Even on the best of days, Jamie was something of an odd bird. The glasses, the book he carted around with him, and the longer, dirty-blond hair, currently tied back into a sailor’s ponytail, they added up to a strange picture. He had a way of looking uncomfortable in any clothes he wore, as if they were someone else’s and he was just borrowing them. He tended to be quieter than the others, with Helen excepted in most situations. He was probably the worst of us when it came to a fight, myself excepted, and the slowest of us to react when it came to a non-fight crisis.
With all those things put together, he should have and could have been a shadow of a person, the low man on the totem pole, the gawky, awkward one, the bookworm. But he walked and spoke with confidence. His book was inside a waterproof backpack, slung over one shoulder, and he spoke without looking at me, eyes roving over the surroundings.
I’d spent five hours in this town for every hour Jamie had, but he was the one who knew his way around. He led the way to the theater, and we took the main roads.
“Can’t wait until it gets warmer,” I commented.
“It won’t,” Jamie said.
“You know that for sure?”
“Pretty sure. I read the farmer’s almanac.”
“Of course you did.”
He pointed at the mountains that overlooked the town, one mountain on each side, with more beyond. The town had been planted in the valley between the two. “Cold air sweeps down the sides of the mountains. Constant wind, which is probably why we’re getting the constant rain from the direction of Westmore.”
“Where the Academy is making its usual rainclouds.”
“Well, bully for us, then,” I said.
“Bully for us,” Jamie said, smiling a little. The smile faded, “Until they figure out we’re getting rained on and lace the clouds with something.”
I startled a little at that. “You’re joking.”
Jamie smiled again. “Yeah. If they could have, they would have. The rain is too diluted, this far away, and after what Fray did, everyone is being careful about the water supply.”
I hit him in the arm. “Jerk.”
“Are your punches getting weaker?” he teased me.
I hit him in the arm again, this time with more force.
“Guess not,” he said.
Whitney was an important location on a few fronts. The location was the first one, and one so obvious that it was known to anyone who had looked at a map of the area. It sat in a mountain pass, and it remained the closest location to Westmore that the Academy didn’t have control over. Even for the Academy, it wasn’t cost effective to push through an area with limited mobility, ground too hard to dig trenches in.
The Academy had been divided on how important the little town of Whitney was. Hayle had been among the contingent that had believed Whitney held value, and had volunteered us.
The actual information gathering had proven dull, for some more than others, but it had been enjoyable if only for the fact that we were in constant danger, every action potentially outing us and setting the entire town against us.
It marked, perhaps, the first job where we’d been let off our leashes and told to do as we saw fit. Gordon had asked for Shipman, and he’d gotten her. Mary, Gordon, and Shipman had discussed the need for a discreet weapon they might be able to use to cripple the town of Whitney, and regular shipments had been arranged for just that.
It was a shocking amount of leeway, but the fact that the Academy was barely paying attention to us was tempered by the fact that, well, they were were barely paying attention to us. If things turned sour, we were more or less on our own.
I noted the presence of more of the scarred, pocked men. A group of five. They all wore the informal military clothing we were seeing everywhere, and they all carried exorcists.
“Them,” I said, alerting Jamie before the men could disappear.
“The men with the boils?”
“What do you know?” I asked.
Jamie shook his head. “I was going to ask you. I saw one with worms under his skin. I could see them moving by the way the bumps and ridges appeared and disappeared. One of those we just saw had them.”
“I asked Lillian the other day, she promised she’d tell me if something came up,” I said. “She didn’t bring it up this time, and I forgot to ask. Mary, Gordon, and Shipman don’t seem to know either.”
“I’m as in the dark as you are,” Jamie said.
“Being in the dark sucks,” I replied. I lowered my voice, “Especially when we’re pulling something, and an unknown factor could throw everything out of sync.”
Jamie nodded, but he didn’t have anything to offer me. We were at a disadvantage in that sense, and until we found out what we needed to find out, that would remain the case.
The pair of us reached the market, and I saw that Gordon was sitting on the end of the wagon, sitting far enough back that only his knees and calves were getting wet. The man who was working with Mary and Shipman was doing the heavy lifting, when it was really supposed to be Gordon’s job.
I caught his eye, waving briefly. He raised a hand in a halfhearted wave.
It was out of character for him, and it had nothing to do with the small rift that had formed after our last encounter with Fray. He’d been okay since, not quite acting normal, but at least he’d been putting on a brave face.
He said something to Shipman, noticed I was still looking, and craned his head to look at Jamie and I.
I offered him a one shoulder shrug, hand raised.
He waved his hand a little, fingers horizontal to the ground.
It was a gesture that meant fine, neutral, or no problem. The sort of gesture reserved for when there was a sudden noise and we realized it was just a rat or something.
Frankly, his body language couldn’t have been less convincing.
“Come on,” Jamie murmured.
There were only so many gestures we could make before people started wondering. I gave them a wave goodbye, and we left them behind.
“What was that about?” I asked.
“Gordon being down and out?”
“Wasn’t his usual.”
“No idea, then?”
Jamie shook his head. Little droplets of water flew off the bill of his hood.
“That reminds me. I’ve been meaning to ask, you do a lot of book reading, but how’s your reading of people going?”
“You remember just about everything. If I say something, can’t you compare it to everything I’ve said before and figure out what tone I’m using and why?”
“You’re assuming I know why you were using the tone back then.”
“Context? You could figure it out.”
“I could. I can. I’m doing that anyway, all the time,” Jamie said. “Sometimes I get there. There’s a lot of things to look through and figure out before I can say for sure, and by the time that happens, things are usually done with or they’re moving forward, and then I’m left playing catch-up, and there’s no time to bring it up.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Maybe after I get better at all of this,” he said.
“Maybe,” I said. “Don’t ever feel weird if you want to say something after the conversation’s moved on, okay? At least with me? I like figuring people out.”
“Okay,” he said.
“Good,” I said.
“Great,” he said.
“Fantastic,” I added.
“Ace,” he said, smiling a little.
“Superb,” I said, not missing a beat. I was already queuing up some more words.
He paused, clearly trying to think of one.
I poked him in the side, interrupting his line of thinking. When he didn’t react, I poked him harder.
“If I don’t get a chance to think, then I’m obviously going to lose,” he said.
“If you do get a chance to think, then I’m going to lose,” I retorted. “God, we’re like, the worst two people to play word games with.”
“Mrs. Earles met someone,” Jamie said, all of a sudden. “First person in a while, since her husband.”
I blinked. The woman who ran Lambsbridge. A mother figure, but not a mother.
“She changed the words she uses, how she dresses, and I think she’s worried, she wants a relationship and she doesn’t want it tied in with us.”
“She’s acted relieved when we go,” I said.
Jamie nodded, showing more animation than his usual. “So I’m not overthinking it.”
“I didn’t quite mean bringing stuff up from that far back,” I said. “It’s been half a year since we spent two straight nights in the orphanage. Not that I’m complaining about you sharing and exploring.”
“I just brought it up because the little things added up, and I started wondering if she was a double agent, but the pieces didn’t fit, but I wasn’t sure they didn’t fit?” he made it a question.
“No,” I agreed. “The pieces don’t fit.”
Jamie nodded. He didn’t seem relieved, which was odd. I found myself debating whether he was being very analytical, asking about things he already had the answer to, or if he was more anxious than he was letting on.
“Are you asking just to confirm, or was that bugging you?” I asked. Might as well.
“Confirming,” Jamie said.
I threw my arm around him. He reached an arm around me and mussed up my hair, pulling me off balance.
“You smell like Lillian,” he said.
“Just a bit.”
“You and that nose of yours,” I said.
“You could learn to use yours, too. Most underutilized sense. All it takes is a little attention.”
“Sure, Jamie,” I said.
“I’ll teach you, if you teach me about people?”
“I notice you dodged the question.”
“You’re a brat,” he said. “And this is the theater, coming up. The person running the event is the same person that said ‘no children’. This isn’t as simple as walking in.”
“Is the event catered?”
“Then we go in through the back door and the kitchen,” I said. “Let’s bank on her not having told the kitchen staff what she told the others.”
“Uhh,” Jamie said, suddenly sounding like he had doubts.
“Play along,” I said. “All you have to do is act like you belong.”
“I’m regretting coming along. I have trouble looking like I belong when I’m being Jamie.”
“Nah,” I said, as we circled around toward the back of the building. “You fit in with the rest of us.”
“I wonder,” he said.
“Do you? What do you wonder?”
“What happens later, where we fit in, how we adapt, the calls we end up making…”
“It’s a vague sort of wondering,” he said.
“Are you thinking you wanted to go with Fray?”
“No,” he said, without a moment’s pause. “No.”
I nodded. He wasn’t volunteering, and I didn’t pry, just like he hadn’t pried when he’d realized I’d been evasive about the topic of Lillian. The reason we could even talk to each other like this was that we had a good sense of each other. We didn’t have to be on guard, we could experiment and share.
I liked that.
I saw a man standing outside the back door, a little wrinkled, long hair slicked back with damp, his shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows, a cigarette in hand. White shirt, black pants. He looked like staff.
“What color shirt do you have on?” I asked.
“Under your jacket.”
“Follow my lead. Eyes forward, chin up. You’re proud to be doing this job.”
We approached the man at the back door, and I pulled off my raincoat as soon as I was under the eaves and out of the rain. I draped it over a box to one side. The apple had been devoured and abandoned, the messages left in the inside breast pocket. I withdrew them and held them so Shipman’s note was the one on top. A little less rumpled – it conveyed a better image.
Jamie was already removing his raincoat, the backpack sitting on the crate by mine.
“Is the door locked?” I asked.
“We’re supposed to drop off a message and a package,” I said, holding up the papers. I pulled them away from his reaching fingers as he moved to investigate my claim. “We were told to use the back door, because we’d get seen if we went through the front?”
The man frowned. He gave us a once-over. Two boys in white button-up shirts and black pants, albeit with boots on. I’d been wearing the outfit because I’d been acting out my role as a messenger and young mail deliverer, Jamie had been wearing it because it was his style.
We didn’t look like urchins, and that was the important part. We were boys with a job to be done.
“Door’s unlocked,” he said, before reaching over and opening it partway. He didn’t seem willing to expend enough effort to move from where he stood, so it was only opened a half-foot. I grabbed it and hauled it open.
We entered into a kitchen, the air thick with the smell of smoke and cheeses. Several stoves were going, and it looked like virtually all of the food was being made available in quantities no larger than my fist. Some of it looked expensive – including things that looked like seahorses crossed with snails, all soft pronged bits and questionably defined shapes, all tinged in brilliant sunset reds, where they weren’t white and vaguely translucent.
Because frog legs, snails and fish eggs got to be too mundane, they had to invent obscure new things to eat.
I chose a route through the kitchen that would keep us out of the way of the more important members of the kitchen – the guy that seemed to be quietly giving instructions to everyone present, the chefs, and a man handing bottles to a well-dressed young lady, possibly a sommelier.
The chef’s assistants and the waiters who were venturing into the kitchen didn’t say a word, though the young, black men and women gave us curious looks. When people lacked agency or authority, it could be hard for them to call out others on the same. They were cogs in a very organic machine, they had a role, and right now that role was taking up all their focus. Stopping and drawing attention to themselves wasn’t in the cards.
I liked places like this. Places where humans had a system and became eminently predictable. The box didn’t need to be disturbed.
I pointed at a little window which allowed the kitchen a partial view of the room beyond. It was well above our heads, running over a countertop. I stepped up onto a stool, then took a seat on the counter, the window to my right.
That seemed to get attention. I watched people glancing at me as they went about their business, all rush, hustle and bustle. Jamie climbed up to sit beside me, and I scooted over to give him a better view.
Through the window, we could see the luncheon, though it looked more like a party. There were tables for sitting down at, but there was a band and a singer, and most people were mingling.
Something felt off. I glanced over the room to try and figure out what it might be.
“You,” a chef spoke to us. He had a towel around his shoulders, and was dabbing at his forehead with one corner. “What are you doing?”
“We were told to come in here and wait,” I said. I tapped Jamie’s bag. “Parcel for delivery, has to pass from our hands to theirs. If we’re in your way, please let us know so we can move.”
The man that had been barking orders was talking to someone, but he was glancing up at us and the chef we were talking to.
“Why does it have to be here?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m just doing what I was told, sir.”
He seemed to consider. He didn’t have much excuse to kick us out.
There’s always a hierarchy. It’s a very simple game when you get down to it. Chefs were a trickier bunch than some, I knew. Even Mrs. Earles wasn’t to be messed with when she was cooking. Chefs were artists in temperament and they worked long enough hours that they lacked any patience. If something was going to go wrong, it could very well be this.
“Don’t get underfoot,” he conceded.
“I wouldn’t dare,” I said. “This is your kitchen.”
He made a face. Subtly, he indicated the man that was giving orders. “His kitchen.”
“Then why were you the one who came to talk to us?” I asked.
“Or,” I said, “you’re the one that really runs things here. I know how this sort of thing works, sir. He does too. Without you and the other chefs, there would be nothing. Without him, there’d be another manager.”
“You think so, huh?” the chef asked.
I nodded somberly.
“Don’t cause trouble,” he said, before getting back to work. As the manager looked over in our direction, the chef waved dismissively, a gesture not unlike Gordon’s.
Not a problem. Ignore, I thought, filling in the blanks.
Jamie and I turned to watch through the window. The glass was thick and it wasn’t smooth, which made for a warped picture. I found a position where I could see through without too much difficulty. Jamie set his chin on my shoulder, his eyes on another such patch.
“Not like you,” Jamie said.
“Not like me?”
“To be nice. Fluff up someone’s ego. I know you could have done that differently. You have done things differently. I remember.” His chin drove into my shoulder a little each time he opened his mouth to make a sound.
“You remember me talking about the bug box?”
“Sure,” he said, his chin jabbing my shoulder again. I moved it to force him to reposition.
“This is a bug box. Except there’s no shaking needed. They’re already at each other’s throats. I guarantee you there’s more drama in here than in any classroom at Dame Cicely’s. People are easiest to manipulate when it’s ‘us versus them’, and in here, it’s him versus the manager. Which is, hm, the second most important reason I did that.”
“Am I supposed to guess the first?”
“No. I’m waiting for the dramatic moment when I get to show the first. We are in a theater, after all. Drama is important.”
Jamie nodded, his chin rubbing my shoulder. I moved it again.
“Something’s really interesting about this scene,” I said. “On a few levels. Awful lot of rich-looking people, for one.”
“Whitney used to be a place where the wealthy had their second or third vacation homes. Not for summertime, but for winters. When they needed to get away from the city, they’d come here, do some hunting or ice fishing. Or hole up in a cabin with a fire, enjoy a little distance from the rest of the world.”
“Escaping the mess and smells of the city, only to kill something and experience the smell of blood, guts, and their own sweat,” I said. “That sounds self-defeating.”
“It’s easy to be self-defeating when you have that kind of wealth and power,” Jamie said. “Some of the houses have permanent residents now, but some are still vacation homes. Either way, it’s a place a lot of people know how to get to.”
Men in suits and women in dresses, with waiters in simple white shirts and black slacks moving between them, holding trays. The singer on the stage was a black woman with a blue silk wrap around her head and a sleek silk full-length dress.
She was good, from what I could make out of her singing. It came in fits and starts, as staff entered and left through the door.
“I spy a Helen,” Jamie murmured. “And our General Ames.”
I looked, and Jamie pointed a finger, helping me to look in the right direction. Helen was playing her part, the dutiful daughter. Ames looked uncomfortable. A man caught between a rock and a hard place.
It was good to know he was still behaving. A large part of what we’d been working on to this point was ensuring our grip on him wasn’t going to falter.
“Good for her,” I said. “Out of all of us, she’s probably eating the best.”
“And she doesn’t even enjoy food in the same way we do,” Jamie commented. “There’s something really sad about that.”
“Mm,” I agreed.
We watched for another few moments. Approaching footsteps made me turn my head.
The chef I’d talked to earlier was approaching yet again. Wordless, he set down a plate, stacked with appetizers and tiny cakes.
“Wow! Thank you, sir!” I said, trying to sound surprised.
He didn’t respond, only turning to leave.
I picked up one of the seahorse-slug things and viciously bit its head off. It tasted like undercooked bacon, but a longer-lasting aftertaste that made the initial texture worth it.
“You’re allowed to gloat,” Jamie whispered to me. “This was the first priority, wasn’t it?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I whispered back, smiling.
“Brat,” he said. Then, distracted, he turned to the window, “Oh! I recognize that face.”
Jamie indicated a man. Even though most of the guests had removed their long coats, this one wore his. He had long hair and glasses, but the hair was black, and the man was old enough to have white-and-black stubble on his cheeks. He walked with his hands clasped in front of him, milling aimlessly until a woman in a deep blue dress approached, catching him in conversation.
“Cynthia,” Jamie said.
“The man’s name is Cynthia?”
“The woman in the dress is Cynthia. She’s taking charge of the rebellion here, and she’s the one throwing this little lunch party,” Jamie said.
“Who’s the man?”
“Louis Peralta. Ex-New Spaniard, removed from Radham Academy three years ago, he studied the science of pain. How we experience it, how to remove it, how to inflict it.”
“Sounds like a lovely chap,” I commented.
“The loveliest. When he walks down the road, children and small woodland creatures flock around him.”
“Anyone else?” I asked. “I can’t help but notice that there’s a distinct lack of stitched here.”
“That’s true. Most are probably off fighting.”
“Or there’s a certain kind of status to being able to hire actual people, instead of using dead ones,” I said. “Or they’re playing up to a certain audience. If you’re demonizing the Academy, using the Academy’s tools in the background looks bad.”
“True,” Jamie said.
“Question is,” I said. “There are monsters in the audience. Past Helen, the two tall women at the far end there, on either side of the man?”
“Oh. He’s Mr. Pock. Think Ibbott, but he likes to make sets, he’s only about half as arrogant, and only a third as good.”
“There’s Edwin Grahl. He was innovating new ways of doing stitched when something political behind the scenes at one of the Academies got him upset. He left in a huff, found a patron, and continued his work. The Academy put out a warrant for unlicensed use of the Academy’s knowledge. He went into hiding.”
“There are a lot of these guys,” I said.
Now that Jamie was pointing them out, I was getting a better sense of things. It wasn’t always easy to identify the Academy educated. Sometimes it was, sometimes they had the wild hair or the coats or tools on hand, but more than half of them blended in with the crowd.
“John Durant. He got removed from the Academy when he helped make a superweapon, but failed to leash it right. People got killed. There are very few people I can think of who are as volatile as he is. Angry, works on projects bigger than he can handle. He could be as dangerous to their side as he might be to ours.”
“A lot of people that left the Academy, one way or another,” I said. “Not all Academy trained, but close enough to have something to offer.”
“That’s essentially it,” Jamie murmured. “She’s gathering her forces.”
The way Cynthia was doing it was interesting, too. I saw how she took the arm of Dr. Peralta and led the man to a group of the high-society types.
What was the plan there? Building connections? Convincing the people with the money and the resources that this was a battle that could be won?
“There,” Jamie said. “Man with the red tie?”
I looked and saw a man, blond haired, with a jaw prominent enough that it looked like it had been surgically modified.
“Nobility,” Jamie said.
“Here?” I asked. A two-legged cat might have had as much sense to walk into a wolf’s den.
“He’s illegitimate. Of everyone here that might hate the Crown and the people that fall under its umbrella, he probably hates the Crown the most.”
“Tall order,” I said. I grabbed a tiny cake.
“Tall order,” Jamie agreed. He grabbed a little bacon-and-pastry affair, then offered it to me. On a whim, we touched cake to pastry as if we were toasting a drink.
He popped his treat into his mouth. I started, then stopped.
Someone had come in the back door. A woman, with thick black hair falling across her eyes, parted so that only her nose and a wide mouth were visible. She wore a military uniform, just as the scarred people and the countless soldiers in Whitney did.
A woman in uniform wasn’t the most unusual thing in the world. But a woman that entered a room and sniffed, rather than looking around?
Entering through the back door?
With our raincoats clenched in one hand?
Her head turned in our direction.
“Go,” I said, hopping down from the counter, hauling Jamie down with me. He only just managed to collect his backpack before I hauled him along.
There weren’t many escape routes. There was a door to one side, which might have led to the kitchen manager’s office, but I wasn’t willing to gamble that the manager’s office would have a door or a window to the outside.
The woman moved toward us, with long, brisk strides, and one hundred percent conviction. When a waiter got in her way, she grabbed him with two hands and shoved him forcefully into the nearest counter. She barely slowed an iota in the process.
There were two surefire exits from the room. There was one that she’d just used to enter the kitchen, and there was one that led from the kitchen to the floor of the theater.
Weighing our options, this one strange individual against a room filled with people who had been warned about our existence, I chose the room.
With Jamie lagging behind me, I pushed past the free-swinging set of door to enter the party.