This was, like the rattle of the doorknob, the kind of situation that demanded a coordinated response. When the doorknob had rattled, it had been Mary and Gordon who’d stepped forward.
This was a different sort of rattle.
Helen, Gordon and I were on point. Well, Gordon was always on point, there weren’t many active, immediate situations where he was bad. Much like how there weren’t many situations where Jamie and Lillian were really supposed to step up and take charge.
“Hi!” Helen said, cheery.
Fray’s stitched alone wasn’t the biggest problem. Her stitched being in the company of other women and monsters made for something more complicated.
“What are you doing here?” Fray’s stitched asked, looking confused and mildly alarmed.
Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings, I thought. A cleverer person could be invited to dance, words playing off of words and the bystanders forever kept in the dark. The stitched wasn’t so nuanced, and she’d chosen the single hardest question to answer directly.
“We’re taking a look at the school!” Helen said, matching the stitched girl in tone. “It’s so pretty!”
She wasn’t lying, but even ignoring that part, it sounded so genuine I almost believed her. The problem was that it left things open, it gave the stitched girl a moment to think.
“Careful,” I said, abruptly. “The tray, don’t drop it.”
She startled a little, looking down at the tray.
“I don’t ever drop trays. I’m careful,” she said, voice firm. She hadn’t been close to dropping it, but she’d had to check.
Gordon seemed to sense what I was doing. “How is Genevieve doing?”
“Oh. Um,” the stitched said. A furrow appeared between her eyebrows. “She’s happy, and she’s working. She’s with Claire right now.”
“We were going to go see Lady Claire,” one of the girls said.
“Yes,” I said, then I took a risk. “We were too.”
“You know Miss Fray?” one of the girls in the group cut in.
Hadn’t expected that. It was rude, sudden, and it didn’t fit into the flow of the conversation.
“We do,” Helen said.
Again, she was leaving things open-ended, letting the other person decide the next part of the conversation. I had to have a talk with her about it. A casualty of Helen being largely reactive in nature.
“How?” another girl asked. Was her tone accusatory?
I wanted to defer to the other Lambs and let them control the flow of the conversation while I took a second to think, but I worried we were one mistake away from trouble. Something about the collective tone and body language.
“She recommended the school to us,” I said, off the top of my head. It tied things back to the backstory we’d already discussed.
“To you?” was the arch reply. To a boy?
“We weren’t supposed to say, Sid,” Gordon admonished me.
I flinched, but I did catch a glimpse of the confusion on the girl’s faces. This was a cutthroat school, one where it was every student for themselves. Why then, did they look at each other for confirmation or feedback?
A tight-knit group, centered around Fray?
Or were they a tight-knit group, rallying against Fray?
Either way, I had a plan of attack now. “Do you think she’s going to be angry at us?”
Gordon paused, not sure how to respond. My mistake.
“I’m miffed at you,” the stitched girl called out. Giving her an opening to say something was another mistake.
“You know her best,” Helen said, covering, and diverting focus. It wasn’t much, but it was something.
I nodded. “I guess. She’ll be mad, but she won’t show it. She’s better than that.”
“What are you talking about?” one of the girls asked.
“I can’t say,” I said. I was sure to say it too quickly, pausing awkwardly, feigning discomfort in the moment of silence that followed.
“Miss Genevieve is nice,” Wendy said. “You’re not making sense.”
If these girls liked Fray, we needed to counteract that impression. If they disliked her, then I needed to play that up.
“That’s not a word I’ve heard people use to describe her,” I said.
With that, two of the girls broke away from the group, their monsters following.
“Um,” the stitched girl said, looking at them, bewildered.
“It’s okay, Wendy,” one of the girls that had stayed behind said, interrupting her.
Shift the bias of the conversation. Recognizing that stitched tended to be slower to react or adjust in the same way Jamie was, I could override her, build up a story, and turn these girls into a weapon we could use against Fray.
“It’s very much not okay! That one threw a knife at my head!” Wendy said, pointing at Mary. “Be safe. They’re dangerous!”
That brought everything to a screeching halt.
She was a little faster on the uptake than most, then. Had to stop making assumptions when Fray was involved, even tangentially.
“Wendy,” I said. “We’re not dangerous. You’re mistaken.”
“We’ve talked about this,” Lillian said, piping up. “You have residual memories. What you’re remembering isn’t Martha, but someone very similar to Martha, from before.”
Clever Lillian. Every stitched spent some time being trained and checked for residual memories and tics before they were cleared for their duties. Lillian was helping to build something of a narrative, and she was helping to direct the conversation. In the right direction, no less.
“No,” she said, stubborn. “We haven’t talked about it and that isn’t one of my memories. Miss Genevieve had me running all over to try and watch you and she said to be careful and then she threw a knife at my head and he pushed some bricks over so they almost fell on me, and-”
I wanted to slap a hand to my face.
“That sort of thing doesn’t happen in reality, Wendy,” Helen said, with the best gentle tone.
“It does and it did!”
I mused, We need to move the conversation to the right destination, even if we have this anchor holding us back and threatening to sink us.
Attack her stance, erode the other’s faith in her words, using the fact that she was a stitched? Evade and distract, maybe? Or approach things from an oblique angle?
I decided to play along. I hated doing it, but I played the kid.
“We didn’t do that!” I said. “We came here because she asked us to and she says we’re going to be able to go to school here later if everything works out, and-”
“What?” one of the girls cut me off.
“She’s… I wasn’t supposed to say that,” I said, for the second time. By this time, their curiosity had to be killing them.
The girls who’d started to approach finished crossing the floor to reach us. One of them dropped down to sit on her heels, reaching out to place a hand on my shoulder. She smiled, “It’s okay. You can tell us.”
I turned to look at Gordon, as if for reassurance. He shrugged, which was perfect.
“She made friends with Lady Claire because Lady Claire knows someone who runs the Academy,” I said. “She says, if everything works out, then this won’t be a girl’s school next year. There’ll be men coming here, which means I can come.”
You want your precious seats? How would you like more competition?
“That doesn’t make sense,” the girl in front of me said. She was a pretty blonde with features that I was pretty sure had been adjusted with some Academy science.
“It’s true,” I said. I could have used money to drive the point home, but money held more weight with people who weren’t used to wealth. “She said that Lady Claire’s dad-”
“Uncle,” Jamie said, under his breath.
“Uncle, he’s noble, and he’s been offered a position, but the man offering the position has a daughter he doesn’t want to be studying any of this and she’s supposed to get a scholarship and-”
“Okay,” the girl cut off my ramble, which was very intentionally rambly. Hit them with too many things they would want to ask questions about, all at once, leave them reeling. Even if they pick apart the argument, the message underlying it all still penetrates.
Politics. I was willing to bet they’d appreciate politics more than money.
It was a lie they could believe.
“I don’t know about any of that,” Wendy said.
I could have thrown out something in response to that, but I decided to let it sit.
Helen decided to pick it up, “It’s okay, honey.”
“No it’s not! You tried to strangle Warren!”
“She keeps saying that stuff,” one of the girls said. “Is she burning out?”
“I’m quite fine, thank you,” Wendy said, stamping a little in frustration. The cups and saucers on the tray rattled.
“Maybe we should ask Miss Fray?”
Ugh. That would be a disaster.
“Maybe,” said the girl, who was crouched in front of me. “I always wondered where she came from. It would be nice to know who I’m talking to, when I go down to see her.”
There were a hundred things I could have said, webs I could have spun, but with this proximity to the girl, I knew it would be too much, too fast. We needed a subtler line, something to set the hook without giving our fish reason to struggle. Besides, I was playing the kid, matching Wendy in the innocence angle. I couldn’t deliver anything too cutting without drawing too much attention to me.
From Helen and Gordon’s silence, I suspected they sensed the same thing, and they were deferring to me.
It was the wrong hand signal, but I feigned fidgeting, putting my hands behind my back, knowing the others could all see it, and I extended two fingers, ‘walking’ them upside down.
The rabbit ears in the grass, the upside down man. It was a sign that meant ‘sneak’. Paired with another sign, it could mean ‘subtly’. I pointed at my lower face.
Mary started to move around to the side, slowly. I made a sudden gesture, clenching my fist, shifting my posture. She stopped, and she watched as I emphasized mouth, not neck.
No, I didn’t want an ambush.
“I overheard my dad, once,” Jamie said, hesitant. That wasn’t acting, it was just Jamie being Jamie, but it worked. “He said, that lady isn’t someone you would ever want to marry or have as a business partner, but if you want to learn science and learn politics, there aren’t many people better to learn from.”
“Is that so?” the girl in front of me asked, her voice soft.
Jamie, I could kiss you right now.
He could be slow, but he was the furthest thing from stupid. He understood how I thought. All he needed, sometimes, was the time to get caught up and connect the dots. When he got that, then he could be devastating.
With those words, he’d poisoned the waters. So long as we maintained some semblance of cover, all future interactions between these girls and Fray would be colored by distrust and concern about being manipulated.
“We’re supposed to learn from her, this coming spring,” I said. “Our parents all arranged it.”
“She’s Lady Claire’s tutor,” the other girl who’d approached us said.
“Uh, yeah,” I said. “I guess we’ll be her students too?”
Take the bait, take the bait…
“Here?” the girl in front of me asked.
“In Radham,” I said, firmly enough to leave no doubt.
She reached out, and her monster, a man with armor-crusted skin, extended a hand for her to hold on to as she straightened up, standing.
It doesn’t make sense, does it? How could she be a proper tutor for Lady Claire here and a tutor for us there? Something doesn’t add up, and you’ve already suggested you’re suspicious of her. You were vaguely hostile and almost predatory when you sussed out a connection to her, which suggests you don’t like her. You’re willing to believe the worst.
She’s selling out the school, making it co-ed, she’s selling you all out, all in the name of politics. To top it all off, she’s manipulating Lady Claire to make it happen.
This was the story we’d spun out.
“I’m very eager to talk to this woman now,” the blonde girl who’d talked to me said, her back to us. She approached the stairs. “Only thing that doesn’t add up is this stitched girl.”
“I add up!” Wendy said, indignant.
“Your story doesn’t.”
“Oh. I thought you meant arithmetics.”
“Is she running hot?” the blonde asked.
Another girl reached out and put a hand on Wendy’s forehead. “A little warm. Not enough for a burn-out.”
“I just made tea,” Wendy said, very patiently, “I’m holding tea. It’s warm, because tea is hot. I’m telling the truth. They’re dangerous. All six of them. Miss Genevieve told me to be very careful with them.”
“It’s okay,” the girl said, withdrawing her hand from Wendy’s forehead. “We can go and ask Miss Fray, and I think everything will become clear.”
“Yes,” the blonde agreed. “I’m looking forward to the explanation.”
It wasn’t ideal – I’d hoped to have more time. But we had a distraction, in the form of several angry girls, we had the element of surprise. All we needed to do was corner her, then draw the net closed.
“If you say something about us to her, we’re going to get in trouble,” I said.
The blonde turned her attention briefly to me. I liked the look of deep-seated concern on her face, as if I’d struck a blow to the core of her being, shaking her confidence. This was someone proud, good at what she did, and with my lies, she was no longer sure that she knew what the future had in store for her.
“I’ll be discreet,” she said. A lie, practically to my face. She didn’t care.
The motivation that drove her now was stopping Fray and securing her future once again.
“Thank you,” I said, pretending to accept the lie. I moved closer to the stairs as they started to gather, ready to move on Fray as a group. I wondered if they’d be direct or subtle about it all. I couldn’t tell from the body language or the murmured words they were exchanging.
The blonde one looked so much angrier. She didn’t stride forward. She stalked, her pet with its armored skin a step behind.
Conventional wisdom was that a lie was best kept simple. Less conventional wisdom was that a lie could be trumped by a more complex one.
The Lambs and I were close. My eyes were on Wendy, Fray’s stitched girl. She was confused, she kept trying to talk, and nobody was listening.
I almost felt bad.
The group turned and moved as a unit, heading downstairs to where Genevieve Fray and Lady Claire supposedly were.
Like Jamie was so prone to be, the stitched girl found herself a step behind.
I lurched forward, hurrying, as she moved around the railing to head downstairs. Pushing her down would be crude, but getting in her way-
She stumbled a little, the cups and saucers clattering once again.
“Excuse me!” she said. “It’s already getting cold. I’m in a hurry!”
“Sorry,” I said. “Let me get out of your way.”
I faked right, then moved left. She stumbled again, then stamped a foot, clearly frustrated.
At the base of the stairs, one of the girls called up, “Wendy, are you coming? And Sid, was it?”
“Yes!” Wendy called back. She shot me a glare. “Excuse me. I need to serve the tea, and I need to tell Miss Genevieve that you said things that weren’t true.”
“It’s okay,” Mary said, catching me off guard by speaking up. “Sid? It’s okay.”
I frowned, but I saw her smile.
I stepped out of Wendy’s way, freeing her to go down the stairs.
She took one step, then jerked to a halt. Tea slopped out of the cups.
“Um,” the stitched girl said. She tried to turn around, then stopped again. “Um.”
Mary had tied her to the railing.
She looked at me, very clearly frustrated and maybe a little lost at this point. “Would you please take the tray?”
I shook my head.
She tried to put it on the railing, balancing it, then gave up, taking hold of it again. Several times, she tried to move, and found herself caught firm.
All she had to do was throw the tray, but, as she’d proudly told us, she didn’t drop trays.
“Um,” she said, looking more distressed.
Gordon reached out, putting a hand on her arm. “It’s okay.”
“I can’t move,” she said, her voice small. She sounded like she had regressed in age.
“It’s okay,” he said, again. “I know. Just wait. Things will be okay. You have to be patient.”
She tried to move again, then stopped short. She went still, shoulders drawn in.
“We’re not going to hurt you,” Gordon said. “Stay here. We’ll get you help, okay?”
She nodded. “But the tea is going to get cold.”
I started down the stairs, several of the others with me. Only Gordon hung back, consoling the stitched girl.
“You have the teapot, don’t you?” Gordon asked. “They like second cups, after the first is done?”
“One teabag,” she said, “So it isn’t too strong when it’s time for the second cup.”
“Good remembering,” he said. “Do you drink tea?”
“No. It’s not very good for me.”
“Sid,” Gordon called out.
I’d just reached the bottom of the stairs, I turned around, and so did many of the others.
Gordon spoke, his voice carrying down the stairwell. The school was quiet enough we could hear it, even with his low volume. “Three cups. One for Fray, one for Claire, and…”
“One for Fray’s monster,” Mary said.
“His name is Warren,” the stitched girl said. “And he’s not a monster! He’s a gentleman and I’m supposed to help him!”
“No,” I said. “He’s down there with them?”
Nobody responded. We were already moving on. Gordon took the steps, two at a time, leaving the stitched girl behind. We had a problem. Fray’s man was a monster the rest of the gang hadn’t been able to take down in a square fight.
We moved carefully, checking before any movement, not daring to move in front of a door in case Genevieve Fray or someone else spotted us.
“Sent everyone down here,” Gordon said, under his breath. “Why? Couldn’t you have sent them away?”
“It was a gamble,” I said. “Yes, I could have sent them elsewhere, but it wouldn’t have been easy. They were already heading down there, it was the place to go for answers, and they definitely wanted some, with Wendy back there drawing a connection and raising big questions.”
“Mmm,” he said.
“Hoped her monster would be off on an errand, trying to deal with us, or getting maintenance, or something.”
“Sure things are better than gambles, Sy,” he said, under his breath. “Better to step away and find a more concrete avenue of attack. Keep it simple. ”
“It was. That was as simple as I do. I considered everything and it made the most sense. Put her on her heels, pressure her, find an opportunity to strike, when she isn’t expecting us.”
“Well, let’s hope it happens,” he said, and he said it in a way that made it sound like I’d failed somehow.
Jerk. He’d just been talking to me about how the group needed to work together.
We creeped forward, and in the midst of it, I felt Mary bump my arm with her elbow. She didn’t say or do anything, but we moved forward as a pair, arms touching.
When we drew closer to the end of the hall, we heard the voices, along with the sound of rushing water.
“She’s conning you, Claire. Can’t you understand that?”
“She’s saving me. She’s a fantastic teacher, she’s-”
“Lying to you. Or are you saying she hasn’t contrived to meet your dad?”
“Contrived is the wrong word-”
“It’s true,” Fray said.
There was a moment of shocked silence.
“It’s not like you’ve been led to believe. Dame Cicely’s Academy isn’t anything I’m after, and I don’t know anything about it wanting to allow men in.”
“Don’t know anything? I don’t believe you.”
“I did approach Lady Claire as a means to an end, but that was temporary. I became her friend in a genuine way.”
A pause. I was sure that if I looked, I could see Fray putting on a show.
“You became her so-called friend, and you’re leaving, just like that.”
“I- yes. Sooner than I’d like. But that’s not an entirely bad thing, Joan. I know you have a great admiration-” a brief but meaningful pause, “For Lady Claire. I would be delighted to invite you into one of our study sessions, so you could take over for me when I’m done.”
“I- What were your ulterior motives, Genevieve?”
“Ah, that. It’s complicated.”
What to do? We had her cornered. She was busy defending herself. But she also had her pet in there with her. A brute of a man with keen enough instincts to stay ahead of the rest of the Lambs.
Mary was next to me, back pressed to the wall, much as mine was. I reached over, and I tapped the side of her leg, touching the blade that her skirt hid. I touched my throat, then jerked a thumb in the direction of the room.
She made a so-so gesture.
I stepped away from the wall, pulling on her sleeve, swapping positions with her and gestured for her to wait.
Better if she was closer to the door, in case something happened.
“I wanted access,” Fray said. “Something I’ve been lacking since I lost the Academy’s favor. That’s why I first approached Lady Claire. The nobility and upper class offer that access. I thought I could play the game, work my way to a secure position. But I’ve always had a weakness for people. I’m bad at reducing them to simple numbers or abstracts. I get too close to them. Friend or foe.”
“I hope I’m a friend,” someone said. Lady Claire, most likely.
“Most definitely,” Fray said.
Nothing suggested she was lying, prompting me to wonder, what did you want access for? Or to?
“I almost believe you,” said the blonde. Joan, if I was guessing right. “Those children you’ve worked with-”
My heart sank. I saw Mary tense, a throwing knife in hand.
“More people I’ve gotten too close to. Or they’ve gotten too close to me,” Fray said. “I think they’re upset with me. They’re distorting the truth. I don’t know if they realize how much they’re doing it. Isn’t that right, Sylvester?”
My blood ran cold.
“Sylvester?” Lady Claire asked.
“One of the children. I’d lay good money on the fact that he’s out in the hallway, listening. Messy black hair, small, sharp eyes?”
“He was called Sid by one of the others.”
“A fake name.”
“Says the fugitive from the Crown,” I called out. “You used your real name?”
“I lose track if I lie,” she said. “I’m no good at that.”
“Fugitive?” this from one of the young women. She sounded alarmed.
I didn’t like flying blind. I put a hand on Mary’s shoulder, then stepped out into the doorway.
The lab was stone walled and stone floored, lit by voltaic lights that flickered just a touch. Biologic power often did that. Fish or something else that could be fed and produce the power. The floor was thick glass, and water moved below, churning and frothing. The light reflected off the floor and the water to make it look like the entire room was underwater.
I saw Fray’s monster. Eight feet tall, his shoulders so broad I could have draped myself over them and still not covered the breadth. All muscle, exaggerated, with pressed clothes that had no doubt been tailored to his specific shape.
Fray was there, with the girls we’d just been talking to.
“Your friends are there too, I assume?” Fray asked.
“They went to go do something else,” I lied. “Think about it.”
“I am thinking about it, Sylvester, but I don’t think I believe you.”
“Before, when we talked, I found myself wondering what you’d do if we all came after you, if Wendy’s distraction attempt had failed, or if we’d organized differently. I don’t suppose this is where I get to find out?”
“Fugitive?” Lady Claire asked, a little louder, repeating herself.
“Murderer and terrorist,” I said. I pulled out my badge. “We’re tracking her down. For convenience’s sake, you can imagine we’re adults in the bodies of children, for the sake of sneaking around, going unnoticed, or being discreet.”
“But you aren’t,” Fray said.
“Convenience’s sake,” I said. I looked at the other girls, and the monsters they’d brought with. “If she sends her monster over there after us, I highly recommend using your monsters to disable or kill her. Be careful, she’s got retractable syringes in her fingers and a tentacled monster hidden inside her clothing. You don’t want to be too close to her.”
I saw Lady Claire back away a step.
“Everything I told you was the truth, Claire,” Fray said, her head bowing a little. “If you think about it, a great deal of what I told you will make more sense, in retrospect.”
“You’re really a killer,” Claire said. She backed away again, startling a little as Joan put hands on her shoulders.
Genevieve Fray didn’t answer the question. She turned her attention to me.
“To sate that idle curiosity of yours, I’ll tell you. Had everyone turned up on the patio outside the cafe, and if conversation had seemed impossible, I would have told you what it is I’m aiming to do.”
“Uh huh,” I said. “This is where you tell me, then? Send us off to go stop your dastardly plan?”
“No,” she said, quiet, sounding almost offended. “No. First of all, I have this situation well in hand.”
The girls backed away a little more. They were mindful of Fray’s monster, with its eerie blue eyes and massive frame.
“Second of all, I don’t intend to give anyone a chance to stop me. I started and concluded my greater plot some time ago. Anything I do now just extends its effects and gravity. All the same, I think you and the other Lambs would feel compelled to run damage control.”
“You’ve already done what you set out to do?” I asked.
“I did after my first stop, but I’m taking the time to secure it, make sure it does what I mean it to. Much like I’ve already decided this confrontation, and all the time we take talking is securing my position.”
I tore my eyes off her, studying the room.
I’d thought, not daring to look away, that the girls with the monsters were crouching. But they were sagging.
Gas. Or some concoction, or something.
She and I were resistant to it, by virtue of the Wyvern formula, and she’d treated her creature, too. The rest weren’t so lucky.
Without the monsters to threaten her, there was nothing to stop the monster with the blue eyes.
“Warren,” Fray said, sounding genuinely disappointed. “Go.”