The stitched servant helped lift our bags out from the side of the train. Mine had been the last one in, so it was the first one out. Once I had it, wheels digging tracks into the thin layer of snow, I turned to survey the area.
Storybook. Best label to apply to it all. Things were quaint, but in a very controlled, calculated way. The colors of the houses, the pleasant aesthetic, and the winding streets, many cobblestone with the beginnings of ruts carved into them, all planned and rigidly enforced.
It was fascinating. The houses were like cabins, but the exteriors were well looked after, white, gray, or blue in color, and almost every single one had smoke coming out of the chimney. The streets were gray cobblestone and lighter gray slabs of concrete, covered in white snow and the black grime the wagons and carriages had dredged up. For every man, there were five women, aged eighteen to thirty, and of those five women, four had monsters with them. Academy creations.
The subtle hideousness of Kensford was clearer as I looked at the trees and plants. In the early winter, there were trees and shrubs bristling with leaves, all a blood crimson in color, the leaves barely visible under the snow that had piled several feet high on each bough, or the ice that clung to branches.
There were also meat trees, in the natural-growing-meat sense and the ‘gibbets and meathook’ sense. Not too unusual, except they were ubiquitous.
The end result was, in the end, storybook. A town that embraced the old fashioned. But so many people romanticized history, and forgot how very bloody it was. The city smelled like smoke and crematoriums, and it made me feel like I was about to venture into a world where every house was a gingerbread house in disguise, and every pretty young woman was really a witch, ready to thrust unwitting children into ovens.
The other Lambs, now hauling their luggage, joined me, the six of us forming a loose line, looking at the town of Kensford. The only building that was taller than one story was the local Academy. Though all things in Kensford centered around Dame Cicely’s in a symbolic sense, it sat at the back, bordered on two sides by thick forest, a Victorian-style building grown like a tumor might be, asymmetrical, with the odd bit here and there. A tree had been literally grown from one side, closer to the forest, framing it all in a trimmed crescent of red leaves.
“So pretty!” Helen exclaimed.
“Did you ever want to come here?” Gordon asked. He was asking Lillian.
“Oh…” Lillian said, sounding surprised at the question. “No. You need to be at least eighteen, I think.”
“But if you were? Or when you are?”
“Gosh. I’d be terrified.”
“Strict?” I asked.
“Yes, but that’s not why,” she said. She looked around, and stepped closer to Gordon as a pair of young women walked on, a stitched in fine clothes hauling their luggage. She lowered her voice and confided, “It’s so cutthroat.”
“A lot of Academies are,” I said.
“I don’t hear stories about other places like I hear stories about Dame Cicely’s Academy,” Lillian said. “They intentionally fail out a certain percentage of each class, to cull and ensure they’re the best, or close to, because there’s Lady Eleanor’s-”
She drew quiet as more young ladies walked by, departing from the train.
“You scared of them?” I taunted her.
“I don’t want to say something that would stir up any rivalries,” she said. “What was I saying?”
“You don’t hear stories about other places like you hear stories about here,” Jamie said. “They intentionally fail a certain percentage of each class, to cull and-”
“Okay,” Lillian said, a little flustered. “Okay. Yes. Thank you, Jamie.”
I caught the twinkle in Jamie’s eye and elbowed him. He elbowed me back.
We continued back and forth like that as Lillian continued talking, “Most women who go to the Academies, they need permission and money from their parents, and from what I’ve seen and from what I’ve heard, most have to fight to hold on to their place. If they mess up once, one year of bad gradings or lack of advancement, it’s done, it’s over. Mom and dad cut off the funding and order you back home. Then they introduce you to a nice fellow to marry, and that’s your life.”
“A lot of people with guillotine blades hanging over their necks,” Gordon remarked.
“It gets worse,” Lillian said. “Put the two things together-”
I finished the statement, “-And you have a lot of classmates who know their peers are dancing on a razor’s edge. Just a tiny bit of sabotage or cleverness, and there’s one less competitor for the remaining seats.”
Lillian nodded. “Exactly.”
“I never liked the idea of working in a stuffy lab all day,” Mary said. “I understand why people would, with it being the fastest path to greatness, but it didn’t feel like it was for me.”
“You like the idea of this?” I asked.
She smiled, “So much.”
“It’s nicer than the last few stops,” Gordon said, looking around. “I felt itchy after we slept at the last guest house. I’m still not convinced I don’t have something crawling on me.”
“Let’s not gripe,” I said. “Please. New place, fresh start. It’s too easy to fall into old patterns.”
There were a few nods at that.
“Post office, then we find out where we’re sleeping,” Jamie said.
That was our cue to advance. We carefully made our way through the crowd, weaving between the people who were walking and the clusters of people who had gathered in groups, talking.
None of the young ladies wore lab coats or uniforms. Rather, the monsters in their company were their emblems and badges, fashion accessories crafted of meat and grey matter. The better the work, the better the student.
Snow dusted us, drifting down in light amounts. There was no rain here. I was idly curious what the mechanism was for keeping the local experiments in line.
Perhaps the young ladies of Dame Cicely’s were managed carefully enough that there was no cause to worry about the experiments running off or causing trouble.
Jamie elbowed me for the hundredth time, but this one was to get my attention. He’d done the same to Helen, who’d gotten Gordon’s attention.
I followed Jamie’s line of sight. One of the houses had a set of stairs, and something dark moved in the space beneath the stairs.
“What?” I asked.
“Whelps are here.”
“Oh, that’s fun,” I remarked. “Let’s hope they leave her intact enough for us to ask questions.”
“I’d rather hope we find her first,” Mary said.
Ah, crap. For the second time in four minutes or so, we were stumbling on the same point. We weren’t finding many leads, and to date, we’d only been able to arrive on the days after our quarry had disappeared to places unknown. Half of the clues to her destination had been our finds, and the other half had been due to the work of others. Dog and Catcher, Hangman, or a tip from someone who’d seen one of the wanted posters and recognized her face.
It was wearing thin, and some of us were wrestling with frustration. There had been spats.
Rather than agree or disagree, I reached out and took Mary’s hand.
Then, in a majestically subtle manner, I declared, “This has been so damn fun.”
“Fun?” she said.
“You’re grumpy,” I noted.
“Do you remember how much the interviews in the Bowels sucked? This is the opposite of that, which means this is the furthest thing from suckage! It’s the best thing ever to get out and away,” I said.
“We’re chasing that bit of fluff that dances away from your hand as you reach for it,” she said, immune to my enthusiasm. “Tell a dog to jump for the stick, and it will. The dog might really want that stick, but if you pull the stick away every time, the dog learns. I’d really like to think I’m better than a dog on that front.”
“Huh,” I said. “Fair, but didn’t expect to hear anything like that. Where did it come from?”
“Percy. He gave me lessons in training others. I thought he meant dogs at first. Then I thought he meant training my subordinates, when he’d created dozens upon dozens of clones. I only later realized it was how he trained me. He let me have my stick just often enough.”
Not the first time Mary’s mentioned Percy in recent days and weeks, I thought.
I didn’t bring it to anyone’s attention. Instead, I commented, “Sometimes, when you’re chasing that bit of fluff, you have to hold out your hand and be patient. Let it settle in on its own.”
“Mm hmm,” Mary murmured. I suspected that she’d gotten the thrust of what I was trying to do, which was changing the course of the conversation. She played along, looking around, “This place is neat.”
One and a half seconds after she said that, we passed a carriage, and Mary came face to face with a large, humanoid monster, built like an angel with wings of flesh, chest thrust out by a matter of design, chin high so that it looked down on everything around it. It was naked, and its limp member dangled right at Mary’s eye level, bigger around than my leg and as hairless as a baby’s.
I heard a slight ‘eep‘ from Mary, which punched right past the latent tension and wonderings on my part and made me burst out into hysterical giggling.
The entire group soon followed, Mary included, tittering and laughing, the tension flowing away.
“You think so, Mary?” Gordon asked, “Neat?”
There were more giggles from the group.
“For shame, all of you,” Helen said, putting her hands on her hips. “Laughing at that. Imagine the poor woman who made that thing. She must have been so lonely!”
The giggles became outright laughter.
This was the sort of thing we needed.
Helen politely asked a passerby for the location of the nearest post office, and we went on our way.
The street might have been a fifty-fifty split of residences and small businesses, but as we reached the center of it all, we found that virtually every building touching on the main street served some purpose. including grocer’s stores that were no more than four paces by five paces across in size and a banking office just a little under twice that size.
Further down the way was the small post office. We filed in.
Helen approached the counter. “Hello sir.”
The polite young lady routine.
“Good morning, darling,” the man at the counter greeted her. “What can I do for you?”
“We have a package? It’s addressed Lambsbridge, it should have arrived here a few days ahead of us.”
The man at the counter found it quickly enough. He placed the box on the counter. “Stamp?”
Without looking or saying a word, Helen put her hand back. Gordon passed her the stamp. She uncapped it and put the mark on the top of the box, inside the circle.
The man at the counter squinted, examining the mark Helen had just made with the one that the sender had put on it, then gave us a curt nod. “There you go.”
“You don’t have a line, I was hoping we could ask some questions, please?” Helen asked.
“You most certainly can. I’d be happy to answer them.”
“Which direction to the, um…”
“Dormitories three hundred through three-fifty?” Jamie asked.
“Up the main street, turn right at the stitchworks.”
“Thank you,” she said, smiling. “About the package, you didn’t have anyone come in here and ask about it?”
“Or about children?”
“No,” the man said, a small crease appearing between his eyebrows.
“You haven’t seen a woman, twenty or so, with black hair? She would have had a head with her, or a monster with a head that didn’t match the body? Also black-haired, with bright blue eyes?”
The man puffed out his cheeks, letting out a breath. “I see someone like that every day.”
Every single one of us was suddenly at attention.
“You’ve seen her?” Gordon jumped in.
“Ah, no,” the man said.
“I mean, I see different young ladies who fit that general description on a regular basis,” the man said. “Pretty young ladies, many with black hair, and many with experiments in their company. Those experiments range from big to small, fat to thin, and they have heads and eyes of all type.”
“Wait,” Gordon said. “Lillian, do you have it? The poster?”
Lillian fished inside her bag. She found a square of paper and unfolded it.
“She looks like this,” Gordon said.
The man slowly shook his head. “Attractive young lady, but I couldn’t say. The customers become a blur, unless I get to know their names. This is the one you’re looking for?”
“Very similar,” Gordon said. “Not the same person.”
The man frowned. “I can’t say.”
“I see,” Helen said, slumping a bit. She perked up all at once, “Thank you, sir!”
“You’re welcome. If you’re looking for someone, I could keep an eye out, especially now that I’ve seen the picture. Does that help?”
“Actually…” I said, pausing strategically.
“We’re concerned that someone is keeping a look out for us. We’re trying to surprise them, you see?”
The furrow in between his eyebrows was now as deep as it could get.
“Surprise party,” I told him. “She’s rich as all-get-out, she’s from a powerful family, and it’s really hard to make a party something special for her. So if she asks if you’ve seen us, could you keep quiet on that? The surprise part is the only part that matters.”
“Ahh. I think I understand,” the man said. “I can stay quiet, don’t you worry. Where are you all from?”
That he asked was something of an irony. The less we told him, the better. The moment Ms. Fray realized we were on her trail –if she was even here-, she would be in the wind.
“Outskirts of West York,” Gordon improvised, clearly thinking the same thing I was.
“Ah? Ways away then. What brings you here?”
The word escaped my mouth before I thought to say different.
I didn’t miss the glances that were shot my way. Only Jamie didn’t. His focus was elsewhere.
“Um,” Jamie said, waiting until he had eye contact with the man before continuing, “If it looks like the surprise party won’t happen, you can tell her whatever.”
“If it won’t happen? You mean, if she finds out some other way?”
“You’ll know what I mean if it comes down to it,” Jamie said. I gave him a curious look.
“Uh huh,” the man said, dragging out the sound, slowly processing it.
Someone came into the post office behind us, and Helen took that as a cue. She waved, a little too dramatically, in a way that suited a smaller child. “Goodbye, sir. Thank you for everything!”
She was so good at becoming every adult’s favorite girl, so very quickly. The man gave a little wave back.
We stepped back out onto the street, and I fixed my cap and scarf, hunching against the cold.
“She could be hiding in plain sight,” Gordon said. “The man’s right. She’s a needle, and this is a haystack. It’s the perfect place for her to hide, maybe even lose our trail for good.”
“No leads,” Mary said. “Just like yesterday, and the day before.”
I reached out and held her mittened hand with my gloved one, giving it a squeeze.
“What was that about, Jamie?” Gordon asked.
He cares too much.
“What was what?” Jamie asked.
“If the surprise party is spoiled?”
“It should make sense if Fray comes for him. She’s left a few bodies in her wake, and we’ve found reasons for most of them, but if she comes after him, looking for any details on us, I don’t want him upsetting her.”
“I’d rather have her upset and ignorant than the other way around,” Gordon said.
“So would I,” Jamie said. “But if it came down to him getting hurt for nothing, I’d rather he talk.”
Gordon shook his head.
It was ironic. All Ms. Fray had to really do to maximize the damage she did to us was to keep doing what she was doing and play keep away.
We’d spent months in the Bowels, with only Sub Rosa to deal with at the tail end of it, and that had been less of a team effort than the vast majority of our jobs. Weeks on weeks of dreadfully dull interviews and interrogations, with little to show for it.
Now we were on the verge of another few months of something fruitless. Chasing a woman who forever remained at least one step ahead of us.
There were countless factors playing into it all, but at the very core of it, we were entering into the dangerous years. Important years for anyone, when boys became men and girls became women, but more important for us.
These were the years when we would be coming into our own. We’d be forging our identities and adapting our fit in the group.
We were losing our edge, without opposition to keep us sharp, and without a practical test of our abilities, we couldn’t find a new configuration that made up for all the little changes. It made for uncomfortable fits, little bits of bickering.
I’d hated the interviews in the Bowels, and as much as I was liked the chance to explore and stretch my legs, I didn’t think this was as constructive as what we collectively needed.
Mary was right. We needed to sink our teeth into the stick, not to chase it endlessly.
The thought crossed my mind: If we don’t find an opportunity soon, I might well have to create a problem for the group to solve. Even if it gets me into untold trouble.
At least this place seemed good for that. A pressure cooker of an Academy, stocked with cutthroat young ladies.
I heard rattling, and saw Helen working to open the box, cutting at tape with a fingernail.
“We’re almost there,” Jamie remarked.
“I know,” Helen said. “The box feels light.”
My heart sank at the same moment Mary breathed the words, “Don’t say that.”
Helen reached into the box and withdrew a small jar of pills. They were purple, and they numbered-
“Fifteen, at a glance,” Jamie said.
Gordon reached into the box, as Helen’s hands were full, and withdrew a folded letter.
“They want us back soon, so we can have our appointments,” Gordon said. “It’s going to take us a day and a half to travel back to Radham. Three pills each…”
Mary kicked a clump of ice that had fallen from a carriage, making it explode into icicles and shards. Heads turned. Mary crushed one of my hands in hers, her other hand clenched, a grim look on her face.
“Try to keep a low profile,” Jamie said.
I put my hand out to stop him.
“They’re giving up on us,” Mary said.
“They have enough faith in us to let us stay another day or two, follow up leads,” Jamie said.
“Yeah,” Mary said. “And they sent the Whelps, and Dog and Catcher, and the Hangman. And we know Catcher and the Hangman got closer to her than we did.”
“It’s not a competition,” Lillian said. “What’s important is stopping her from hurting people.”
“Yeah,” Jamie said.
“I don’t think Mary’s saying that isn’t important,” I said.
“But it’s true,” I said. “We’re chasing a ghost. She’s smart. It sucks. We did so well on the last couple of jobs, proving the Lambs were worth something, now it feels like we’re backtracking.”
Mary nodded. Jamie did too.
Rift mended, if just a little.
We turned onto a side street, at Jamie’s instruction. The buildings here were a little more uniform. It was possible that most of the quaint little cottage-houses were individual dormitory spaces, the rest occupied by people who supported the Academy town, like the postman, but these buildings lacked character.
“Look at this like an opportunity,” I said. “This is a good thing.”
“Good?” Mary asked.
We quickly reached the dormitory where we were supposed to be staying, and we stopped as a group in front of the wrought-wood gate, taking shelter from the snowflakes under the canopy of a large evergreen with chains dangling from it.
In the summertime, the chains would have certain meats hung from them. Those treated meats would keep the pest and vermin populations down in a city where the gutters and sewers might literally run red with bodily fluids during exam time.
They did in Radham, it wasn’t unbelievable for it to happen here.
“This is good because it forces our hand. I don’t think any of us are going to relax or take shortcuts in the next twenty-four hours.”
“If you think I’m taking shortcuts-” Mary started. I raised a hand.
“I know you don’t,” I said. “Not really. None of us do, exactly, but yeah. Not what I meant. It’s less about shortcuts, and more that we all get tired. We get tired from different things and we get tired in different ways. In a crisis, I know we pull ourselves together and give our all… but in a slog like this? Every day, at least one of us isn’t at our best.”
There were a few nods. Few would argue they were flawless.
“This is good because it’s a crisis,” I said. “We can’t move on to another city, unless we have a damn good lead, so we focus our attention here. It makes sense that she’s enjoying being the needle in the haystack, which gives us every reason to think she’s left the city, but that I’m even thinking that means she’s probably second guessed it. I can usually play this game well, guess what people are doing when they aren’t even sure, but she plays it too. Let’s use this opportunity to catch her off guard, do something she wasn’t necessarily expecting. Change our approach. One and a half days of the absolute best work we can do.”
“That sounds like a plan,” Gordon said. “I think we should split up. We operate in different ways, and we can cover more ground in different ways.”
We need to bind the group together, find the right configuration!
And splitting up is always a bad idea!
Except I felt like saying that much aloud might ruin it. If people were self conscious, or the fractures in the group became conscious and significant rather than subconscious and minor…
Jamie glanced at me. The glance was an ask. He wanted to know what I thought.
“Sure,” I said. Then, as a subtle bit of manipulation, I added, “We go out in pairs. We spend a duration doing our thing, then meet up, report in even if there’s nothing to report, touch base.”
Gordon nodded. “Sy, with me? Jamie and Mary together. Helen and Lillian.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because it makes sense,” he said, simply.
I frowned at him. “That’s the worst answer you could’ve given.”
“If I give you more information, that’s slack you’ll use to hang me,” he said.
“Come on,” he said. He reached into Helen’s box and found a key, opened the door, and then dropped his luggage just inside. He reached out for Jamie’s. “If you can’t stand my company, we can rearrange things after our first meeting. In one hour? Here.”
There were nods.
I waited with him while he got everyone’s luggage organized inside and locked the door. The others were already fanning out, heading in different directions.
“Why, really?” I asked, now that everyone was gone.
“The group is splintering,” he said.
“Yeah. Not a lot, but-”
“It’s splintering,” he said. “It can be fixed, but I think it’s best fixed at the ground level, the core.”
“Sure,” I said.
“Remember when it was just you, me, Jamie, and sometimes Helen?”
Two years ago.
“Let’s get back to basics. You and I. Like in the old days.”
I raised an eyebrow. “You have something in mind?”
“Let’s go recruiting,” he said.