I approached Miss Genevieve Fray. Being as short as I was, I had to hop up onto a snow-dusted flower box to look over the railing. It would have been ignoble to be staring through the bars while she looked over them, for one thing, and by stepping up, I was more on her level.
That felt important, somehow.
It was the style for well-to-do people, man and woman alike, to wear long coats. Ms. Fray wore a short black coat, reaching only down to her belt. It was a style that was reserved more for people who were more active and those who worked with their hands. That wasn’t to say she looked poor. Her hair was nice, though some of it was caught beneath a crimson scarf, as if the scarf had been put on as an afterthought. She wore a black skirt short enough to reveal her knees, which were covered in patterned red stockings, and she was absentmindedly scuffing at the snow with the toe of one of her heeled black boots that didn’t look particularly good for running in.
She gave me a sidelong glance, suggesting she’d known I was studying her, or she’d expected me to be. Her lips turned up in a slight smile.
“What are the terms?” I asked.
“For?” she asked.
“This conversation. We should negotiate how we’re doing this.”
“We can’t have a simple conversation?” she asked.
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“Why not?” she asked, and she sounded disappointed. I’d expected her to be more guarded, hiding her emotions, but she wasn’t.
“Because you keep responding with questions, keeping me on my back foot,” I said.
She smiled again.
I waited, letting her resume the conversation. How she did would tell me a great deal. If she took her time, that was more time for the others to address the other problem and find me. They would be worried when I didn’t turn up, which wasn’t good, but it was helpful.
Below us, the water rippled. At the very edges, where it wasn’t rushing as much, the water had frozen into a thin layer. The back of a serpentine creature rose up, moved a short distance, and then sunk, making some of the more fragile ice at the sides break away.
“It’s sluggish,” Ms. Fray commented. “Hm.”
Wasting time? Idle chatter? I wasn’t about to complain, up to a point.
“Winter. Scales suggest cold blood. It probably wants to be hibernating,” I suggested.
“I don’t think that’s it, Sylvester,” she said.
She didn’t finish the statement. I wondered if she was baiting me to ask, to take control of the conversation. Hayle did that a lot, I knew. I opted to remain silent.
Win-win. I wasn’t going to get so hungry for details on her that I let my guard down. Better to compose myself, think everything through, and catch my breath after all the running.
She raised her hands to her face and blew on them, rubbing, before leaning on the railing with her elbows, hands clasped. “I prefer this to having the Hangman or the Whelps after me.”
“Is that so?”
“It gets lonely, having the company of a voltaic maid and Warren. I gave him his tongue back, but he doesn’t like talking.”
My face remained stoic, but my mind was shouting at her. What in the world are you doing!? Handing me details? Expressing a vulnerability? I would never do such a thing in your shoes!
“You contrived to bait me here to talk because you were lonely, of all things?”
“I didn’t know it would be you. I was expecting Gordon, I think. Or a group of you.”
“What were you going to do if it was a group of us?”
“Same thing I’m doing now. Try to have a conversation,” she said.
Conversation. It kept coming back to that. Did she have a plan of attack? A monster of a statement she could drop on me or us and use to disarm us?
“This is a lot of trouble to go to to have a conversation,” I noted.
“Yes. But fugitives go to a lot of trouble doing anything. You should know that much.”
I raised my eyebrows. She turned her head away from the creek and the Kensford streets on the other side of the water to see my reaction.
“You’ve read my file.”
“I was striving to be a professor, but you’d know that much. Toward the end, when they had whittled the number down to four candidates, they handed us some files. Academy weapons, for Radham, and for the neighboring towns.”
“There are strategically located villages and towns near Radham each have their own weapon and a caretaker or team. You didn’t know that?”
I shook my head.
“You’ve been to the Academy’s dungeons?”
“I prefer to call that area the Bowels.”
She smiled. “Yes. The towns on the periphery are the same, but an opposite concept. One weapon, Academy Doctors to manage it and keep things in working order, forever advancing or replacing it. If something goes wrong, well, there’s a lot of open space and not too many people to get caught up in the resulting mess. The Academy handed us files, on those towns, on the Academy’s resources, on you. We were told to familiarize ourselves with them, and we were later surprised with questions. Not to test our knowledge, but to test our abilities as potential professors.”
“‘What would you do differently’, that sort of thing?”
She nodded. “That sort of thing. Very dangerous questions, when one is dealing with the sort of people that become professors. A test of our ability to be politicians as well as scholars. How well did we use the time they gave us to prepare? I know one man twice my age got removed from consideration because he only studied the material he was given. I was asked to look at your files, I spent a lot of time dwelling on them. On you.”
I thought over her statements for a little while: the minor revelation, the fact that she kept revealing things about herself without giving anything in return.
Was there a trap gathering around me as we spoke? Did she have underlings or resources? Creations?
The little alcove was silent and mostly still. There was a path to the left, running along the side of the little river, with railing beside it, but it was straight, and I could see someone approaching from a mile away. The other path, to the right, was where I’d come from. It connected at an angle, making it hard to see down without walking over. The building behind us was a small restaurant or coffee shop, which probably used this space as an outdoor patio for guests in warmer weather. If I squinted and peered through the window, I could make out an older woman wiping down something like a counter or table, holding silverware in one hand.
Suspicious, but I had a hard time seeing her as a threat. It was easier and more subtle to simply hide someone on either side of the window or door.
I wondered if she was waiting for something to take hold and incapacitate me, but I couldn’t imagine how I might be dosed. It was just cold enough that there wouldn’t be any moisture in the air to hold vapors,I hadn’t ingested anything, and I hadn’t touched anything and then touched my face.
“It’s nice to put a face to the name,” she said.
“I feel the same way,” I told her, carefully.
“What did you think, the first time you heard about me?”
“What do you mean?”
“Answering a question with a question?” she asked, smiling. “I think you said something about that.”
I had, and the accusation was apt.
I wasn’t about to admit that my first thought had been about a possible connection. That whoever she was, she was bound to be closer to me than any long lost sibling that turned up.
“I thought it would be fun,” I said. Not a lie, but not the answer to her question.
“When they first picked you, the idea was to use the formula from the Wyvern files until they found a hard limit.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“You knew,” she said, more to herself, as if it answered a question. “I’d already been subjecting myself to more than the prescribed amount before I read your file. I bartered for them, then started making my own. Seeing that you’d survived gave me permission to increase the dosages.”
“The difference between us is that you’ve been dosed regularly since you were six. I’ve been taking the doses for seven years, and have been matching or exceeding your doses for four of those years. After reading your file, I thought about you regularly, especially during and after my injections.”
“What were you thinking? Poor kid?”
“In a way. I was envious, isn’t that strange? You got to take the doses from an earlier point, you got to decide how you shaped yourself, more than anyone else. Decide what to focus on, mold your being, decide what things you wanted to be good at and be excellent at those things.”
“Sure,” I said. I was picking on every word, looking for manipulation. Was this the trap, the attack?
“Don’t get me wrong, I hated the doses. The headaches, the nosebleeds, the way my entire body seemed to want to shut down. But I had a choice. I thought about what it was like for you, quite a bit. Whether they dragged you there, kicking and screaming. But then I asked myself, if you really hated it, would you have gone back willingly, after running away?”
She had me pegged.
It bothered me. It wasn’t that she’d gotten straight to the heart of a matter that only Jamie had managed to analyze me on, but that this was so lopsided. The progression of the conversation wasn’t what I’d expected. She revealed too much. There was no back and forth, no innuendo, no traps that I’d been able to spot.
She was clearly capable, if she could connect the dots this accurately, bait me here like this and keep me from going for the throat.
“At the age of six, we believe, children start to break away from their parents. Before six, we’re a sum total of our environments and our biology. After six, we start to step away from that. I wondered a great deal about whether being dosed would play into that, and which direction it would go. It’s very exciting to meet you, after so much speculation. I’m going to be thinking about this meeting for a long time.”
She was gushing a little.
An act? Or genuine?
She was showing so many vulnerabilities, it was like she was baring her throat, jugular right at my fingertips.
“What do you think?” I asked. “Now that you’ve met me?”
“I’m dearly wishing I could have become a professor,” she said. “I would have loved to meet you for tea and cookies, and have had long conversations. I think that would have been nice.”
She reached out, and I reacted, twisting away, hand touching the inside of my jacket to find the knife Mary had given me. In a moment, I was a step back, the point of the knife an inch from her hand and wrist.
“I was only going to stroke your hair,” she said.
“No thank you,” I replied, thinking of poisons and worse.
“Of course. I’m sorry.” A blue-ringed tentacle reached out from within her jacket sleeve, touched the flat of the blade, and pushed it down. “Please?”
I let my arm slowly drop as she pushed, the blade still in my hand. My eye noted her right hand, concealed between her stomach and the railing, with needles extended from the space between her fingers and nails.
When the knife was down, she relaxed, facing the railing again. her right hand went up to fix her hair, and the needles weren’t there anymore. She didn’t take her eye off me, though she faced the water. She stared at me through the corner of her eye until I sheathed the knife, then relaxed.
“You were expecting to talk to Gordon, or the group,” I said. “What were you expecting to talk about?”
Not quite asking what she wanted to talk to me about, but it might provide hints.
“With Gordon, I would ask him what he remembered of his time before he was a Lamb, and how he remembered it. I would ask him what he plans to be, as someone who could be so very good at anything and everything. I would ask him if he was living his life to the fullest, without actually asking him that. Do you know, Sylvester? Why I’d ask him that?”
“He’s going to die,” I said.
“I’m genuinely surprised they told you, or that he shared that information with you. I didn’t imagine someone who would accept pity.”
They didn’t tell me. He wouldn’t. I kept my face still to avoid betraying the thoughts. I wanted her to see right through me as I opened my mouth to reply. “It’s reality. Everyone dies. Is this your plan of attack, Ms. Fray? You confront us with facts we already knew and dealt with on our own?”
She shook her head. “I don’t have a plan of attack, Sylvester.”
My eyes narrowed. “Every conversation is an attack, in a way. Everyone wants something, even if it’s to be understood or paid attention to. To do that, we attack the other person, predict them, identify where they’re coming from, where they stand, and where they want to go. Done well, it’s a dance. Those are the best conversations.”
“Are we dancing?” she asked.
“No,” I said.
“Oh. I thought we were having a good conversation.”
“No,” I said, again. I tried to articulate it. “No, and I can’t tell if it’s because you’re terrible at this or if it’s because you’re that much better than me.”
“This. The standoff, dialogue with an enemy. You brought me here for a reason, you had something you wanted to achieve, but you’re not fighting for it. You’re making small talk.”
“We’ve each been taking the Wyvern formula, roughly for the same durations. We each decided on the strengths we wanted to highlight. You highlighted yours to fill a need in your group. The gap that Ashton was meant to fill.”
The name caught me off guard. She seemed to notice.
“I read all the files, Sylvester. The Lambs were supposed to have a counterpoint to Helen, your Galatea. They would work as a team, each one with different social strengths, both actors beyond compare, a work by Ibott and a work by a team, derived from his first version of the Galatea. Gordon is likeable by virtue of his attractiveness and keen social sense. Helen is likeable because her personality was built to be such. Ashton would have been likeable for entirely different reasons. You’re filling the gap. You’ve become adroit with the interpersonal. You had to.”
“And you took the Wyvern formula, but you didn’t have to? I don’t believe that. You had to navigate the bureaucracy, you were just talking about the political side of being a professor. You passed the test and answered the questions about what they were doing wrong without making enemies. No, I don’t believe it at all.”
“Belief, you said it twice, ‘believe’.”
“Nothing. You sound upset.”
“You’re patronizing me. That’s a peeve of mine.”
“I’m not patronizing you, Sylvester. I did good work, I built up my skills working with experiments it would otherwise take whole teams to see to the end. I did build up skills for the challenges outside of the lab, but negotiation and manipulation weren’t priorities. Strategy and long term planning were. I removed my enemies one by one, and ensured the weakest possible candidate was my opponent in the final selection.”
“And you failed.”
She smiled a little. “It’s some consolation that they ended up with a poor professor.”
“You’re lying to my face, Genevieve Fray,” I said. “You’ve killed.”
“You’re one to talk,” she retorted. Her eyes were sparkling with emotion. Excitement.
“You’re angry, you’ve been more brutal than necessary-”
“Again, the Lambs are no better or worse.”
“You’re working with an agenda. You have a plan. You could have gone to a lot of different places, but you came here, when you could have run to a place where the Academy didn’t have as strong of a grip.”
“What if I wanted the challenge? Our brains were made pliable with the Wyvern formula, but pliability still means they need external stimuli to change. Couldn’t it be that I would have stagnated in a place where there wasn’t a concrete threat?”
“Maybe,” I said. “You’re not showing me your true face. The face that you wore when you put weaponized needles under your fingernails, or ordered Whelps killed and a threat written in blood on the wall.”
“I think this is the side of you that acts smart, planning, smiling and acting nice, handling all of the day to day tasks. But unless the head you stole away with ended up being very nasty, I think there’s a bloodthirsty part of Genevieve Fray you’re only barely holding back, a dangerous, barbaric side.”
She sighed. Her breath formed a cloud in the air.
“I’m not going to show you that side of me just yet, Sylvester.”
“I’m glad. I doubt I’d survive it,” I said. My heart was pounding all of a sudden. Excitement and fear. “But can we at least stop pretending it doesn’t exist? It’s insulting.”
“Alright,” she conceded. “You made three mistakes in your assessment, though. Very telling.”
“Is that so?”
“First of all, you said that this part of me is smart, the planner, methodical.”
“I’m flattered, and I’d agree. But in saying it like you did, you suggested the other side me isn’t smart. You’re a planner, you’re careful because you’re weak, and you’re biased because of it. You don’t respect instinct or ugliness.”
“Instinct and ugliness.”
She smiled. “I wasn’t able to evade you this long because I used my head, Sylvester.”
“You used instinct?”
“No. Ugliness. A savage brute of a man who swings his weapon recklessly and unpredictably can be a worse enemy for a trained fighter than another trained combatant,” she said.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll take the bait. What was the second mistake?”
“Implying that the first side of me, this side, isn’t dangerous.”
“Is this where you reveal that by simply being here, I’ve fallen into a trap?”
“No, Sylvester. We’re here to have a conversation,” she said.
“You’re not denying there’s a trap.”
“You’re safe, Sylvester. That won’t stay the case, I think we will find ourselves at each other’s throats eventually, but there is no greater plot at work, closing in on you as we speak.”
Assuming I believe you, I thought. I studied her, trying to peer past the expression to see the more brutal side that lurked beneath the surface.
“Third.” she said, and it was a statement unto itself. “This isn’t a duality. I’m not one of the Balfour Academy soldiers, drinking a potion to become virile, ugly, and monstrously strong. There isn’t a lever inside me that determines which of me you’re talking to at once. A knife can cut or stab. The label doesn’t change. It’s still a knife.”
“And you’re still Genevieve,” I said.
“So. This is a declaration of war,” I said. I saw her react, and quickly added, “And it’s a conversation.”
She smiled. “You could take it that way.”
“You wanted to satiate your curiosity before you started acting against us in earnest.”
“That isn’t untrue, though my curiosity is hardly sated.”
“And if you’re doing that, then the gambit with the pills is nonsense.”
“I know the train schedule, I know how the pills work, I made them,” she said. “I knew I had time to get some answers.”
She reached into an inside pocket, then held up a bottle. It was very, very similar to the one Helen had had. Filled with purple pills, again, subtly different. I couldn’t tell at a glance whether they were different in a way that made them more similar to the pills I was used to or less.
My memory wasn’t that strong, and it didn’t help that the bottle was fogging up in the cold, so soon after being warmed and dampened by the heat radiating off of her body.
“I wondered if you were slave to them,” she said. “If the regular injections from an early age froze you at a point where you couldn’t or wouldn’t rebel, and if you remained nothing more than the sum total of your environment and physical makeup. Not to belittle you, of course. You could be that and still be marvelously complex, given your experiences thus far.”
“Do you think I’m a slave, Genevieve?” I asked.
“I think you have other reasons. So, right now, I’m going to tell you that I can provide the pills that would free you from Radham. I can help you extend your lifespans. Give me that challenge, and I will throw myself at it, wholeheartedly. I’ve been dosing myself with the Wyvern formula, and it’s no trouble to double up the stock and provide you with a share if you want it. I can spare Jamie from his appointments, and keep the rest in working order. I’m not inclined to break people like Briggs is.”
“Ah, this is what you were getting to?” I asked. “I’m a little disappointed.”
“Don’t be. I already know you’re going to say no. I’m hoping you tell me why.”
“Because that’s a death sentence, as sure as any the Academy bestowed on us.”
“We could handle anything they send at us, I think you know that.”
“I know that.”
“Then why? I can give you more years.”
“But you wouldn’t give us hope. Every day, the Academy learns things. Journals and articles are shared from all over the world, from places the Crown operates. Every month, at the very least, there’s a breakthrough, something that raises eyebrows.”
“You think a breakthrough will save you?”
“I believe in what Hayle is trying to do,” I said.
She nodded slowly.
“He wants to discover a better brain. That brain will help uncover something even better, and so on down the line. I believe in what humanity can accomplish, and I believe that there is an answer.”
“And in saying that, you give me yours,” she said. She sighed again, then rubbed her hands, blowing on them.
“It breaks down to hope, I suppose,” I said.
“For someone who analyzes others so well, you don’t do very well with yourself, Sylvester. I suppose that’s a matter of self preservation.”
“What do you think it is, then?”
“You said the word yourself. Over and over.”
I frowned a little. “My memory isn’t my strongest trait.”
“I know,” she said. “It was in the file.”
We stood like that. I watched as the thing in the water did a lazy somersault. It stayed belly up for a few seconds too long, enough for me to wonder if it had died, starting to float belly up.
“I think it goes without saying, but if you ever decide to turn against the Academy, all you have to do is say the word,” she said. “But you won’t.”
I remained silent.
“You asked me if I thought you were a slave,” she said. “Your answer was a good one.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“I’m going to put you to sleep now,” she said. “I know fighting isn’t your strongest trait, again, it was in the files. Can we do this neatly, without too much mess?”
I tensed, freezing. My hand was open, and the position of the knife flickered into my mind.
I reached for it, stepping back and to the side, to get behind her, buying time to act.
The tentacles reached out, catching my arm before I could get the best grip on the knife.
I twisted, trying a move I’d seen Gordon do. I passed the knife to my other hand, nicking a finger on the blade as I caught the handle too high, then punched the knife at her midsection.
She stopped the blade with her other palm, and it went through. I saw pain on her face.
She shoved her hand further toward me, impaling her hand more, and then coiled her fingers inward, a needle springing out to pierce the hand that held the knife.
One foot on my chest, kicking me back and away. The tentacles were slow to let go, and I stumbled, collapsing against the railing.
I didn’t remember passing out, but when I woke up, I was propped up beneath the eaves of the little restaurant, I had a short black coat draped over me, and the cut on my finger was neatly bandaged.