“Wish we were older,” I muttered, hands in my coat pockets, shoulders hunched forward, hood pulled down low. “Kind of hard to disappear in the crowd when there’s like, fifty kids in a town of fifteen thousand.”
“Yup,” Gordon said. He was perched on the window ledge, taking his tools out, two small, thin rods. He put the two of them together into the lock at the outside of the window. Wrought iron branches and glass. A quick check on Gordon’s part had verified that the room was empty.
“I’ve counted at least sixty,” Jamie said. “Sixty kids. Your count is way off.”
“Oh lords, shut up, Jamie,” I said, groaning.
Jamie stuck out his tongue at me. I reached out to grab it, only for it to disappear back into his mouth. I settled for lightly swatting at his cheek instead.
“Where did you learn to do that?” Mary asked Gordon.
“Some rough types in Radham, professional thieves.”
“How hard is it?”
“I dunno,” Gordon said. “I have a good sense of touch and fine dexterity, so I found it pretty easy. Sy tried his hand at it too, but he doesn’t keep up the practice.”
Mary looked at me, looking vaguely offended at the idea. I shrugged.
“How come?” she asked.
“I forget it. I learn it, and it’s fast to pick up. Then I don’t have an excuse to do it for a while, or something comes up, like an appointment, and I feel like I’m starting from scratch.”
“Sy can forget how to ride a bike,” Jamie said.
With that, I saw a bit of sympathy from Mary, rather than that vague accusation of before.
I shrugged, hands back in my pockets.
“And we’re in,” Gordon said, taking the attention off me. He hopped down, and collected his stuff, before sliding the lockpicking kit between his pants and his underwear, hiding the clip behind his belt.
“I still have a few practice locks and some picks in my room back at Lambsbridge,” I said. “Remind me, I’ll lend them to you,” I told Mary.
She gave me a winning smile at that.
Gordon finished setting up, looking up at the window, the windowsill a few feet up off the ground.
“I wish we were taller, now that I’m thinking about it,” I commented. “Be nice to-”
Gordon then lunged up to the window ledge with no effort at all. He caught it, then swung himself over in the next second.
“-Be able to get up there without a boost,” I finished. He had needed help before, but I supposed one of his hands had been full with the lockpicks.
I moved beneath the window, knitting my fingers together to provide a step for the others.
“No,” Lillian said. “We’ve gone over this. If you’re down here while we go up, you’re going to look up our skirts.”
“Pshh,” I said. “I’ll go up first, then.”
“And then you look down the front of my blouse when I’m climbing over,” Lillian said, accusatory.
“Your blouse? Nah.”
Ah, the look on her face told me I’d struck home. Indignation, the opiate of bastardly sorts the world over. That was what she got for being annoying.
“Besides, it’s winter, there aren’t any necklines,” I said, changing the topic before she found the words to yell at me.
“Interesting that you’d take note of that so readily,” Jamie said, dry.
“Guys,” Gordon said, cutting me off. He was looking down on us from up above, chest resting on the windowsill. “Pay attention? And maybe be a little quieter?”
“Boost?” I asked Jamie.
He gave me a hand. I kipped up high enough that I could grab Gordon’s arm, and he hauled me up the rest of the way.
It made me think. The difference in our sizes, the difference in our strength. He was capable of hauling me up off the ground and leaving me dangling. At thirteen, he looked closer to fifteen or sixteen. He had a physique, rather than a child’s body that just happened to have fat on it, or minimal fat, as mine did.
While he caught Lillian’s bag and deposited it on the floor, I found myself measuring the difference in our heights. He was almost ten inches taller than me, if I had to guess. In the spring, it had been closer to three or four.
It wasn’t that he was growing that fast. Well, he was growing with a surprising speed, but that wasn’t the whole of it.
My height hadn’t really changed, nor had my build.
I offered a hand in helping Lillian up, realized I was getting in the way more than I was helping, and backed off a little.
Together with her, I surveyed the surroundings. We were in a dormitory bedroom, but it was nice. The furniture looked like antiques, or something expensive that would be antique someday. Four poster bed, a writing desk with leather-backed books on a shelf above it, a bookcase with more texts on it, and a wall-mounted blackboard with notations and formulas on one half, and a to-do list on the other.
Gordon helped Helen up. She was more graceful than Lillian had been, planting a foot on the windowsill, holding onto Gordon’s hand, then stepping down and dropping to a crouch-come-curtsy on landing. She gave me a winning smile as she straightened up.
“You’re ridiculous,” I said, my voice low.
“I’m in a good mood,” she said. “Because we’re on the prowl.”
“You don’t have moods,” I said.
“I have biological imperatives, thank you very much,” she said, prim, hands clasped behind her back, “And one of those imperatives is to stalk and kill. We’re stalking. It’s nice.”
“I’m more inclined to blame the chocolate cake from earlier,” I told her.
“Hmph. That’s one of my other biological imperatives.”
Lillian nodded as if this was the most sensible thing in the world.
“Are you actually developing a sense of humor?” I asked, a little stunned.
She winked at me, then spun around. “Gordon, do you think we’ll be exiting this way? Can I hide my coat?”
“Better to keep it,” he said.
“We’ll look more like we belong if we don’t have outdoor stuff on,” I said.
Gordon made a noncommittal grumbling noise. He helped Jamie up, plucking the book from Jamie’s hands, handing it to me, then helping Jamie through. I provided the book once Jamie’s boots were firmly on the hardwood floor.
Mary came up next. No boost. A short running start, from the sounds of it, stepping onto the wall, and grabbing Gordon’s hand.
As she hopped down, I found myself comparing our heights.
She was a few inches taller than me, but unlike Gordon, she hadn’t quite shaken off the gawkishness of being young. She had little traces of femininity here and there, promises of what was to come, but she also had natural flourish and style, instilled in her by Mothmont and Percy both. She was a lady, when she was of a mind to be.
Helen was the inverse, in some ways, a little shorter than Mary, but already taking shape as a young woman. It was little surprise, but she was the fastest of the girls to develop hips and chest, and she was gradually altering her blonde ringlets to match, inching ever closer to a woman’s hairstyle over a young girl’s, a journey that would take just the right amount of time to complete. Helen could be a lady, she could be a precocious child, and switched between the two at a whim. As I knew her, though, there was a wildness to her, as if a genie had bottled up a predator in the guise of a child, and all of the growls and restless pacing was translated into sweet smiles and flourishes, and in stillness, waiting like the spider or the praying mantis, she conveyed nothing more or less than the young woman at ease.
Jamie, like me, still embraced the awkwardness of youth, in frame and face, but he had height. He’d quietly embraced his own style, with the long blond hair and the glasses, the book forever in his arms, drawing up subtle walls between him and the world, while his eyes peered past, taking everything in.
And then Lillian. Still young, shortest of the girls now, still awkward in youth and figure. A step behind, in so many ways, but I respected how she’d come to find and earn her place among us. She chose clothes carefully, and remained conscious and defensive of her girlishness in a way that Helen and Mary would never have to.
I wasn’t sure what I was doing, studying them, but it was some hybrid approach to measuring myself against them and defining the tools we had available to use against Fray.
This was dangerous territory. All it took was one person to raise an alarm of sorts, asking questions about why such young children were in a school for young ladies already exiting or out of their adolescent years, and Fray might be able to react against us.
“Any thoughts on the coats?” I asked.
“Been thinking about it,” Gordon said. “I say coats off. If we’re traipsing around with this stuff on, they might be more likely to ask questions. We need to look like we belong.”
“Even if we stick out like sore thumbs,” I said.
“Even if,” he said.
Mary nodded in agreement. She was already removing her coat. Lillian, Gordon, Helen and I were a step behind.
Halfway through pulling my stuff off, tightly folding the forest green scarf into a bundle I could put in a pocket, I saw that Jamie was standing by the bookcase, a book open in front of him.
“Jamie?” I asked.
I finished pulling all my stuff off, and handed it over to Gordon, who stuffed it under the bed. I walked over to Jamie, and glanced over his elbow to see the book he was looking over.
Rows on rows of portraits, with names beneath. He gave each page only a moment’s glance.
“Left arm,” I told him.
Without taking his eyes off the book, he held out his left arm. I pulled his jacket free of the arm.
I pulled the coat free, then handed it to Gordon. Like the rest, the coat disappeared beneath the bed. Mary had already closed the window, and was busy with her sweater up around her ribs, tucking her shirt into her skirt in such a way that it wouldn’t hamper her access to the knife handles that only slightly stuck up from her beltline.
“Key things,” I said. “Cover? Anyone asks, we’re prospective students.”
“Girl’s only school,” Mary said.
“Jamie, Gordon and I will cross-dress,” I said. I saw the annoyed looks, and I cracked a grin, “The school is going co-ed.”
“Nobody’s going to believe that,” Lillian said. “The woman-only nature of the school is important.”
“Blame it on money and nobility,” I said. “Some prat lord decided he wanted to go to the school with all the girls, set the wheels in motion. Only the higher-ups and some important people know. Anyone asks, we don’t say, but we imply we’re important enough to know.”
There were a few nods.
“Best to avoid being in a position where we have to justify anything,” Jamie said.
“Well yeah, obviously,” I agreed.
Gordon nodded. “Okay. That’s the story. When you’re inventing yourselves, stick to points and names established during previous infiltration jobs. If possible, let Jamie come up with the details. He’s best at that.”
“Can do,” Jamie said.
I raised a finger, “We need to find out what Fray is doing, disarm and disrupt her. That means finding the lab, the room where she’s staying, or something.”
There were a few nods.
“Finally, Lady Claire. We need to find her. Through her, we have access to Fray, information, whatever else. Depending on what’s going on, we might be able to get clues, or figure out a path of attack.”
“School hours are over,” Lillian said. “It’s late afternoon, and if Dame Cicely’s is anything like Radham Academy, the girls are going to return to their rooms to change clothes for dinner sometime soon, if they aren’t already. They’ll go to the dining hall to eat, if they don’t go into town, and then there’ll be a few hours of social activity and studying before people start settling in for the night.”
“Good,” Gordon said. Lillian smiled at the praise.
“Fray is Lady Claire’s tutor,” I said. “Claire is a poor student, and Fray is her savior. That means Claire is devoted, indebted, probably disconnected from her peers. I’m thinking they’re going to eat out, or eat in their rooms. We find out where they’re working, try to mark her location, divide our attention between investigating whatever it is she’s doing and keeping track of her. See if we can’t-”
The doorknob rattled, and I was immediately silent. All six sets of eyes were now on the door.
A key scratched at the lock, then raked its way into the keyhole.
Just like that, Jamie, Helen, Lillian and I stepped back to the side of the bed, using it to conceal ourselves. Gordon and Mary advanced, exchanging a brief set of hand signals.
Gordon pointed, formed a fist, jerking it toward his shoulder. You. Pull. That second sign worked as ‘get’, ‘take’, or ‘hold’, depending.
Mary’s response was a ‘yes’. Fist formed, pumped slightly in the air.
Gordon twisted, looking at Lillian. A point, then another gesture, a hand waved over his face.
You. Sleep. The second sign could mean tired, drunk, it didn’t really matter. Lillian made an alarmed sound, reaching for her bag, pulling it around in front of her so she could rummage within. I had a glimpse of the contents, metal plates keeping things rigid and protecting bottles and syringes.
Gordon was already turning and grabbing the chair from beside the desk, approaching as the door swung open.
A young woman, eighteen or so, stepped into the room. A little heavy, with a hairstyle that didn’t suit her round face, but not without her appeal. A definite cute ‘girl next door’ type.
She looked at Gordon with shock, as Mary stepped in from the corner behind the door and gave her a hard shove.
The girl stumbled forward, and Gordon swung the top of the chair into her solar plexus.
Have they been practicing, or is this their natural dynamic? I wondered.
Lillian was still searching her bag as the woman crumpled to all fours on the floor, trying and failing to breathe.
Things weren’t so simple as all that. The girls of Dame Cicely’s were never alone. Each and every one had a pet, their status symbol, suggesting the kind of work they focused on, and the skills they were able to bring to bear. The room’s occupant was no different. It shouldered its way past the door that Mary had tried to close between it and its master.
It looked like a human with all the skin pulled off in a singular piece, bug-eyed without its eyelids, teeth too white against a backdrop of crimson. The torso had been stretched, making it tall enough its head almost scraped the doorframe. The arms had been removed and replaced with a row of insect limbs that extended from hip to shoulders, each of the limbs tipped with a wicked looking claw, thorn-like growths running down the length of each.
It noted its fallen mistress and made an alarmed noise. The sound didn’t resemble anything human or insectile, guttural and wet, like someone in the end stages of pneumonia might make if they had to scream something to save their loved ones from an approaching killer.
It staggered forward, the slow, awkward gait of the body not matching the fluid, precise movement of the clawed arms, each arm drawing back, then stabbing. Mary dropped low to the ground, started to retreat toward Gordon, but proved it to be a feint, dodging back behind the thing, shutting the door, sealing us in with it.
Gordon shoved the four legs of the chair at it, and two of the claws punched through the seat, no doubt at least an inch and a half of solid wood. He wrenched his body, moving the chair to one side, and managed to block one more claw that had been trying to reach past the chair to stab at his side.
Lillian found what she was looking for, triumphantly holding up a bottle and needle. She withdrew a dose, then rose, approaching from around the bed, hesitating a little at the sight of Gordon fighting the graft-monster.
“Here!” Mary called out.
“But-” Lillian started. “Dose is for her.”
“Here!” Mary said, more insistent. Her first shouted statement had drawn a glance from the creature. Not having success against Gordon, seeing Mary with nary a chair to protect herself, it started to reorient, moving its arms in preparation to stab.
I saw Lillian look, pausing, not sure what to do, eyes on the space over the experiment’s shoulder that she needed to lob the needle through, knowing an errant throw could hit a wall or the ceiling, or that a moving arm could swat the thing aside.
I snatched the needle from her hand, then moved forward, ducking low to cast it along the hardwood floor.
Gordon, in a last-ditch effort to save Mary from being impaled on a half-dozen points, twisted the chair. One or two arms were still caught in it, or caught between rungs and the seat of the chair, and the creature reacted, turning its attention back toward him.
Mary had the needle, and brought it up into the creature’s abdomen, pressing the syringe. One free hand, then the other, went up to catch at three of the thing’s ‘elbows’, holding them at bay, to reduce it’s range of movement.
It took only a few seconds for the dose to work. It collapsed, landing across its creator’s body, helping to pin her down.
The girl on the floor coughed, as if the cough could bring air into her lungs.
She couldn’t quite look at Gordon, who practically straddled her, or at Mary, who was behind, so she looked at us, alarmed and confused.
I looked away, my attention on the bag, pulling a free syringe from the spot where Lillian had taken the first, then grabbing the tranquilizer. I pushed both into Lillian’s hands, distracting her from the young lady we’d just assaulted.
“It’s okay,” Helen said. With Lillian now measuring a dose, me busy with the bag and Lillian, urging our medic forward, Helen was the only one left with our captive’s attention. “You’re in no danger. We just need you to sleep for the rest of the night. You’ll wake up on the floor, safe and sound.”
The young woman opened her mouth to talk, and only wound up coughing again.
“Do you have friends that would come looking for you?” Gordon asked. “If you’re missing at dinner? Or after?”
The girl frowned, then after a pause, she nodded.
“Don’t lie,” I said.
She looked up at me, concerned, heaving in wheezy breaths. I’d only been guessing, but her reaction to me calling her on it was telling.
“That’s a no,” I told Gordon.
He nodded. “We have an escape route if we need it. Place to hide out.”
Mary partially opened the door. “One-sixteen.”
“Remember that,” Gordon said, to the rest of us.
Lillian approached our captive with a needle in hand. I saw the girl tense up.
“Typhomine,” Lillian said. “Thirty three point four milligrams, for a person that weighs eleven stone.”
Our captive took that in, then relaxed.
“On your side,” Lillian said, bending down, pushing at the girl’s shoulder.
The girl obeyed, twisting her upper body until she was lying on her side.
When Lillian reached out with the needle, a hand went up. Gordon grabbed it, holding it down, and Lillian stuck the young woman in the stomach.
In moments, she was asleep.
Lillian grabbed a pillow from the bed and put it under the woman’s head, then another, propped behind her back.
Gordon looked impatient by the time she was done. Lillian gave him a nod, as if to confirm that she was done.
Think what you want, Gordon, that would have been far harder without Lillian, I thought. I handed her her bag.
Mary peeked out into the hall, then gave us the go-ahead.
The hall was largely empty.
We moved as a group. Helen, Gordon, Mary, and I were quick to slip into our roles. We walked comfortably, casually. Stealth was good, staying out of sight and being quiet, but the next best thing was to look like we belonged. Moving with purpose, briskly enough that it looked like we knew what we were doing. If we looked lost, then others would want to give us direction, or question what we were doing.
“Turn right,” Jamie said.
“How the heck do you know where we’re going?” Gordon asked.
“Photos in the yearbook, outline of the school, what we saw from outside. It feels like common sense,” Jamie said, quiet.
“That’s kind of scary,” Lillian said. “I know you could pull out anything you’d seen, but connecting the pieces, now?”
“You have your thing, you practice it. I have my thing,” Jamie said. “Not that I’m positive, mind you.”
“Better than nothing,” Gordon said. Then, not for the first time, he said, “Wish I had that brain of yours.”
“Yeah,” Jamie said, quiet. “Maybe.”
Mary couldn’t have made the connection. Even Lillian probably wouldn’t have remembered, it was so long ago I wasn’t even sure Lillian had been with us.
No, the very first time they’d had the exchange had been one of our earliest meetings. When the Lambs had just made the move from being three to being four, Jamie joining our ranks, we had been learning what each of us were capable of.
I wish I had your brain.
I wish I had your body.
If I remembered the interplay of dialogue between Jamie and Gordon, then Jamie had to, right?
Odd, that he hadn’t brought it up or used the line. He was acting odd in a few ways, as a matter of fact. Jamie looked tense, and a side effect of that tension was that he was too stiff, not quite the casual air we needed.
I knew that this particular situation made him the fish out of water. Improvising wasn’t his strong suit, because improvising required fast reactions and adaptation. But shouldn’t that have made him more willing to lean on us, stick to the tried and true, the interplay, the jokes, the reminder that we were a team?
I poked him in the side. He flinched, doubling over a little, then shot me a look.
I rolled my shoulders, then stretched, fingers together, arms over my head with palms up.
“Uh huh,” Jamie said. He seemed to force himself to relax.
It solved the immediate problem, but it didn’t solve the rest of it. I wasn’t sure what was up with him.
Double doors at the opposite end of the hallway banged open, a small herd of young ladies in fashionable clothing coming through. Their hair was nicely done up, and the clothes were nice, high quality, though not loud or attention-getting. They were fitting the atmosphere of the school, unconsciously adapting.
“More girls visiting their rooms before dinner,” Lillian said. “Before long we’re going to be surrounded.”
“Being surrounded is bad. It’s less chance for us to see Fray before she sees us,” I said.
“Yeah,” Gordon agreed. “Let’s get out of sight.”
“Through the doors, hard right, then stairs, down,” Jamie said.
There was a heavy set of double doors just like the one the collection of Dame Cicely’s students had come through. Gordon and I each pushed one of the doors open. We rounded the corner. There were more rooms to either side, but the hallway was short, and at the end of it were two sets of stairs, one leading down, the other leading up.
“What’s downstairs?” I asked.
“Labs. They’re almost always downstairs,” Jamie said. “I don’t know what the layout is, but I doubt they’re going to be too busy if people are going from class to their rooms for dinner.”
“No guarantees,” I said.
If Fray saw us and bolted-
Footsteps on the stairs marked someone or multiple someones coming down the stairs. We were too far away to make a run for downstairs, too far forward to try and slip through the doors.
Immediately, as we’d done with the young woman in her dorm room, we looked for our exits.
Six of us, and four of us had the wherewithal to check nearby dorm rooms, hoping some were unlocked.
No luck on all four counts. Stupid school with its scheming, paranoid students.
The girls came down the stairs, and I found myself saying a mantra in my head, as if I could will it to be true. Don’t be Fray. Don’t be Fray. Don’t be Fray. Especially don’t be Fray’s killer monster man.
The young women were in the company of their pet monsters and stitched, chattering with one another. None were Fray. Nor the monster.
But there was one more experiment than there were human girls.
The stitched girl from Fray’s entourage carried a tray of kettle, plates of tidbits and cups. She saw us and stopped so suddenly that it startled the girls in her company, porcelain rattling on the tray, tea slopping over the side, threatening to spill.
It was a still tableau.
“It’s you!” she said, staring at us.