I tried to rise, and found my body’s movements sluggish. I slumped down, my head against the wall, chin against my collarbone, arms in front of me, Genevieve’s coat draped over me, cap pulled down, scarf and collar protecting much of my face.
I stared at the mended cut on my finger. I couldn’t move or call out, so I didn’t try. I put my hand under the coat and pressed my hands between my thighs for warmth.
The tranquilizer’s effects were still heavy in my body. Few drugs were potent and localized to one area, and any drug had to be potent to get past my Wyvern-given resistances. She had put me out for long enough for her to move me, patch me up, maybe see to herself, and then make her exit. Now I was feeling the side effects. Fatigue lingered, and where it sat heavy in my stomach, I felt a growing need to heave out my stomach’s contents.
Considerate as she’d been, she hadn’t left me anything for the unsettled stomach.
Nothing left to do but wait and contemplate.
Contemplation over the discussion with Genevieve soon left a bad taste in my mouth that had nothing to do with my nausea. Like the nausea, though, it was a vague feeling I couldn’t put my finger on. The moment I did, and I suspected that it was a moment I wouldn’t have much control over, I knew I’d feel a lot worse.
She’d dictated where and how the conversation happened. She’d told me remarkably little, and I knew that was entirely on purpose. She had also achieved her goal, which was to get to know me, and perhaps to declare war.
The more I thought about it, the more vague and nebulous the cohesive whole seemed.
What she’d said and what she’d demonstrated in our interactions were at odds. It wasn’t that she’d lied, but the presented Genevieve Fray was false.
False in a very specific way.
Why are you here, engaging with us? You’re not bored, not exactly, and you wouldn’t be so passive if you were, you’d want to test that brain of yours against us. You’re not pinned down, I refuse to believe that it would be so easy.
I felt a prick of pain and moved my hands to see. A tiny bead of blood was squeezing out of the corner of the glued seam. I’d been clenching my hand hard enough to push it out.
Time passed, my thoughts meandered, and I periodically tested my strength, finding it greater with time, even as I got colder. I reached a point where I was fairly certain I could stand, but decided to stay sitting, so I wouldn’t get ill.
I did hitch myself backward so I was sitting up more against the wall, instead of having my head bent forward. No reason to be more uncomfortable.
I was in that state, waiting for my stomach to settle down more than I was waiting for my strength to return, when Gordon appeared from the same direction I’d come.
“Sy!” he said.
He was halfway to me by the time I’d maneuvered my hand from beneath the coat and raised it in a small wave.
He looked agitated, and dropped to my side, caught between multiple actions.
“I’m okay,” I said. “Get the others.”
He nodded, twisted around, raising two fingers to his lips, and let out a shrill whistle.
“What happened?” he asked. “Trap?”
“No,” I said. “I met Fray.”
“And we talked, and then she drugged me, and then she left.”
“We’ve been looking for you for fifteen minutes, and we spent a bit running from Fray’s goon.”
“I refuse to call him that,” Gordon said. “You don’t get to name this one.”
“Moron. You should have signaled us when you found her.”
“Should’ve, could’ve,” I said, sounding about as dejected as I felt.
“You talked to her, though?”
The eagerness in his eyes and voice was painful.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Better if you wait for the others before sharing,” he told me.
I nodded. “But you can tell me what happened with you guys.”
“I could, but there isn’t much to it. They feigned that they were defending a building, the goon cornered us, used a mix of something to fill the area with smoke, then came at us, full-barrel, heaving furniture and crashing through doors. He could see us just a bit better than we could see him, but that bastard was massive, he didn’t need to see, he just barreled in, fists swinging. Mary and me, we needed to see to be effective. It put us on a back foot.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, funny how that works, isn’t it? Felt like I was watching out for all the traps and tricks, everything I needed to do to keep Fray from getting the initiative, but when I look back on it, I don’t feel like I ever had it.”
Gordon gave me a curious look.
When he didn’t say or do anything, I raised an eyebrow as a way of questioning him.
“You okay?” he asked.
“Oh, I’m fantastic, as you can tell,” I said.
“You’re being sarcastic, so you can’t be that bad off,” he told me. “Explain that part in more depth when you dish to all of us.”
I nodded, though I really didn’t feel like elaborating on that count. Whatever. “Your thing. Keep going.”
“We tried to wait it out, waited for you, Helen and Mary climbed around to go after him and the stitched girl from above or behind, whichever. The bastard said something about lighting a match, warning us to get away, because the smoke would catch fire. We backed off, he struck the match. We weren’t even close to the building, and the woof of flame knocked us all on our asses. He went running off while we were still getting our bearings. Jamie says he thinks the guy had the stitched in a box?”
“Fray’s plan, you think?” I asked.
“Don’t know enough to say,” Gordon told me. He clenched his fist, gesturing inarticulately for a second before releasing it. “I feel like we could have done better, but I can’t say anything to any of them because I know I could have done better.”
“Teamwork?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I hate even saying it. But if you’ve got something…”
“I’ve got something,” I said.
“Then it was worth it,” he said. I could see the tension go out of his neck and shoulders. His voice dropped as he murmured to himself, “That’s good.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Can you stand?” he asked.
“Be gentle,” I told him. “Slow. Unless you want me to heave all over the both of us. Whatever she gave me is sitting bad.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Of course.”
He was strong enough and I was small enough that he could pick me up, one arm under each armpit, and he could do it slowly, giving me time to get my feet under me, my hand on the wall behind me to steady myself.
When I was standing, one hand on his shoulder for support, he turned and gave another long, sharp whistle.
“In case they couldn’t figure out the direction,” he said.
“Yeah,” I replied.
Lillian appeared and rushed to my side. Mary was with her.
“I told you it was the right direction,” Mary was saying, as they drew into earshot.
“Alright,” Lillian said. “I wasn’t positive you were wrong, geez.”
“Geez,” Mary said, teasing.
“Don’t talk to me if you’re going to be grumpy,” Lillian said.
“I’m being grumpy? You’re being grumpy,” Mary accused.
They reached us. Lillian looked at us, clearly flustered, she looked between us. “Sy? You look-”
“Drugged,” Gordon interjected.
“By Fray,” I said.
I saw alarm on Lillian’s face in the same moment I saw hope on Mary’s. Mary clasped her hands in front of her, almost in unconscious prayer.
“I need to look you over, everything, anything could be wrong, if she dosed you with something-”
“Did she say anything? Did you find out-”
“Girls,” Gordon said.
“We should find a place to get Sy’s clothes off. I should do a full checkup. Do you feel nauseous?”
“Lillian,” Gordon said, stern.
“Yes,” I said.
“See? Anything could be wrong, and there’s one big what-if that’s very likely, very dangerous, and needs immediate attention. If she can recreate the pills, which we aren’t sure she can’t-”
“Let Lillian do what she needs and then talk. Sylvester, if you keep me in suspense on this, I will draw a knife and give you a second belly button.”
“Does your stomach feel firm?” Lillian jumped in.
Gordon clapped a hand over Lillian’s mouth. He reached for Mary’s, but she slapped his hand aside, backing up a half-step. He settled for pointing at her, stern.
“I don’t want a second belly button,” I said, in a small voice, mostly to lighten the mood.
“Don’t you start,” he told me.
Lillian used both hands to pull Gordon’s hand down and away. “You’ve each been impregnated with modified glucose chains. It’s why you need the pills. If she found a way to unravel them, which she could, if she has pills, he could be breaking down right now, bleeding on the inside.”
“I’m pregnant?” I asked.
Gordon slapped me across the head. He turned, batted Lillian across the head, with considerably less force, then did the same to Mary, who furrowed her brow and bent her head to let it happen. Probably for the sake of fairness and to be a part of things.
Then he turned and swatted me again.
He held up his hand in warning.
“You did me twice, for no reason at all!”
He smacked me again.
I opened my mouth to protest further, and he drew his hand back.
I folded my arms.
“Sylvester was tranquilized,” Gordon said. “Don’t rush to conclusions.”
“If he’s nauseous, we can’t ignore that,” Lillian said.
“You can get Sy naked and check him out as soon as we get someplace warm, and we can do that as soon as the others catch up. They’re coming right now. Until then, take his word for it when he says he’s feeling okay,” Gordon said, his finger pointed at Lillian.
“I never said naked,” she said.
The finger wagged in her direction. She pressed her lips together.
Gordon was right, though; Jamie and Helen were halfway down the long, straight alley, opposite the end the others had come down. Jamie looked like he’d been running a moment ago.
Gordon moved his finger to point to Mary. “Sy can tell us what happened on the way, and while Lillian’s looking over him. I’ve held back my curiosity this long, you can do the same.”
Mary made a ‘hmph’ sound, sticking her hands in her pockets.
He pointed at me. “Be quiet. I know you’re riling them up.”
“Then I shouldn’t mention the blood dripping out my pee hole, or the fact that Fray is-”
He smacked me, way harder than was necessary. One of my eyes teared up.
“He was joking about the blood, right?” Lillian asked, cutting Mary off before Mary could say anything.
Gordon gave me a ‘see?’ look.
“Yes,” I said. “Joking, joking.”
Helen and Jamie joined us.
“What’s this about getting Sylvester naked, warm and checking him out?” Jamie asked. “I heard you from a distance, but I’m pretty sure that’s what you said. Is there anything you need to tell us, Gordon?”
“Ha ha,” Gordon said, unamused.
“And Fray?” Jamie asked. “You said her name?”
“Sy’s health takes priority,” Gordon said. “We need to get indoors.”
I turned around, reached, and knocked on the window.
It took some time, but the woman who’d been cleaning tables inside appeared at the window, and she gave us a look. I made a pleading gesture, hands pressed together, and she gave me a very unimpressed look.
She looked at Gordon, who was holding up a wallet, and relented. The door that opened to the patio opened, and she let us inside.
“Are you open?” I asked her.
“No. But you can order something.”
“We want to check my friend out for frostbite, can we get six of whatever you have that’s warm to drink? And a bite to eat? Cake or pie?”
“I have slices of cake and I have slices of pie, prices are on the board over the counter,” she said. “Carrot, vanilla, and chocolate cake, meat pie, wildberry pie, apple pie, stone nut pie…”
“Cake,” I said. “Chocolate, please?”
“I thought you were feeling sick?” Lillian asked, hands going to her hips.
“It’s chocolate cake,” I said.
She nodded, accepting that as fact.
“I’ll have a stone nut pie,” Gordon said. “Thank you.”
“Wildberry pie, please,” Mary said.
“I would like a Vanilla cake, please,” Helen said.
“Carrot cake, please” Lillian said, hands dropping from her hips.
The woman’s arms folded as she looked at Jamie.
“Chocolate cake?” he asked, cringing a little.
“I just cleaned up, it’s late, and I’m not going to serve each of you something different,” the woman said. “Decide on one thing. Two at most.”
It took us ten seconds of quick haggling to hash it out. Gordon spoke up, “Four slices of chocolate cake, and two slices of apple pie?”
The woman nodded, leaving to get our order.
Lillian wasted no time in beginning to pull my clothes off.
I would have made a joke, but I wanted to maintain my one-bellybutton status.
“Fray was waiting for me. Or for any one of us. I was the one who stumbled on her. The rest of it was a distraction, to keep the rest of the group away so we wouldn’t mob her or whatever. She invited me over for a chat. I obliged. We talked, she tranquilized me, Gordon found me a little while after I woke up.”
“What did you talk about?” Mary asked. She was sitting on a chair, perched like she was going to leap over and create my new bellybutton if I wasn’t quick to answer. Too much killer instinct, suppressed for too many weeks.
“My memory isn’t that good,” I started. I was forced to pause, raising my arms to help Lillian pull off my sweater and shirt.
Mary didn’t leap on me, but a knife had appeared in one hand in the moment the sweater obscured my vision, the rest of her not having moved a hair, like a magician producing a card. She toyed with it. It wasn’t like she would really stab me, but her point was clear. She was dead serious when it came to this.
“But we talked about the fact that she knew who we were. She’s studied us, the Academy made her, and she has a sense of what we are and how we function. We talked about the Wyvern formula, about the effects, the side effects, and how we each developed while using it. She says she didn’t develop skills as a manipulator or a people reader, but I’m not sure that’s true. She did develop skills as a strategist, to make her way in the upper echelons of the Academy, but I think we already knew that.”
The others were hanging on every word. Lillian prodded my neck and chin. I resumed speaking the moment I was free to. “Fray mentioned Ashton, to give you a sense of how well she knows us. She likes us, she’s interested in us, and I think… I’m revising my opinion of where we stand on the pill situation.”
“You don’t think she swapped out the pills. It was a ruse,” Jamie said.
“I don’t think she swapped out the pills,” I said.
“How sure are you?” Gordon asked.
Eighty percent, I thought. But if we fail here, if we go back to the Academy while it’s under new leadership, return to doing the interviews in the Bowels and other dreary activities, a black mark of failure on our records…
I’d already come to the conclusion while lying on the patio, waiting for the tranquilizer’s effects to subside. We couldn’t afford to go back. We couldn’t leave it at this and run. It would destroy us as surely as our bodies breaking down on us. It was just be more drawn out, less noble.
“Ninety five percent,” I said.
Gordon hissed in a breath through his teeth, long and slow, then exhaled.
“You’re not sure,” Jamie said. “You think there’s a five percent chance you’re wrong.”
“I’m not. If any of you have instincts telling you we should go home…” I trailed off, almost hoping someone else would make the call and take the responsibility out of my hands. Not entirely hoping, but almost; the thought of getting this wrong on either front made the sick feeling come back.
Nobody spoke up. The burden was on my shoulders.
There was a variety of looks in their eyes, but there remained a moment where I could look at each of them and interpret their expressions as knowing, acknowledging exactly what I’d done and why I’d done it.
Eighty percent wasn’t enough of a certainty to make us stay. We would’ve had to go, and we would have all known it was the wrong choice.
The lie was better, and maybe there was a mutual agreement that the lie existed.
Maybe I was imagining it, deceiving myself in believing the unspoken agreement existed.
“She made an offer. To take us in, use her knowledge and skill to keep us in working order, as long as possible. Give me my Wyvern formula, let Jamie stop his appointments, and so on down the line. She would provide the pills we needed to survive away from the Academy. There were other promises.”
“You said no?” Gordon asked.
“I said no, yeah,” I told him.
“She made it out to be about freedom from the shackles of the Academy, but that’s not how it works, is it?”
“No,” Mary said. She paused as the woman from the little restaurant arrived with a tray of tea, cake, and plates. Mary kept talking, though the woman was in earshot. “I realized it early on. There isn’t really any escape. I went from Mr. Percy to you guys, and it’s better, but I’m not free.”
“I’ll pour the tea, miss,” Helen said. “Thank you so much.”
Lillian handed me back my shirt. I pulled it on in a second flat, then began untangling my sleeves from my sweater as Lillian found her seat.
“Don’t make a mess, I don’t want to spend any time cleaning up after you,” the woman warned.
Gordon handed her a fold of bills. She stood there, counting, before walking to the counter, apparently satisfied.
The cake, pie, and tea was doled out. I had little doubt everyone was weighing the heavy issues at hand even as we prepared for our little feast.
The conversation resumed in low voices.
“I love Professor Ibbott,” Helen said, with less inflection than I’d heard from her in a long while, “I don’t like him. I wouldn’t be happy if I never saw him again, but I wouldn’t be sad either. I do what he says and I’m good. I’m a work of art and I do what he tells me to so I act like one too. If we walked away from the Academy and I had someone else telling me what to be, it wouldn’t be any different.”
“Except we’d be in more danger,” Jamie said. “The Academy would come after us.”
“Was that what you said?” Lillian asked. “That you wouldn’t go because it would be the same?”
“That would have offended her, I think,” I replied.
“That doesn’t usually stop you,” Gordon said. “You offend us. Why not her?”
“In the time between when I woke up and when you found me, I did a lot of thinking,” I said. “Couldn’t do much else. I realized that I hadn’t been cutthroat enough. That she played me. She read me, she figured out what I wanted, and she came at me soft. Gentle, friendly, vague, without threatening me at all. She went out of her way to avoid challenging me, because she probably knew that I’d rise to the challenge, and I’d take that a step further to come after her. I spent the entire time floundering and not realizing why,” I said.
The table was quiet. The Lambs sipped tea, stared, or ate their pie and cake.
“I’ll admit it right here,” I said. “I lost, back there. I learned things about her, but she went out of her way to tell me only what she was willing to let me know.”
Mary’s gaze was the hardest to meet. She took failure so personally, and I knew she’d been pinning hopes on me getting something out of our collective encounter with Fray and her people, so her loss against the Headsman would mean something.
“You said you found something out,” Gordon said. “Was it only what Fray wanted you to know? Or did you figure out something else?”
“I think I figured out something else,” I said. “I asked her why she was here, challenging us. Why didn’t she leave? She never gave me a straight answer. She presented only one side of herself, and she kept the violent, confrontational part of herself hidden. She controlled how we encountered her, but there was no guarantee we wouldn’t be a little bit faster, that she wouldn’t be up against all of us at once. That means she had an out. Something she could have said or done that would have let her escape, if we came after her hard.”
I saw Helen steal a bit of Jamie’s cake, while Jamie’s attention was focused on me. As thievery went, it was blatant, cutting the cake with the fork, then spearing a chunk the size of her fist.
“What are you thinking, Sy?” Gordon asked.
“I’m thinking we should contact the Academy. If the pattern holds, they’re sending reinforcements here, to investigate and give chase, for when we go back for our appointments. Maybe the Hangman, again, maybe Dog and Catcher. Except all of this, it’s a massive distraction from what she’s really doing.”
“What?” Jamie asked. “What is she supposed to be doing?”
“I don’t know exactly what. But she has a plan in the works. She’s not averse to killing, but she left us alive. Let’s assume it’s not idle curiosity. That she’s not some dime novel villain. There’s a master plot at work, and we play a part. Think, what logically follows from this? What does she do by showing herself to me, then disappearing, maybe even staying here?”
“I don’t know,” Gordon said. “I can’t guess how your mind works, or how hers does, for that matter.”
“She’s giving us hope. Hope that she can be found and caught. The Academy sends resources to assist, all the focus is on this place, this town.”
“And?” Mary asked.
“And we’re not looking where she’s been. Fray isn’t running, or she is, but the running is a distraction, bait to lure us forward. What we do is we tell them to send the people back, investigate all the past locations.”
“What are they looking for?”
“A weapon. A catalyst. Something catastrophic. She’s hiding her fangs, but those fangs are there. What we need to do is find her, find her fast, and we need to find out what it is she’s doing. She’s brimming with fury against the Academy, and everyone is going to pay for it.”
“I can draw up a quick sketch of her monster and the stitched girl,” Jamie said. “It’s a starting point.”
“Good,” I said. “We also hit up any shops that sell coats or jackets. She left hers with me,” I said, “But I doubt someone who travels as much as she does has more than one. She’ll be buying one, I think. Most importantly, she’s going to be baiting us, dropping hints to keep the Academy focused on her.”
“You’re sure?” Gordon asked.
“Let’s not waste any time then,” Gordon said.
Helen made a small whining sound, mouth full of cake.
“We finish our tea and cake first,” he said, with authority.
Helen emphatically nodded the affirmative.
“After cake, we move. Our best bet is being aggressive when she expects us to be struggling or on the retreat. We catch her off guard.”
There were nods all around.
We helped Helen finish her cake, to her protest, cleaned up, and were out the door in two minutes, some of us still chewing. Gordon handed Jamie the coat to look over while we walked.
Gordon and I walked faster than the others. Normally I might have waited up for the others, but he had a look on his face, stern, focused.
He saw me studying him, and he relented.
“I would have taken the offer,” he said.
“Ah,” I said.
He shook his head, then threw an arm around my shoulders. “Let’s go get ‘er.”