The faculty of Dame Cicely’s Academy had a cushy setup. The furniture looked like masterwork, the chairs were all padded and upholstered in Academy-created leathers, and the walls were alternately large windows with draping curtains in fine fabric and large ostentatious pictures with ostentatious frames. Blue and silver were common themes to the room, and even the covers for the fireplace at the back and the lamps on the walls were stained glass.
There were ten members of the faculty in attendance, and several stitched servants, not unlike Wendy in quality and class. Two young women were standing by, and one was the one who I’d given my badge to, with orders to collect the faculty.
All of us were present, with the exception of Helen, who was with Wendy still. Mary stood on my right, Jamie on my left. Lillian and Gordon had the lead, here. Gordon was doing okay, but the rest of us were breathing hard; Mary was hurt, and the rest of us were tired from running around, trying to coordinate.
Fray was gone, and Mary hadn’t been up to a prolonged chase.
“Is this a joke?” the headmaster asked. He was an older man, and he’d altered his hair so it grew in white, which was the fashion in places. When seemingly perpetual youth became too ordinary among the elderly of the elite, a calculated sort of aging had taken over. Unfortunately, the white of his hair had come in more like skunk stripes than salt and peppering. His suit jacket fit too closely at the waist and his slacks were too narrow. What drew the eye, however, was the androgynous face with the calculating stare, forever looking down on the people around him.
“The water supply was tainted,” Gordon said. “And it was done from within Dame Cicely’s walls. We just sent someone to go run tests on it. The person who committed the act is going to inform the public and shift the blame. You have a disaster on your hands, this is your advance warning.”
“You’re children,” the headmaster said, at the same time a bald faculty member in a heavy coat asked, “You’re sure?”
The headmaster shot the bald man a stern look.
“Yes, we are,” Gordon said, “And yes, we’re sure.”
I appreciated that he hadn’t felt the need to double check with me. I wondered if he’d been as confident as he had because he really trusted me, or if he thought he couldn’t show doubt to our audience in this situation.
“You saw the badge,” I said, stepping around Lillian to make myself more visible. Being in the middle of the second row made me easy to overlook.
“I saw a badge, but I don’t know what it’s supposed to mean,” the headmaster said. He held up the badge. “Radham Academy. Your problems are becoming our problems?”
“That doesn’t matter,” Gordon said. “Your entire student body may have been drugged. We don’t know what with.”
“Suggesting it could be a hoax.”
“It could be a death sentence,” I said. “For all of your students, and for Dame Cicely’s as an institution. If you misstep here, then there’s no recovering from it. Your career is over. There are too many powerful people with daughters and nieces here.”
“If I claim an emergency at the word of children and find out it’s a hoax, I lose all reputation.”
“You were alerted about Genevieve Fray,” Gordon said. “The notice should have gone out to every police station and Academy.”
“Yes,” the headmaster said.
“Are you saying you weren’t aware that Genevieve Fray was tutoring your daughter? Using her as an accomplice in her plan?”
“I wasn’t aware,” the headmaster lied, staring at us.
That shook my confidence more than anything. The brazenness of the way he said it, almost sarcastically, mocking us. Declaring to us that he, on the most basic level, didn’t care at all whether we took him at his word. His gaze was cool and controlled as he met my eyes. He had no shame, no guilt, and no doubts.
He knows full well what Fray was doing.
“This is a waste of time,” I said, to Gordon. “We’re better off focusing elsewhere.”
“Where?” he asked, murmuring.
“Finding Fray? Getting ahead of things on the ground level. If we can figure out how she’s going to communicate to the citizens of Kensford, or if we assume she’s going to reach out to the other cities she’s been to-”
“Phone?” Gordon asked. “A city as big as Radham has maybe twenty, a city this size can’t have more than five.”
“It’s a good starting point,” I said.
“What about birds?” Lillian asked. “No matter how fast we travel, we can’t-”
“Children,” the headmaster said.
We fell silent, looking at the dandy of a man. I eyed the badge he still held.
“You invited us here, you brought up a threat with no proof or details of what the threat specifically entails, it’s strange.”
“With all due respect,” Gordon said. “The entire situation-”
“I’m due more respect than that,” the headmaster said, cutting Gordon off. He strode forward, until he was close enough to Gordon that Gordon had to strain to look up. “My students call me sir.”
“Sir-” Gordon said. He was cut off before he got any further.
“I was talking, as a matter of fact,” the headmaster said. “About the oddity of all of this.”
He’s stalling. He knows Fray, he knows the plan.
Why? What’s he doing?
“When I teach my students, I try to instill them with a certain mindset. Wherever they go, whoever they deal with, they can benefit from what Dame Cicely’s Academy can teach them. That, much as in the rule of the species, we are in constant competition-”
War? Was he trying to defeat an opponent, or defend himself?
“-and we wage this competition on all levels. For partners, for status, for reputation, for wealth-”
Commerce? Was there a hidden profit in this?
“-and for more abstract things.”
Ideology? Was he trying to prove something?
“Radham may be an Academy, it may serve the same Crown we do, but when the Crown’s book-keepers sit down and figure out who is contributing the most, well, let’s just say that Radham might well see something to gain in coming here to sabotage us on a small level. Nothing too dramatic, because that could be considered treasonous, but an embarrassment? Oh, imagine that.”
It was politics. I’d gotten through to Lady Claire by raising the topic, and Lady Claire was this man’s niece. He was angling for something, with the idea of raising Kensford up and bringing others down.
The irony of his words. He knew, and he was here, sabotaging us, by making us wait, keeping us from working against the problem. He was the one aligning for political gain in the grand scheme of things.
He’d worked with Fray to do it.
I had a very clear mental image of this man, Fray, Warren, and Lady Claire all sitting at the table, having a conversation, about what the future held.
Was Lady Claire the pawn in it all?
“We should go,” Mary said.
“Maybe I wasn’t clear enough, I’ll try to explain at a level more appropriate to your age,” the headmaster said, without a trace of irony. “I’m suggesting that you’re spreading lies to hurt this school. It would be a very bad idea if we simply let you leave. We’d be giving you free reign to continue spreading those lies.”
“What if we’re right?” Gordon asked. “What happens then?”
The man smiled, and he lied again, “I don’t think you’re right.”
I stopped paying attention to the man, and started paying attention to the faculty around the room. Seven women and three men, and their collective attention was fixed on the headmaster, not on the strangers in the room who were supposedly spreading propaganda.
He had them in the palm of his hand. If he told them to lie, they would lie. If he told them this conversation never happened, then it would be our say-so against his, and he had clout.
A curious feeling, realizing just how busy Genevieve Fray had been. Had she known him from the outset? Had that been how she’d got her foot in the door, found the person she would tutor, with room and board? Fray had a powerful ally in the headmaster, and I had little doubt she’d established others at different points along the line.
“We’re going,” Gordon said. He turned around, and started toward the door.
“You’re not going anywhere,” the headmaster said. He snapped his fingers, and stitched manservants headed in our direction. The headmaster added a quick order. “Keep the door closed.”
“Yeah, we’re not going anywhere,” I said, not budging.
I saw Gordon hesitate, and in that moment, the stitched closed the distance and pushed the doors closed, before standing in the way. Gordon backed away and shot me a dirty look.
“He still has my badge,” I said, simply, pointing at the headmaster.
“One of these days, I’m going to leave you behind,” Gordon said. “Let you face the consequences your own damn self.”
“You know they can make another?” Jamie asked.
“They could, but that one is mine. It belongs to me, not him,” I said.
“Of course it does,” Jamie said.
“We could have walked out,” Gordon muttered, as he turned to face the headmaster once again.
“No we couldn’t,” I murmured under my breath. “They would have given chase, and you and I are the only ones who can run fast enough to get away.”
Gordon made an annoyed sound, but he didn’t actively disagree.
He was probably thinking we could have put up a fight, and that it would have been worth the risk, given what was at stake.
“We have a space downstairs where we can hold them,” the headmaster said, “at least until a guardian or a representative from Radham comes to claim them. If we-”
“Can we drop the charade?” I asked, cutting him off.
It was rude, and it was intentionally rude. We were dealing with a man who had power and was used to power, he commanded the respect of everyone in Kensford and the surrounding area, probably, and he considered himself invulnerable. Cutting a man like him off would get attention, and if I was lucky, I might be able to provoke a reaction.
He didn’t flinch. The man raised his eyebrows. “Charade?”
“Guess not,” I said. “Then you keep pretending, and I’m going to stand here and talk and look like a crazy person. You’re going to let us go, you’re not going to kick up a fuss, and you’re going to let us run damage control.”
Gordon, Mary, Jamie, and Lillian half-turned, to watch me as I talked. The headmaster had his allies, and he had more, but I had the Lambs.
“Is this where the threats to my life start?” he asked.
“I’m threatening your livelihood. If you want to make this a contest between Radham and Dame Cicely’s Academy, then we’re content playing hardball. Let me see if I’ve got this right. Fray tells you that she’s got a plan. She’s already laid the groundwork in other cities. You facilitate her activities, you connect her to Claire, under the guise of Fray manipulating your niece, clearing your niece of blame, and Fray puts her plan into motion here.”
He had a good poker face. It was somewhat infuriating. I wanted to hurt him, if only to break the facade. My frustration at having to let Fray go might have been coloring my perceptions.
“She told Lady Claire that she was going to help the Academy… and the only way that makes sense is if it’s the Academy’s plan. The Academy’s formula or strategy or whatever else, and it’s not a thing that the common people are going to be happy with. When the people rise up, Radham suffers, but your locals, they have money, or they have parents with money. The problem gets fixed. You come up looking like roses, and many of the other Academies struggle. Your competitors struggle.”
He shifted position slightly, a faint rise of his chin, to look down on me more.
There were tells that were blatant, the folding of arms when a person felt attacked, and there were tells that stood out because a person who knew the art of body language and deception was trying so very hard to avoid giving a tell that they moved in the opposite direction. This was the latter.
“Your mistake is thinking we’re going to blame Fray for this,” I said. This time, I lied, and I was a far more committed liar than him. “We’ve already put out word to various institutions to say that we don’t want anyone to raise an alert over Fray. We’re keeping things on the down-low, because she almost certainly has some spies and moles in the Academy, tipping her off. She’s a non-entity, and it’s easier to pretend she doesn’t exist than it is to spread word of her. If this happens, Radham puts the blame squarely at your feet.”
“You’d let a fugitive get away with this hypothetical mass-poisoning, simply to make my life a little more inconvenient?” the headmaster asked.
“Damn straight,” I said. Mary nodded, beside me.
Gordon nodded. “She’s already slipped away, and this frankly fits her pattern. I’d lay odds she wants you to take the hit.”
“I don’t believe you,” the man said.
Typical. Person in power, so used to having his way, he can’t conceive of a world where things don’t go the way he wants them to.
I shook my head, “I don’t believe that a person can be in your position and not appreciate the human capacity for spite. If we tell Radham that you did this at their expense, they’ll come after you. You might be small with some real clout, but Radham is big. They’ll destroy your reputation, and then they’ll come after your subordinates, and then they’ll come after your school, your legacy.”
“But if you want to try us,” Gordon said, folding his arms, “Arrest us. Let’s wait this out.”
We stood there, waiting.
The man didn’t flinch, he didn’t show a sign of doubt.
I started to wonder if he’d physically altered his face or nerves to have better control over it all, to hide his tells and more precisely manage the face he presented to the world.
A full minute passed, and he didn’t give the order to arrest us.
I’d brought up his subordinates for a reason. I knew he was aware of their gaze, their worries. He had control over them, but he didn’t necessarily have their trust. They would help him commit an atrocity, and cover up the fact that he’d worked with a terrorist to do it, but when push came to shove, they couldn’t trust him to genuinely care about them.
Or so I hoped. More to the point, I hoped that he was insecure about whether they trusted him.
“Arresting you would be a hassle, honestly,” the man said. “But I don’t want you here any longer. I was kind enough to provide accommodations, with the idea that you would be passing through. Please… pass through.”
He gestured, and the stitched at the door moved away.
Gordon hauled the doors open. I remained where I was.
“My badge,” I said.
“Sy,” Gordon said. “I swear, if you don’t get moving, I’m going to run you up a flagpole and leave you hanging.”
“The badge, headmaster,” I said. When he didn’t make a sign of moving, I added, “We’ve established that spite isn’t any small thing. Don’t make unnecessary enemies. You’re a very short distance from being on everyone’s bad side. Fray’s scapegoat, the person who let down your Academy, the person who sold out his niece, and Radham’s whipping boy.”
“You have what you want, free reign to leave. Are you throwing it away to offend my pride?”
“The badge,” I said, not budging.
He tossed the badge at me, so it would fall just short. I stepped forward and caught it, all the same. I liked the weight of it in my hand, and took a second to flip it closed and slip it into a pocket.
We turned and left, striding through the school. Mary leaned heavily on my shoulder, which wasn’t welcome, though it was understandable.
“You have an idea of what Fray is doing?” Jamie asked.
“Some,” I said.
“Do share,” Gordon said. He sounded a little miffed.
“Like I said, it’s something Kensford can bounce back from, because Kensford has money. It’s something that’s going to enrage people, and it’s going to hit places that aren’t Kensford hard. It’s going to hurt, given Fray’s feelings toward the Academy, and at the end of the day, it was something the Academy was planning to do anyway.”
“What is it?” Gordon asked.
“Control,” I said, simply. “It’s what any power wants, in the end. Control of everything.”
There was no need to elaborate. We all knew about the Academy’s methods of control.
“Where?” Gordon asked. “Where does she go to spread the word?”
“The dining hall,” Lillian said. “Everyone’s eating dinner. Everyone’s talking as a group.”
It hadn’t been my first instinct, with so many people around, but Fray was a bird of a feather here, a needle in a haystack.
If it was the dining hall, then it might well be too late.
Our brisk walk became a run. Jamie gave directions. When our battered Mary proved too slow, then he took over, willingly lagging behind, while Gordon, Lillian and I headed to the room.
The hubub of conversation had a tone. Quiet, subdued, and concerned. Even horrified.
The girls were gathered in groups, one or two to a table, huddled, talking, their focus on pieces of paper, one or two papers to a group.
This was the heart of the city. All things flowed to and from it. The substance that had been put into the water, the people, and now information.
That information was as damning as anything else.
Gordon approached a group, and he took one of the pieces of paper. He read some of it as he approached us, handing it over to share. It had been printed in large numbers by way of a printing press. Something Fray had seen to in a previous city, no doubt.
Control. An attack on two fronts, both things the Academy had planned over the long term, no doubt things that had been intended to be slipped past the public’s notice when the time was right, when distractions were imminent, or an excuse available.
The papers described the process by which men and women who imbibed the chemical would be rendered sterile.
Control over reproduction and population.
The process would be reversible, but those were keys that the Academy held, to be provided on a case-by-case basis.
The other form of attack was one we were too familiar with. We’d been subjected to it, once upon a time. For most of the population, the effect would be minor – Fray hadn’t had the time to give them too heavy a dose, but some of the fat chains that made up the cell walls would be composed of the modified kind, found in the water. Left alone, they would collapse, and cells would die. Sensitive tissues of the brain, lungs, stomach and mucous membranes would the first to go. Symptoms would progress through pain, full-body bruising, system failure, internal bleeding, fatigue and weakness, and eventually lead to an unpleasant, undignified death.
The symptoms would be staved off by continuing to drink the water, but continuing to drink the water would perpetuate the problem.
“I don’t understand,” Mary said. “The Academy can’t fix it?”
“They can,” I said. “They won’t.”
“It’s too much. People aren’t going to take it lying down,” Mary said. “The Academy has a way to stop it, to cure the effects, don’t they? They just say Fray did it, and they put out a fix, and-”
“They won’t,” I said, again.
“You can’t say that for sure,” Mary said.
My eyes roved over the crowd. The horror, the anger. I could already see distinctions forming. Different groups with different reactions. Some were shocked, as anyone might be, but they weren’t scared. People with money, raised to believe that any problem could be fixed. Especially those of the human body.
But there were others. People who didn’t have as much money, those who weren’t sure they were in a position to buy a solution to the problem, buy the ability to have children and a way to move freely. A way to move freely that likely involved bottles of purple pills. These members of Dame Cicely’s student body were closer to the population on the ground, the farmers and craftsmen, the wagon-drivers and grocers. They were angrier, more frightened, louder.
She told us, I thought. Fray teased us with the pills. All along, it was her plan.
There was an undercurrent of disbelief, as if this were a joke in particularly bad taste.
That would change. This was a school of students. Those students would do tests, and they would verify this for themselves. The reaction after that would be terrible to behold.
Things would be bad here, but Radham…
Subjecting the regular population to the chemical leash, not just the experiments? Denying a small city’s residents the ability to have children without the permission of the Academy and the Crown?
“Did she do this in Radham?” I asked.
“Probably,” Jamie said. “She would have done it everywhere.”
“That means we have to go back,” Gordon said. “Soon. This is too big, and there’s no guarantee we’ll be able to get back if we wait.”
The train drivers drank the water too.
The ramifications were too broad. I clenched my fist. It was true. At any point in time, Fray could have simply told us, and we would have had no choice but to go back.
When none of us spoke, Gordon added, gently, “There’s nothing more we can do here.”
“You’re right,” Jamie said. “Let’s go.”
We left the dining hall much as we’d entered, at a brisk pace.
There were things to take care of. We needed Helen, of course, and then there was Wendy.
We stepped outdoors. A whole crowd of students was heading toward the school.
They’d heard. They were coming to read those same papers.
We headed in a different direction, before they could trample us. One out of every four faces was haunted, they’d heard, they knew how the Academy operated, and they grasped the ramifications.
It would sink in with the rest soon. They would contact their parents, and the rich and powerful who had sent their daughters to Dame Cicely’s would take issue. The headmaster would pacify and massage his way back into good graces with promises of fixes or temporary solutions.
It wouldn’t be pretty, but he’d come out looking good.
“What was the guy’s name?” I asked. “The headmaster?”
We crossed a road, and our heads collectively turned to look further down the street, where a number of people who most definitely weren’t students were gathered outside a church. The shouts were audible, the anger apparent.
“He told you his name,” Jamie said. “Headmaster Edmund Foss.”
“Don’t remember that,” I admitted.
The shouts rose in volume.
I looked, studying the crowd, but I didn’t see Reverend Mauer. Churches were bastions of community, and in the midst of this growing crisis, they were becoming rallying points. Not an idea exclusive to Mauer.
“Christ,” Gordon said. “This is only just starting?”
“There’s going to be war,” Mary said.
She was right. Mauer had tapped into the public’s fears and resentment, but this was something else altogether. The man would be having a field day, wherever he was.
War, the people against the Academy, with everything that entailed. The weapons, the monsters, the crude attempts at handling the finer, more delicate matters.
How odd, now that I thought about it. With the chemicals in the water, adjusted to affect everyone, we would have free reign. The leash had been given a considerable amount of slack, and it was thanks to Fray.
Gordon slowed. I spotted the reason why.
Further down the street, the giant of a man with incredible blue eyes. Warren.
He didn’t charge, and he didn’t attack.
He was so close. Did he know where Helen and Wendy were?
How odd, that he looked so calm, standing in the snow, as the rest of the city grew so heated and noisome.
“You want your stitched friend,” Gordon said.
Warren nodded, the blue eyes bobbing in the dark.
“We can negotiate,” Gordon said, and his smile was a grim one.
Again, Warren nodded.