Down on the street, I could see the others making their way to a coach. Lacey’s body language changed, as she craned her head, looking in the direction of the Academy. She asked a question, and Jamie pointed to the Academy. Lacey hesitated, then headed indoors.
I started my descent the moment she was gone. Out to the front face of the building, down the branches, touching the street. For all that the ‘quarantine’ was in effect, students forming a loose circle around the school, one team erecting a tent near the entrance, I wasn’t spotted.
Getting past the perimeter that was in progress was another story.
Walk with confidence, as if you don’t expect to get caught. Be small, take advantage of your size.
People didn’t want to disturb norms. If one looked like they fit into the greater scheme of things, then it took a kind of courage to step away from the herd and stand out, challenging that. Doubly so when schools or the Academy were involved.
It was often easier to avoid the attention of ten people than it was to avoid the attention of one. Even scratches, bumps, bruises, and being soaked to the bone became invisible if one had the poise.
“Hey, you,” one of the students called out as he intercepted me.
Apparently I don’t have the poise.
I suppressed a sigh. I pitched my voice just a bit higher, my eyes wide. “I’m supposed to be in my dorm. What’s going on?”
“You’re not- you were coming in the other direction.”
“You let me walk by you,” I said, a little breathless, panicky, “then I got scared because there are so many people and then I turned around and I’m supposed to be in my dorm, why, what’s going on?”
“We didn’t let you walk by us,” one said.
“You did!” I said, in the tone that only children could pull off. One hundred percent certainty. Adults learned to doubt themselves, but a child could truly believe.
I saw the doubt on their faces. I latched on it. “You let me walk by just now. Why are you lying?”
“Why?” I asked, cutting him off. Keep him off balance.
I saw the glance, the shift in his gaze. His lips parted, about to speak.
“You-” I started.
But he ignored me, reaching for my hand, hauling it up and away from my pocket.
“You’re bleeding,” he said.
Just my luck, I couldn’t get an Academy student who was in it for the power or prestige. He had to care about the profession.
Bully for him, it probably made him a more effective student in the long run, but it didn’t help me right now.
“He’s with me,” I heard a voice state, behind me.
I cringed a little, glancing back. Lacey, who had one hand on her hip.
“That doesn’t mean anything to me,” the student said.
“I know him. He’s mentally unsound and a challenge to deal with. The blood on his hands is his own fault. He got away from his caretaker, and I need to get him back now.”
Dirty pool, Lacey, I thought. I looked up at the student, my eyes wide, my lips now slightly parted, tongue visible between my teeth. Nothing obvious, but still playing along.
“If he was in the school-”
“He was telling the truth,” Lacey said. She put a hand on my shoulder. “You let him walk right by you. I’ll vouch that he wasn’t anywhere near the sensitive areas, and I’ll stay quiet about your lapse. If you don’t make us miss our coach.”
The student glanced over at the coach where the others were already getting seated, then stepped out of the way.
Lacey guided me, her grip on my shoulder a little firmer than it needed to be. Rather, she was digging her fingernails in as if she thought I was going to run away.
We made our way to the coach. Gordon was apparently in another coach, being looked after by a few of the collected students assigned to our projects, but Helen, Jamie, Mary and Lil were inside the waiting coach. Lil had an empty syringe in hand, and Helen was occupying the whole bench beside her, head on Lil’s lap, eyes partially closed.
No adults sat inside.
“You came back pretty quick,” Jamie spoke to Lacey. “Second thoughts?”
“I find that when I’m dealing with Sylvester, directly or peripherally, and I have the little doubt in the back of my mind, I have to take a moment and second guess what I’m doing. I didn’t expect it from you, Jamie.”
“Sorry,” Jamie said. “I thought he’d come down if you left.”
“I thought as much. I asked myself, what is the most inconvenient thing he could do? Making me search the school for him, only to find the coach was gone when I step outside.”
I shrugged my way free of her claw-grip and climbed up into the coach.
“Goodbye, Sylvester,” Lacey spoke to my back.
I collapsed into the cushioned seat and looked her way, an eyebrow raised. The goodbye felt meaningful. Her expression was dead serious, driving that idea home.
“I thought about what you said,” she told me. “I don’t know what to say except that you’re right. You win. I’ve asked to be taken off your project. Professor Hayle agreed.”
I nodded. I was very aware that Mary was watching this exchange between Lacey and I.
“I want to make excuses, justify, argue, give any one of a number of responses. But I’m doing it for my sake, if I remember right, not for yours. I guess the only thing I have left to say is that it’s your loss in the end, Sylvester. You need people who know you and your history. How you’ve developed, how you operate, what you need.”
“Maybe,” I said. “But I also need the autonomy to decide who I work with. You say you know me, you get how I operate, in a lot of ways. You see that as a good thing, but it’s the opposite for me.”
She gave me a long, hard look.
“Goodbye, Sylvester,” she said, for the second time.
“Goodbye, Lacey,” I said.
She shut the door to the coach.
A moment later we were in motion, on our way to the Academy.
No chaperones, which felt odd. Was that Hayle’s call? Someone else’s? It was convenient, but if Mary decided to strangle me with the chain, I wasn’t sure how good of a fight we’d put up in these tight quarters.
She sat just to my right, and she was completely silent. A little damp, now, rumpled, her ribbons gone, hair loose and in need of a combing. Her wrists were shackled, the shackles themselves thick and heavy, with proper chains that a bull couldn’t have broken. A blanket was draped over her lap, but the outline was unmistakeable.
She’d been disarmed, though I doubted everything had been collected. She was too careful.
Too delicate right now. I couldn’t poke or test her. Dangerous.
I turned to look away, and saw Jamie was writing in his notebook.
Not writing. Sketching.
My face, looking in Mary’s general direction.
The pen went still. When I looked up from the pen’s tip, Jamie was staring at me.
“What?” I asked, uncomfortable.
“That was nice of you,” he said.
“I’m never nice.”
“You’re a damn liar, and you’re lying about not being nice,” Jamie said. “You messed with Lacey-”
“Which is very not nice,” I pointed out.
“-And you told her why you did it,” Jamie said.
“I told her it was because she pitied me and pretended to be nice, which wasn’t wrong.”
“You’ve handled worse without flinching,” Jamie said. “You just gave her the real reason.”
I closed my eyes and let my head move back until it hit the padded back wall of the coach. The wall vibrated with the movement of the wheels over the road.
When I heard the scratch of the pen on paper, I chanced a look at Jamie’s work.
The sketch was left unfinished, but was being captioned. ‘Sly, after a rare moment of kindness.’
I rolled my eyes and closed them.
Two mistakes in a relatively short span of time. Getting caught by the student at the quarantine perimeter, and how I’d dealt with Lacey. I was tired, my brain too active for too long. I was starting to stumble.
Except the night wasn’t quite over yet.
“Someone’s gone ahead, we should have an escort when we arrive,” Jamie commented. “For our passenger.”
I gave Mary another look, and saw her looking outside the window. Watching the rain-soaked city pass us by, the lights, the streetlamps, and rare figure standing in the dark.
Was one of them the puppeteer?
Her mind was roaming, her thoughts escaping the confines of the coach to focus on what lay beyond, very possibly dwelling on the puppeteer.
“Helen,” I said.
Mary startled at the sound of my voice, or because it was Helen that I named?
“Yes?” Helen asked.
“Do you have a comb?”
She produced a small comb from a shallow pocket in her uniform dress. Rather than make her move, I rose from my seat and took it from her hand, before letting myself fall hard against my cushioned seat.
I held it up for Mary. “So you can feel more like yourself.”
“I don’t know who myself is,” she said, but she took the comb and began working it through her hair. There were more than a few tangles that required sharp, violent tugs to figure out.
Couldn’t push too hard. Just had to make sure she was grounded, focused on us.
“For now, let’s get through tonight,” I said. “I don’t think any of us want you chained up. Except maybe you.”
She snapped her head around, looking offended.
Because I’d crossed a line, or because I was right?
“You just said you don’t know who you are,” I said. “Are you, right this minute, someone who wants to be chained up? Saying yes or no doesn’t mean betraying him or threatening your standing with us. It’s about who you are in this moment.”
She made a face, looking out the window at the city once more.
“Sy?” Lil asked.
“Yes, Lil?” I replied, my response as syrupy as I could make it.
I saw the annoyance on her expression, but it didn’t distract her from what she was going to say: “Don’t be a butt. Leave her alone.”
The statement was forceful enough to catch me off guard. Surprise gave way to annoyance. How about you trust me to know what I’m doing?
But Jamie must have seen something in my expression, because he gave me a light tap with his elbow.
Fine. I wasn’t entirely on the ball, either. I was positive I wasn’t crossing the line, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t make more minor mistakes.
I gave Lil a smile, then let my head rest against the cushion.
“Do you want me to patch you up?” Lil offered. “Your hands look bad.”
A conciliatory gesture? She couldn’t recant what she’d said, but maybe she hadn’t meant it to come out as forcefully as it had. Fatigue affected her, too. Emotions were a drug with their own side effects, ebbs and flows, and after half a night of activity and a week of fearing for her life, she might not have been on point any more than I was.
“They’ll want to look us over anyway,” I said, closing my eyes. “It’d be redundant. Relax instead, look after Helen.”
Lil looked down, where Helen was sleeping. Tranquilized.
We were silent as the coach made its way through the streets, the stitched horses keeping up their hard patter of hoofbeat on roadtop.
We reached the Hedge, and there was more light there, less space between streetlights and streetlamps. A glance out the window showed the perimeter wall, lit up by the ambient light. It seemed to say ‘The Academy: A glowing beacon at the edge of Radham.’
Through a gate, and into the Academy proper. We passed the Rows, Claret Hall, and the Rise, heading straight for the Tower.
Mary was tense. Her shoulders were stiff, and she’d moved enough to make the chain move since the journey had begun.
Here we are.
“You’ve been here before,” I said.
Mary snapped her head around, as if unsure who I was talking to. I wasn’t sure who she expected it to be, but she seemed to figure out that I was talking to her. “Visits.”
“That’s all this is. A visit.”
“One that decides my fate,” she said.
I shrugged, slow. “Maybe. Is that why you’re so anxious? Or is it something else?”
“You keep talking like you read my mind,” she said.
You’re more of an open book than the literal open book in Jamie’s lap.
“It’s not hard to figure out. You were told we’re the enemy. We’re the bad guy. Visits were visits. You knew where you stood.”
“Sure,” she said, the word curt.
“They’re going to want to talk to you, ask questions. Be ready for it. You don’t have to tell them everything, but anything you tell them will smooth things over. I don’t have anywhere to be, so I’ll be with you until we figure out where things stand. I’m your ally, your advocate, I offered you a place with us, I will make it happen. I promise things will be okay. ”
“Promise,” she said. Not a question, not a statement, only an echo.
Did the word have a significance?
“Do they even agree with you?” she asked.
They? The other Lambsbridge orphans?
“I trust Sy,” Jamie said.
“Yes,” Helen murmured. She’d sensed the coach slowing down, and had roused.
I glanced at Lil, and sensed the hesitation. Mary would too.
But Lil said, “Yes.”
Mary’s expression didn’t change. Not deadpan, like Helen’s; it was a vaguely lost, heartbroken look that she had about her, and it was a look that didn’t offer any tells.
It suggested she was more comfortable or certain about what was going on than she had been a moment ago, when all the walls had been down and in ruins.
The coach stopped, and we made our way out, Lillian removing the blanket that covered Mary’s shackles, clumsily folding it and dropping it on the spot where Helen had been lying. One by one, we made our way out, passing the Stitched bodyguards on either side of the door.
When Mary reached the door, they seized her.
“Go easy,” I told them. “She’s not a threat. You can stay close, but don’t manhandle her.”
The handlers for the two stitched bodyguards echoed my orders. The two bodyguards let go of Mary, leaving her free to follow a pace behind me.
We were on dry ground. At the base of the Tower, a roof had been set up so one side rested against the Tower itself, the other side propped up by a row of custom-grown trees. Stitched horses were lined up beneath, with cords and wires stringing them up to a rack of large metal cables that ran down one side of the tower.
Gordon was already out of the other coach, lying in a stretcher, with the team that worked on the Griffon project surrounding him.
Three students looked after me. Two, now that Lacey was gone. Nine looked after Jamie. Lillian had special tutoring and attention from a set of teachers, giving her support and care. Helen stood alone with no students or teachers to maintain and look after her, each one getting driven away in time, but she did have her black-coat professor.
Twelve individuals looked after Gordon, and nine of those individuals were present, walking in a group around, ahead of, and trailing behind him as the stretcher was wheeled into the tower. I was willing to bet that more were inside.
The rest of us almost didn’t matter, while they were focused on their subject. Debating and discussing ways to move forward, consulting lists and charts.
He was in their hands. I wasn’t too worried about how it would turn out.
As they filtered away, we were left in the company of a few scattered students who stood closer to the Tower’s entrance. I recognized some as members of Jamie’s team, two men and two women who looked a little more tired than all the rest. I also spotted the two remaining members of my team, two men who were standing to one side, smoking. Behind us were the students who managed the stitched guards.
“I didn’t realize how badly I was outnumbered,” Mary said.
I smiled at the notion.
She didn’t smile back.
“It’s the Academy,” I said. “This is a small department with a shortage of funding. You should see the manpower backing the other projects.”
Lillian, Jamie, Helen, Mary and I ventured closer.
“Jamie,” one of Jamie’s project workers said. Older than the rest. “Uh, a few questions, first, but Professor Hayle wanted to see her. Everyone’s to have their checkups, appointments, and testing. If you could give us a moment with Jamie-”
“Have your moment,” I said, cutting him off. “No rush.”
My two remaining team members were Dewey and Alton, puffing away at cigarettes. Take away the white coats, and they could have passed for street toughs who were waiting to hold me at gunpoint and force me to empty my pockets. There was a brutishness to their builds and expressions. Alton had a heavy brow and an ugly look in his eye that Academy medicine couldn’t change.
Dewey’s face, by contrast, had seen too much of the Academy’s attention, smoothing all of his skin to the soft texture of baby’s bottom. I knew Dewey had been given treatment a few years back for a bad slouch, but habit had won out, and even now he was just a touch hunched over. His hair was blond and gossamer fine.
I knew where I stood with them. I knew that Alton had been signed on because of a mean streak and a bad disciplinary record from a school very much like Mothmont, while Dewey was, along with Lacey, the only one who’d been present from the beginning. He’d had been through lengthy and painful treatments for bad scarring he’d suffered as a child. In their own ways, they weren’t the type to flinch, and they were good enough at what they did. Lacey had just been good. I imagined she’d learned not to care, rather than starting out that way.
“You need anything?” Dewey asked.
I shook my head. “Had my appointment.”
He looked annoyed. “I know that. We don’t have any reason to stick around?”
I shook my head again.
“Yeah,” he said. “What’d you say to Lacey that bothered her so much?”
“Yeah,” he said, again. As if he was answering a question or statement. “Okay.”
“I know where to find you if I need you,” I said.
“Find one of us in the office tomorrow,” he told me. “Should check levels.”
“Okay,” I said.
Easy. No dancing around, no tricks, no posturing.
Jamie was talking to the others. His team. From what I overheard, he was trying to convince them that no, he didn’t need to stop by their office now. Yes, he would be there soon. Yes, he understood that people were present now.
My eye went to the book. He was holding it with both hands, but he wasn’t holding it with a deathgrip, he wasn’t hugging it.
He didn’t need help.
I retreated a bit, approaching the three girls at the edge of the canopy. Lil was talking to Mary while she fixed the bandage at Helen’s side. Helen seemed to be taking it in stride, arching one eyebrow as she glanced back at me.
The arch, much like the smiles, winks and nods, seemed to be for my benefit rather than her own. Little touches that made me feel more nervous around her, rather than less.
“…Mnemonic trick to figure out how things are laid out,” Lil said.
“Trick?” Mary asked Lil.
“It’s a body. Each department has a focus. The Tower is the head. Record keeping. The Rise is the shoulders, or the collarbone, the neck, supporting structures, storage, think backpack. Then you have the Academy headquarters. Center of everything, Claret Hall-”
“The heart,” Mary said.
“The rows,” Lil suggested, trailing off to give Mary the chance of offering an answer.
Mary shook her head.
“Ribs. Dormitories. I think of it as rows, ribs, bars, cage, zoo, students. That’s how I put it together in my head, drawing the connection. I started doing it from the beginning, but even though I know, I still sort of think that way. I make the connection like that,” Lil said.
She sounded so excited. A kid with a chance to show her stuff. She wasn’t a project, but she was clever in her own normal way. Exceptionally so, it could be said. Maybe it was because she’d been pushed to keep up with us, maybe it was because she was a rare breed.
But she wasn’t one of us. She had a family, a place to go home to.
“What do you think the Hedge is?” I asked.
Mary started a little at the sound of my voice. “Hedge? Exterior wall… skin?”
I shrugged and nodded. “Immediate care, contact with the city outside, first line of healing and prevention.”
“Does that help?” Lil asked.
“Help?” I cut in.
“With feeling lost and overwhelmed in this place,” Lil said.
“It helps a little,” Mary said, in a way that didn’t convince me in the slightest. She moved her hands a bit to tug at her uniform top and the chains rattled.
“Okay, that’s great!” Lil said, perking up, “So, after the Rows, you have other main buildings. There’s the-”
“Helen,” a voice cut through the patter of rain on the canopy roof. It was a hard voice.
Lil’s train of thought crashed right there.
“Ibott,” Mary murmured.
Ibott. He was someone who had been elevated to a position in society that didn’t suit him in the slightest. He was among the most brilliant minds at Radham, clever, not bad looking on the surface, he had the veneer of the upper class and none of the follow-through. His hair was neatly parted, set firmly in place by something that had a way of smelling rancid at the end of the day, leaving his hair locked into hard strings that crossed one corner of his forehead. His round eyeglasses were gold-rimmed, but so smudged I could barely see the eyes on the other side of the glass.
A name that might not have been known by every household, but was known to most.
“I expected you earlier,” he said, and his phrasing was civil and proper, the tone far from it. “In the future, you come straight inside and report to me. Do not make me come out here.”
“Yes sir,” Helen said.
But you’re not always here, I thought. Is she supposed to report regardless?
Ibott seemed to think so, and now Helen would.
He was now close enough to speak to us without raising his voice. I sensed Lil shrinking back and shifted my position a little, to put myself between Ibott and her.
“You’re bleeding,” he observed.
“Yes sir,” Helen said.
Before she could, I spoke up, “Sir.”
He ignored me. “I want to hear it from Helen. I certainly hope she recalls.”
“Sylvester put me in harm’s way so we could capture our target,” Helen said, before I could say anything. “It was the best way to get me to where I could be most effective.”
I would have worded that better, I thought.
I was barely finished the thought when Ibott struck me. He wasn’t a strong man, but he was several times my size, and he was a man.
The noise of the back of his hand connecting with my face made virtually every head present turn.
“Take more care,” he instructed me.
I had to blink a few times before I was able to figure out that I was on my hands and knees. I opened my jaw yawning-wide, feeling it pop before I was able to work my mouth to form words. “…Yes sir.”
Helen offered me her hand. I took it.
“Do not help him up,” Ibott said. “Come.”
Helen let my hand drop from hers, but she didn’t move.
“Good work tonight, Helen,” I murmured.
She turned and followed a step behind her creator. Jamie’s crowd and Dewey all took care to move out of the way as the pair entered the tower.
Conversation didn’t resume until the door shut behind Helen.
I ignored Lil’s offer for assistance in standing, and got to my own two feet.
“Always good for a first impression, Ibott is,” I said, glancing at Mary.
“I don’t understand.”
“If he wanted to, he’d run Radham,” I said. “He doesn’t want to, but he still has that clout. Not what I would have wanted you to see while trying to win you over.”
“You’re assuming I have someplace else to go,” Mary said.
Yeah, I thought, I am. But maybe you don’t see all the options that really lie in front of you.
I saw Jamie shift his grip on his book. Head bent a little, arms crossed over the notebook’s leather-bound cover.
“Lil,” I said, without taking my eyes off him.
“I don’t know how to say it without sounding like I’m telling you to go away, but… if you wanted to go to your room and get a good night’s sleep, this wouldn’t be a bad time.”
“That does sound like you’re trying to get rid of me.”
“But?” I asked. “Pillow, covers, your own room, peace and quiet…”
“Nightmares,” she said.
“Do you think you’re going to have less nightmares, if you spend more time hanging around us?” I asked.
She made a face.
But she flipped her hood up, picked up her bag, and headed down the long road to the middle area of the University, where the Rows radiated out around Claret Hall.
“Come on,” I said. I grabbed Mary’s chain, tugging a bit.
“Don’t,” she said, suddenly tense, resisting the pull.
Which a student and a stitched bodyguard took as leave to give her a push.
“Cooperate,” the student called out.
“It’s fine,” I said. “Really, it’s fine.”
But it didn’t feel fine. Jamie was shrinking into himself more, glancing my way as his group led him inside. I was caught between the two. Couldn’t abandon Mary at this stage, but letting Jamie go ahead without giving support…
“Please, Mary,” I said.
Mary hesitated, then obeyed.
We covered ground quickly, Mary’s chain rattling, but I had to hold the door for her, and then the stitched bodyguards and their handlers were right behind us, wanting to keep an eye on Mary, and all in all, it was clumsy and awkward, and it took some time for us to catch up with the brisk, businesslike strides.
I pushed past students in lab coats to get to Jamie.
He unwrapped his arms from the book, and after a moment’s pause, he handed it to me.
I took it with reverent care, and held it securely in my arms.
“See you,” he said.
“Soon,” I replied.
Griffon getting pieced back together. Galatea in the care of her maker, who is as different from her as night from day.
And the Caterpillar…
I watched the caterpillar disappear down the length of the hall.
Appointment was the wrong word.
I rubbed the side of my face, where I knew I’d bruise, then turned to Mary. We were as alone as we’d get, with our stitched escort.
“I wanted to show you better,” I told Mary. “I want to show you Lambsbridge. How we have a home, how we have each other.”
“You have his book,” Mary said. “I think I get it, even if I don’t understand the details. I’m not sure I would have believed whatever you meant to show me.”
The perils of being an established liar.
“I want you to be one of us,” I said.
“I think I might want to be,” she replied.
“That’ll have to do,” I told her.
We had nine flights of stairs to climb, and when I offered to hold up the midsection of the chain to alleviate the weight of it, she didn’t resist.
When we arrived in Hayle’s office, he didn’t seem to miss that detail, either. I saw his gaze linger where my hand held the metal links.
“Dog and Catcher are after Percy,” he said. I noted how he watched Mary. It seemed he’d been filled in on my intentions there, too. Jamie’s work, no doubt. Keeping everything in order, making sure the messages were passed along.
Mary didn’t flinch or react.
“The pursuit would have been easier if you hadn’t burned down Percy’s home,” Hayle told me.
I reacted to that. I blinked a few times, trying to organize my thoughts and work through the shoddier bits of my memory. “I didn’t.”
Hayle leaned back in his chair. “You didn’t?”
I shook my head.
“Dog and Catcher say it wasn’t Percy who did it. They would have had the scent, even with the rain.”
“I don’t have an answer for you,” I told him.
“I do,” Mary said, her voice soft. “The plan was… more complex than I think you understand.”
“Complex how?” Hayle asked, his pale eyebrows rising.
“The children we were copied from, he had to do something with them. He sold them, to others with ambitions in line with his,” she said, and she couldn’t maintain eye contact, staring down at the ground instead. “It’s a group. One he tried to keep secret from even me. And it’s a lot bigger than you’d think.”