“This keeps getting worse.”
I took Gordon’s statement to be a thought about our errant reverend Mauer and the riot. Then I caught a glimpse of the Academy, a considerable distance down the road.
Even standing so far back that we were closer to Lambsbridge Orphanage than to the Academy, I could tell that the Hedge was closed. Shutters closed and no doubt locked, front entrance closed with an iron gate. More security would have been used inside. The Hedge was the easiest and most obvious point of access for anyone looking to attack the Academy, and measures had to be taken to make it defensible, while keeping it accessible to the public. I suspected the measures were very similar to those in the Bowels of the Academy.
Where twice the number of men had been posted there earlier in the afternoon, it sat at over three times the usual, with ten men and ten stitched. The gates they guarded were only open wide enough for a man to slip through, ready to be closed at a moment’s notice.
It was getting to be later in the afternoon, now, and as long as the summer days were, the daylight was fading. The lights were just being turned on, in anticipation of looming sunset and evening.
“What do you want to bet they won’t let us through?” Jamie asked.
“We need badges,” I said. “Secret badges that we can flash to any member of the Academy that gets in our way. Maybe we can get the Academy heads to pass a rule so everyone knows they have to do anything we say.”
“That would be useful,” Helen said.
“Yeah,” Gordon said, with a generous heaping of sarcasm and emphasis. “Does anyone here think Sy wouldn’t abuse that six ways from Sunday? Anyone? Show of hands.”
“I’m hurt,” I said. “And I still want badges.”
“I hate to break it to you,” Gordon said, “But nobody who knows you in the slightest is going to sign off on that.”
I huffed, sticking my hands in my pockets.
Jamie gave me a pat on the shoulder. “Don’t be grumpy.”
“I’m not being grumpy! I think it’s dumb that we keep getting held back because of arbitrary stuff and secrecy. Half the students know us, the other half keep getting in our way. Like back when we were wrapping up the Mothmont thing, that guy stopping me from walking out?”
“I wouldn’t say half,” Gordon said.
“Don’t nitpick,” I said.
“Don’t use hyperbole, then,” he countered.
“I wasn’t. I was generalizing.”
Mary made a little ‘ahem’ sound. Our heads turned. “It’s interesting to see you interacting like this.”
“After meeting Sy at Mothmont, seeing how he was there, having weeks to worry about how I’d deal with all of you as a group, um. It’s not what I expected. Seeing you, him, here like this?”
“I understand,” I said. “It takes people some time to adjust to how amazing we are. Me in particular.”
Mary’s mouth parted a bit, but she didn’t manage to produce any vocalization. Beside Mary, Lillian’s hand went up to her face.
I took advantage of it, turning so I was walking backward, flashing her a smirk. I used a hand to push hair away from one corner of my face, where the rain had made it damp, posing like I was a hero on a cover of some seedy romance novella. “You’ll get used to it.”
Jamie spoke up, “I think Mary might have been talking about the contrast of how you portrayed yourself at Mothmont and how badly you were just losing your argument with Gordon there.”
My smile disappeared, and I glared at Jamie. He, in turn, shot me a quiet, small smile that suggested he was secretly pleased with himself.
“Jamie,” I said, “You’re one of the very few people I can beat in a fight.”
“In theory,” Gordon offered.
“Like Wollstone’s ratio set is a theory,” I said, “At a certain point, you have to accept that it’s a given.”
“I’m the book-reader and scholar with glasses,” Jamie said. “Why are you the one making the pathetic stabs at intellectual wit, here?”
I raised my eyebrows. “Gordon’s bad enough, but you? You’re asking for it.”
“Come on,” Jamie said.
I threw myself at Jamie, arms around his neck, but we didn’t stop moving toward the Academy gates.
“There’s a dynamic,” Gordon said. “A big part of the dynamic is keeping Sy from becoming unbearable.”
As if to illustrate the point, he reached back to take Jamie’s notebook with a reverent care, freeing Jamie’s other hand and making life harder on me in the process.
“-Resent that!” I grunted out the words, meaning it in more than one sense.
“Why is he special?” Mary asked.
“He’s meant to be the unpredictable one, bending and testing rules and altering the patterns we operate in. Sy said you got the broad strokes from the puppeteer?”
“Broad strokes. Not necessarily all the right strokes. While I was still being questioned and tested on at the Academy, Sy told me that Evette and Ashton didn’t work out.”
Jamie and I stopped our struggles at the mention of the names.
“No,” Gordon said. He sighed. “No, they didn’t. They didn’t make it past the beginning stages.”
“Ashton was like me,” Helen said.
“Except not at all,” Lillian pointed out.
“Except not at all,” Helen clarified.
“Vat grown?” Mary asked. I noticed the change in her voice and body language, interacting with Helen.
“Yes,” Helen said. “Like you and I.”
Abruptly, almost to the point that I’d call it impulsively, Helen reached out and touched the side of Mary’s face.
The word ‘stricken’ derived from the word ‘strike’ in the same way that struck was, and Mary looked more stricken than if she’d been struck with a sword.
“She’s doing that-” I started.
Jamie pulled on the back of my shirt, forcing me to bend over to maintain free range of movement with my arms. I did what I could to jab at the softer sides of his belly, tickling him.
-on purpose, I finished the sentence in my head. Helen wasn’t doing anything wrong, exactly, even if she was being weird.
Gordon reached out and took hold of Helen’s hand, removing it from Mary’s face. He stepped between the two of them and held Helen’s hand, more for Mary’s sake than for Helen’s.
“The original plan was for each of us to have a role, a specific set of talents, and for us to be able to address any problem. A gestalt.”
“I got that part,” Mary said.
“Nothing goes one hundred percent according to plan. Not all of us wound up being entirely what we were designed to be, and Sy wasn’t intended or even proposed for the gestalt group. Entirely different project, minor in the grand scheme of things. Hayle picked him up anyway. He’s, I’m blanking on the word, starts with ‘v’.”
“Versatile,” I said, redoubling my efforts to tickle Jamie.
“Variable,” Jamie said, almost at the point where he was able to pull the bottom of my shirt over my head and arms.
“Variable,” Gordon said, probably going with Jamie because it made me wrong. “Sy is variable, to the point where he inadvertently covers other bases.”
“As a scoundrel.”
“As Sy, whatever labels apply at the moment. But see, point I’m getting around to is that Sy likes to describe humanity as a collection of careening objects, bouncing and ricocheting off established boundaries.”
Jamie pinned my hands in his armpits by pressing his elbows tight to his body, and hiked up my shirt more. That he could talk and I couldn’t suggested he was winning, which was as irritating as hell. “He says that because he’s a bouncing, random object.”
“Sort of,” Gordon said. “He’s human. Only things keeping him bound in and constrained are the firmest ones the Academy sets, and us. As Jamie is demonstrating.”
“Eat dicks!” I told Gordon, my voice muffled by the shirt Jamie had pulled up around my head.
“I was scared of him, once,” Mary admitted. “And now?”
“Say what you will about Sy, he’s very good at making people experience that dissonance between what they expect and what they get. Sy is scary, he is dangerous and capable, you weren’t wrong when you judged it, back then. But now you’re with us, a member of our group, which is very possibly the safest possible place you could be when dealing with Sylvester there. With us as a whole, even. Keep that in mind if you’re ever entertaining the idea of stabbing us in the back.”
There was a pause.
“I was wondering when that was coming,” Mary said.
“Had to be said. Sorry.”
There was an awkward pause. I struggled with Jamie for a second, seriosuly annoyed at this point. I wanted to be able to do more to handle the Mary thing. Left alone, Gordon could push her away. I was the biggest villain of the two of us, but when Gordon hurt people, they took a while to bounce back from it.
Mary broke the silence. “That stuff you were saying, in a roundabout way, am I right in interpreting that as you saying that I don’t need to worry?”
“How worried were you?” Gordon asked.
“Mary’s been very tense,” Lillian volunteered. “Worried about how things would go.”
“You don’t need to worry about us in general. Really.” Damn Gordon. He was so good at sounding sincere.
“Oh, good. Gosh! Even Helen, then?”
“Am I so scary?”
“A little! More than a little, but if Gordon says you’re okay, and Sy’s not protesting…”
I was silent.
Gordon jumped in, stumbling with his words in a way he usually didn’t. “I’m… saying that you don’t need to worry about us in general.”
You’re a cruel, cruel man, Gordon.
Correcting her about Helen without saying anything outright.
Nobody was saying anything. I suspected Mary’s fears about Helen had been redoubled, and I had further suspicions that Gordon had done it on purpose.
He wasn’t as confident about Mary being a part of the group as I was, or he was concerned on a level. Just as he’d talked about the group keeping me in line, he was using Helen as the proverbial whipping stick for Mary.
I wasn’t so keen on that. Mary had enough sticks.
I struggled to pull my shirt down, while Jamie interfered with those struggles.
“We’re at the academy,” Gordon said. The meaning was clear. Stop roughhousing.
Jamie let me free. I fixed my shirt and tucked it in, then fixed my hair. Mary was giving me an amused look, and Jamie looked smug.
I wasn’t proud. I was willing to look silly in front of Mary if it meant she could let her guard down a fraction, easing into the group. Losing to Jamie was part of that.
Entirely intentional. For real. No joke.
The people by the entrance gathered together as we drew closer. The six of us against ten or so Academy students and their stitched.
“We’ve been invited,” Gordon said.
“No entry,” one of them said.
“We’ve been invited,” Gordon said, again. “Thank you.”
One way to win an argument, just keep hammering at them until they give way. If they tire or show weakness, seize on that, hammer again.
“No entry,” the same student told us.
Gordon looked at Jamie. Jamie’s prediction had been right.
“Go inside, find and talk to Professor Hayle. He’ll tell you we’re allowed inside.”
“He’ll tell us the same thing every other Professor has told us. Nobody in or out.”
It was the same problem I’d had with Rick. We could be manipulative, we could poke, prod, bait, and mislead, and if we found any give at all, we could capitalize on it.
No give here.
“Professor Hayle told us to run an errand, and report back at the earliest possible moment. If you don’t let us past, it’s going to upset him.”
“I’m willing to take that risk. You’re being irritating. Go home.”
“This is our home,” Helen said. “It’s my home.”
The man studied her, up and down. Helen didn’t look like a proper student.
“Helen Ibott,” she said, extending a hand for him. “Yes. I am his daughter.”
The name carried weight. I saw two men behind our obstacle exchanging glances.
“He’s not married,” our antagonist said, unmoved.
“I’m still his daughter,” Helen said, without flinching.
One of the two spoke up. “I could just run over to Claret Hall and-”
“No,” the man said. “There’s no need.”
It was so stupid. Such a waste.
Mary stepped back a bit, until she was standing to one side of me. Her voice was soft, “I don’t think they’re very good at fighting. I could try something, make a distraction, and we could slip through.”
“Too messy,” I murmured.
“I thought so.”
“It’s interesting that you think you could win against ten people and ten stitched,” I said.
“I don’t think I could win. I do think I could get us inside and slip away.”
I nodded slowly. Interesting. Gordon couldn’t do that, and Gordon could probably beat her in a scrap, but she did have techniques and talents.
Everything about the group fit together, a larger puzzle of talents, strengths and weaknesses. Every element was a thing I could potentially use or a thing I had to account for.
“You’re Vernon,” Jamie said, cutting off Gordon mid-sentence. “Cornet?”
Our barrier to entry nodded, frowning a little. “That’s my name.”
“You were working on the group project last year, Claret Hall, the kit. Smaller, lighter pack for field care of soldiers and stitched on the battlefield.”
Vernon didn’t respond, but his frown deepened.
“It didn’t go well, I heard,” Jamie said.
“That wasn’t my fault. The others dropped the ball.”
“But it was such an unfettered disaster that your classmates talked about it, and I heard about it, and I remember hearing about it. A year later.”
“What went wrong?” Lillian asked. I suspected it was out of genuine curiosity rather than an effort to play along.
“They took it on themselves to develop a smaller, lighter pack. A basic failure would be producing something smaller and lighter, but less effective,” Jamie said. “But when you design by committee, and you somehow produce something heavier, bulkier, and less effective, a failure on every count…”
Vernon suddenly looked exceptionally unhappy. “I said it wasn’t my fault. Why even bring this up? You think I’m going to let you in because of it?”
“No,” Jamie said. “I’m not that cunning. I remembered and thought it was interesting.”
I picked up the slack. “But if you’re trying to earn brownie points by pulling volunteer duty standing guard, and being a problem because you’re trying too hard to do your job, well, the professors are going to get upset we weren’t able to report in…”
I trailed off, letting someone else pick up. Gordon for that note of authority and command, perhaps.
“We might have to drop your name, Vernon Cornet,” the ‘daughter’ of Doctor Ibbot said, instead.
Just as good.
Vernon looked over his shoulder, “Go find one of the professors and ask if the kids are allowed in.”
“Hayle,” Gordon said.
“Hayle,” Vernon corrected.
We settled in for a wait.
Claret Hall was the rare sort of building that was entirely grown. The wood had been given a deep red color as part of the growing process, it had been shaped every step of the way, and made into a veritable work of art.
It was the starting point and end goal for most members of Radham Academy. Students took their introductory classes here, Lillian included, and those who climbed the ranks and proved their mettle ended up as part of the administration, elsewhere in the building.
The guard had gone in and found Hayle, then reported back to us with his location.
As a group, we entered one of the faculty-only rooms.
Professors Briggs, Sexton, Hayle, Fletcher and Reid were all present, in black lab coats. They sat in chairs, stood, or leaned against the tables around the perimeter of the rooms. Though it was summer, a fire blazed in the fireplace opposite the entrance. Two plates with only morsels of food remaining on them suggested that some but not all had eaten their dinners. The wine glasses were full, the firelight catching the contents and making the deep reds into something bright.
The other professors didn’t pay us much mind as we approached. The glances they deigned to give us were almost disinterested.
Briggs was the one to impress. He ran Claret Hall, and through that position, he was the head of the Academy, controlled much of Radham, and a fair portion of the surrounding area. He was older but not old, and unlike Hayle he had colored his hair and rejuvenated his skin. He looked as if he’d stretched himself a half-foot taller, but retained the same body weight, making him into a living caricature of the man he’d once been. His fingers were spidery, one hand holding a wine glass, the other on the desk, pads of the fingers pressing down so the fingers themselves bowed.
The armless, crimson-tinted glasses that were perched halfway down his nose were purely for show, but they caught the firelight as he stared at the source of it.
It might have been my association with Hayle, but I tended to have less respect for those who’d gone so far to alter themselves with medicine and surgery. Professor Briggs was an exception. It was hard to disrespect a man who could terminate the Lambsbridge project, or terminate the Wyvern project and me with it.
He was, in an indirect way, responsible for the existence of the Lambs, for Dog and Catcher, for the Hangman, Gorger, Foster, the Whelps and all the rest.
His pet project, however, wasn’t out and about, hunting for Whiskers.
Hayle wanted to prove our worth as a group. This was where it counted.
I touched the small of Gordon’s back before he could say anything. He didn’t give any indication that I’d done anything, but he did remain silent.
“Insurrection,” I said, as we drew close enough to be in earshot.
That turned heads.
Briggs, however, was unfazed. “We expected something in that vein.”
“Reverend Mauer. He’s got Dicky Gill and Mr. Warner at his back.”
“Gill was already restless, suggesting something was wrong.”
“That something is the Reverend,” I said. “He’s probably been laying groundwork for a long time.”
“Since he arrived in Radham three years and two months ago,” Jamie said.
“He told a crowd that two people were killed by the experiment,” I said. I looked at Jamie.
“Upper-west part of Radham. Oscar and Martin Meadows?”
It was Sexton who answered. Young as professors went, pale, with blond hair neatly parted, he had a shadow on his chin that suggested he hadn’t had time to shave earlier in the day. “We didn’t hear about that, and we should have.”
“It was probably a lie,” I said. “And if he can lie about that, he’ll lie about other things.”
“Useful information,” Hayle commented.
“Of course you think so,” Fletcher said. “They’re yours.“
“I prefer action to information. Unless your children removed the problem, Hayle?” Professor Briggs asked.
“If they didn’t, there was a good reason for it,” Hayle said. “Gordon?”
“We couldn’t reach him, and we thought we should ask, just in case. Mauer is surrounded himself with people, and he’s preparing them as soldiers. The crowd nearly rioted.”
“We can handle a riot,” Briggs said. “It’s poor timing, but if he’s determined to be inconvenient about this-“
“He’s not,” I interrupted.
Briggs frowned. He finally turned away from the fire and looked at me. When he spoke, however, he remarked, “Six, Hayle? Are they multiplying somehow?”
“Mary over there, with the ribbons and brown hair, is a new addition to the Lambsbridge program.”
“I didn’t authorize the increased budget.”
“I didn’t use one. It was Percy who developed her. I simply took over guardianship of her after he fled.”
“Brilliant,” Fletcher said, under his breath.
I suspected the man was quite drunk.
“You told me I had discretion to manage the project as I saw fit,” Hayle said, in a tone that was overly clear and calm. He was trying to frame it all so that if Briggs spoke out, he’d sound unreasonable.
“If you aren’t misappropriating funds, I don’t care,” Briggs said. “The project has yet to impress, I don’t see how seven disappointments are much worse than six.”
Oh. He was counting Evette and Ashton in the number.
Considering that I’d never even met them, I felt a surprising degree of loathing for the man who’d insulted their memory.
I must have been giving some indication of what I was feeling, because Jamie bumped into me, his hand finding mine, clutching it hard.
“If your children are incapable of dealing with the Reverend, Hayle, then we can have the Hangman accompany them to the church. Once they point the way, the Hangman can deal with the Reverend. Kill the problem at its root, then deal with the peripheral concerns, it’s a matter of time before we find our escaped project.”
“That won’t work,” I said.
“Sylvester,” Hayle said. “If you could show Professor Briggs an appropriate amount of respect by not interrupting him or jumping in to correct him, I would very much appreciate it.”
He put emphasis on ‘very much’, in a way that insinuated Hayle might have me put down if I didn’t shut up.
“I’m showing Professor Briggs respect by not letting him make a mistake that would reflect badly on him.”
Hayle didn’t say anything, but the look in his eyes promised consequences.
“Why wouldn’t it work?” Briggs asked.
“He knows very well who you are, what the Academy is, and what you’re capable of. He’s clever, and he’s positioned everything in such a way that you’ll pay in spades for anything you do to him. Kill him, and you martyr him.”
“As I said, we can handle riots.”
“And as I said,” I pointed out, without missing a beat, “He’s not concerned with being inconvenient. He’s set on making himself convenient, entirely essential to the smooth running of Radham.”
I didn’t dare look away from Briggs, in case he took it to mean I was weak, but I was pretty sure Hayle was ready to kill me. One didn’t generally debate with Professor Briggs. He had the clout and power to handle most problems in a direct means. He probably could handle this situation by throwing everything he had at it, and he wouldn’t regret the aftermath, messy as it might be.
“Explain,” Briggs said.
It was Gordon who explained. “He’s been planting seeds and nourishing them in key people. Yes, if you have him killed, you’ll have riots. But things don’t end there. He’s reached some of your students. He’s reached major figures across the city. He’s playing a game of chess, and he’s laid out the board so you can’t take one of his pieces without his taking two of yours.”
“We have more pieces,” Briggs said. The man didn’t even flinch.
He was fully prepared to wage a war if it came down to it.
“We have more pieces, but he has an agenda,” I said. “He’ll spread word to other cities, other Academies, because that’s how he can hurt you best. He’s already telling people about the special projects. Word might leak out in other cities, they might have problems now and again, they might even have a riot now and again, but if he makes everything go wrong, lets all the information slip, he could make Radham look like a joke.”
Looking at Briggs, he most definitely didn’t like that. I wondered if it was concern for the problem or the implication that Radham could even be a joke.
“I have to say,” Fletcher said. “One thing I like about Dog and Catcher is that they don’t talk so much.”
“The Lambs aren’t like Dog and Catcher,” Hayle said. “They are, I should stress, much better equipped to solve problems that brute force won’t answer.”
“So you say,” Professor Briggs said. He pursed his lips a little.
It looked like he was going to say something, but the doors opened.
A man in a grey coat strode into the faculty room. The room was large enough it took him a few seconds to get into earshot.
“Word got out,” the man said. “About three more escapes.”
“Three more?” Sexton asked, voice arching.
“Only one we know of, but it was visible. Large enough to be seen as it climbed the wall. Bullets wounded it but didn’t stop it. Citizens are talking about there being three, which-”
“Is a lie,” Hayle said. “Our Reverend is in full control right now.”
“How very fortunate that we had your Lambs to inform us what was really happening,” Briggs said, with a note of sarcasm. “Lambs. You can do this?”
“Yes,” Gordon said. And he was exactly the right person to say it with utter confidence.
“I’ll need some things,” Hayle said, “to better coordinate.”
My eyes widened. I jumped in. “We need two things.”
Oh, the look Hayle gave me there. I’d promised to be good, but I suspected I’d never get another chance.
“Hayle might need more. But for us… badges. A way to get past the blockades and general interference.”
“Hand written notes,” Briggs said.
“With something permanent after?” I asked.
I was testing my luck, considering the tension I felt from my fellow Lambs, Hayle, and Briggs, and the incredulity on the other professor’s faces.
“Possibly,” Briggs said. “What else?”
“We need an adult,” I said.