Just an hour or so ago, Fray had been giving the order for Warren to attack us, to kill or maim. Now we were following Warren to where Fray was waiting. A little upriver from where we’d had our first discussion, near the edge of Kensford, where it bordered the woods.
There was a crowd further down the street. They were moving toward the Academy with purpose, and we could hear the shouts, though I couldn’t make out the words.
Fray looked genuinely surprised when we turned up. More surprised than she’d been when we’d turned up near her lab. She raised one hand to move her hair away from her face, as the wind blew it forcefully in the most inconvenient direction.
It took her a second. Something fell into place, and she nodded a little. “You found them, Warren, and you brought them here, because of Wendy.”
“If you don’t catch a train soon, you’re going to be stuck here,” Fray informed us.
“Now you’re being manipulative,” I said, walking up with my hands in my coat pockets. I separated from the group and found a tree with a short stone wall built around it to contain the dirt, taking a seat on the corner of the wall, one foot propped up, the other on the ground. “Setting a time limit? That’s number one in the manipulation textbook.”
She shook her head. “What is it they say about a thief being wariest of theft?”
“I never liked that saying. Thieves deal with thieves as a matter of course. If I’m going to steal, I’m going to steal from a thief who can’t go to authorities to complain. It stands to reason that a thief is well justified in being wary.”
“You’re missing the point.”
“I get the point. I’m a manipulator dealing with manipulators. And a manipulator is particularly vulnerable to the predations of their cannier counterparts. But okay, if you want to pretend you’re not setting an artificial time limit to put pressure on us and position yourself better for getting Wendy back, I can play along.”
The other Lambs were taking my lead, spreading out, very casually. This encounter with Fray was very different from the last one, and very different from my first encounter with her. We’d lost. She’d dropped her bombshell, and now, oddly enough, we could relax.
The shouts and screams further down the street rose in volume. People had torches, which was almost laughable. It was so iconic for the angry mob, but now that I saw it, I wondered if they intended to set fires, or if they simply needed the light. How did that even happen? Did someone have a supply of torches on hand, or did one guy just pipe up and say ‘I know how to make torches! Just give me a few minutes!’
“You’re smiling,” Fray spoke to me.
I raised my eyebrows, the smile disappearing.
“Do you have a plan, Sylvester? A way to snare me? One of you is missing.”
It was Gordon who replied. “No plan to capture, no snare. Whatever we did, you have Warren, and he could hurt or kill several of us in retaliation for whatever we did to you. Not worth it.”
Fray nodded. It was common sense, really – Warren wouldn’t have brought us if he thought it would hurt Fray. It said something, though, that she’d asked, bringing things up to sound it out and gauge our reactions. A hint of insecurity.
If I had to reason it out, I suspected we’d shocked her a little by appearing in the school and forcing her hand. Forcing her to use Warren, and forcing her to put her plan into action.
“Are you satisfied?” Lillian asked.
“We’ll see,” Fray said, leaning back against the railing that overlooked the river. “I’m more interested in the long-term.”
“You’ve been at this since you left the detainment center with Warren and Wendy,” I said.
She smiled. “Have I?”
Gordon spoke, saying, “It’s done. You won, you don’t have to be coy.”
“I can’t just outright tell you the particulars. I could lie, but I don’t like doing that. We’ll both see how far the ripples extend in the coming weeks and months.”
“War,” Mary said, quiet. “There has to be.”
“I think so,” Fray agreed. “The Academy crossed lines. I wanted to change it from within, that didn’t work, so I’m going to force a change from the outside. War is one way. Changing minds is another. There are weak points in the economic backbone, there are weaknesses in the foundations of the Academy’s work… that last one might be a weakness I’m not clever enough to exploit, I have to admit.”
“And you tell us all this with the idea that we’re going to go back and tell Radham Academy what you said, down to the word,” Jamie said.
“I expect you will, Jamie,” Fray said.
“But you’re leaving out the next part. You’re only getting started,” I said. “Your real method of attack isn’t one of the ones you just described. You want us to go and we tell Hayle or Briggs what you said-”
“You mean the duke, not Briggs,” Fray said.
I raised my eyebrows. “Funny that you know that.”
“It’s not exactly a secret,” she said.
“Sure,” I said, smiling. “You want us to go to Hayle or the duke, listing off all those different ways you could hurt the Academy, and when they’ve busied themselves frantically working to cover all the bases, you attack us from another angle.”
She shook her head, “Or I expect you’ll say that and I use one of the methods I just named. The Academy is too big. Something has to give. You know full well that you each have expiration dates – Sy wasn’t surprised when I brought it up. The Academies are an experiment of sorts too. Just as they’ve done with you, they’re going to keep pushing until something breaks, and then they’ll change things, approach anew with learned lessons fresh in their minds. I’m not saying this is a dragon that can be slain. I am saying that it can be trained. Even if we’re on opposite sides, you can’t disagree with me on that score.”
“Want to try us?” Mary asked.
Man, Mary was in a bad mood.
Odd, considering the fact that I felt fantastic. I wasn’t happy, exactly, but I’d become caught up in Fray’s flow. Stagnation was the worst thing, and change was something thrilling.
“You’re smiling again, Sylvester,” Genevieve Fray told me. “My mental picture of you told me you’d be more upset.”
“Can’t cry over spilled milk,” I said. “There are better things to occupy my thoughts with.”
“The forced sterilization and enslavement of tens or hundreds of thousands is spilled milk?” Lillian asked, quiet.
“Close enough,” I said. “We went into this a step behind. You had the files on us, Fray, you knew who you were dealing with. You have moles on the inside who are feeding you information and telling you we’re coming.”
“Someone could read that as you being a sore loser, Sylvester,” Fray said. “We eluded you, so there must be a mole?”
“I’m thinking you know entirely too much, and you know far too much that’s up to date, like about the Duke and the fact that Mary is a Lamb.”
“She was a Lamb in the spring, when I was introduced to your file.”
“A new Lamb, with no guarantee she would work out. You didn’t know her full capabilities, but you weren’t surprised when she turned up or demonstrated her abilities. Everything fits better if I assume you have someone in the Academy, passing on details. An ex-classmate or teacher? There are a lot of possibilities, especially for a would-be professor.”
“Have to make connections to make it up the ladder,” Gordon said.
“And you told me you took the Wyvern formula to build up your ability to play the political game. You’re telling me you didn’t cover that base? Come on,” I said.
Fray shrugged, smiling some.
“You had this decided long before we arrived,” I said, feeling very at ease. “You had the information on us, and we didn’t have the information on you.”
“They would have showed you my file.”
“The file that doesn’t even mention that you were taking the Wyvern formula until it comes up in the your record of termination?” Jamie asked. “Your files on us were better than our files on you.”
“As far as I’m concerned,” I said, “This was an introduction. We’ve said our hellos, we’ve gotten to know each other, just a little bit, Fray, Warren and Wendy meeting the Lambs, and we’re going to meet again.”
“I hope it’s soon,” Fray said. “The offer for conversation and tea stands. So does the offer to leave the Academy. We can work on the expiration dates, I can save Jamie-”
“Stop,” Gordon said, voice hard. Jamie flinched – I wasn’t sure if it was because of Fray’s words or Gordon’s reaction.
“And I obviously have the means to free you from the chemical leash,” she finished, as if she hadn’t been interrupted. “I feel like I have to ask again, with most of you present, in light of recent events.”
“Now that you’ve ‘won’,” Mary said. “You’re offering us a spot on the winning side?”
“I wouldn’t phrase it like that, but yes.”
There was a long pause. Warren shifted position uncomfortably. The shouting further down the street was coming and going, but it wasn’t the same group – people were migrating en-masse, either to Dame Cicely’s or away from it.
Odd that people could be going in such different directions and be so similar in how they were thinking.
That thought in mind, I spoke up, simply to say, “I’ve already given you my answer. No.”
“You’re a believer,” Fray said. “I’m a skeptic.”
“Something like that,” I said.
“I can’t entice you by saying that my way is the harder road?” she asked, smiling. “It’s more interesting.”
“Hearing you say that is pretty telling,” I said. “I almost believe you now when you say that you’re not good at manipulating people.”
“I’m staying with the Academy,” Jamie said.
Fray nodded, accepting that, but she spoke, “Even knowing that you might never get another chance to leave?”
I saw Jamie tense at that. Even with his winter clothes on, mittened hands holding his book, I could see the subtle change in body language.
Lillian looked anxious. She kept looking back between Jamie and Genevieve Fray.
“That’s how it works, isn’t it?” she asked. “Sooner or later, you can’t know for sure when, they’ll keep what you give them.”
I clenched my hands in my pockets. This was more convincing than anything she had said to me, specifically. This was Jamie. She was completely and utterly right.
Jamie couldn’t be saved, not exactly, but instead of having another year or two with him, I could have six. Or ten.
“If any of us leave, they take someone else and replace us. Same idea, another child,” Jamie said, his voice soft.
Fray nodded. She smiled a little. “It’s so nice to finally meet you. I hadn’t imagined you’d be the compassionate sort. I thought you’d be more stiff.”
Jamie shook his head, but he didn’t say anything.
“Mary?” Fray asked.
“No rationale, no points to debate?” Fray asked.
“No. You disgust me, I don’t like you. I don’t like standing here, being in your company. I can’t imagine staying with you for a while on purpose, unless it’s to take you somewhere where they can put you down,” Mary said.
“I’m a Lamb,” Mary said.
Fray nodded. “Gordon? Lillian?”
Lillian was the one who answered. “You have nothing to give me.”
“I could teach you.”
“So can they,” Lillian said. Simple, firm.
“One-on-one, dedicated-” Fray started. She stopped as she saw Lillian shaking her head. “No?”
“I saw what you did with Lady Claire,” Lillian said. “You have nothing to offer that I’d want to take. I don’t think you even understand the ramifications of what you did. People are going to die. Lots of them, innocents. People who drank this water and left the city? Those who were just passing through?”
“People will get hurt,” Fray said. “But the effects are diluted, they’ll have a few days. The Academy will respond and get a stopgap measure into place. Crateloads of pills or train cars of the fluids will go out in every direction.”
“People will die,” Lillian said. “You said it yourself, there are no guarantees the trains will keep running.”
“The Academy can’t fix the problem. A simple remedy for the effects of sterilization and the controlling agent would go against their very ethos. They have to take control where it’s offered. To survive this, they have to minimize the casualties. I guarantee you, Lillian, the Academy will find a way to distribute a stopgap measure. One that lets them keep this system of control in place, however much it hurts them to keep hold of the reins.”
Lillian shook her head.
I thought the debate between the two of them might have continued, but Gordon jumped in, and when he did, my heart skipped a beat.
I could read his body language.
“I talked to Sy about it earlier,” he said.
“I told him, if you made the offer to me, I’d accept.”
My heart leaped into my throat.
No. I was not prepared to lose a Lamb like this. Not so soon.
As Lillian had done earlier, I looked between Fray and Gordon, suddenly alarmed.
I saw the shock on Fray’s face, too, fleeting, before she masked it. As Gordon was wont to do, he’d put her off balance. He had a way of hitting where it hurt.
I saw the brief communication of ideas between them. Him reading her body language, her reading his.
“That’s changed, I think,” Gordon finally said. “The way you did this… it’s not a fight I’d want to participate in. I don’t think I’d- when it comes to you, I don’t think-”
She found the words he was reaching for. “You don’t think you’d have faith in me?”
“Not after this,” Gordon said, very simply. I could hear the lie in the words.
“It goes both ways. If only one Lamb joined me, I feel like it would have to be a double-cross,” she said.
“And it wouldn’t if all of us joined you?” Mary asked.
“If you were in a position to do that, it would be closer to an ambush than a double-cross,” Fray said.
She was distracting, turning the subject away from Gordon. I could see him staring at her.
The two of them had communicated so much in mere moments. He’d seen that she wasn’t ready. Maybe she expected me to jump on board, or she had ideas on how to use Jamie. Or maybe she had anticipated that when one domino toppled, the rest would, and the Lambs would join her wholesale. If we were all on board, then we’d stay on board to stay together. Our earlier discussion on the subject had suggested that we were a package deal, after all.
I couldn’t know for sure. The interplay had been between them alone.
I wanted to say something, to joke, to step in between them. I found my throat tight, the words didn’t come.
“Let’s talk about Wendy,” Fray said.
“Let’s,” Gordon said. “I think we have a train to catch, so let’s not drag this out.”
I saw Warren shift position.
“You have something in mind?” Fray asked. “I’m not going to turn myself in.”
“No,” Gordon said. “I’ve been thinking about it, what we could do in the way of transactions, things you might agree to. My first thought was that you should dismiss Warren. Let the guy get some help. He can have Wendy back, it’s clear they care about each other, he can heal.”
“And I’m left without my friend?” Fray asked us.
I found words, though I had to clear my throat to get them through. “If you refuse, you might lose him anyway.”
Warren folded his arms, drawing attention to him. He shook his head in a slow, dramatic fashion.
“The second option, and this is one I think you could agree to, while keeping it meaningful,” Gordon said, “You take a time out.”
“A time out?”
“One year, you don’t pull anything else. You don’t attack the Academies, you don’t perpetuate your plans, you don’t form allies, you don’t research for your next scheme.”
Fray frowned. “That kind of adjustment was not in the cards. It’s unreasonable.”
“Does Warren think so?” Mary asked. She’d been watching the big guy. I imagined she was thinking a lot about what she might be able to do if he picked a fight with us.
Warren didn’t budge. He was frozen. Not offering any tells was a tell in this case.
He didn’t see it as unreasonable.
“Three months,” Fray said. “I don’t attack anyone or unleash anything. I can gather allies and do research. I have to, frankly, it would be disingenuous to say otherwise.”
“Six months,” Gordon said.
Fray didn’t look that happy with the idea. “Four months.”
“Six,” Gordon said.
“A good compromise is something that makes everyone unhappy,” I said.
Fray gave me an unimpressed look.
She had plans. This throws a wrench into them. It gives the Academy a chance to recover…
Not much, not enough to undo what she did. Not with possible civil war on the horizon.
But enough to hurt her.
“A stitched in exchange for time,” Fray said.
“Something like that,” Gordon said.
“I’d offer a handshake to seal the deal,” Fray said, “But I’m not positive you wouldn’t break my leg if I let you get that close.”
“I know about your retractable needles,” Gordon said. “Sy recapped. Let’s do without the handshake.”
She nodded. “Until we meet again, then.”
“Until we meet again,” I said, before Gordon could say it.
I turned to leave, with only Jamie in my field of vision, only Jamie able to see my expression.
Gordon had been willing to go. It hadn’t been a trick, no joke, no double-cross. He was the most mature and independent of us, he was the one who felt his mortality, and apparently that outweighed his loyalty to us.
If he’d replied to say something about their next meeting, I wasn’t sure if I could have kept from reacting or saying something.
The next time they met, if something drastic didn’t change, Gordon would go with her.
I twisted around, avoiding looking at Gordon, instead fixating on the woman who was still leaning against the railing, rubbing her hands to keep them warm.
“Go,” she said. “I’ll be here. Send Wendy down this street. But you should leave soon. If the proverbial fires don’t ignite, then I’m going to start some, and you won’t want to be here.”
“Is the headmaster going to be okay with you starting fires?” Jamie asked.
Genevieve offered him a coy smile.
Bastard deserves what he gets, then.
We left to go get Helen and take our leave from Kensford.
The train came to a stop. Not Radham, a smaller town. I watched out the window as the conductor made his way down the steps to approach a man. My eye traveled to a number of stitched guards at the entrance to the train station. A surprisingly large number.
Was that smoke coming from within the town? Were actual fires being started?
The conductor hurried up the stairs. He addressed the crowd of people at the end of the train car, who were just collecting bags from the rack, or bidding stitched servants to do the collecting. There was a murmur of conversation, hushed and tense.
Among the Lambs, we exchanged glances. I averted my eyes from Gordon alone.
Only half of the passengers left. We watched and waited as the others went to return to their seats, looking anxious.
We were silent even as the conductor approached us, bending down low in that way adults so often did with children. His voice was low. “A few problems have come up. You were getting off at Radham, I believe?”
We nodded as a group.
“The man at the station says that word has come down the wire that a few of the cities and towns along our route are in crisis. Do you know what that means?”
“We know what that means,” Jamie said.
“Yes, well…” the conductor paused. “Pinesam, Evensroy, Radham and Berricksville are rioting, on fire, experiments were unleashed, or a combination of the three. If you’d like, we’ll drop you off somewhere safer, the railroad will help you make accommodations and get in touch with anyone vital.”
“There’s no need,” Gordon said. “We have to get off at Radham.”
“If you’re sure? The situation sounds dire.”
“We’re sure,” Gordon said, in a way that brooked no argument.
“Take care, children,” the conductor said.
A moment later, he had moved on to the next grouping of seats. He recited the same list of cities, informing passengers about the situation.
A full minute passed before Lillian spoke up, “Am I just crazy, or-“
“She didn’t visit Pinesam or Evensroy,” Jamie said.
“Are we sure? Because-“
“She didn’t,” Jamie said.
Mary was turning a knife over in her hands. I double checked that none of the train staff or other passengers were in a position to see, then left her to it. We all had little quirks when we were stressed.
“We already knew she made friends along the way,” I said.
When we returned to Radham, it took a full fifteen minutes for them to let us in the front door. It hadn’t been easy, with all the people pressing to get in, pushing and shoving to get us out of the way and be the ones to voice their rage and sorrow.
Five minutes of walking to get to the head office. Lonely, with almost no souls out and about. Everyone who was awake was elsewhere, working or hiding.
Once we’d reached it, we were left to wait for a full thirty minutes. The ominous ticking of a clock further down the hallway helped to mark the passage of time. It was very orderly, stiff, and calm.
In stark contrast, we had a view over the Academy walls, looking out on the sprawl of Radham. Fires burned here and there, and bodies moved throughout the streets, black and red in contrast to a city that otherwise gleamed the silver-blue of a city in winter. The sun was only beginning to rise, now.
We were given glasses of water by a student, and I stared long and hard at it before drinking. I thought of Fray.
I still couldn’t look at Gordon, and I knew he’d noticed. He knew me and I knew him well enough that we both knew why. We could communicate on that level just like he could with Fray. In my restlessness, I’d stood and paced away from the others, walked down the hall to look out other windows and see my city on fire from a variety of angles.
Gordon could have stood and approached, he could have said something, made excuses, shared his thoughts, and I might have forgiven him.
So ironic, considering he’d been the one to spout words about the cohesion of the team.
The rest of us were better now. We’d reaffirmed our bonds in standing against Fray. Any fractures were better. Except for Gordon.
It made me feel sick, it made me angry, it made me feel helpless, and I hated feeling helpless.
When Hayle finally stepped out of the room, I practically wheeled on him, as if I was ready to attack.
“See to your appointments,” he said. “I’ll debrief you individually, before, during, or after you’ve been looked to. I have other things to focus on. Helen? You’ll find Ibbott in the Bowels. Lillian, go get some rest. I’ll send someone to let you know where you’re needed.”
With that, he closed the door in our faces.
It was, coming from a man who had a way of being composed, something of a shock.
We broke away, Lillian and Helen breaking away.
Gordon walked alone, not with us, and he walked faster, leaving us behind.
I exchanged looks with Mary and Jamie.
“What happened?” Mary asked quiet. “Did I-”
“No,” I said.
“It wasn’t you,” I said.
“We failed. I failed. If I hadn’t gotten hurt, if I could have gotten the drop on them, or hunted them after-”
“Like I told Fray, this was our introduction. We’ll see her again. This time we know who and what she is.”
“You’re going to be okay? With your appointment?” she asked.
I nodded. I felt less apprehensive about it than ever, oddly enough. Dealing with Fray had changed my perspective in some small ways.
“I don’t want to go,” she said.
I raised an eyebrow. Mary didn’t want to go, when she loved her appointments. They were a chance to show off, to show her coordination, skill retention, fitness…
“Would it be better if you were in a room near ours?” Jamie asked.
Mary, as a new addition, had her appointments in the tower, but she was on a different floor than we were.
She nodded. “Feels dumb when you say it out loud, though.”
“Hur hur,” Jamie said, speaking in a ‘dumb’ deeper voice.
She reached past me to give him a playful shove, bumping me in the process.
She’s lonely, and she doesn’t like a ‘loss’. She senses something’s wrong, and she wants to be part of the group, in the midst of it.
She was a Lamb, through and through.
When she reached past me to swat at Jamie’s ponytail, or to pull the string from around the base, I put an arm around her. She stopped, a little confused.
“It’s a hug, dum-dum,” I said. “Half of one, anyway.”
“I have knives, Sy,” she said, “You don’t get to call someone dum-dum when they have knives.”
But she was smiling. She messed up my hair.
Jamie and I watched as she took the side hallway, heading to her lab. Jamie gave her a wave.
I saw how Jamie walked, the way he held his book.
“She didn’t ask how you felt about your appointment,” I noted.
“Nope. It’s not being poisoned, though.”
I nodded. “Do you want me to sit and wait?”
He didn’t respond right away, but I did see a nod out of the corner of my eye.
“I can do that,” I said.
Fray got to him. Talking about the dangers.
We reached Jamie’s laboratory. Project Caterpillar.
I took the book as he handed it to me.
The doctors were already waiting, and they flocked to him as he entered the room. I remained in the doorway, watching, too far away to make out words in the jumble of voices, hugging his book to my chest
Jamie disrobed. He pulled off his sweater and the shirt beneath, then unbuttoned his belt. It wasn’t that he felt so casual about his nudity here, but more that there was no choice.
The scars and the ridges carried down his entire body. They were more pronounced along his spine and between his legs, to the point that there was nothing left that was even remotely recognizable.
He half-turned, seeing me looking, and he didn’t flinch, he didn’t hide. He handed one doctor his glasses, and undid his ponytail.
Switches were flicked. Lights went on around the room. Large glass containers were lit up, with gray-pink blobs within. Brains, the largest as big around as I was tall. Each one was connected to the next, a chain.
A caterpillar, in a way. Segmented, promising a future transformation. Just what that would be remained to be seen, but all I knew was that there wouldn’t be a caterpillar anymore.
Jamie made his way up a slight dias to his throne. The chair had machinery worked into it, metal blades that weren’t sharp, with bundles of wires running from them, into the first glass tank.
I looked away as they started plugging the individual blades into the slots and gaps in Jamie’s modified, extended spine, along his arms, and beneath his hairline.
I flinched as the switch was thrown, and the lights flickered.
He was giving them all of the information he had gathered, storing it in the tanks. They would, fingers crossed, give it back, helping him to organize, consolidate, and structure it.
One day, as Fray had said, they wouldn’t be able to give it back.
I turned my back on the scene, my eyes on the fires and the crowds, but I did stay with him for the remainder of the appointment.