We weren’t walking through a kitchen, wearing clothing that resembled that of the staff, not anymore. The pair of us stood out like sore thumbs, our hair a little damp from being under our hoods in the humid outdoors. We wore dirty boots, not shiny black shoes. Jamie carried a backpack.
We attracted attention, tramping through people twice our size, who were all wearing their finest. Women had their hair done up, nice dresses on, and the men wore suits with long jackets. There were very few children in attendance, making us stand out all the more.
I peered through the crowd, noting the location of everyone important. The kitchen door was in the southeast corner, the stage with the singer to the southwest, and a hundred and fifty feet of banquet hall stretched the distance to the north end, where the front door was. Covered tables dotted the space off to the sides, standing on carpet, while the center remained clear, hardwood, ostensibly for dancing during different events.
The ceiling arched above, and a kind of extended balcony ran down either side, with fancy iron-wrought railings, with a number of figures gathered and looking down on the affair from above. Some stood and talked on the stairs that led up from either side of the front door.
The rebellion here had brought in a lot of ex-Academy types, and those individuals had each attracted crowds, many staying toward the edges of the hall. The middle had more clusters, but it also had more elbow room and empty space.
No matter how we moved through the empty spaces, we would either stand out like sore thumbs, walking in a straight line, or we would look evasive, zig-zagging to break line of sight.
The tables offered a little bit of cover, blocking others’ view of us, and the densely packed people would be something of a benefit in the same way. That said, there was a bit of a caveat to that. There was nothing stopping someone from grabbing one of us.
I was counting on a given person leaving us alone because others had left us alone. The mentality of the herd of sheep. It made the initial batch of people more important, as we approached.
That in mind, I led the way toward people who looked more actively engaged on conversation.
So much planning for the simple act of walking into a crowd.
Then again, there was the corollary that we were walking into a crowd of people that would imprison us if they knew we were working for the Crown, and probably shoot us on the spot if they knew what we really were.
It was sobering.
Jamie and I passed just behind a cluster of the group of chattering ladies, into the thick of the crowd. I brought my chin down, ducking down as if begging excuse, and walked at a consistent speed.
The pair of us passed behind the core members of the gaggle of chattering women without drawing notice.
I was put in mind of one of the covers of Jamie’s books. The heroine of the haunted forest, every tree hostile but dormant. This was that forest. The ‘trees’ dwarfed us, they outnumbered us to an extent that I couldn’t guess at, and if they turned on us, I couldn’t even guess at what they’d do to us.
Countless sets of eyes watched us, judging, prying, thinking about doing something. But it took a special kind of courage to break away from the herd and do something like that. I was watching people, studying them, trying to figure out who might have that courage. It wasn’t always obvious. A well dressed man in unique colors, my instinct was that he could be left alone. He tried too hard to impress, by body language alone.
An older man, one that looked too frail to kill a fly if he swatted it, I knew he was dangerous by the wide berth others gave him, and the way they reacted when he moved his hands, gesturing. I’d known professors who moved like he did, swatting students that weren’t attentive enough, not caring what others thought about them.
Once I was pretty sure the coast was clear, I allowed myself a glance back toward the kitchen. The sniffing woman hadn’t followed us past the kitchen door. I noted that the hostess of the party, Cynthia, stood near the stage, the center of attention for her own small cluster. Jamie, just behind me, looked deeply concerned, one of his hands gripping mine, the other holding the strap of his bag.
I saw his eyes flick in one direction. Casually, head turning back to face forward, I looked out of the corner of my eye.
The extended balcony on the far left of the room had groups of people talking, just like everywhere else in the banquet hall, but a lone figure stood alone. Bald, he had a scarf covering the lower half of his face, a heavy cast to his forehead, almost neanderthal, and the hands that gripped the railing had long fingers. Knives glinted on the strap that ran diagonally across his chest.
He was watching us, his head moving to follow as we made forward progress.
I thought I’d lose track of him as I moved too far head to track him in my peripheral vision, but he turned, and he started walking in the same direction we were, along the length of the balcony, making progress toward the front door.
Two of them.
Good eye, Jamie.
I had to wonder where the woman from the kitchen was. She wasn’t following us, which was curious. It raised questions. Why not stir up the crowd, call something out and have people mob us or grab us?
The first possibility was that her hands were tied. Maybe she couldn’t speak. Maybe she could, but wasn’t willing to cause trouble with this event being more important than it looked.
The second possibility was that she hadn’t come after us because she didn’t need to come after us. We were already caught.
Three quarters of the way. The last quarter of the hallway stretched before us.
The man with the scarf started moving faster, one long finger tracing the top of the railing. He was a little more eager than the woman had been, and the speed he was moving suggested he’d make it down the stairs and beat us to the front door.
I looked, and I didn’t see windows. There were side doors, likely leading to the theaters, but they weren’t accessible side doors. The crowds of people around the various scientists and experimenters made it look pretty dire.
I picked up the pace a little, my hand tugging on Jamie’s.
All at once, the man that was above us stopped, turning, gripping the railing with long fingers. I allowed myself to look, momentarily making eye contact.
A moment later, Jamie’s hand hauled back on mine. My stride was broken, and eyes that had been glancing our way now stared.
Jamie had been grabbed.
I supposed it had always been a ‘when’ we got grabbed, not ‘if’.
He looked shocked, and he didn’t know what to do. The man that had him was a military sort, with massive mutton chops, badges on his lapel and an odd amount of jewelry on the hand he’d used to grab Jamie. A very ostentatious wedding band, and a ring that probably signified something military-related. Membership of an important group.
“What are you doing in here?” he asked, his voice deep. More heads turned.
The attention we were getting was so oppressive I almost couldn’t breathe. Jamie looked stricken.
Cynthia was looking, but I wasn’t sure she could see us, specifically. The man at the railing remained where he was, watching, fingers rising and falling like a line of something or others was squirming between them and the railing.
He’d probably seen the man turn and come after us.
I couldn’t let the fear show in my face. Fear would doom us.
I smiled, knowing that my fake smile was being studied by merchants and politicians, people who had made livings off of using or identifying fakery.
“Love,” I said, not looking at the jewelry on his fingers, while remaining acutely aware of it.
The man harumphed. “Love?”
“Brotherly love. This guy and me, we’re the fastest friends you ever saw, sir. There’s a girl he likes, I told him, no matter what, he needed to tell her.”
“T-told you, Simon, y-you really didn’t have to do that,” Jamie said, voice shaking a bit. He was drawing on his nervousness, using it.
Simon. It was my first fake name. Nostalgic.
Even my nickname, Sy, it was taken more from Simon than Sylvester.
I told myself it was a good omen, and didn’t allow myself to consider that it might be the last fake name I ever used.
“We never thought we’d see her again. Then we saw her coming here, he’s dressed nice, we thought- well, I thought and I told him, he’s gotta say. Before he loses the chance.”
The man didn’t show any sign of relenting. His face was like stone. Stone with massive muttonchops, but stone all the same.
I was still counting on the sheep mentality. That if we stopped this man, convinced him, the rest would let us be. Even managing that would be hard. It depended on Cynthia not coming to see what the commotion was about, and the man at the railing above us staying where he was.
A lot of dependings, there.
Foremost among them was Muttonchops here.
The rings. The way he so proudly displayed the badges. I was counting on him being a romantic at heart.
“Girl, hm?” he asked. He sounded skeptical.
“She was over there,” I said, pointing into the crowd.
Like magic, the observers parted, stepping away from the path of my fingertip. The only ones who didn’t were Mr. Ames and our dear Helen.
Ames looked like he was going to suffer heart failure. He had already been sweating bullets, and now a full third of the room was now focusing its attention on him and Helen. He couldn’t have looked more stricken if someone shoved an icicle up his rear end.
I shifted my grip on Jamie, circling around him, so I stood between him and Muttonchops. One hand on each of Jamie’s shoulders, I pushed.
The muttonchops, the flash, the display. Not just a romantic. Muttonchops believed in the show.
This was for his sake, something gaudy, obvious, impossible to ignore.
I believed, wholeheartedly, that he couldn’t maintain his hold on Jamie without becoming the bad guy, without standing in the way of a boy and his love. Jamie wasn’t even to blame. It was my fault, I was the one who had dragged him along.
The hand dropped away. I pushed Jamie along, and he made a faint show of resisting.
We drew closer to the front door. Fifteen percent of the way left. Ten. Five.
We reached Helen and Ames. The last few paces to the door were an impossible journey, now.
I crossed my left set of fingers, tapping them on Jamie’s shoulder, to get Helen’s attention, then shifted my grip.
It was a gesture that meant risk.
Shifting my grip to the left, to indicate the general direction of the man with the scarf. He’d moved when I wasn’t looking, and stood on the stairs.
I couldn’t even see Cynthia, but the singer at the far corner of the banquet hall was watching us even as she sang. If Cynthia made it this far, we were doomed.
Too many factors to consider. Everything in my perception condensed to this particular moment and scene. I was hyperaware, my every sense pitched to an almost painful degree. We were walking a tightrope.
“I don’t know what to say,” Jamie said, to Helen.
Helen’s hand moved to her hair. A gesture was hidden in the action. A question mark without a question to precede it. She was as lost as Jamie. Her voice and attitude didn’t betray it, either way.
“I’ve seen you around,” she said, smiling in a way that probably every man here was familiar with, thinking back on their first loves. “You’re usually writing something in a big book, aren’t you?”
Jamie nodded, swallowing hard.
I’m so sorry, I thought. Very sorry, Jamie, putting you on the spot.
It was Ames that spoke, and I felt a moment’s terror as the heavyset man opened his big fat cannot-act-worth-a-damn mouth. “What do you think you’re doing?”
The terror wasn’t substantiated. It came from a very real, very spooked place. He was as terrified as any of us. It was real.
His inability to act was a saving grace, almost. The people that knew him would know he was speaking from a genuine place.
“I-I really like your daughter, sir,” Jamie said. “You-”
“No,” Ames boomed. “You’re making a spectacle of her, and you’re making a spectacle of me. I will not stand for this.”
I stared, watching in fascination. Was this man actually saving us?
He looked genuinely angry. Just like his fear, it came from a real place. We’d brought the shit to his doorstep, we’d brought it to people’s attention, and he wasn’t happy about any of it.
“I’m sorry,” Jamie said, sounding terrified. “I’ll leave right away. I’m sorry, sir.”
“You most certainly will,” Ames said. He paused, dramatic. Then, in a less ominous tone, he said, “If you wish to see the girl, you can call on her at her home. We live next to the city hall.”
Playing to the crowd. He was willing to be the bad guy that Muttonchops hadn’t, but not entirely. He had probably won some people over with that little display.
Jamie nodded, a little too quickly. This time, it was Jamie who tugged me in the direction of the front door. I was more than happy to oblige, very aware of the man with the scarf and the knives who was now walking at a casual pace down the stairs.
We were two steps from the exit when a hand slapped the heavy wood. I didn’t recognize the man, but he wore one of the unconventional uniforms, with a mustache so thin it looked like it was drawn on with a scratch of a quill. The slap on the wood made a dull booming noise, and it drew more attention. I noted that several of the special guests looked annoyed at the focus that was being drawn away from them.
“We’re leaving,” I said. “We don’t want any trouble.”
“I’d like to stop you right there,” the man said, his voice soft. “I’m sorry, but I know I wasn’t the only one here that was instructed to assume that anything a young child says is an outright lie, until proven otherwise.”
No, no, no.
It went a step beyond paranoia and general knowledge of us.
The damn woman had known we were here. She had warned people.
I looked, and I saw people in the crowd looking a little abashed that they hadn’t been the ones to say the very same thing. Others that had been given the same instruction.
I also saw Cynthia approaching, weaving her way through the crowd, gently excusing herself to get past others. She was roughly the same distance from the door that we’d been when Jamie had been grabbed. Thirty or forty feet from the door, albeit with a dense thicket of people between here and there.
The man with the scarf hadn’t budged.
Why. He and the woman in the kitchen-
No, there were more important things to focus on. I couldn’t fuck up here like I did in so many of the actual fights.
“Lying about what?” I asked.
“The story. Your reason for being here,” the man with the thin mustache said. “To get here in the first place, you had to come from one of the theaters, or you came from the kitchen. Is it unfair of us to worry that the Academy might be low enough to use young children to deliver poison to an entire banquet?”
Oh. Well, had to give the man points for imagination.
Even I was at a loss for words there.
I pulled my hand away from Jamie, the hand between me and the exterior wall gesturing before clenching into a fist.
The only person who could see it and translate the gesture’s meaning was Helen.
I couldn’t know how she managed it without opening her mouth, but our dear, glorious Helen directed Ames our way.
“You’re accusing this girl of poisoning food?” Ames asked, voice rising.
“That is not what I’m saying,” the man at the door said.
“You’re accusing me of being a traitor?” Ames asked, even louder.
I am so very glad nobody said yes to that question, I thought.
“No,” the man said, patiently. “I’m saying we don’t know for sure where these boys are from, or if the story about the romance-”
“It’s true!” I said, cutting him off. Ames was acting the outraged parent, but he apparently didn’t know how important it was to keep our opponent from getting his balance, or keeping the man from getting a full sentence out. Playing dirty was absolutely vital here. “He likes her, he does!”
“You’re raising nonsense about poison here, laying accusations, scaring good people,” Ames said, getting more into it. I worried he didn’t know where he was going, or that he’d run out of steam and abruptly stop, leaving us flailing.
“I’m following orders!” the man said.
Cynthia was getting closer. If she verified those orders-
“He’s got a picture,” I said. Without waiting for Jamie to do it, I pulled the rain-flap of his backpack away, reached inside, and hauled out the book. He took it from me the moment I had it, and turned pages. “Why would he have a picture if he’s lying?”
Jamie held the book up, a half-done sketch of Helen displayed.
It was a little dark and scratchy, heavy on the ink. Not quite the picture a boy in love might draw, by my estimation, but it was a picture of Helen, and it was pretty damn accurate.
There were murmurs from the crowd that could see the book.
“That’s enough,” Ames said. He approached us, “It’s clear you like her.”
“Yes sir,” Jamie said.
Cynthia was close enough to be in earshot, now. She was looking at the man with the scarf and the knives, but he wasn’t moving.
That somehow spooked me more than if he’d suddenly lunged for us.
Ames put a hand on Jamie’s shoulder. “Come. Let’s talk, away from all this. I don’t like the spectacle. You can come to our place, for tea and cake, if the girl agrees.”
“I’d like that,” Helen said, just behind me.
His other hand touched the door handle, a few feet below where the man with the thin mustache had slammed his own hand against the wood.
The man wasn’t budging, even with Ames up close and personal, the book as proof.
Damnation, someone actually competent, who listened to orders.
Ames hauled the door open, ignoring the hand. His strength contested the man’s, and Ames won.
The man looked over in Cynthia’s direction, and I did too.
She’d stopped moving. She watched.
Ames passed through the door with Jamie. Helen caught up, and joined me in leaving.
I felt ill at ease, well aware that I didn’t have the full picture.
The front of the theater was covered. The rain poured beyond, flowing between the stones of the slightly domed street and into the gutters.
The door closed behind us. We headed in the direction of the small adjunct building. Two black men on either side of the double doors opened the way. We stepped into the coat room, Ames and Helen found coats and pulled them on. Jamie found a smaller cloak and donned it. I searched and didn’t find anything small enough for me.
The sniffing woman had my coat.
Jamie found an umbrella and handed it to me.
“What was that?” Ames murmured, once we were out and walking in the rain, out of earshot.
“You know that whole blackmail thing we had going on?” I asked, twisting around to check behind us.
“I believe I know what you’re talking about,” Ames said, with a heavy lathering of sarcasm and a little bit of loathing.
“You’re done,” I said. “It’s over. All that you have left to do is keep quiet, and nobody finds out about the… less decorous parts of your military background.”
A lifetime ago, he’d gone to a black market doctor and found a way to avoid attending a major battle in service to the Academy, a wounded leg and a bad infection. He’d survived when many of his colleagues hadn’t, had then been able to boast a rare level of experience, when so many who had fought in the battles he had had died. Now he was here, and he’d sided with the rebellion.
In trying to meet and buy off some of the ex-students of the Academy, we’d found out about that bit of leverage, and played it out into our whole scheme here. One of the higher-ups in the local rebellion became our pawn, a means of Jamie getting access to important paperwork and a hiding spot, while Helen could be the daughter returned home after a long time away.
“You’ve ruined me,” he said. “People will put the pieces together.”
“People would have found out eventually,” I said. “The doctor who injured your leg knew exactly what he was doing when he named you. The moment he was caught, or the moment he was brought into the rebellion, he was ready to name you for his personal gain.”
He shook his head, but he didn’t have anything to say.
“If we’re done, does that mean there’s no tea?” Helen asked. With a slightly different inflection, she added, “And no cake?”
“No tea, no cake,” I said. “Mr. Ames-”
“General Ames,” Ames corrected.
I’d goaded him about the fact that his title wasn’t truly earned, but I had to admit he’d done a lot to help us just now.
“General Ames,” I amended my statement. “Our business relationship with you is done.”
“I’m done with her, then?” he asked, indicating Helen.
“Was I so bad?” she asked.
“You disturb me,” he said, with a measure of disgust.
“Go home, figure out what to do next,” I told Ames. “I advise leaving. Just to be safe. Put some distance between yourself and the rest of this. Maybe play up how embarrassed you were with your treatment in there.”
He shook his head, jowls wobbling.
All at once, he turned, breaking away from us, as if he couldn’t bear to be in our company any longer.
Jamie, Helen and I walked through the rain. We passed several people. The rain was thick enough it was hard to identify details. I might have imagined vaguely monstrous details about anyone we passed, except many of them were monsters, or stitched, or something-or-others.
Was the sniffing woman out here? Or did the rain keep her from tracking us like she had with the coats and following us into the kitchen?
“Well, I didn’t expect any of that,” Helen said. “I thought I’d be busy for a little while yet.”
“We’re going to be busy,” I said, “Just doing something different than we were.”
I continued to examine each of the people out on the street. Were any watching us?
“Getting cake can be on the list,” Jamie said, “I’m sure Sy didn’t mean to tease.”
Helen reached out to give Jamie a pat on the cheek.
“I always mean to tease,” I said. “Except then. No, I didn’t mean to there.”
“You’re the best boys,” Helen said. “What about the other boy? And our girls?”
“That,” I said, “remains a very good question.”
“Why?” she asked.
“Cynthia back there, she wanted us. She was coming after us, she had the ability to give the order, and I think she probably would have been listened to. Now, there’s a dim possibility that she changed her mind, bought the story…”
“But you don’t think so,” Jamie said. “She changed her mind for another reason.”
“The man with the scarf on the stairs, he gave her some signal, or he communicated something, and she deferred to him. I’m guessing they don’t believe three birds in the hand are worth however many are in the bush.”
“They’re using us,” Jamie said.
“We’re being watched, right this second,” I murmured. “Guarantee it. They want us to lead them to the others before they make a move. Let’s get Helen her cake-”
“-and figure out our next move. Because we’re stuck. We can’t communicate with or meet up with the others without putting them and ourselves in danger. We have a tail to shake, and the moment Mr. Scarf finishes discussing a strategy with Mrs. Cynthia, we’re going to have an entire city’s worth of hostile forces collapsing in on us.”
“And Mary, Lillian, and Gordon might too, except they won’t have any warning at all,” Jamie said.
“Let’s do what we can about that,” I said.