Academy usually strives for.”

Helen spoke for the first time.  “She’s a showman, but what happens when she doesn’t show?”

“We’ll figure that out,” I said.  “I’ll look into the Hackthorn children.  It’d be asking a lot, but I think even after the fiasco of the other night, they’ll listen to me.”

“The girl is talking, Bea,” Nora said, as if Lara had supplied the name.  She adjusted her voice to match the person speaking.  “It’s unfortunate, but those kids are loyal to you, Sylvester.  But it’s going to take time to round them up, we split them up because they had too much of an influence on each other, and a lot of that is your secondary influence.”

Doubt, suspicion, concern, lingering feelings.  Bea and the Treasurer both.  It was only going to get worse.

“We’ll handle that when the time comes,” I said.  “For now, we need to dwell on this.  Helen and Mary here are going to need to keep an eye out in the meantime.  Details.  Things that need immediate attention.  Where possible, we get students to move things into place.  Furniture, stacks of boxes, it’s all about hiding the damage, focusing on presentation, we make it look like we’re mid-renovation, not mid-reconstruction.  It’s a fine line.”

“One of the dormitories has fire damage,” Nora said.  “A bridge does.  The plant life on the bridge is all burned.  There are a lot of places around the Academy where that’s going to be visible.”

“We’ll deal,” I said, with little idea how.  “It’s a question of directing their attention.  We bring people and things out at key times.  Hand signals are going to play a big part.  Mary and Helen will round up students when we get back to the main building, liason with the lieutenants.  Again, hand signals.  Once we make Mr. Professor Edmund Foss stop for tea, hopefully, we’ll redirect attention to areas depending on which ones he’ll see next.  We paint the damn walls five minutes before he arrives in the room in question, if we have to.”

“Paint needs time to dry,” Nora said, in an ‘Ashton’ voice.  “He likes watching paint dry.  Duncan is saying Ashton is being pedantic again.”

I continued, ignoring the interplay between the other guy Lambs.  “I’m thinking we station students in even numbered groups in doorways to mark no-go side routes, hallways, stairways.”

“Got it,” Nora said.  “Duncan.  Duncan’s getting a uniform now.  Bea is going to spread word and get people on board.”

“We need to hide any and all Beattle uniforms,” I said.  “And we need to maximize the number of Hackthorn uniforms around them.  Spreading word is a good thing.”

We weren’t far from the main building now.  I saw a portrait of a noble, the Infante standing next to it, staring at it.

“We’ll need everyone’s attention,” I said, hoping that didn’t echo the Infante’s noble lines of thinking and somehow wake him.  I felt anxious and bothered in a way I hadn’t for some time.

Helen perked up at that.

I could tell, even before we were done crossing the bridge, that the students were reacting to the word.  The boat had been seen, it bore Academy colors, and it wasn’t out of the question that students with binoculars had seen enough to draw conclusions about who it was.  They were talking, worried, unsure about what was going to happen.  I watched through windows and saw the anxiety.

Some among them could even be considering rebelling against the rebels, being subversive, or passing on a message.

“Let me take point?” Jessie asked.

“Sure,” I said.  “As soon as we have their attention.”

I’d thought not long ago about the role I took in their hearts and minds.  That I was the face that the students and rebels linked to the fall of their respective Academies; Hackthorn had fallen twice and the second fall had been grim.  I’d been the one to get involved in interpersonal rivalries, in compromise, when a group butted heads with others on a distribution of resources and labor, or when someone struggled with another member of their team.  Compromise left both sides unhappy, and that unhappiness was something that touched me, coloring opinions of me.

So long as I did everything right and supplied peace, hope for a better future and freedom from the constraints of their old life, I’d remained in their good graces, and that association hadn’t held me back.

But I’d broken that trust on all three counts.

Jessie was stability.  She was organization, the liason.  She was inoffensive, rarely linked to conflict, more to measured, calculated responses.

We were a team for a reason.  I gave her hand a squeeze before letting go of it.  Association with me would taint their image of her.  It made sense, it would be only a small taint, but everything counted in the here and now.

Helen whistled, using her particular control of vocalizations and intonation to simply produce something loud.  It wasn’t the worst she could do, but it did get the attention of the hundreds of students in the open space.

Helen half-flounced, half-flourished, all theatrics, as she moved to one side, indicating Jessie.

“We’re making the school presentable in the next ten minutes.  Vernon, you take twenty students with you.  There’s construction material at the ground floor and near the stables, stacked in the hall.  Carry it away, stack it anywhere there’s damage, missing portraits.  Grab carpets from upstairs.  Take them down.  Hurry.”

“Clive found extra carpets-” The guy who was supposedly named Vernon started speaking.

“If you found some, use them, but go,” Jessie said.

Vernon went.

Jessie pointed, “Eddie, you and ten students, more materials from that space.  Do the same thing, second floor.  Martin, ten students, third floor.  Alvin, ten students, fourth floor.  Be mindful of the damage to the ceiling, there’s a short ladder in the library on the fourth floor, grab it on the way, see what you can do to plaster the ceiling in the next ten minutes.  Jim, ten students, fifth floor.  Herman, ten students and sixth.  Darlene, eight students, left stairwell.  It should be mostly clear, be mindful of the railing.”

Students were mobilizing now.

“…Go to the dormitory,” Jessie said.  “Pass on word, recruit more helpers.  Harvey, ten students, just block the right stairwell, make it look like you’re doing work.”

“Flip it around,” I said, looking around.  “If they come upstairs from the left stairwell, they’ll be able to see through the glass exterior of the dining room, they’ll see the burned dorm, clear as day.”

Misdirection, control where their eye looks.

“Change that around!” Jessie called out.  Darlene was already leaving.  “Darlene, right stairwell, Harvey to the left.  Those are the key areas to start with.  Others, listen to the Lambs, be ready to act.  We do this actively!”

“Uniforms!” Mary called out, her voice almost overlapping with Jessie’s.  “If you’re wearing a Beattle uniform, then you’re going to make yourself scarce, but don’t leave just yet.  Listen to what we have to say, then make it your job to inform everyone else you meet as you disappear.  Check to see if they know what to do, tell them if they don’t.  Hide your weapons, take them and soldiers to the west and south Dormitory buildings, make sure they don’t make a fuss.  Carry trash with you.”

“This is a rehearsal of a really big play,” Helen said.  “We really want to get this right, but it’s a test, and how we act is part of it.  Don’t worry too much about looking like you’re trying not to look at them.  If you’re worried you look suspicious or worried, then what you want to do is look like you’re doing something.  You have a place to go, a thing to do, even if it’s getting food from the cafeteria, going somewhere, or finding someone else that looks uneasy and talking to them like they’re a friend.”

She was reading the room, sensing how tense and unsure they were, and reassuring, ensuring that they would reassure each other.  She was good at reading people.  It was a key part of acting.

Mary picked up in an instant.  There was scarcely a breath between the two of them, but by going back and forth, they were able to organize their thoughts on what needed to be done.  It was information overload to the audience, switching from one thing to the next, but… well, there was something to be said for being attentive.

Lillian was already heading downstairs to Lab One.  I turned to Jessie, who gave me a nod.

“We need people,” I said.  “Reliable, strong, good with weapons.”

“Jerome!” Jessie called out.  “You and your friends.  Patrick, Stefan, Curtis!”

“They’ll need guns.”

“They have guns,” Jessie said.

I smiled.  “You read my mind.”

“Yeah,” she said.  We took the stairs alongside Lillian.

Lab One.

“Warbeasts and less human experiments,” Lillian said.  “Here?”

“There,” Jessie pointed.  “I’ll be with you in a second.”

“I’ll check them for gunshot wounds and injuries first,” Lillian said.

“Be wary of Miss Muffet’s spider, she’s got a taste for humans now that she’s eaten and she’s entered her next birthing cycle,” Jessie said.

Lillian made a face, but she headed into the Lab One stables without further complaint.

As our contingent of soldiers arrived, Jessie began directing them to the other cells.  The cells held Betty, key members of the faculty, and other students I’d deemed too clever and competent to be left among the other students being kept prisoner in the dormitories.

Was it possible to keep them penned up here while everything else was going on?  Yes.  Was it likely that Professor Edmund Foss would appear and insist on exploring the lab in full?  No.  But this was harder to explain than some bullet wounds on a giant, a bayonet wound on a great black wolf, or an acid stain on a wall.

I walked away from them, moving into the surgery theater.

Junior was there, alongside members of his team – not the Rank, but a team of volunteers and assistants he’d accumulated, mid-crisis and in the aftermath.  Paul was here, too.  He sat on a countertop, staring down Ferres.

Too much anger, too much bitterness.

Ferres was on the table.  She had one leg, one arm that ended in a stump, and one arm that had a recently reattached hand that was now strapped down.  Tubes ran through, in, and out of her body.  Needles penetrated various points on her face and torso, with pen marks on the skin, with numbers and ratios.

A table beside her had what appeared to be two fifths of a human being, lacking skin, mouth agape.

“Junior,” I said, looking down at Ferres.  “How drugged is she?”

“She should be fairly lucid, if you need to ask her something,” he said.  He grimaced.  “The project is a mess right now.  We’re trying three methods of mapping her out in a way we can translate to another vehicle, we’re just figuring out what we want final implementation to look like.  If you came tomorrow, I might be able to say we’d be on track and half-done.  This isn’t my field.  I’m just managing.  David?  Thoughts?”

“About right,” one of the others said.

“It’s fine,” I said.  I would have been happier if there were results, but that would have been greedy.  “Jessie and Lillian are outside.  Talk to them, they’ll fill you in.  Stay if possible, but if they say to do different, do that.”

“Sure thing,” Junior said.  He gave me a sidelong glance as he walked by, assessing me.

Junior, at the very least, had experienced being my enemy.  I’d earned his respect, and he was someone who had been a rebel long before

I didn’t want the events outside this lab to reach Professor Ferres.  I walked slowly across the lab, noting that Paul was still sitting on that counter.

“Paul?  You too.”

“Are you hiding things from me now?” he asked.

“No,” I said.  “I’m hiding things from her.”

He considered that.

“I backed you,” he said.

“I know.”

“I’ll back you again.”

“Thank you,” I said.  “Back me in this, alright?”

I’m not putting you away, I’m not trying to diminish you.

Paul left.

I was aware of the shape of the Infante looming in the corner of one eye.

“Keep the doors open,” I called out.

Paul did.

The surgical theater was fairly well lit, but it had a dark atmosphere.  The time I’d spent in and around this particular room had been some of the hardest, when it came to making it look like Jessie and I were simply aristocrats who’d wormed their way into Ferres’ inner circle.  I had watched children go under the knife for the sake of a show.

Now all of that darkness and negativity seemed to have been distilled in Ferres’ current state.

I reached into her mouth and took hold of the tube.  I began pulling it out, hand over hand, while she coughed and gagged.

It felt like a full minute before the end of the tube finally came free.

I walked over to a cabinet, while letting her recover from the coughing, and found the little porcelain bottles.  I peered through them, opening some that sounded right, before I found something that looked like what I needed.  A compacted disc of medication, almost the shape of a large coin, if a little thicker, red.

I walked over to Ferres and placed it in her mouth.  She could have bitten me, had she felt recalcitrant, but she didn’t.

“You were-” she started, before pausing to suppress a cough, “-paying attention.”

“Mm hmm.”

“You have early arrivals, don’t you?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“Power plays.  There are some I sized up who I left alone, and others I maintain rivalries with.  I can think of a few it might be.  Showing up early, throwing others off of their rhythm, it’s a minor play.  Someone from one of the small Academies, I’m thinking.  There might be one or two more.  More of a coordination, ensuring there’s no time to prepare, no time to get everything right.  They might even bring complications.  If I were actually making this announcement, I’d have already contacted allies elsewhere to counter and react.”

I took my seat where Paul had been.

“You need me,” she said.  “And by your own order, I’m in dire shape.  They’re going to take my skin and a portion of my fatty tissues and make them into a full-body mask.  They want to steal my voice.  It’s macabre, isn’t it?”

“Wholly deserved.”

“And it might even work,” she said.  She closed her eyes, moving the lozenge around her mouth.

I was aware that our guest was just now arriving at the gate.  There would be stalling, organization, asking for paperwork.  While Lillian had been investigating monsters and hunting people, Duncan had spent far more time elbow deep in the Academy, his eye always on the ultimate political prize.  He would have a good sense of what to say and do to buy us those extra minutes.

I was aware, too, that this conversation and what followed might take a little while yet.  That our target would make his way up the stairs while the Lambs secretly collaborated and organized students to prepare areas and make them as pristine as possible.

We would arrive fashionably late.

If ‘we’ arrived at all.  Ferres was unhinged.  She was dangerous in the way that someone with nothing left to lose could be.  She’d demonstrated that, taunting me, attacking me,

“You sound remarkably at ease with this,” I said.

“All stories have a bad ending,” she said.  “The oldest, most powerful of the fairy tales see the heroines turned to sea foam, slain by the wolves, their only legacy a moral lesson for children, if there’s anything at all.”

“No,” I said.  “Not all stories end badly.”

“At best we grow old and die,” Ferres said  “The Academy can postpone it, we endeavor against this bleak fact, but we won’t conquer it and change it for at least a little while.  At best, we lead a bright life with good stories, and we get our bittersweet ending with a positive legacy left behind.  At best.

“There are good endings,” I said.  “To fairy tales or reality.”

“What ending is there that is unambiguously good?  The noble sacrifice?  The celebrated death?”

“Not all endings are deaths.”

“Not strictly, but close enough.  You’ve known about your ending for some time.  I’ve enjoyed the journey and focused on the brightness I could bring to others and the art I could bring to existence, I’ve tried to walk the path that only I could walk, a personal one.  You, I think, are so focused on the endings that you forgot to pay attention to the middle.”

“If there was an opportunity to lay money on the chances I’d have a very violent, ugly end, I wouldn’t take that opportunity.  It’s very possible,” I said.  “But as bad as my ending is, I don’t think I’m going to end up flayed so someone else can make a skin puppet mockery of me.  You talk about your legacy, but I somehow think you’ve managed to be far more hated than I.  Even your Academy is turning on you.”

“I’ve had many, many more decades on this planet than you have, Sylvester,” Ferres said.  “It’s a lot more time to earn people’s hatred.”

She closed her eyes again.  Still very relaxed.

“How are the drugs?” I asked.

“Quite satisfactory.  To make me calm, rather than to help with the pain.  I expect that will end when they no longer need to keep me stable.  The hand will go then too, I’m sure.  It’s fine.”

“Is it really?”

“Several long weeks of misery for a life lived doing what I’m passionate about.  I know my last few weeks have been as awful as you could make them, I know what comes next might well be more awful, but I expected cancers or dementia, and those are horrible in their own way.  I mentally took note of every last thing, and I came to peace with the idea.  I’m at peace with the fact that I lived to my passions, and I didn’t let minor things get in my way.  I broke new ground, in Academy science, in making it possible for girls and women to make more headway, and in creating stories and works that would open minds.  What are you passionate about, Sylvester?”

My first thought was of Lillian, of Jessie.  Mary.  Helen in a different way.

“Something in mind?  You could have spent your time doing that, getting immersed in that, indulging in that-”

The thought made me snort.

“…and you’ve spent it desperately, madly struggling forward in vain against a reality you cannot change,” Ferres said.  “It’s the saddest thing about you.”

My thoughts of the girls were moving on in the background, my brain turning to thoughts of Lambs, then to the mice.  From that, though it was something unwieldy I hadn’t devoted enough attention to, the thoughts of a greater, more abstract world.

“There are a hell of a lot of things that are sadder than that,” I said.

“Not from my perspective, as someone who did the inverse.”

The inverse.

“You walked a dark path, your eye always on the end.  Your own, the friends you neglected to save.  You’ve allowed it to taint the rest of your life.”

I thought of the times I had.  They weren’t accurate memories so much as they were impressions and blurry scenes that were more imagination than actual hard memory.  The Lambsbridge backyard.  Being in Lillian’s arms when she clung to me while she slept.  Mary sleeping with her back to me, or turning over and her face relaxing in a way so few got to see.  Being with Jamie while music played in our room in Tynewear.  Sitting with Jamie and Gordon while interacting with mice in the… whatever that neighborhood had been called in Radham.  Having tea with Helen while she made our ears and brains want to turn inside out from her elaborate descriptions of horrible scenes.  Figuring out Ashton as we had a conversation in the orphanage dining room.  Sitting with Jessie in an armchair only big enough for one person, me holding the tea for both of us, the two of us talking about the fish mounted on the wall.  Talking to Jessie while she cooked, or vice versa.  Eating with Jessie after the cooking.

“I think I’ve had a pretty good journey, with enough good moments along the way,” I said.  “I made pretty good time with the people I had with me, and I think what I’m gunning for doesn’t take away from that.  No.  I think your impression of me is wrong on that score.”

Ferres nodded, leaning her head back.  “Well, I don’t imagine you have long to wait and see just what awaits you.”

With those words, I was made very aware of the Infante, standing off to the side.  That made me want to check that I wasn’t alone, that I wasn’t letting my guard down.

Junior, Lillian, and Jessie were standing at the doorway.  The others would be nearby.

Jessie signaled.  Edmund Foss was here.  Upstairs.

He wanted to see Ferres, and she was here, doped up, in pieces, with tubes running through her.

“Junior,” I said.  “Lillian.  Let’s get Professor Ferres as put together as we can get her.”

“You’re not even going to ask if I’m going to cooperate?” Ferres asked.  “I have nothing left to lose.  You took my hands, gave one back, and you’ll take it away.  You took my Academy and perverted it, and you took my students.  You’ve condemned them, telling them something that will justify them being utterly and completely destroyed the moment those words touch the wrong ear.  A series of bad endings will befall everyone here, far, far sooner than they otherwise might have.  That’s on your head.  And you expect me to play along?”

We don’t have a choice, I thought.

“You’ll get to demonstrate a little bit of that fairy tale play of yours,” I said.  “The only thing worse than a bad ending is a story that doesn’t get one.”

I watched as she took that in.

“Isn’t it funny, then, that you’re taunting them with immortality, of all things?” she asked.

“Maybe.  But you’ll see this through, just to demonstrate you can.”

She moved the stump of an arm that wasn’t restrained.  “Then your doctors should get to work, shouldn’t they?”

They were already moving into the room, making way to the tools, talking under their breath about the measures that would need to be taken, things that would need to be scrounged up.

Ferres, facing her impending journey on the surgical table, only looked at me and smiled.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Root and Branch – 19.2

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

They looked at me differently.  Students, whether they wore Beattle uniforms or Hackthorn ones, or whether they’d lapsed into civilian clothes, all turned their heads to follow me as I walked down the hall with Duncan.

I’d nearly brought everything tumbling down.  I’d put them at mortal risk, and I remained unpredictable.  They had been making forward progress, something that approximated hope and direction, and because of me, in large part, they had seen it all in jeopardy.  It went a step beyond that, because I represented something to them.

They’d lived ordinary lives, before.  Beattle students struggling to find a way forward, getting their second chance with knowledge that they were in the clear with a future ahead of them, that they were doomed, their goals falling to pieces, or that they were in limbo, and only hard work could see them through.  Professor Ferres’ students weren’t facing the gauntlet in the same way, they were students with a slight artistic lean, but they were strong students and Hackthorn was mostly an Academy where everyone who attended had reasons for attending.  The Hackthorn students had been secure.

My appearance, for all of them, had thrown things into disarray.  To the Beattle students, I’d been the first recognizable face to the new reality, that the Academy was closing and that they didn’t have a chance.  To the Hackthorn students, I was the invader, the leader of the rebels that had taken over.  We’d said the right things to some, and fear or hope for a better tomorrow had brought them into our camp.  Others were reluctant, only with us because the alternative was being a prisoner.  I was the face of the person in charge, alongside Jessie, and I was the one who talked the most and acted the most overtly.

When they needed to put a face or a voice to the idea of what their future might hold, my face and voice were liable to be what popped up.

I couldn’t really blame them, either.  I wasn’t sure I trusted myself.  I didn’t trust my senses or my judgment.  I sure as heck didn’t trust the Infante, who was walking behind us, his every footfall heavy enough to drum through my trains of thought.

“You’re quiet,” Duncan said.

“Yeah.”

“I know we didn’t spend that much time together, but you normally focused a great deal on the others.  Spend time with Jamie- Jessie now, with Lillian, or with Helen sometimes.  You’d hang out with Ashton if you got the chance, but I wasn’t exactly a focus.”

“Yeah.  Sorry if that was crummy of me.”

“Nah.  That part was fine.  Lonely sometimes, but I pushed through.  I took it as another political test, if I couldn’t tackle being on the outside of a tight-knit group, I didn’t deserve to be a professor, right?”

“Sure,” I said.  I privately thought that the stance explained a fair bit about why he’d been a bit insufferable, if he’d been taking it as a challenge.

“But you had a pattern, kind of.  Somewhere along the way, if we were interacting, you’d get on me.”

“Get on you?”

“Undercut me, passive remarks, find ways to contrive for me to sound like I didn’t know what I was talking about.  I’m… pretty sure on that last one, by the way.  I wasn’t at the time, but I’ve chewed that particular cud for a bit and I can remember times when I’d say something about the Academy or Academy Science and you’d be in earshot, and then a little while later it would come up and I’d be wrong.  At least in that particular instance.”

“You chewed that cud right,” I said.  “Yeah.  Even if I don’t remember any specific examples, that sounds about right.”

“It’s just odd, because this is the first time we’ve had a proper conversation and you haven’t done that.”

“Is it?” I asked.

“More or less.”

I nodded.  I wasn’t really sure what to say to that.  It was what it was.

There was a group of students who were gathered around a section of carpet, where the carpet stretched down the length of the hall.  The carpet had been torn, and efforts to address it were complicated by the fact that there was blood soaking the area around the tear.

They looked wary as they watched me approach and pass.  Duncan stopped and so I did too.

“Stuck?” Duncan asked.

The student was a young man, eighteen or so, and he’d taken off the uniform shirt and tied it around his waist, wearing slacks and an undershirt.  He was covered in fibers and dust, and the stuff stuck to his oiled hair.  He sighed and asked, “How bad would it look if we tore it all out?  If we left it bare?”

“Bad,” Duncan said.  “Every hallway has a runner like this.  People might not notice specifically that the hallway is without, but they’d feel like something was off, at the very least, and that would make them suspicious.  Besides, the building here went up fifteen years ago, the carpets have been here at least that long, and I guarantee you, if you tear it up, it’s going to leave a patch that’s a different color than the rest of the floor.  It’ll show, and this is a trafficked hallway.”

“We can’t sew it up, so we’re thinking silkworms.  There’s some stuff in the lab where one of the student groups was producing quality textiles for fashion.  Worm silk.  It would take some jiggering, but we might be able to squeeze it into the schedule.”

“Maybe,” Duncan said.  “I think, for now, tear it up, but don’t leave it bare.  Get one of the runners from the top floor, bring it down.  Leave it bare up there for now, see what you can do on the patch job, hopefully we can manage things so the upstairs don’t see too much traffic.”

He glanced at me.  “What do you think?”

“It’ll do,” I said.  I wondered at the wisdom of asking me for advice.  “It’s maybe a silly suggestion, but maybe instead of engineering silkworms to patch it together again, you could check with the staff and see if they have any spare runners in storage?”

That earned me some long looks.

“You might have to grill some more uncooperative staff members we’re holding prisoner, but you might be able to negotiate something.  You can tell the jailer I said it’s okay.  Or that Duncan okayed them getting privileges or treats.”

The dusty fellow finally said, “I’ll go do that.  You guys roll this one up, and if I’m not back, clean the floors?”

The others nodded.

“Good luck,” I said.

“Thanks,” he said, with a funny note in his voice.  It was, as best as I could figure it out, rooted in the fact that he wasn’t a fan of taking counsel from me.  The troublemaker.

The Infante watched me as Duncan and I resumed our brisk walk.

The students and a number of non-students were up, about, and active, getting things done.  Supplies and construction materials were being carted this way and that.  Other things were more mundane.  Multiple wheeled carts piled high with school uniforms to be laundered were being eased down the staircase by teams of four.  They’d been cooped up for two days and a hundred scared people produced a lot of sweaty clothing.

I wondered if it had been the fact that they’d been cooped up and now were free.  There was a time limit, and as reluctant as some were, the Beattle rebel leaders and Lambs had managed to convey that we needed to do this right.  There was no room for error.  If we screwed up here, students would die, very possibly by way of marching single file to take their turns at a set of nooses or guillotines.

It was a grim and very motivating image, that.

Then, as if to stand in stark contrast, Bo Peep and Abby turned up, alongside Lara.  One of them had dropped the leash, and Quinton was getting away.  He was more spry and adventurous than the first Quinton I’d met, and he ducked in and through the legs of furniture as he crossed the top floor of the main body of Hackthorn.  The main dining hall.  The stairwell I’d sat on and watched proceedings from was now occupied with students.  My ‘throne’.

Abby threw herself beneath a bench, sliding on the recently mopped floor.  Quinton evaded her hands, leaped up onto the bench, then onto the table.

The table next to him had another table on top of it, legs sticking up in the air.  Quinton leaped onto the struts that connected the legs.  Bo Peep made an inarticulate sound of alarm.

Picking herself up, Abby stood at the nearby table, planting hands on her hips.

“Bleahhhh,” Quinton said.

“Bleahhh,” Abby said, sticking out her tongue.  “I’m glad you’re having fun.  But if you keep going that way then you’re going to get that leash tangled up in the struts and you’ll hang yourself when you jump down.”

“No!” Lara said, alarmed.

“Bleh-heh,” Quinton said.

“You know he can’t understand you, right?” I said.

Abby glanced over her shoulder at me, then turned her full attention to Quinton.  “Play time’s over.  Come here.”

She put her arms out in front of her.

Quinton jumped down to the table and then leaped through the air, throwing himself into Abby’s waiting arms.

Bo Peep practically bounced with joy on her way to Abby and Quinton’s side.  Lara wasn’t far behind.

“Well,” I said.  “I think it’s going to take a crowbar to separate Abby and Peep, now.”

“Yup,” Duncan said.

“They’re okay?”

Duncan smiled.  “They’re good.  They’re a positive influence on Ashton.”

“Does he need positive influences?  He’s such a little goody-two-shoes he probably folds his clothes before he puts them in the dirty clothes hamper.”

“No comment.  No, really, they help him be more human.  It’s an uphill climb sometimes.”

“Just wait until one of them ends up sweet on him.”

Duncan made a face.

“One of them’s already got a burgeoning crush?”

“No comment,” he said.

So many of the students in the area were watching the children interact, and smiles found most of those faces.

“We can do this,” Duncan said, his tone changing.  He was reacting to the expression on my face.  I wasn’t really trying to keep tells at bay.  I was conserving energy.

“You think?” I asked.

“I think so,” he said.  “I’m here, aren’t I?”

I nodded at that.  “Sorry I was a shit to you all that time.  You very thoroughly proved me wrong.”

“Good,” he said.  “That’s satisfying to hear.”

“Thank you for looking after them.”

“You’re welcome,” he said.  “I wish I’d been able to keep better tabs on Mary and Lillian.  We got our coats and we went our separate ways.  I should have done more, but my head wasn’t there.  I was wrestling with what you’d said about the nobles, the Crown being a lie.  I saw my family, I worked in a few places that Hayle connected me to, looked after Helen for a stretch while Ibbot was away, and I couldn’t get over it.”

“No?”

“No.  Somewhere along the line, I realized I couldn’t envision a world where I kept working for my black coat, where I went on to work for nobles in the highest capacity.  I crossed paths with Lillian a few times.  I think, odd as it sounds, it was harder for her to come to terms with.”

“She wanted to run an Academy like Ferres runs Hackthorn, but something better-intentioned, more focused on the people on the ground, helping those in need.  It’s not as clean a break, for her.”

“It wasn’t easy,” Duncan said.  “I’m giving up a lot, and I’m lying in bed at night, trying to go to sleep, and I worry so much that they’re retaliating against me by going after my family.  But Helen came, she laid it out, and I thought of those guys.”

Bo Peep was stooped over, trying to stay still and not lose her passenger as Quinton perched on her shoulders, but that proved difficult as he adjusted his footing, hard hooves biting into her.

“You’re a good guy, Duncan.”

“I used to think so,” Duncan said.

He was about to say something else when Lara turned around, craning her head.  “Duncan!”

“What?” Duncan called out.

“Nora says there’s a problem.  Urgent.  They’re at the gate.”

“Right,” Duncan said.  “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

“Grab Lillian while you go?  She should be near the bridge there.  She was talking to the men in charge of soldiers.”

“On it.”

“And!” Lara called out, flinching as people turned to look.  “Is Jessie still napping?”

“In the admin building,” I said.

“They want Jessie too.”

Asking for people by name, and I’m not among them.

I got it.  It hurt, it sucked, but I got it.

It was the cost of losing my mind, even as I’d tried to lose it as gently and non-destructively as possible.

Duncan spoke, “You guys go get her.  I’ll head straight to the gate, you guys go wake Jessie.  You want to go with them, Sy?”

Yep.  He got it.  I wasn’t supposed to go to the gate.

Bo Peep flinched as I looked in her direction.  Wary.

“Best if they go on their own.  I’m bruised, I’ll slow them down,” I said.

It sucked to see the relief on Bo Peep’s face, even as she tried to hide it.

“If you’re sure,” Duncan said.  “You want to stay here?”

Did I want to stay here?  In the dining hall, where I’d spent far too much time over the last week?  With only the Infante and a few hundred students that didn’t like me for company?

The Infante was staring at me.

“No,” I said, averting my eyes.  “Not-”

I hesitated.

“-Not alone,” I said, quiet.

“Then come,” he said, without the moment of hesitation or the look of pity I’d worried about.  “We’ll do what we can.”

I wasn’t sure what the rules were, if there were rules for personified mental breakdowns and weaknesses.  The Infante was quiet, he stood off to the side, sometimes with company, often nobles, but he was omnipresent.  The more attention I paid him the more attention he paid me, but at the same time, he worked to catch me off guard, keep me on edge, and exert his presence.

So far, being in the company of the Lambs was good.  It kept my attention constructively elsewhere.  It shored me up in other ways.

It was equally possible that the rigid definition of the rules that might keep this abstract force at bay would be the avenue he used to get me, to trap me and crush me, to return to saying those same devastating words he’d used in New Amsterdam, and this time he would have the advantage of having access to the entirety of my mind.

I’d told the others to kill me if the Infante started appearing and having an influence over me.  I’d wanted to articulate that he was the end of the road.  The greatest threat.  He wanted to bring about an ending, both in my head and in reality.  But Jessie hadn’t cared.  She understood.

A part of me wished I could run off and be the one to wake her up.  To have that sleeping beauty moment.

“I’m going to find Lillian,” he said.  “Mary’s just over there.”

I looked.  ‘Just over there’ was down a short stretch of hallway, twenty paces.  I could see where the door was open and the mottled sunlight reached past the open door and into the hallway.

“Or do you want me to come with?” Duncan asked.

He’d developed compassion of a surprising degree, if he realized that being alone for even that long was something that worried me.

“No,” I said.  “They said it’s urgent.  Go find Lillian.”

“Alright.”

I ignored the Infante and Percy as I walked down the hall.  There had been reconstruction work, recently, where apparently one of the spider things I’d released had started to lay eggs.  Sections of wall had been cut down and boards had been sawn to measure and set into place.  Sawdust was piled high at points, and the boards with the eggs clustering them like barnacles were piled at other points.

I held out my arm, running it along the wall, letting the sawdust accumulate in my cupped hand as I walked.

I came to an early halt as I saw that Montgomery and the Moth were standing by the door.  The Mothmont nobles from the train.  I had to think for a second, deciding if I wanted to walk through them or around them.

The hesitation created a moment where I inadvertently eavesdropped.  I shifted rightaways into intentionally eavesdropping.

“-scarily competent,” Mary said.  “He brought this entire Academy to its knees, and one of those times he more or less did it on his own.”

Talking about me.

“That’s not a good thing,” a male voice said.

“We have a mission,” Mary said.  “Maybe the most important we’ll ever have.  Because I don’t think humanity or the experiments get many more shots.  I won’t say this is the end if we fail, but it might be decades before someone else is positioned like we’re positioned, understand?  And if we fail or if we decide not to fight them on this, then the next people will find it that much harder.  The nobility will be that much more secure, the Academy more advanced.  We must do this.”

“I’m sorry, but I’m more scared than passionate.  All of you aren’t going to think less of me for admitting that, but it’s the nobles.  It’s the Academy of the Crown States.  We’re not well positioned at all.”

Another voice, not as deep, said, “We’re in an even worse position if we have to worry about him going crazy and setting us back weeks again.”

I raised my hand to my face

“He killed the Baron of Richmond in Warrick,” Mary said.  “He assisted me in killing one of the Baron’s bastard sisters.  He assisted another Lamb in killing another.  More to the point-

Mary said that last word hard, and I imagined her gesturing with a blade as she said it.

“-he wasn’t even at his best when he paralyzed Hackthorn, understand?”

‘That much was clear,” the gruff voice said.

“No,” Mary said.  “Not that part of it.  He was alone.  You understand?  He did it single-handedly, but he’s one piece of a greater system.  The Lambs.  He might have brought a school as grand as this to its knees, and that’s something he can clearly do, but it’s Jessie who clarifies the when, the what, the who.  It’s Helen who twists their arms and whispers in their ear, breaking them.  It’s me that slits their throat when necessary.”

“What about Lillian and Duncan?  They keep you in working order?”

There was a note of derision in that.

As if it was very clear that they saw Mary as the experiment, not the woman.  Or that Lillian wasn’t doing a very good job of keeping the likes of me in good working order.

“They cover what comes after the giant is made to kneel, the body broken, the throat slit,” Mary said.  “They piece things back together.”

“Listen, you seem like a nice girl,” the voice said.  “You’re good with a blade, I won’t deny you that.  If you killed a minor noble, that’s amazing.  Credit to the Lambs.  But this is something else entirely.  It’s bigger.  Almost as big as it gets.  I saw a glimpse of Sylvester when it was bad, here.  You didn’t.  I don’t think this is doable.”

“Any commentary, Sylvester?” Mary asked.

I raised my head, my hand dropping to my side.

The Mothmont twins weren’t at the door anymore.  Percy and the Infante were still there.

I stepped into the room.

“Sylvester,” the soldier said.  He looked like someone who had been a soldier before we’d come to Hackthorn, rather than one of Davis’ conscripts who was acting in the capacity of a soldier for us.

No, there were twenty or so people who fit that latter label.

“I want to find the best way forward.  Nothing personal intended.”

I shook my head.  He started as I raised my hand, one hand moving closer to his weapon.  I clasped one of his shoulders with a dusty hand in passing, as I approached Mary.

“We’re taking a break from sparring,” Mary said.

“She beat Carson with a knife, when he had a saber,” one of the bystanders remarked.

“She did,” Carson said.  The true soldier, my critic.  “Credit where it’s due.”

I held up a hand.

Mary didn’t toss the knife so much as she threw it at me.  I trusted her throw, let my fingers close around the handle as it slapped against my hand.

“Spar?” she asked.

I was already moving before the word was finished and pitched as a question.  A thrust, which she parried.  I followed up with a short swing, drawing a sharp angle as I cut back in the direction of the knee of her leg, closest to me.

There was a psychological reason to it, and it was the most obvious target.  I did see a flash of emotion in her eyes, all the same.

She cut for my face, and I pulled it out of the way.

There was no phantom to inform me.  I had no phantom Lambs anymore, as far as I could tell.  Only the actual Lambs.  But I knew Mary, for the most part.  I trusted the way she moved.

Her hand motioned in a signal.  Left.

Her foot followed, blade at the toe of her shoe.  I stepped back and struck it with my own blade as it passed me, sending the blade back the way it had come, into the slot at the side of the sole.

From the noises of the crowd, she hadn’t revealed that particular trick yet.

Left thin long, she signaled.

Her hand flicked out, a knife slash, fast, hard, and seriously capable of injuring me if I was slow to react, but I was stepping in close.  The knife wasn’t the threat.  Another knife emerged from her sleeve, razor wire attached to it.  It flew in a tight arc.  Being in close was the only place that the blade and wire wouldn’t reach.

My chest pressed against hers, and as she took a step back, I matched her.  She brought her head back- an imminent headbutt, and I brought my head forward, the top of it moving in the direction of her face, not to headbutt her, but to deny her the room to rear back and smash forward.  She turned her head instead.

Without looking and without her giving me hints, I put a hand out, catching the wrist of her other hand before she could bring a blade around to stick it in my side.

My right hand tried to do the same to her.  The back of her knife hand caught the crook of my elbow.

We broke away in the next instant.  Mary’s knife cut my sleeve.  My hand slipped under her shirt and came away with another blade.

One, two, she gestured.

What was that?

We stood there, pausing for the moment.  Neither of us panted, but I wanted to.  All of my aches and pains were coming to life.

But this was important.

You, left, she gestured.

I swung my right arm, instead.

Her fingers moved in a curious way, one I might have taken as a gesture.  But then I saw the metal.  Between finger and fingernail, tiny grooves of pale metal, notches for the wire to sit in.  I pulled my hand back, and the loop of wire that was enclosing it caught only the blade I held, pulling it out of my grip.  I passed the blade I’d swiped from beneath her clothes to my right hand.

Three, she gestured.  Then, left.

She kicked, left leg, short and sharp, for my leg.  I only barely caught the gesture of four before she followed up with a swing.

That led into a brief and intense series of movements.  It wasn’t quite a clash of blade on blade or arm on arm, but it might as well have been.  Knives were scary, knives were dangerous, and there wasn’t a movement that couldn’t have seriously hurt the other if we’d been a little slower or a little less on our guard.

My injuries were starting to complain all the more.  I wasn’t sure of my grip on my knife, and my back hurt more than letting her cut me would’ve.

But I was on the outs with Mary, and I needed to fix that.  I’d wounded her in a way I could never properly apologize for.

She backed off, tossing a blade into the air.  The hand made the gesture nine before the blade landed in it once more.

Oh.  Was that what she was doing?  She was counting all the times she rightfully should’ve and would’ve killed me already?

I hoped that if I made a mistake important enough for the audience to notice, that she would act on it.  It wouldn’t do if our ‘dance’ here made this look like a routine or farce.  It was, in a way, but we wanted me to look good, and I wanted to close the distance between Mary and I.

I stepped in, aiming to move unpredictably, and moved into her personal space.

She retaliated, as she should’ve, and I fended her off, but I did see a fleeting eye roll from her in the process.

I remained close, my hand passing beneath her skirt, brushing her thigh, touching another blade handle.  She moved her leg before I could take it.  The angle had been wrong.

“It’s been years since you pulled that one, Sy,” she said.  “You were a child then, you can’t get away-”

I exhaled.

By all rights, she should’ve remembered this one.

The sawdust in my mouth blew out as a fine cloud, catching her in the mouth and eyes.

Immediately, her actions were sharp, dangerous.  She was blind in the moment, and acting definitively was the only way of responding that didn’t leave her vulnerable for any longer.  I barely managed to keep her from cutting me.

I stepped well back out of range, glanced at the surroundings – a classroom with almost no furniture in it, the rest cleared out or in use elsewhere.  I tossed my knife in Mary’s direction.

The sawdust wouldn’t bother her for long, but she coughed.  She was very aware of the sound of steel striking the ground, the ringing of it.  Steel was her song.

Hefting a wooden chair, I approached.  She heard my footstep and stepped to one side before swinging.  She struck the chair, and paused, off guard in the moment and wholly unaware of what she’d just collided with.

I kicked one of her legs out from under her, butted at her with the chair when that didn’t actually make her fall, and then planted the chair on the ground, the legs of it on either side of her body.  I planted my foot on it, pinning her.  I didn’t really feel safe pinning her otherwise.  Having a nice solid piece of wood and a few feet of distance

Mary lay there, blinking hard, coughing once or twice.  I turned my head and spat, the sawdust that had soaked with my saliva forming clumps.

“Fifteen,” she said, when she’d decided she could speak.

“How did we get from thirteen to fifteen?” I asked.

“What’s this?” Carson asked.

“Nothing,” I said.

Mary gestured.  Left.

Left?

The knife came at me out of nowhere.  My movement to react suffered for the odd angle of the trajectory and the fact it was a touch slower than a normal thrown knife.  I swatted it out of the air, and cut the back of my hand in the process.  Wire.

“You don’t need to show me,” I said.  “I do believe you.  Also, ow.”

“I cut the Infante with that trick.  Knives that don’t fly straight.”

I nodded.  I was very aware now of the Infante, standing off to one side.

Moving my foot, I pulled the chair back.  I offered Mary a hand in standing, my back protesting at the momentary pull of her weight.

That, I was assuming, would be both the last exertion I would manage today and all in all, this was something I’d be feeling for two full days.

She segued straight from rising to a standing position to a hug.

“Dance with me?” I asked.  “Fight alongside me?”

“You’ll need to catch up.  You were terrible.”

“I was fine.  I won.”

She gave me a look, eyes dangerous.  I could read her mind.  Fifteen.

I smiled.  “I won, still.  I did catch you off guard.”

“You won’t catch them.  Not consistently.”

“Yeah,” I said.  I gave her a squeeze.

She was so Mary to hug.  I could feel the weapons in sleeves and at the trunk of her body.  Her collar was stiff in a way that told me there was something hidden in it.  But she was a girl and it was a nice hug all the same.

I broke the hug, wishing I didn’t have to.

“You need practice.”

“I need to heal first,” I said.

“You do,” she said.

We were both very much ignoring the other faces in the room.  It was… an intimate moment, in its own way.  Not because we were so very close, even when hugging, but because we had been very far away.  We’d moved closer together in a very personal way that only we really understood.

I was very cognizant of the fact that not all of this would parse.  I knew I had critics and this display wouldn’t change it.

There was so much repair work to be done.  Not all of it would be sawdust and fixed carpets.

The faith of the people we were leading into battle against an unstoppable enemy was perhaps more important and far, far harder to fix.

“I missed you,” I said, putting those other people in the background for just another moment longer.

“I missed you too,” she said, and she said it very casually, with less than half of the emotion I’d used.  She sheathed her weapons, slipping each blade into its place.  When she was done, she met my eyes.  Her hand gestured.

Hurt Lamb I destroy you.

I responded with only a, please.

She nodded.

With that, I might not have been forgiven, but I knew we could move past it.  I remained very glad that she hadn’t turned one of those counts of coup into an actual wound.  The Mary of a year or two ago might have.

“Mary!” a voice called out.

It was Nora, as tall as me and shrouded in white cloth.

We stepped out into the hallway.  Nora peered past the shawl to stare at me with multiple alien eyes and a face with narrow slices of chitin biting through and peeling away from raw, red flesh, almost like terminal hangnails.

“You’re here,” Nora said.  As dangerous as she might have looked, she shied back a hair as Carson stepped into the doorway as well.  “The others want you… and Sylvester as well.”

“You paused,” I said.

“I had to ask,” she said.  “We have guests.”

Guests?” I asked.

“An Academy Headmaster.  He’s arrived early, we think he wanted to check that the coast is clear.”

“The coast is the furthest thing from clear,” I said.

“It’s-” Nora started.  She paused.  “Jessie says we know him.”

“We know him?”

“Jessie says he was the headmaster of Dame Cicely’s, and might still be,” Nora said.  “Jamie wrote about him.  She says you said, then, that the headmaster was, quote, ‘in cahoots’ with Geneveive Fray.”

“Fray’s announcing herself,” I said.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Root and Branch – 19.1

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Everything hurt.  Mind, body, more of my body.  I had organs that hurt and I wasn’t sure exactly why that would be the case.  I was in bed, and my first attempt to sit up failed, in part because the bed I was in was too soft, giving too much when I was looking for leverage.

I was in one of the guest bedrooms, reserved for visiting nobles.  The bed was large enough for five people to sleep in without touching one another, sporting a canopy draped with embroidered silk.  The furniture was grown wood with gold elaboration that had no doubt been worked into it as it grew.

The only people in the room, at first glance, were Percy and the Snake charmer, sitting at the table at the window, with a chessboard and cups of tea between them.  The chessboard itself wasn’t set up, the pieces absent.

Sub Rosa stood by the door.

My eyes took too long to find Ashton, sitting on the footboard of the bed, the red silk canopy that extended down the pillar of the canopy bed partially obscured him as he sat there, staring at me.

I remained where I was, staring at him.  For his part, he was utterly still, unblinking, as he fixed his attention on me.

It was good to see his face.  I was pretty sure it was his face, anyhow.  A Lamb, a brother I hadn’t had nearly enough time to get to know, a friend, a briefly lived nemesis.

“Are you real?” I asked.

“I hope so,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said.  “We’re on the same page there.”

“Jessie said to tell you she wished she could have slept in with you, but she had things to do.  Mary didn’t want to, and Lillian would have, but she has surgery.”

“Surgery?” I asked.  “Because of me?”

Ashton thought for a long, agonizing moment, before he said, “Yes.”

I winced, looking away.

“But not very because of you.  Distantly because of you.  You got her talking to the Duke and the Infante learned about the Duke, and he punished them by hurting Lillian.  That’s part of why it took so long for us to get back.”

I tried getting up again, rolling myself into a sitting-up position instead of relying on anything abdominal.  I grimaced, found my bearings, and then slipped off the edge of the bed, easing myself down until my feet were on the cold wood floor.

Ashton hopped down and helped to support me.

“Thank you, sir.”

“I’m not sure if you’re calling me sir to be ironic, when I’m not a sir or an adult you might call sir.  It’s not polite if you are.”

“I used to, a bit, and then it became a genuine token of respect,” I said.  “The joke became reality.”

“Okay then.”

We walked past Sub Rosa, who guarded the door.  She smiled at me with lips that had been sewn shut, doing nothing while Ashton reached past her to open the door.

It was something of a relief to see the door open.  A part of me had worried I was in a room like the one from Radham, a spatial representation of things, which kept my thinking in a particularly constrained space, instead of my thinking being so far-ranging that it became ambulatory, vocal, and argumentative.  The hallway was empty, almost normal, but for a tear in the carpet that ran down the length of it, a gouge in one of the doors, and some bullet casings.

I felt my stomach clench with tension, which only reminded me of the pain in my midsection.

“Ashton, why does my side feel like I was kicked a few times by wild horses?”

“Because you sat on stairs for a really long time and you didn’t go to the bathroom.  They said you hurt your kidney and bladder, doing that.”

“Kidney, singular?”

Ashton gave me a shrug, his narrow shoulders moving beneath my arm.  “It’s what they said.”

I might’ve lost it in an injury I couldn’t recall.

“I guess I thought my head was just trying to trick me into moving, so I suppressed it.”

“Yes.  And you hurt yourself.  You’ll get better.  We have lots of doctors.”

Lots of doctors.  My thoughts turned to the others- to the Academy-trained Beattle rebels, the Hackthorn rebels who we’d barely had a handle on, to the Lamb Doctors, and everyone else who had suffered because of the storm of chaos.  I’d know it would be bad, but… it sat uncomfortably, thinking about just how far I’d sunk.

I wasn’t wholly sure I’d surfaced, either.  I wasn’t in a room in my head, I was pretty sure, but the dangerous figures were still there, waiting.

“This way,” he said.

‘This way’ wasn’t toward the dining hall.  Maybe for the best.  It was down the length of the hall, in the opposite direction, and then up the stairs.

It wasn’t a place I’d really explored, past my initial perusal of Hackthorn.  On the days I’d been inclined to visit, the weather had been poor.  A rooftop garden with a patio, all sorts of unusual plants arranged on several levels, so that five individual groups could sit with enough of a barrier between them to be private, and so people could take their time walking around the garden, if they walked slowly.

Lillian was there, sitting, with a cup of tea on a saucer set beside her.

Part of the reason I hadn’t spent much time up here was that there wasn’t a particularly amazing view.  We were high up enough that the water was only really water, without much in the way of waves, and even if we’d been on ground level, the landscape wouldn’t have been much to look at.  Black wood and scorched earth.

There was only so long that one could sit and look at the clouds.  Especially when there was a great deal to be done.  It was a place to read on nice days, and Jessie had come to do that several times, but I suspected that she ended up spending more time napping in the sunlight than actually reading.

Lillian noticed our approach.  She looked fine, if weary, but her posture was odd and I could see traces of orange-pink at the collar of her shirt.  Disinfectant, some of which was on her neck.

“You’re out of surgery already,” Ashton said.

Lillian nodded.

She patted the bench next to her.

“Can you talk?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, her voice soft.

I took my seat.  I had to calculate and assess the appropriate and graceful amount of physical distance that a tense ex-relationship, hurt feelings and my own plunge into madness required.  The presence of the obstacle that was the cup and saucer factored into it.  I sat at a distance that meant I could have just barely touched her shoulder with a fingertip if I was of a mind to.

She picked up the cup and saucer as I settled with Ashton’s help.

“Okay?” Ashton asked me.

“Very okay,” I said.

“Do you want anything?” he asked me.

I thought of eating and drinking and the torture it would be for my strained body.  “No thank you.  Not just yet.”

“Oh, Lillian told me to tell you you need to urinate regularly.  You might want to use a bush.”

“I’m right here, Ashton,” Lillian said, still speaking at half her usual volume.

“I know, but you said to say it and I’m remembering now that I see you, so I’m saying it.”

“Thank you, Ashton,” Lillian said.

“You’re welcome, Lillian,” Ashton said.  Then he shifted his footing, “I’m going to go and tell the others Sylvester’s awake.  We should be along in a little while, but it’s going to take a little while and I’m not going to run.”

“Thank you, Ashton.”

“You’re welcome,” Ashton said.  “For the record I’m taking my time because you two should have some time to talk and get things worked some, I’m not taking my time because I’m slow or bad at running.”

Thank you, Ashton,” Lillian said, with emphasis.  She winced a little at the pain that small degree of effort caused.

“You’re welcome.  I know you’re saying it that way because you want me to go.  I understand, I can take hints.”

“You’ve been getting better,” Lillian said, touching her throat.  I saw how the disinfectant transferred to her fingertips and checked my pockets for a handkerchief.  I handed it to her.

“You hurt yourself.  Try not to yell at Sylvester,” Ashton said.  “You’ll hurt yourself more.”

“If you stay any longer, Ashton, I’m going to throw something at you,” Lillian said.

“Try not to throw things,” Ashton said, “You might hurt yourself if you exert yourself too much.”

Lillian twisted around, searching her immediate surroundings, no doubt for something in the order of a pinecone or small rock.

“Try not to make her upset, Sylvester,” Ashton said, ignoring the fact that he was needling her, inadvertently or no.

“I’ll try not to,” I said, my voice quiet.

“Thank you, sir,” he said.

He turned to leave, and I watched him go, my eyes narrowed.

Had he just pulled a clever line on me, or was that Ashton being Ashton?

“I’m fond of him,” Lillian said.  “I haven’t gotten to see Ashton enough as of late.”

“He’s a good egg.”

“I’ve missed everyone,” she said, looking at me.  Then, by some leap of logic, she jumped straight to, “I’m sorry I didn’t get my black coat, Sy.”

“What?  No.  Don’t do that, or I’ll think you’re somehow crazier than me.”

“I think that would be a feat,” she said.

“Are you alright?” I asked her.  I touched my throat, to indicate.  “Ashton said it was the Infante?”

“I’m not very alright,” she said.  “It scared me more than almost anything.  I’m fairly sure he let us go and I’m worried about why… But sitting is nice.  Seeing you almost normal is nice.”

I had my doubts about that, but I didn’t voice them.  I wanted her to have ‘nice’.

I had other doubts, that she was holding back on her true feelings, because she didn’t want to stress me out.

She went on, “I performed some of the surgery on myself, Jessie did some more, and I had more this morning, cosmetic, and to ensure I could speak without pain.  Some of it affected the spine… I’ve still got some pain from that.  It’s mild, but…”

She rubbed her arm, heel of her wrist digging in, as if she needed to press deep enough to make it felt bone-deep.

“Is it fixable?”

She nodded.  “I’ll need another surgery.  I’ll get it before we leave.”

Leave.  That was a thing.

The intention had been for this to be a final stage, I’d hoped to prepare it, to make this the arena, as much to our favor as possible, and that had fallen through.

We would have to leave, fight our enemy on their turf.

“I’m drinking tea because I need fluids but I can’t drink too much too fast before I’m all healed up.  The heat of it slows me down, and then when it’s cold I won’t want to drink it, because who drinks cold tea?”

I really liked the sound of her voice, even if it was quiet, or especially because it was quiet because that was a voice that had once been used when we slept in the same bed in her dormitory and didn’t want to be overheard.  I liked the shape of her face and the way her hair had grown just a bit longer and framed that face.  I wished I could stare at it more and hurry up my reconstitution of Lillian in my head, without actually staring at her and being creepy.

I tried to split my attention between looking at her and looking at the heavy clouds.

“How are you?” Lillian asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “I think I really needed to see your faces.  But I also think I shouldn’t feel as quiet as I do.  I’m worried that they’re just mustering their forces.”

“They?”

“The Snake Charmer, Percy, Sub Rosa, the Humors, Avis, Fray, Warren, Wendy… and so on.  Dead soldiers, doctors, and ghosts.  The Brechwell Beast pretending to be a girl, the Primordial pretending to be a boy…”

“It was a girl, I think, in retrospect,” Lillian said.

“There you go,” I said.

“What happens when they’re mustered?” Lillian asked.

“I don’t know.  I think, even at their worst, they wanted to protect me.  Or to keep me… intact, physically.  Even if it meant carving through everything in my way.  Maybe they’ll step in again if they think I’m in danger.  Or if there’s an opening, or if I get jostled like a box of bugs, or after I’ve gathered my strength and they think I’m in good shape to do what they need me to do.”

“I see,” Lillian said.

“I feel very dangerously fragile, I hope that isn’t too unmanly a thing to say.”

Lillian shook her head, then winced again, touching her neck.  She wiped at her fingers with the handkerchief.  “No.”

“How bad is the aftermath?” I asked.

“It’s not good.  But I think people are turning to your lieutenants for guidance, informing their own reactions based on how those lieutenants react.  Helen, and Duncan are doing a lot of the talking right now.  We’ll have to wait and see what they say, but I think if the people you put in charge stay, a lot of the others will stay.  They might not trust you to be leader, though.”

“I don’t trust myself to be leader,” I said.

“Some will leave,” she said.  “We had a brief conversation about that, before I went to get patched up.  I had to communicate through gestures.  I think nobody really wanted to, but we had to acknowledge that it might be tactically better to not let others leave.”

“Burn the bridge behind us, force cooperation?” I asked.

“We decided it didn’t make a lot of sense,” Lillian said.  “That might change, depending on how the conversation goes.”

I winced.

“Jessie and Mary are hunting down the experiments you freed.  Jessie memorized the key phrases to bring them back in line, but they have to get in earshot to do it.”

“Not all of them have key phrases.”

“From what we were able to tell, you released four varieties of parasite, the flay stalkers, the shrieking ninnies, the rats-in-perpetuity, and the spiders of silence.”

“Shrieking ninnies?”

“Naked, tall, underweight people with oversized heads, nimble and fast enough to stay out of danger,” Lillian said.

“Oh, I might remember them.”

“They’re loud, and they use that loudness to make sounds like shrieking babies, keyed to be as anxiety inducing and irritating to humans as is possible.”

“They’re pretty funny, yeah,” I said.

“Ferres’ big projects went after them when they couldn’t get at the students or faculty,” Lillian said.  “Along with the rats-in-perpetuity, the spiders of silence, and all the others.”

“Those names.  Rats-in-perpetuity, spiders of silence?  Really?”

“They had pretentious names for the parasites, too, but I’m not remembering them off the top of my head,” Lillian said.  “It’s a school of students with an artistic bent.  You picked it as your target.”

“We wanted to fix Helen,” I said.  “I wanted to fix Jessie.  I-”

Jamie’s face flickered through my mind’s eye, incomplete, the memory fuzzed around the edges.

“Jamie,” I said, a thought as incomplete as the image.

“Are you seeing him?”

I shook my head.  “I wish.”

“What are you thinking, Sylvester?  Where did Jamie come from?”

“I… I went to pieces.  Everything fell away, my thoughts mutinied against my critical thinking, and I think I realized things.  About Jamie.  About everyone, except maybe you.”

“Are you sure it wasn’t just your head playing tricks on you?”

“I’m not sure of anything,” I said.  “That least of all.  I really don’t feel as if I should be as lucid as I am and I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.  I’m not even positive you’re here right now.”

The cup and saucer clattered slightly as Lillian placed them on the bench, to one side, so they weren’t between her and I.   She scooted over, until her shoulder was pressed against mine, and then she lifted my arm and carefully set it over her shoulders.

“There,” she said.  “Does that help?”

“Yes,” I said.  I was fairly sure I was lying.

She still had one of her hands on mine, from where she’d moved my arm.  “You’re cold.”

“A little,” I said.

“Let me know if you get too cold, we can go inside,” she said.

I don’t ever want to move or think, and I almost don’t want to say anything because I’m afraid I’ll break everything all over again.  I’m afraid I’ll dispel the hallucination and I’ll be sitting on those stairs in the dark while rain falls on the glass overhead, my hands all bruised and hurting, my kidney and bladder failing because I’m afraid that having to go to the bathroom is just another head game.

I don’t want this to change or stop in any way, except…

…Except to have others here.  To have Jessie, Helen, or Mary, or to have Ashton back and being odd, or even Duncan if it had to be him.

But this was good, even if I wasn’t sure what it meant or what it was supposed to be, besides skinship.

“What do you think you realized?”

“That the expiration dates are a lie,” I said.

With the physical contact, I could tell that she’d started a bit.

“That’s heavy,” she said.  “But you remember that Gordon expired, don’t you, Sy?”

She asked it like it was really a possibility that I could have forgotten.  I couldn’t blame her either.

“It’s not that we don’t expire, but… more that we expire because they want us to, we’re rigged to fail and then they postpone it if we’re useful.  Or they hurry it up if we become a concern.  It’s control.  It’s power over us.  The fact it happens all around the same timeframe, only a few years apart, that experiments like Helen and Gordon are all about building up to a mature stage and then that gets cut short?”

“The idea was that they would be pilot programs, and if they were viable then the Academy might try again.”

“With Ibbot?  Why not just have him get it right the first time?  He’s good enough.”

“He’s good enough but he doesn’t care.  He can show it can work and leave enough in the way of notes for others to replicate for a second stage.”

“Or he cares,” I said.  “Everyone and their mother knows he created her with the idea she would be a partner for him, a toy for him to use if he wanted to get his snail wet.”

“Ew, ew, no, ew.  ” Lillian said.  She physically squirmed under my arm.  I squeezed her shoulders, and she drew in closer to me, her shoulder driving into my armpit as she shook her head.  “I don’t want to think about Ibbot’s snail.”

“As an idea, it answers more questions than it begs,” I said.

“So that’s what Ferres was at,” Lillian said.  “We heard fragments of it.”

“Yeah.”

“I feel like, once upon a time, when I first learned about the set end date for the project, not the expiration dates but that things would only last until around the time I graduated, I wondered why.  And then we got busy with the baby-things and then the singing doctor, and the spider-things, and the Snake Charmer, and… I was new and emotionally exhausted.  I didn’t think about things for a while.”

“But the expiration dates did come up.”

She shifted slightly, her shoulder still digging into my armpit as she nestled closer, “I don’t know, Sy.  I didn’t think about it much.  I thought the Professors knew enough, and I didn’t want to question them.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I think it was around the time I ran away, that I realized.  I’d read the files, the first time, and I realized, and I tipped them off, and that was around the time I left.  And then… I can’t remember exactly it, but I let myself get caught, because I missed the Lambs and I missed Wyvern.  They gave me a double dose.  I think they molded my brain, to forget and to not think about it too much.  Then they brought me back, and I looked for and found the expiration dates again, and that time I didn’t think about it, and…”

I trailed off.

“Maybe,” Lillian said.

“Maybe,” I said.  “It’s a pretty terrible maybe.  If it’s true then Ferres is right and I missed something important.  I could have kept them from hurting Jamie or killing Gordon, or I could have taken us to Fray, or we could have worked something out and organized as a team, or…”

“You can’t blame yourself.”

“If I learned then and I ran away, then I was stupid and I let fear take over, I left the Lambs instead of telling them, and I couldn’t ever forgive myself if that’s true.”

If it’s true, Sy,” Lillian said.  “We don’t know.  We can’t know.  You can’t condemn yourself for something that’s as in doubt as this is.”

“Wanna bet?” I asked her.

She took my hand, her arm resting alongside mine.

I could feel the tremor, the twitch.  I knew it was the pain from whatever the Infante had done to her spine.

“Hurts?” I asked.

“It’ll be fixed soon,” she said.

With my other hand, reaching over, I rubbed at her forearm, massaging it through her shirt.

“I’ve missed you,” she said, her voice even quieter than before.

“I’ve missed you more,” I replied.

“Wanna bet?” she asked.  Her voice was quieter each time she spoke.  There was something in the question and I chose not to hear it.  It felt like she was fading away, and I was afraid of pushing her that one little bit further away.

But I used my one hand to massage her arm, and I listened to her words and I smelled her and I felt the warmth of her all along one side of me.

“You have the best hands,” she said.  Her head leaned against my shoulder.

“It helps?” I asked.

“It helps,” she said.

We sat like that for a little while longer.  Birds roosted on the railing a little ways in front of us.  The clouds remained boring but I could have looked at them for days if it meant sitting with Lillian or Jessie or the others like this.  Except maybe Duncan.  Snuggling with Duncan would have been weird.

“I could do with massages in other places,” Lillian said.

“Is that so?” I asked, not sure what to say.

“Maybe you should stop, Sylvester,” she said.  I stopped, keeping my hands where they were, one hand entwined with hers, the other on her forearm.  “If you keep going I might pounce on you and I don’t know what I’d do.”

Her hand squeezed mine, hard.

“I’ve got to be fair to Jessie,” I said.

“I know.”

“I think I know what her answer would be if I asked, but I’m not sure of much of anything right now.”

“I know.  You said.  It’s okay.  Do you want to let go of me, then, and we’ll figure it out later, if we figure it out?” she asked.

I didn’t want to let go of her for anything.  My hands remained where they were, our arms entangled.

We were like that, silent and unwilling to move further away, when the others arrived.

“We arrive, we’re here,” Helen called out.  “We bring snacks, tea, good company, and agendas.”

Bright and warm and very Helen.  My hands released Lillian’s hand and arm.

When she turned up, rounding the corner, she was smiling, very much Helen, intact.

“My dears,” she said.  She set a tray down on a nearby table.

“You’re in a good mood,” I said.

“I hunted, and it wasn’t perfect but it was good, and I’m sated for the now.  I’ve got snacks made by our Possum-Helen, and I’ve got the Lambs,” she said, bright and warm.  “What more could I want?”

Her hands touched the sides of my head, her fingers running through my hair.  She kissed my forehead.

As Ashton approached with Lara and Nora, the two twins now asymmetrical, Helen pounced on Ashton, throwing her arms around him and lifting him bodily off the ground.  The twins flinched away.

One of the two had had a growth spurt, and was a foot taller than her sister.  The shroud of clothing that covered her now covered her lower face, her overlong neck, and the two long forelimbs that now stretched from shoulder to toe.  The dangling claws scuffed the ground and the edge of stairs as she walked down the path to where we were in the garden.

“I brought them,” Ashton said, belaboring the obvious.

“Thank you, sir,” I said.

“Where do we sit?” the smaller of the twins asked.

“Find a compost heap and sit in it,” the larger twin said.  “Then you might grow some, and you’ll smell better.”

The smaller twin gasped.

“Be nice, Nora,” Lillian said.

“I am being nice, I’m giving her advice that’s sorely needed.”

“She’s just bitter because she’s a piteous miscreation of science,” Lara said.  “It’s why we left the Academy, because they were going to put her down for being so grotesque and disappointing to look at.”

“Says the runt who hasn’t grown yet.”

“I will say so, thank you very much,” Lara said, before turning to me.  “There’s really no justice in this world if the Academy goes unpunished for bringing her into existence.”

“You think so, huh?” I asked.

“It’s one of the great crimes against humanity, edging out the red plague and the genocide out east.”

Nora lunged, falling to all four limbs, face thrust at Lara’s.  Her voice was a growl.  “I could eviscerate you.  You’d be prettier.”

Lara tittered with a laugh.  It took me long seconds to read past the hostility in Nora’s body language and see that she was laughing too.

Lara threw her arms around her big sister’s long neck, hugging her, and rocked left to right.

Mary approached with Abby and Quinton, and broke away from Abby to go straight to Lillian, sitting at the edge of the bench, her focus on Lillian’s recently mended throat.  They exchanged murmured words.

“Did we interrupt?” Abby asked me.

“Hm?”

Her eyes moved between Lillian and me.

“No,” I said.  “All good.”

“Good,” she said.

So it was.  Jessie, Emmett,  and Duncan were the last to arrive.

I stood from my seat with some difficulty, and wrapped Jessie in a hug with less difficulty.

“Brought them,” she said.  “I missed you.”

I nodded.  The moment, having everyone here, it made words catch in my throat.

“I worried so much,” she said.

I nodded again.  Me too.

It wasn’t just that I’d worried for my sake.  I’d seen things.  My head had turned against me and it had subjected me to things, doubts given life, mind games.  In the midst of it, Jessie had died far too many times.  She’d died more than any of the others.  She had suffered implied fates that would have made death a kindness.

She’d been the one they had repeatedly used to try to convince me that the Lambs were back, that I could let my guard down.

The others were getting settled, Lara settling in Nora’s lap, Abby sitting on the short wall that bounded the soil of the garden to one side of us, Helen at the table, arranging tea and snacks.  Jessie sat next to me.

“A lot of them want to leave,” Duncan finally said.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Shh,” Jessie said.  She gave my hand a squeeze.  “It’s okay.”

“The question came up, there’s no place to go.  The Crown has a stranglehold on the Crown States, there aren’t many options.  Some of the Hackthorn students think they could backtrack on their betrayal of the Crown, but… it’s hard.  They have fellow students who remember them defecting.  There’s some thinking along the lines that the ones who remained loyal might stay silent on that if they’re allowed to go, but… that’s a lot of mouths that could talk.”

“Which brings us to our next point,” Jessie said.  “They know.  About the block, about the nobles.  And we’ve made it clear to them, well, Sylvester made it clear but we made sure it was crystal, that if one mouth talks, the Crown might erase the problem.  So like it or not, they’re cooperating.  It’s reluctant assistance, but it’s assistance.”

Others approached.  Shirley, with Bo Peep.  Davis.  Bea, the Treasurer, Mabel, Junior, and Gordeux.

“Just catching them up,” Duncan said.  “People are mostly willing to go along with us?”

“Looks like,” Davis said.  He turned his attention to me.  “You alright?”

“Oddly so,” I said.

Jessie spoke, “We gave you a half-dose of Wyvern, in the hopes it might help you get your mental house in order, while you were unconscious.  Duncan’s idea.”

I shivered at the notion.  I liked being in control… but I wasn’t sure if I would’ve made the right decisions, being like I was, either.

“I didn’t know that,” Lillian said.  She glanced at me, wary.  “I don’t know if I would have recommended it.”

“It’s done,” Duncan said.  “I don’t know if I would have recommended it in the light of day, either.  But I didn’t like seeing you like you were.  You just kept endlessly asking about what you’d done or hadn’t done, who was alive or dead, who had been tortured to death or not.  You’d stop for a bit and then start.  We drugged you to knock you out because you got so anxious, and it took three tries to get the dosage right, even with your native resistances.  I thought… if sleep helps us reorganize our memories and feelings from the day prior… well, maybe Wyvern might help for a bigger endeavor on that front.”

“It doesn’t quite work like that,” Lillian said.  “But it’s not wholly wrong either.”

“Okay,” I said, still uncomfortable with the idea.  It overlapped too much with my thoughts of the double dose and the brainwashing, even if it had been a half-dose outside of the usual schedule, by people who meant well.

“The Infante isn’t coming.  Almost none of the people we really were invested in getting into Hackthorn are,” Jessie said.  “But some are.  Professors from smaller Academies.  From what I was able to pick up and listen in on, we’re approaching the final days.”

“Final days?” Abby asked.

Lillian spoke, “Some Academies will continue running, to look after the Tender Mercies and various other creations who are designed to survive and patrol the wasteland that the Crown States is going to become.  They’ll maintain control and look after things.  A skeleton crew.  Hayle is going to be one, looking after Radham.  But everyone else is going to leave.  They’re interested enough in the rumor and lies we’re spreading that they’re making this one of the last ports of call.  They’ll go from here to Trimountaine or vice versa and then make their way over to London.”

Bo Peep was watching Quinton, tuning out almost half of the discussion.  At a nudge from Shirley, she crossed the little section of garden, giving a wide berth to Lara and Nora, before settling next to Abby and Quinton.  Abby picked Quinton up and scooted over to sit with her thigh touching Bo Peep’s, and set Quinton down so he was lying across their laps.  Bo Peep’s hands hovered in the air, as if she couldn’t bring them down without touching Quinton, but she was too overwhelmed to make even incidental contact with the lamb.

“I’ve left us in bad shape to do what we planned on doing,” I said.  I watched as Abby took Bo Peep’s hand and brought it down to touch Quinton’s neck.

“We’ll manage,” Mary said.  “We have to.  There’s no other choice.”

We have to.  We didn’t have much more of a path forward than the students here did.

“They have to cross dangerous ground to get here,” Duncan said.  “Bandits, the desperate, rebels like Mauer.  So even if it’s not the targets we want, it’s going to be a scary number of lesser nobles, professors, and all of the forces and top-tier creations they see fit to bring with them as they aim to get safely over here and then cross the pond.”

“And the Infante?” I asked.  I saw a flicker out of the corner of my eye and glanced over.  “The Duke?  The top-tier Professors?”

“We’ll figure something out,” Duncan said.  “But that comes after.  For now we need to pull together, get a plan in motion, and survive the next week.”

“We’ll manage,” Mary said, once again.

I almost agreed.  Almost.  Before I could indicate or speak something to that effect, I saw the shape out of the corner of my eye once again.

I hadn’t seen many of the hallucinations.  The people around me were no longer monsters, the Academy looked almost normal.  The dose of Wyvern and the unconscious reconstruction of things had no doubt gone a ways toward that.  It had helped me piece my mind partially back together, and seeing and coming into contact with the Lambs had helped me piece my heart most of the way back together.

But it had come at costs.  A lowering of defenses, doors opened I’d meant to keep shut.  I no longer faced a legion of devils that nobody else could see.  I faced a singular entity.

The Infante stood at another section of the garden, watching the clouds, his hands clasped behind him, silent.

I should tell the others.

I can’t tell the others and destroy this small happiness we’ve found here.

“We should talk plans,” Jessie said, giving my hand a squeeze.  “There’s a lot to do.  A lot of things to repair, some literal, after the warbeasts and experiments stalked the halls.  There are scripts to put in place, to borrow something from Ferres, we need tools, we need organization.”

I remained where I was, frozen, trying not to look at him even as he drew my attention with the smallest of movements.

Mary spoke, “Lillian can coordinate the science angle, the tools, the experiments we’ll need.  She knows enough about a variety of things to know what’s up.  Right?  And you can coordinate with the Beattle rebels?  You know how Lambs think and you’ll have a sense of how they think.”

“Right,” Lillian said.

“I can do the same with the soldiers, train people to fight, how to think in a skirmish or a battle,” Mary said.  She looked more at ease than I’d seen her in a while.  She looked excited at the prospect.  “If there’s no objection?”

“None,” Bea said, Davis’s utterance only a hair’s breadth from matching hers.

Movement in front of me made me flinch.

Helen.  With a cup of tea on a saucer, cookies arranged in a half-circle around the rim.

“It’s medical tea,” she said.  “It’ll help your kidneys stop hurting.  The cookies aren’t medical, but they’re important too.”

I took it wordlessly.  She gave me a lingering, almost concerned look before turning her attention to higher priorities – to more tea and cookies.

I tried to shake off any look of terror, to control my breathing and consequently my heartbeat, so I wouldn’t give others reason for concern.  Only Abby might notice, with her eye to body language, and Bo Peep and Quinton had her full attention.  I hadn’t seen much of her, but I’d never seen her more in her element than I saw her in this moment.  It had been too long, by that same measure, since I’d seen a smile on Bo Peep’s face.

I looked in the direction of the Infante, and he was gone from his spot.

I nearly dropped my tea and the carefully arranged cookies when I saw him, standing by the railing, only a short distance from the others, his back to me.  He’d moved closer.

Not trusting myself to speak, in case I betrayed my fear and betrayed this moment, I ate my cookies slowly.

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

Enemy V (Arc 18)

Previous                                                                                                                    Next

“If I offer you tea, will you resist?”

“Resist?” Sylvester asked.  “You could have said refuse.”

“I could have, I didn’t.”

“No tea,” Sylvester said.

“Having watched you for the last few years, I’d like to think I know you.”

Sylvester nodded.

“You’re loyal to the others.  When you broke in and searched through records, you looked at theirs, too.  Maybe you looked for theirs specifically.”

Sylvester frowned.

“You’ve been subtly fighting me every step of the way since.  You’re upset and angry and you don’t have a direction to point that sentiment.  It’s why I chose the word resist.”

“We never had this conversation.”

“We’re having it right now,” he said.

“I never sat in…” Sylvester looked around.  He parsed the space as an office, the window with its branch-framed glass looking out on Radham.  “Here.  You never offered tea.  This subject never came up.”

“Your memory isn’t that strong, Sylvester.”

“I can’t remember things, but I feel like if we’d had this conversation, I would have done something with it.”

“Maybe you did, Sylvester.  Maybe you ran away.  Maybe you resisted in ways that went beyond refusing tea or not telling me things about your companions.”

“And?”

The question went unanswered.  In the unlit space, the impossibly dark shadows on the other side of the desk were now unoccupied.  The question was swallowed up.

Sylvester would have turned his thoughts to the task, but they were scattered.  This place was one room in Radham, and all of his lines of thinking were in Hackthorn, stalled, or poised and waiting to be allowed to act, like bullets in the chambers of rifles.

He, too, remained where he was, poised, while the once-fine machinery of his mind operated by accident more than design.  A windmill in a windless valley, turning slightly because too many birds had gathered to roost on one blade.

He could have acted or brought things to resolution, but he didn’t trust any of his trains of thought.  Mauer’s voice was too persuasive, and Sylvester lacked the resources to really sort out the words that sounded right from the ones that were right.  Cynthia was too angry, too wounded.  The Snake Charmer was too short-term in thinking, Percy too long-term.

All of the ones he understood were problematic, by dint of what they were.  Others were problematic because of the great and terrible unknowns they represented.  Fray.  The devouring child.

Sylvester stood in the room, watching as the light moved across it.  Noticing a change in details, he turned to face the window.

Evette leaned against the wall, the curtain to one side of the window wreathing her.

Being noticed was the prompt for her to move.

She set down a syringe of Wyvern.  The usual dose, far higher than most managed.  More than even Fray took.

Then she set down another, a short distance away.

With a snapping motion of her fingers, she set the heavy syringe to spinning on the table.  She did the same with the first.

Sylvester already knew how this turned out.

And.

The syringes came to a rest, the points aimed at Sylvester.

And even though this isn’t an accurate memory of long ago, because I have no accurate memories of long ago, I know how it turned out.

I connected dots and I showed my hand.  He realized, and the next time I had an appointment…

Sylvester turned, touching the door handle.  The room was locked.

When he turned back toward the desk, Evette was gone.  The room was empty, the windows open and curtain billowing.  The syringes were depleted.

If I hadn’t revealed my hand, if I had escaped the room, if I hadn’t let them poison my brain with more Wyvern, hold me in captivity, mold my brain and brainwash me, if I’d somehow remembered or found a way to leave a message to myself…

Ferres’ voice echoed in his ears.

If I only connected the dots again.  If I let myself connect the dots…

It was at a time like this that Sylvester badly wanted to see the Lambs, to recognize their faces, to have them as concrete points he could arrange in this visualized space he was using to construct- to reconstruct the thought process.

The expiration dates for the Lambs never made sense. 

Why raise Gordon up to be someone who would be exceptional?  What had Gordon said, toward the end?  He never got to shine?  Never got to…

Sylvester groped for it, and all he could think of was how hard it had been to hear Gordon ask for his dog and be unable to give him that in the moment.

He turned his thoughts toward other things.  To Gordon thinking about defecting to Fray, the way he’d started saying ‘god’ and ‘damn’ more, if only to swear.  All around the time that he had started to dwindle.

Helen was created and raised by one of the best Professors in the Crown States, yet would never truly grow up to be of an age to use those talents.  She was created to be a wife, a companion to a narcissist Professor.

The only Lambs where expiration made any degree of sense were Mary and Sylvester himself.  Sylvester because he imbibed poison, and Mary because she had been grown fast, and she would burn out fast.  The irony was that neither of the two had originally been part of the plan.

The expiration dates weren’t an unhappy coincidence.  They were there by design.  A hand tilted the scales, as loyalty came into question.  That same hand had been on Lillian’s scales, in a different way.

Was that the reason for the appointments?  To adjust what needed adjusting, to ensure that a leash of a different sort was maintained?  Or was it all part of the same leash, that constrained them?  To keep them in one area, geographically, and to manage lifespans, so a rebellious creation would be limited in the damage it could do?

If I’d only realized, I could have done something about it.

Gordon could have lived.  Jamie could have lived.

Maybe whatever is happening to us now could have been averted before it started.

Sylvester stared into the darkness at the opposite side of the large desk.

“It’s all about control in the end,” he said.

“Sylvester.”

Sylvester opened his eyes.

“Whatever you’re thinking about doing-” Davis said.

Sylvester shook his head.

Ferres was on the ground, struggling.  They were using cloth to bind her mouth shut.  Her face was blossoming like a flower – the blades at either side of her mouth had only been the first stage.  Now everything unfolded endlessly from a central point in waves of skin, bone, small organs, and jagged metal points.  She whipped it this way and that, to make the act of getting the gag in place as difficult as possible.  The noises she made were alternately muffled and screeching, but she formed no more complete words.

She’d said as much as she needed to say, really.

The effect carried to the exposed skin of her arms, her exposed calves, and her feet.  She was a primordial in fast motion, the subject of a powerful and dangerous drug.

Sylvester turned, to look more in Davis’ direction.  He became aware that the primordial was there, standing right behind him, almost touching him, looming in a way that meant Sylvester stood in its shadow.

The Primordial was poised, like so many of the others, bullets in rifle chambers.  He held limbs and parts that looked like pieces of other primordials that actually looked like primordials.  One was held out, as if proffered to Sylvester, and it twitched and kicked.

He wanted to eat.

He wanted to eat with Sylvester.

Jamie, Gordon, Helen, Mary, Lillian, Ashton, Duncan, and all the little ones.  Lara, Nora, Abby, Emmett…

The ones who weren’t dead or broken enough to be headed there would die sooner than later.

There were two ways to handle that.  The first was to face his own culpability, in a time and place where he had no tools to manage that.

The second was to turn his attention to the culprits.

“Sylvester,” Davis said.

Sylvester turned to Davis.

The student council president had been so handsome, once.  A fine pair when put together with Valentina, who wasn’t here anymore.  But days of fighting had injured him.  A scar covered part of his face, marring one eye.  Combat drugs he’d taken to improve his focus and coordination were likely responsible for the exaggerated vascularity on the other side of his face.

“You’re in control, the Academy is yours.  You’re right.  All of this is… much worse than I’d thought.  The nobility, the role of the professors, the way the system is rigged, the lies we were told…”

“Davis,” Sylvester said.  “It doesn’t feel good, does it?”

“No,” Mabel was the one who responded.  “But that’s no reason to-”

Sylvester didn’t miss Davis’ hand motion, telling Mabel to stop.

“It doesn’t feel good,” Davis said.

So that was it.  Manipulation.  Currying favor.

Sylvester was very aware of the Primordial’s proximity.  He was increasingly aware that wherever he looked in the crowd of young Academy students, there were modifications, scars, injuries, and stitches.

Ferres was akin to a lamprey with its rings of teeth, but instead of teeth they were modifications, alterations, weapons, and poison.  Weapons of the Academy spilling forth as from a fountain.  They welled out in a constant, endless wave, and as they flowed out, they tainted other things.  They marked students, they colored the building.

Hurt sat in the base of Sylvester’s throat as he saw it, he knew it was whatever the Primordial represented in his own head, going to work.  Recognizing the enemy, seizing emotion and pain and helping him to adapt, to grapple with things.

Ferres didn’t have retractable mouth-parts.  She’d simply bitten the hand that had tried to silence her.  Davis didn’t have a scar.  Mabel didn’t have modified eyes to help her already exceptional perception.

A defense mechanism?  A last-gasp mental shift with Wyvern?

The premise was simple.  If the students weren’t people anymore, if they were only tools, ugliness, and extensions of the same engine that had hurt him for the entirety of his life, bringing Sylvester and the people closest to him to their lowest points, to points they didn’t always surface from, then it would be so much easier to hurt them.

“It’s horrendous,” Davis said.

“I’m going to pretend you’re not trying to manipulate me as you say that,” Sylvester said.

“I am, for the record.  I’m worried about what you’re going to do in the next couple of minutes.  A lot of people are.  So I’m trying to manipulate you into not doing whatever we’re worried about.  But that doesn’t mean I’m lying.  For a very long time, even until today, you were someone I couldn’t ever really understand.  But I think I understand you more than I did, even if I’m also really not sure about what you’re planning.”

As he spoke, the veins crawling across his face grew darker, bursting.  Sylvester looked away.

“Everything you’re feeling, betrayal, feeling like a part of your life was spent in service to the Crown, feeling like people close to you were betrayed, I’m- not to belittle what you’re feeling-”

Sylvester paused.

“I get it,” Gordeux said.  Sylvester was… relatively sure it was Gordeux.  “I don’t want to speak for everyone, but I wouldn’t say what I’ve experienced and felt really compares.  A lot of us got the short end of the stick, and you got a shorter one than most.”

It was the Devil who spoke in Sylvester’s ear.  “A short joke.  Kill him for it.”

Sylvester’s hand twitched and he had to fight the impulse that followed.  He shoved it into his pocket, hunching over a bit to ensure it was really crammed in there.

Problem was he had a folded blade in there.  He’d forgotten that.  He’d accidentally gone and armed himself, now.

“I’m with you,” The thing that had been Davis said.  He was speaking very carefully now.  “I’m on your side.”

Sylvester nodded, numb.

“What do you need from me?” the thing asked.

“Ferres,” Sylvester said. “Did – damn it.  I took her hand.  We needed it.”

“We found the hand and reattached it,” the thing said.

Sylvester nodded.  “Good.  She’s not going to cooperate in the way we need her to cooperate.  Preserve her brain, keep her alive in a way that we can get information we need from her, keep the hand there for now.  Take whatever else you need to make us a Ferres-alike.  We just need to fool them for a little while.”

He could feel the hesitation from the things that had been his lieutenants and friends just days ago as if it was a tangible thing.  He was trying hard not to look at anything in particular, because it only made it worse when he focused on something and instinctively demolished the meaning of that thing, to make that thing easier to destroy in the coming future.

“Sure,” The festering thing that had been Junior said.  “Unless someone else wants to object or argue the point, I know some other students I can ask, we’ll wrangle something.”

Sylvester thought of saying goodbye to Lillian, both times.  He thought of how she had cried.

The lump in his throat wasn’t going away.  The anger- it felt muted, but only because it was being redirected, painting everything in sight, twisting it.

He thought of shooting Mary, because there had been no good way to keep her from pursuing him.

Sylvester spoke as the idea was formulated and provided by the ones who stood nearby.  Cynthia, the Sub Rosa.  An unusual pairing.  “Bring some food and supplies, plan to be there for a short while.  I think there’s running water in there.”

“Food and supplies?” The Junior-thing asked.  Then, likely in response to some signal, he switched stances, “Sure.  Can do.”

“Alright,” The Davis-thing said.  “Ominous.  Do the rest of us need to take measures?”

“They run,” Cynthia said.  Burned though she was, she was more person than the things that populated the crowd.

“The rest?  They run,” Sylvester said, meeting Cynthia’s eyes.

“Sylvester-” one of the things reached out, touching Sylvester’s arm.

Sylvester lashed out, slapping it away, taking a step back and away.

He stood there, arm extended, blade in hand, watching the individual’s hand bleed, and he eyed the crowd.

“Alright,” the thing that had been Davis said, clutching its wrist.  “Junior’s got that handled.  What else do you need?”

“He’ll need to barricade the lab.”

“Sure thing.”

“And we run.  Alright.  Can you explain why, or- or just tell me why you were so dead set on taking control over the Academy and now it looks like you’re dismantling that?”

“You control sixty percent of the rebels, perhaps, sixty percent that are angry enough to listen to you,” Mauer said.  “You have enough sway to control the rest of the rebels, and by extension, you can keep your enemies pinned down in the dormitories.  But you don’t truly control this Academy.”

“No explanation needed, because I’m not giving up that control,” Sylvester said.  “I’m cementing it.”

“If Sylvester says to run,” the Shirley-thing said, “Then I think we should all go.  To rooms, or to labs where you can do work.  Grab food on the way, barricade.”

Sylvester nodded.  “I’d hurry.”

Some hurried.  Others paused.  Half of the shapes and figures that remained were hesitant, wondering if they could hurt him.  The other half, maybe a third, were the truly loyal.  Paul and Red would be among them.  They were waiting because they weren’t sure if they needed to protect him.

“I’ll walk away if you do,” a thing with a bird’s skull for a head said.  Something indistinct throbbed behind the eye sockets.

“You guys take the other staircase,” the Davis figure said.  “We watch each other through the glass.”

The bird skull nodded.  “What should we do with this one?”

Sylvester looked at the shape that knelt beside the bird skulled boy.  It bled from a face wound, hugging itself within a corset of its own flesh.

“You’ve killed worse monsters with less hesitation,” Melancholy said.

“I’ll handle it,” Sylvester said.

“If you’re sure,” the bird skull said.

In that, they started to retreat, the Davis-thing’s group matching the other.  Only a few lingered.  Shirley, Bo Peep.  Pierre.

“Would the others want you to take this course of action?”

Sylvester, unable to definitively picture the Lambs’ faces, could only imagine the way Gordon’s voice had broken in that final exchange of words, Hubris’ sigh, the movement of Jamie’s hands as he’d sat on that stone throne with technology threaded through it, the way Lillian had covered her eyes while crying.

So much pain and anger.

“Yes,” he said.

Even with all that his mind was doing to make the people he was looking at less sympathetic, he was very aware of the look of disappointment on Shirley’s face.

She left, and Sylvester remained where he was.

He was left alone in the broader Lab One area, waiting, aware of the fact that he wasn’t even positive of his environment anymore.  Stepping into that elaborate office in Radham had been the crossing of a line that made the rest of it so easy to lose.

Junior’s group came back down the stairs, still escorting a bound and gagged Ferres.  They had crates of food.

“Wish us luck,” the thing that had been Junior said.

Sylvester didn’t trust himself to speak.

He waited, listening, as the doors to the surgery theater were shut, locked, and furniture scraped against the ground.

He walked, and he walked with only the company of his enemies, his regrets, and his disembodied thoughts.

Anger, in early childhood, could so easily be conveyed with a punch to a pillow.  A sharper, less sensible anger could lead to punching a wall, breaking something. Despair, pain, loneliness, they warranted tears.  More severe despair warranted wails.  Screams.

More severe action, like the notion that he could have intervened with the expiration of two of his brothers?  There was no physical dimension for that kind of expression.

He wasn’t sure the version of events or the train of logic was correct.  He wasn’t sure how Lillian had been convinced, when she had access to their records.  He could assign some blame to the fact that a clever architect and the fact that Lillian had been raised with this broader expectation, and the fact that so many experiments were also set up to destroy themselves sooner than later, to protect the Academy’s control over things.

But he knew and believed that Ferres had started acting like she had something she could use around the time the topic of expirations and the looming deadlines had come up.

She likely thought he would cave, that she could bargain, make a promise to postpone or avert this calculated extinction of Lambkind.  Very possibly a lie or a half truth.

He doubted it had really been him that had done that damage to her, on his recognition of that blatant attempt at manipulation.

It would be him that acted on this instance of learning Ferres’ truth.

“Come,” he spoke, grabbing the back of a neck that belonged to the thing with the bleeding face.  It made high pitched sounds as it stumbled, trying to keep up with him.

Lab One was an expansive area, with its open space, tables, cabinets, and space for the larger experiments.  Some of those experiments were more visible now that the crowd had left.  They watched the proceedings with lazy, drugged expressions.

There were five ways out of Lab One.  Two sets of stairs, one on each side, a north door to the surgical area, and then two paths that folded around, leading to places onlookers couldn’t readily see.

One of those places was where this thing with the bleeding face had come from.  The Betty-thing.  The rows of cells that had once held fairy tales.

The other was where the beasts were.

“The Big Bad Wolf,” Sylvester said.  “It hunts Red.  Why?”

“What?  Please.  Don’t hurt me.”

“Cooperate and I won’t.  Tell me how they work.  Pheromones?”

“Keywords, for most.”

“Like Mary,” Percy said.  “Hopefully these keywords work better.”

Sylvester spoke, his voice low, “There were storylines.  Ones for if the birthday boy wanted adventure, one for if they wanted slaughter.  It wasn’t ruled out that they might want to set the wolf on the innocent.  On other experiments.”

“Please-” Betty said.

Was it?

“It’s in the books,” was her reluctant answer.

Sylvester shoved the Betty-thing toward the collected volumes.  “Find it.  Cooperate and you live through this.”

Glass windows blinked.  Branches that encased them throbbed.  The Lady of Hackthorn was very much alive.  She might even have felt the anticipation and barely restrained emotion that Sylvester himself felt.

“Here.”

The book had been opened to the right page.

“Like uttering a spell, isn’t it?” the Snake Charmer asked.

Sylvester held the book, looking at the wolf.  “How dark it is, inside the wolf.”

The wolf turned its attention to him.  Whatever haze of drugs had gripped it fell away in moments.

“Raise your muzzle, blackest of wolves, howl, and we shall howl with you.  Hunt, and we shall hunt with you.  Bloody those claws and fill that belly, and we shall draw blood and feast alongside you.  All…”

Sylvester touched the great black wolf’s snout, moving it to ensure the Wolf had a good look at all of the other experiments present.

“…who you see, all bear the pelts of wolves.  The rest are yours to take.”

In an instant, the great black wolf moved, leaving the stable area, claws scratching floor.

“How dark it is, inside the wolf,” Sylvester said to himself.  He tore out a page and stuck it into a pocket.

“Do you realize what you just did?  It’s going to kill everything it can find,” Betty said.

Rather than ask her to point out the words, knowing what he was looking for.

Sub Rosa stood by and watched as he found the entry for the nightmare.

This would only be the beginning.  Below were smaller labs.  Ones with weapons meant to be more practical.

“A king of your own court,” the Baron said.  “The subjects cowed  with fear.”

Sylvester sat at the highest point he could that also gave him a view of the rest of the Academy.  It was a point he had found earlier, at the stairs that overlooked the dining area, the bridges to the various buildings, and the dormitories.

He was the king of his own court, but it was a lonely one.  Here and there, his vassals would appear.  The Red Bull, the Black Wolf, the Rat Mother, the Poison Apple, the Hag, the Giant, or a host of scurrying parasites.  They would naturally pass through in the course of going from one place to the next.

The thing that had once been Betty sat on a stair below him, her head near his knee.  The more time went on, the less she talked.

One bridge burned.  The fires were a way to keep things from entering the administration building.

“The lie built the Crown up to be something grand.  Some learned the truth, but they twisted the lie so they could keep it close to their hearts.  The Duke of Francis was one of them,” the Baron said.

The Rat Mother’s children dragged a morsel across the floor of the dining hall, to a dark place where they could devour it.  To Sylvester’s eye it was more monster than the Rat Mother’s children.  But by its size, it was a child – a boy.  The child extended a hand toward Sylvester.  One of the three blind mice, perhaps?

“For others, for us, one way or another, we let the truth destroy what the lie had built.  It destroyed something in us.  We ended up very similar, you and I, didn’t we?”

The Baron laughed that laugh again.  It hadn’t been the first time in the last hour, nor the fifth, nor the tenth.

Sylvester told himself the child the Rat Mother’s children had been dragging was a hallucination.  The last few had.

He remained where he was, holding his court hostage, every one of his muscles tense.

The Academy was absolutely under control, now.

“This is too lonely an existence, isn’t it?” Percy asked.  “It’s wretched.”

Sylvester sat.  Rain drummed against the glass ceiling.  It was doing a number on the protective fires.  Some of the experiments were out there in the gloom – the muffet spider’s eyes glowed in the dark as it scaled the outside wall of the dormitory, looking for its way in, periodically breaking a window.

“Didn’t you see the books?” Percy asked.  “Yes, there were books for the bigger monsters.  There were scripts and scenarios, a play waiting for the young master to arrive on his birthday, as central actor and director both.  But there were books for the others.”

Sylvester had lost track of time.  The overcast sky and storm didn’t help, as they made it so dark that the sun wouldn’t penetrate if it had risen.

It felt like it had been a long time.  Ships should have come, but the storm might have been postponing them.

“Key phrases.  Drugs.  Pheromones.  With Ferres being who she is, there’s no way she would allow a circumstance where she would have to say no.  No way to allow a reality where she would tell the young master or his family no, we can’t do that.”

Percy walked up stairs and down them, a narrow boy in tidy clothes, hair slicked back.

“The young master being a young boy, the experiments being attractive and of an age with him… some of them with you, too, you know the means exists to… suggest they comply.”

Sylvester flinched.

“She wanted to make him a small god.  You’ve stolen that, and now you are that small god, aren’t you?  You have those means.”

“I wanted Ferres to suffer for a number of reasons,” Sylvester said.  “That was one of them.”

“And he talks,” Percy said.  He leaned in close.  “The resolve weakens, and I make some headway.  Now listen, and I’ll make more.”

Sylvester leaned forward, sitting so his hands were over his ears.  It made Betty stir awake with a jolt.  She made frightened sounds as she realized where she was, said something that Sylvester didn’t hear because Percy was talking.

Percy’s voice filtered through, as if the fingers weren’t there at all.  “You don’t have to be ungentlemanly as you go about it, Sylvester.  You’re fond of the little girl with the woolen hair, aren’t you?  A friendly face, gentle, and well meaning.  We can bring her here, and with a few words or the right syringe, we can make her feel absolutely safe, when she might otherwise feel frightened.”

Sylvester shook his head, leaving the hands where they were.

“She can stroke your back, or sleep with her head in your lap, or she can sing, because they can all sing, and you’ll be able to rest, and you’ll sleep, which you desperately need to do.”

Frantic screams from the direction that the rats had dragged the blind mouse made Sylvester nearly jump from his seat.

Betty hadn’t moved, he realized in the last moment.  She was still restless.  She flinched at the sight of any of the other experiments, large or small.  Keywords protected her from the former.  The pheromones Sylvester had dabbed on himself would help for most of the latter, while forcing her to keep close so she benefited from the same chemical triggers and protections.  She kept moving her head, looking around, jumping at sounds.

Sylvester was silent.  He wanted to touch Betty, to say something, anything to urge her to relax, because her anxiety so easily communicated to him.

“Is she supposed to help you?” Percy asked.  “If we’re going to get you moving and resolving things, then we’ll have to start with her, then.”

Sylvester sat draped across steps, the stone and wood digging into his back in places.  He avoided looking at the fire that consumed one of the dormitories, shut his ears to the distant shouts.

Cynthia sat nearby, a knife whittling away at a piece of wood, not to create anything, but to reduce it to nothing.

Betty lay on the steps below, her limbs bent at odd angles, her face distorted by the way the weight of her body pushed it down into tile.  She bled from a throat wound.

Sylvester avoided looking at that too.

Mounting anxiety and self-doubt warred within him, at stark odds to the view he had of the clouds overhead, moon peeking through them.  The rain had slowed, becoming a mere drizzle, and the raindrops were like stars against the void, each one of them catching the light from the burning dormitory.

A lot of the time, the things he saw were relatively fleeting.  People came and went.  Images came and went.

But Betty remained dead.  The fires slowly crept over the dormitory building, and anyone who tried to take action to put them out was picked off by warbeasts and things that hunted.

In this, Cynthia was patient.  She would outlast him, because she was his ugly desire to survive, to dig past the pain and crawl forward on wounded limbs, and that would endure long after his mind did.

It would endure, at this rate, well beyond the Beattle and Hackthorn rebels.

“Sylvester,” Jessie said.

Sylvester flinched.

He didn’t want to look up.

“Sy.”

He didn’t want to respond.

“We’re back to this, huh?  Like it was in Tynewear, after I caught up to you?”

He swallowed hard.

“I’m sorry I had to come back alone.  They did too much damage.  Mary and Lillian had to stay back.  Duncan didn’t want to come if the others weren’t coming.  We might see him later – he couldn’t stay at the Academy with the threat the Infante posed.  Helen went after Mauer and didn’t come back.”

Sylvester gripped the edge of the stair with his hands, eyes fixed on the ground.

“But I came back.  I will always come back, okay?”

Jessie advanced another few steps, the sound of shoe scuffs loud in the empty dining hall.

“And what we were doing, we can give it an honest try.  Us against the most powerful people in the world.  How does that sound?”

Sylvester’s eye moved to Betty’s body, still there.

“Not that good?  Can- can you please give me a bit of a response, Sy?  Let me know there’s something of you still in there?”

There was uncharacteristic emotion in Jessie’s voice.

“Will you let me come up to you?  Can I give you a hug?  A kiss?  I’ve sort of missed you.”

Sylvester listened to the footsteps.

“You numbskull,” she said, voice soft.

He lashed out, swiping at her with the knife, still not looking.

It was only after a long paralyzing minute where he wondered if he would look up and see Jessie bleeding from a throat wound that he finally allowed himself to look.

No Jessie.  Nothing there.

Sylvester moved the knife back to his lap.  He looked at his hand, where a bruise drew a line across the palm, black, purple and green.

He brought the hand back down to the stair, the line meeting the edge of the stair.  Firmly in position, and he gripped it hard.

“I know you just had an appointment,” Mrs. Earles said.  “I know you’re usually surly.”

“It was a bad one,” Sylvester said.  “I can’t even think straight.  Can’t remember things.”

Her hand brushed through his hair, stroking his head.

“Enjoy the moment.  Spend time with your friends.”

While I can.

The thought came unbidden.

The door to the kitchen was open, and the sun was shining.  Now and then the orphans went in and out of the kitchen, grabbing glasses from the edge of the table to drink them as fast as possible before hurrying outside again, as if every bit of summer possible had to be used to best effect.

Sylvester drew a foot up onto the bench he sat on, knee against his chest.  His hands hurt, bruises crossing them.

“Mary’s doing what I told her not to, and she’s tying up her dress so it won’t get in the way while she climbs the tree.  For such a young lady, she’s such a tomboy sometimes.”

Sylvester nodded.

“Someone should tell Lillian that if she follows suit and breaks something, it could get in the way of her studies.  Gordon’s helping her.”

“She’d accuse me of looking up her skirt or something.”

“If you’re concerned about that, you should stop looking up her skirt.”

He allowed himself a snort of a laugh.

“Sylvesterrrrr!” a voice called out.  Helen’s.  “Jamie’s going to draw us!  Come sit on the branch with us!”

Sylvester fixed his eyes on the table.  Mrs. Earles continued stroking his hair.

“If you wanted to sit and be quiet, I don’t think Jamie would mind the company,” she said.

Sylvester shook his head, even though there wasn’t anything else in the world he wanted as much as that.

He remained where he was.

He heard the footsteps.  There were no voices.

His hand found the knife.

He raised his head just enough to see the feet, the shoes.

Before he could finish counting, one of those sets of feet broke into a run.

One, two, three, four, five, six…

He finished the count just in time.  There were enough of them.

The knife fell from his hand, and danced down the steps.  He let his guard down, and he welcomed the embrace, fully aware that if this was a trick, if this was the ploy that his own head pulled on him, then he was done with, the last remnant of him would be gone.

It was a painfully tight hug, and it made the bruises where his lower back met the stairs flare in agony as the weight of her pressed against his front.

Lillian still smelled like Lillian.  She still felt like Lillian.

“Move aside, Betty,” Jessie said.  “Stay close, but let me by, here.”

Betty, still sitting next to Sylvester, got out of the way.  Jessie hugged Sylvester as well, and she kissed the side of his face.  He turned his head and she kissed him properly, before resting her forehead against his.

His bruised hand trembled a little from exhaustion as he fixed the position of her glasses.

“I tried to stay put,” he said.

“Shh.  It’s fine.”

“I wanted to minimize the damage I could do.”

Duncan, standing very close by, gave a short laugh.

“Shush, Duncan,” Lillian said, her face still buried in Sylvester’s front.  “Don’t even say anything.”

“Yeah,” Duncan said.  He wasn’t one to join the hug, but he reached out, taking Sylvester’s hand.  Almost shaking it, almost holding it.  “Sorry.”

Sylvester shook his head.  There was no need for apologies.  He squeezed his friend’s hand.

Helen joined the hug-pile, and she was very good at fitting herself into it.  Ashton followed her.

Even Mary, hesitant, joined in.

All together.

He’d told himself that he would trust in the Lambs, that nothing else would do for letting his guard down, for letting them close, or for listening to them.

“The Infante isn’t coming,” Jessie said.  “None of the important ones are.  The Infante clued into the Duke, he attacked, and now they’re getting defenses in order.”

“It’s fine,” Sylvester said.  “It’s fine.”

They were together.

“Betty’s alive.  I didn’t kill her.”

“Yes, Sy,” Jessie confirmed.

That vision of her had laid there for what might have been a night and a day, convincing him she was dead.

“The dormitory building, did it burn?”

“No, Sy.”

“Is there- is there a blood trail there, where the rats dragged one of the children away?”

“No, Sy.”

“Is- did Bo Peep die?”

“Not as far as I’m aware, Sy.”

“Did Shirley?  Pierre?”

“No sign of anything happening to Shirley, Sy.  Pierre’s off helping with getting children to the West Corinth orphanage.  He doesn’t like staying in one place, remember?”

Sylvester nodded.  “Don’t lie to me.”

“No lies.  I promise.”

“Did I kill Davis?  His body would be on the stairs.”

“No, Sy,” Jessie said.

Lillian made a small sound.

“Okay,” he said, his voice soft.  “I’ll stop asking the questions.”

“You should ask as many as you need to,” Lillian said.

“No,” he said.  “After.  And maybe for a while yet.”

“Okay,” she said.  “If that’s how it is.”

“It is,” Ashton chimed in, finally.

They were together.  All back together, finally.

He had had more than enough time to think, in a roundabout, not-really-thinking way.  That line of thinking, coupled with the swelling feeling in his chest, it made him feel like conquering the world wasn’t out of the question.

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