Our conversation had to stop for a moment when a group of boys veered our way, kicking a ball between them. They circled the tree that was holding up one corner of the glass roof, then headed off toward their makeshift goals.
“The lunch hour is going to end before too long,” Jamie said. “We should hammer out details.”
“Sy’s idea, making sure we’re all on the same page…” Gordon said. “Okay, that makes sense. Sy?”
“Hold on. I can change details based on where you guys are at. Fill me in, quick.”
“Okay. As far as everyone here knows, including the headmistress and the rest of the faculty, I’m the son of a butcher mogul, Helen is the daughter of a diplomat, and Jamie is the orphan son of a military captain who died and left him some money. At Jamie’s suggestion, the story is that we were all staying at the orphanage as a matter of convenience before our enrollment at Mothmont. Favors were called in, whatever. It’s happened before, given the ties between Lambsbridge and Radham Academy, and it’s not going to surprise anyone.”
“I’ve been here before,” Lillian said. “Before I was a student at the Academy. Teachers know me, they like me. We leaked the idea that I was suspended, and the rules of Mothmont mean I can come back here whenever, to get some classes in, use facilities or brush up. I might have to explain to my parents, but I think it’s okay. Nobody’s asked how I know you guys, but I don’t think it’s a problem.”
“I suggested the ‘ties to the orphanage’ thing because I recognized faces among the students, and those faces have probably seen us out and about as a group,” Jamie said.
“Overall, we have a cover,” Gordon elaborated, “Nothing so questionable that anyone’s going to raise questions. But people have a way of taking things at face value, and this situation hasn’t really bucked the trend.”
“Except for the attempts on your life,” I said.
“Except for that. But there aren’t any holes in what we’re saying that should have raised suspicions,” Gordon said.
I nodded. “Mr. Hayle filled me in on most of that, but it’s good to have the details. He said he was intentionally vague about who I was, so I could adapt as the situation required. He did say that it was a special favor from the orphanage to work me in later than the rest of you.”
“Really,” Gordon said. He smiled a little, “Why would the orphanage be so eager to get rid of you?”
“Because I’m intolerable,” I replied, smiling back.
“Going by the fact that we’ve been seen together, and we’re being seen together now, who are you, and how do we know you?” Gordon asked.
I shrugged, and I was reminded of just how uncomfortable the uniform was, and the spots where it was rubbing against the new skin. “I’m an orphan. We were about the same age, I offered to show you around town.”
“That won’t go over well,” Gordon said.
“I’m betting it won’t,” I said. “Scrubby kid with messy hair from wrong side of the tracks. I’ll stick out.”
“Which is your plan,” Gordon concluded.
“In part. But before that… what have you done so far? What angles have been covered?”
“Oh, you know me,” Gordon said. “It’s only been a week and I’m almost the best student in my class, best at sports, and most can’t even bring themselves to hate me for it. I’ve been mingling with the top dogs among the boys here. Helen’s done the same for the girls. Between the two of us, we’ve been able to get the word on who the victims were, as well as keep an eye out for who the potential victims might be.”
“Less than I’d like. We’ve asked for extra help to get up to speed with our classes, and that’s let us keep an ear to the ground when it comes to the faculty. There’s a chance that the person turning children into murder weapons is one of the teachers.”
“Only a chance?”
“Every weekend, students go to the Academy. Get a taste of it, keeps them invested in Mothmont. Split up into groups based on interest and age. Students who were extra good get special lessons with professors.”
“That’s… messy,” I said. “Too many things to cover. You didn’t visit me?”
“I was recovering from being poisoned,” Gordon said. “Lillian was hovering, making sure nobody had reason to get too curious about me. That left only Helen and Jamie, and they were busy following up on likelies.”
“Poison, huh? I wasn’t expecting that.”
“That was the most successful attempt out of the three, two for me, one for Jamie. One object fell from the roof, almost caving Helen’s head in, and Jamie very nearly got pushed in front of a fast moving coach while he was on his way to the Academy. Helen saved him.”
I nodded slowly. “No sightings?”
“They’re careful. And they’re a they, we’re pretty sure. Plural.”
“Okay,” I said. “Starting to get a more complete mental picture.”
My eyes glanced over the collection of youths around us. Would there be overt signs? They couldn’t be too obvious, or the others would have noticed.
Without knowing more about how the murders were being done, I didn’t know what to look for. We were surrounded, and letting our guard down could be dangerous.
Jamie, maybe thinking I was still hurt that they hadn’t come for me, commented, “I looked for you at the Tower, poked my head into Hayle’s department, to check the labs to see if you were around, and because I wanted to ask a quick question about Gordon and the poison. I got word on where you were, but I didn’t have much time to look around.”
Hm. I probably would have been where Jamie looked for me if I hadn’t barred myself in the office after my appointment. Live and learn.
The Tower, Mr. Hayle’s department opposite end of the Academy campus from the Hedge where I’d been, was largely focused on research and development regarding the brain. Widely viewed as a dead end, the department had defaulted to handling a lot of information storage, memory banks, and files.
If Jamie had been there… I spoke my thoughts aloud, “Jamie went to the Tower because… you guys were thinking about mind control? Something to do with the brain?”
“We were thinking it could be some neurological manipulation,” Jamie said. “Helen was looking into hormones and drugs at Claret Hall.”
Claret Hall being the center of campus, where students gathered and ate, where key administration facilities were available, and where some of the key elements of the campus and core classes were taught. If all aspects of Radham flowed from the Academy, then all aspects of the Academy flowed from Claret Hall.
“And you didn’t find anything,” I said. “If you had, you would have told me.”
“Nothing meaningful,” Jamie said.
Gordon’s head turned. I followed his gaze. Students were still playing, gathering in groups, but his focus wasn’t on the students. “More teachers appearing around the doors.”
“Trouble?” I asked.
“In a way. We’re out of time. Lunch is over. If you’re going to fill us in, now’s the time to do it.”
“We’re close enough to the door that people will see us,” I observed. “Everyone but Helen, keep an eye on the crowd. Don’t be obvious about it, but keep an eye out for hints.”
“What am I doing?” Helen asked.
A shrill whistle drew the attention of the various students. It sounded again. A teacher was signaling for others to come indoors. Hordes of students began moving toward the doors. Some lingered, like we were, and some were quickly wrapping up their games.
“Fix my hair,” I instructed Helen, “Give me a kiss on the cheek or something, be tender about it.”
“I like you?” Helen asked.
“You’re a big sister to me, but actually acting like a normal big sister. It can be misinterpreted.”
She hadn’t quite adopted her deadpan expression, but as I gave my order, her expression changed. She smiled, and it was warm.
“Your hair is a mess,” she said, and her voice matched her expression. She reached up and fussed with it, running her long fingernails against my scalp as she fixed it up a bit. Probably better than I could have if I’d had a comb and more time. She fixed the hair that went from the center of my hairline to my temple, brushing it up and more out of the way, and then let her hand linger, a quarter second too long. “You should focus more on appearances.”
“I should,” I said. “There’s time to learn.”
“I can always teach you the particulars,” she said. “If you’re able to keep yourself in one piece long enough. I’m glad to see you’ve been put back together.”
She gave me a rub on the arm where I’d been burned, then leaned close to kiss me on the forehead.
Again, her face remained closer to mine for just a heartbeat longer than it needed to. With the proximity, I couldn’t help but think that I found her scarier than I’d found the snake charmer’s experiment. I knew it was purely my imagination, but I imagined it was how I’d feel if I was dropped in a tiger’s enclosure at the zoo, the resident sitting the same distance from me.
Still, I smiled. “I like me being in one piece too.”
I didn’t look, but I was very aware that of the large group that was filing into the door, a great many boys were paying a great deal of attention to the exchange.
“In we go,” I said. “Keep an eye out.”
We joined the crowd. Gordon took up the rear, guarding our backs.
I only realized at the last second that him watching our backs was a bad thing. A hand reached out in my peripheral vision, and Gordon caught it.
“Woah there, Bruno,” a boy our age said, “Ease up.”
Gordon let go of the hand. “Calling me names, now?”
“Just poking fun. I’m a pal, Gordon. Relax,” the boy said. He pulled his hand free of Gordon’s grip.
The boy was dark haired, with dark brown eyes, but very much of the same type as Gordon. Big, healthy in stature and build without showing a hint of being fat, handsome, and confident enough that he was probably one of the top dogs. Between me and Gordon in size, a couple inches taller than me, an inch shorter than Gordon. Twelve or so?
He smiled at me. “Who’s slick here?”
“Sy. Sylvester if you want to be polite,” Gordon said. “Showed us around before we made our way to Mothmont. Sylvester, this is Ed. Ed is a good guy to know if you want to know people. We’ve been hanging out.”
“Nice way to put it. You mentioned you’d figured out where things were,” the boy said. “Hi Helen, Lil, and Ja- James?”
We were moving with the rest of the crowd, heading into the school proper. I was very aware of those who were moving past me. If they were as brazen as the others had insinuated, I wasn’t sure a knife wouldn’t find one of us while we were part of this press of bodies.
“Tell me about yourself, Sy,” Ed urged me.
“Nothing to tell,” I said. “I’m nobody important.”
Reel him in…
Ed laughed, but it was a laugh for his own benefit, and probably for the others who were watching from a distance. “You don’t get into Mothmont without being important somehow.”
“Got in on an ask,” I said. “I’m from the orphanage.”
“Yeah?” he asked, and there was interest in his voice, with a hint of something else. The question had more than basic curiosity backing it. “How’s that work?”
“Someone liked me, I guess,” I said. I shot Helen a smile. She smiled back.
“That’s not really an answer, buddy,” he said, but there was a bit of a push to the statement. Insistence. Not just that, but really, ‘buddy’? He was acting like he was an adult and I was the kid, but he only had a few inches on me. It irritated, and I was feeling particularly irritable.
“Only answer I’m going to give,” I said. “Don’t worry about it.”
I saw a flicker of annoyance on his face. He blew a bit of air through his lips, “Pff. I was just being friendly, there’s no need to brush me off.”
“I’m not brushing you off. I’m hinting that you’re butting your nose in where it isn’t wanted.”
Ed laughed, again, and I could hear a distinct difference between the laugh now and the laugh just a few seconds ago. Tighter at the edges. More forced than natural.
We were in the hallway between various classrooms, and the crowd was thinning out, which made me feel a little less worried for my own skin. The classrooms each had windows between the class and the hallway, and the window frames were grown, large pieces of broken glass collected with what looked like tree branches growing to hold them in place, glass effectively filling the gaps between each branch. Past those windows and the classrooms, I could see the yard and the street beyond the school.
Things were so clean. Bright, crisp, all polished and white-painted wood. I didn’t like it when things were this done-up. It felt dishonest. Nicer people tried to make something look, the less I trusted it.
A place as nice as this, trying to be classy? Murderous students felt like the least of its problems.
“Sy’s usually like this,” Gordon said, “Don’t worry about it, Ed.”
Ed was smiling, but it was a forced smile in the same way the laugh had been. “I’m not worried, really. I just have to wonder about the company you keep.”
“Wonder? Why?” I asked. Keeping him talking, talking on his feet. I was more comfortable with a fast-moving conversation than most.
“You’ve been given a rosy opportunity like this, kid like you in a place like this, me offering a hand in friendship, and you snub me? Not wise, limiting yourself like that.”
“Kid like me, huh?” Force him to justify, put myself apparently off balance, trying to adjust, adapt…
“Kid like you. Of less established breeding, no offense.”
He totally meant offense. It killed me that he was giving me a golden line like that and I couldn’t give it what it deserved. I had to go easy.
“No offense taken,” I said, smiling. There was a teacher not too far away, watching the children in the hallway, making sure her students made their way to her class without dallying. I gave my response, smiling at him. “It’s funny.”
He didn’t seem to comprehend. Now I had the reins of the dialogue. He was forced to ask. “Funny?”
“Someone clearly inbred talking about my breeding. It-”
He grabbed me by the front of my uniform and shoved me against the wall, hard. Some students around us gasped, stopping in their tracks or forming a loose circle around us.
The teacher had noticed, and was heading our way.
“Woah there, Bruno,” I echoed him from earlier.
He pulled me away, then shoved me against the wall again.
Then there was laughter.
Helen. She had one hand to her mouth, and in her attempts to stifle a giggle, she ‘accidentally’ snorted.
Ed stared at her. There was something raw in the look.
Whatever else he was, he was still only twelve or so. He could be good with words, handsome, smart, whatever else it took to be one of the top dogs of Mothmont, but he was new to liking girls, and he was very conscious of his other friends, who were hanging back, watching.
“Sorry,” she told him. “Really, Edward, I’m sorry. But you have to admit Sy’s line was funny.”
I love you, Helen, I thought. She’d figured out my angle and here she was, supporting me perfectly.
The teacher was forging his way through the ring of students. Ed had noticed, and he had to save face. Had it not been for Helen, he might have socked me one in the stomach and left it be until later. But he couldn’t very well hit me without going against her.
He was cornered.
“This isn’t over,” he said. “We’re going to continue this later.”
“Are we? Easy to say, but so many chicken out.”
He leaned close and whispered, “After classes, in the corner of the yard, where the two trees will give us some privacy,” he said, making a show of letting go of my uniform.
“I’ll believe it when I see you there,” I murmured my response.
The teacher broke through. Ed pulled away, hands in the air.
“What’s this?” the teacher asked, stern, one hand on her hip.
“Nothing,” I said. “All good.”
“All good,” Ed joined in. “Just playing.”
She gave us a curious look. “Get to your classes. Mary, Eliza, I see you talking there, get to your desks, I’m starting the lesson soon.”
Her attention was already elsewhere, gathering up and ordering around kids she knew she had clout with. The rest fell in step.
“I’m disappointed, Gordon,” Ed said.
“We can talk later?” Gordon asked. “Don’t want bad blood between us.”
“Maybe, sure,” Ed said, but Gordon wasn’t his focus here, or even second in his focus. The boy left, turning his back to Helen and me as he rejoined friends, hands in his pockets.
Lillian and Helen hurried to their next class, Helen shooting me a smile.
“When you set your mind to it, you’re remarkably good at getting people to hate you,” Gordon said. “Poor sap.”
“Me or him?”
“Him,” Gordon said, sounding offended at the question. “You and Helen teaming up on him. Why’d you go and do that to him? You knew you’d get someone’s goat by having Helen be gentle to you, and you did, and then you twisted the damn knife. If you wanted to verify that he wasn’t one of the people who were trying to kill us, you could have asked me.”
“Oh, I wasn’t thinking that,” I said.
“What were you thinking, then?”
“They say when you go to prison, you should murder someone or join a gang. Idea is that you want to figure out the pecking order and fit yourself into it somehow.”
“Uh huh,” Gordon said. He glanced around, noting that the number of students in the hallway had thinned out pretty dramatically. We were almost alone, and the students that were around were hurrying. “This isn’t prison.”
“The hell it isn’t. But that’s beside the point.”
“Then why bring it up?” He was quick to retort.
I sighed, “I’m establishing the pecking order.”
“Sy,” he said. He put both hands on my shoulders, leaning close. “I hate to say it…”
“You love to say it.”
“In all the years I’ve known you, watching you from the beginning, I have never ever known you to win a fight. Or even put in a good showing.”
“I didn’t say I’d be at the top of the pecking order,” I protested.
Gordon stepped back, and he looked at Jamie.
“To be fair, he didn’t,” Jamie said.
“We just got him back, and we’re going to have to send him right back to the Academy for more medical care,” Gordon said.
“It won’t be that bad,” I protested, again.
“What are you shooting for, Sly?” Jamie asked. “Gotta fill us in.”
“You guys stalled because you’re too safe. Were you watching the crowd?”
“Yeah,” Gordon said. Jamie nodded.
“Anyone paying too much attention? Trying not to look like they were looking?”
Gordon shook his head.
“A few faces caught my eye,” Jamie said. “I can point them out later.”
“We shake things up, see what happens,” I said. “What moves, what doesn’t, what doesn’t move like it should. We pay attention to what comes next, and we might get clues. I just happened to draw everyone’s attention, and whoever was paying attention to you lot is paying extra special attention to me now. I’m betting they’re confused.”
“I suspect the only person who really gets how you think is you, Sy,” Gordon said.
“Helen gets me,” I said.
“Helen is-” Gordon started. “Yeah.”
“I get it too. But you should be ready. You might be a target, Sy,” Jamie said.
“I know. I expect it. You guys have been worrying about knives in the back or poisonings up until now, it’s only fair I have my turn at it. The way and timing of their response is going to be important, so keep your eyes open.”
Gordon and Jamie nodded.
We were getting dirty looks from teachers that were just starting their classes.
“Pass it on to the girls?” I asked.
“I will,” Gordon said. “Watch yourselves.”
Jamie and I resumed our trek to our class.
“He’s not good at this,” Jamie said. “This kind of task.”
“Yeah,” I said, glancing back at Gordon.
“His talents don’t really lend themselves to it. Maybe one day, but not today.”
“This is more my domain,” I said. “Helen’s. Yours to a lesser degree.”
“Speaking of your domain, what’s the scoop on the guy I just picked a fight with?”
“I don’t know. He’s not in our classes. Gordon’s kept an eye on him, I haven’t had a reason to.”
“You’re not worried, are you?”
“I figured if I had a few choice attacks I could fire his way, I could position myself better. I don’t want to be at the very bottom of any pecking orders.”
“Uh huh,” Jamie said. “I’ll find out.”
Jamie’s long hair was pulled back into a sailor’s ponytail, low and resting against the neck, which wasn’t how he normally wore it. It was nearly invisible with his collar up. I reached out and flicked it with my finger.
He jabbed me in response, which prompted me to bump his shoulder with my own, almost sending him into the nearest classroom door. He did the same to me, to less effect.
The exchange continued for a few seconds, until he stopped all at once. “Stop, we’re at the class. They’ll see.”
I immediately fell back into a regular walk, pulling my uniform top down. Still in the hallway, we had to walk by the tree-branch window that ran along the length of the classroom to reach the door. Jamie pushed his glasses up his nose and fixed his ponytail.
When he was all fixed up, I surreptitiously gave him a jab in the side of his stomach with one of my fingers.
“I’ll get you for that,” he murmured. He opened the door.
“You’re late,” the teacher said.
“The headmistress said Jamie should show me around,” I said.
The woman pursed her lips. “I see. Take your seats, please. You can sit by Jamie…”
“Sylvester. Thank you. Get the notes from Jamie later. For now, just sit and follow what you can.” She walked over to her desk and made a note on what I assumed was an attendance list.
I was very aware of the subtle smiles or glances from various students. Ones that had seen Ed pushing me up against the wall, knowing full well that I’d been stretching the truth. My eye quickly traveled over the boys and girls that weren’t smiling.
I wouldn’t be able to remember the particulars, which ones looked like they were trying too hard not to look at me, or who weren’t.
“Now, back to what I was saying. Wollstone’s ratios are used in seventy percent of what you’ll be doing if you go on to attend the Academy. The golden ratio, seen here, could be said to be the precursor to what would eventually be Wollstone’s nine ratios. With a few quick measurements, we can quickly divine which of the nine ratios is used for a given organism’s physical structure or composition, and working backward, so long as we can keep to the ratio, we can trust that the organism has the fundamental supports for life.
“For example, if you’ll turn to page seventy-five, we can see where the fundamental pattern of a cat is outlined. Keeping to Wollstone’s ‘wise’ ratio, we can discern which parts of the pattern apply to specific parts of the cat. Now, it gets more complicated when we decide to alter the pattern, or the how of it, but you should begin to have a glimmer of how a ratio can be used as a shortcut to understanding…”
My forehead hit the desk. I closed my eyes and tried to fall asleep.
To his credit, Ed did know how to throw a punch. He knew how to throw ten.
To my credit, I managed to stay on my feet until the tenth punch. I didn’t manage to deliver anything substantial in the meantime, but I wasn’t curling up into a ball and crying uncle.
The group of students around us was smaller than I would have liked. The Lambsbridge orphans, Ed and Gordon’s friends, and Helen’s group. Girls for Ed to impress. Maybe it would make up for my baiting him, if he got to look good in front of some girls.
Landing at the base of the tree, I took a second to catch my breath. I raised a hand to make Ed stop.
“You done?” he asked. “You’re not going to say anything about my family again?”
“I didn’t say anything until you-“
I saw him bringing a fist back, ready to hit me again.
I opened my mouth wide, wincing at the feeling at the corner of my jaw. Tight.
In the process, I saw a movement in the corner of my eye.
There weren’t many windows that offered a good look at the scene. Three trees had been planted at one corner of the yard, between the glass roof and the building, and they blocked the view from many of the nearby windows. They also served to keep most of the rain off us. Only the girls were wearing hoods and jackets, and I was getting dirty, but not muddy, which was better.
We hadn’t been obvious about our fight, and anyone who had a reason to watch was going to be part of this crowd. But, still, three boys had paid enough attention to us to know the fight was happening, and had found one vantage point inside where they could peer past the gaps in the branches and watch what was happening. One, thirteen or so, was standing in a way that let the curtain block the lower half of his face. The other was far younger, nine or ten, and was leaning forward, hands folded on the windowsill, peering over the bottom of the window to look down at me. The third was somewhere between the two in age, and hung far enough back to be hidden in the gloom of an unlit classroom.
The look in their eyes was clear enough.
As curious as we were about the murderous children, they were curious about us. They couldn’t know me well enough to know how I operated. Even Mr. Hayle didn’t, and he’d practically designed me.
Ed jabbed me in the middle with the toe of one shoe. “Eh?”
“We’re good,” I said. “Sorry about saying you’re inbred, Ed.”
He didn’t look appeased.
I glanced toward the classroom again. The boys were gone.
“Come on,” Gordon said. “Let’s get you looked after.”
“Saw them,” I murmured, as he helped me limp on.
“Inside. Three boys. I can give Jamie partial descriptions.”
“Three boys,” Gordon mused. “That’s not good.”
“Poisonings are usually done by women,” Helen said, as she joined us. “Meaning we’re dealing with four.”
“At least,” I agreed.