“The man driving the carriage was Mr. Percy,” Mary said. “Not exactly him, the hair was a little different, but I recognized him.”
“Appearances can be easily changed,” Hayle mused. “If anyone would recognize him, it would be you.”
“Yes, professor,” Mary said.
The Lambs were assembled in Hayle’s office. We were lined up in front of his desk, while the old man sat, arms folded in front of him. His hair was shorter than it usually was, more neat, and his lab coat was immaculate, without wrinkle or speck.
The Duke’s presence reached even this far, from Claret Hall.
Hayle glanced at me, then back to Mary. “Mary. Not to put too fine a point on things, but Sylvester reported to me at the time of your recruitment that you have a command phrase. If he utters it, you might be a liability?”
A dark look passed over Mary’s expression, not that she’d been bubbles and sunshine a moment before. “Yes sir.”
“Perhaps it would be best to keep you away from this altogether,” he said. “You’re collectively overdue for your appointments, which have been sporadic at best while you’ve been away, and I know there are places where we could make use of you, once those are done.”
I wasn’t Hayle’s friend, I didn’t even necessarily like him, but I respected the man. In this, right here, he was proving he had the right to that respect. I’d communicated the situation to him, I’d asked him to take Mary on as one of the Lambs, and he’d agreed, after a long evaluation period and some research.
I’d told him the truth. That Percy had escaped, leaving a note for Mary. Where she’d been led to think it was a command phrase to turn her into a reckless killing machine, with me doing some of the leading, it had been a genuine goodbye, meant to express to her how fond he was of her. The command phrase hadn’t existed.
Now the man was back in the picture. He now knew, presumably, that she was counted among the Lambs. If those feelings still held true then the man posed more problems than his penchant for cloning alone.
Hayle knew, and he was steering us away.
“There are stirrings of a cult in the Capitol. If we-”
“No,” Mary said.
Hayle raised his eyebrows. “Beg pardon?”
“I want to see this through. Please. I have to.”
Again, he glanced at me.
I wished he wouldn’t do that.
I parted my lips to speak.
“Why, Mary?” Gordon asked, before the sound had left my mouth.
No, don’t give her a chance to justify her position!
“Because he made me. He can unmake me, if we let him. I can’t let someone else handle this and know that if he gets away, I’ll have that hanging over my head forever. We know now that they’re slippery. These women are his new clones, with the same idea as before. Except… less intimate. Unless there’s a trick we haven’t caught on to, the only way we’re going to catch them is if we bait them.”
“Believe it or not,” Hayle said, “the Academy has invested a lot in this project over the years. Time, effort, energy, mine above all. I would rather not have it go to waste by sending Lambs in as bait against a threat we do not totally understand.”
“We understand!” Mary said. “That’s what we do. You’ve sent us in against worse, with frequency. We assess threats, then we devise solutions. How is this different?”
Well. That was a problem. Mary was emotional about this.
I had a horrible sinking feeling in my gut. Things had shifted to the point where, no matter what path we took, there was either a general sort of awful or a risk of a worse sort of awful. Hurt feelings and confusion, or danger of white lies being exposed.
“Dog and Catcher can track them down.”
“I’m not disagreeing,” Gordon said, “But Dog and Catcher just came back from the field. This is their time to rest. They’ll be fatigued, hurt, distracted, they’re not approaching this fresh.”
“It’s your time to rest,” Hayle said.
Gordon shook his head, “It’s been a while. We’ve rested. We’re raring to go. You can’t deny that this is important. This is big, if our instincts are right. I agree with Mary. I don’t share her reasons, but we can do this. We should.”
“It is important. That’s why that I don’t want a possible liability in the field,” Hayle said.
Mary tensed, flinching as if she’d been hit. Hayle noticed.
More gently, he said, “I respect the work you do, Mary. It took some convincing on Sylvester’s part for me to bring you on board. That you’ve worked out as well as you have has been to your credit and Sylvester’s. I’ve never been quite so glad to have my doubts banished as they were on this.”
“Thank you,” Mary said, relaxing a bit.
I reached out for her hand, to hold it. She pulled away as if I’d stung her. She clasped her hands in front of her instead.
Hayle continued, oblivious, “That said, there’s a danger, I want to keep you with us, and that means treating this situation with care. If we acknowledge that the Lambs are the best way to handle the task, we might need to compromise. I want you to sit this one out.”
“No,” she said, not an eye’s blink after he’d finished speaking.
Glancing at her, I could see her expression. Stricken. Scared?
This was Mary laid bare. Defenses stripped away.
I knew why, and my heart fell.
Mary is and always has been afraid of being alone. It’s the fulcrum point I used to leverage her into the Lambs, and right now, right here, she’s isolated. She’s been reminded of our mortality, that she might lose any of us. To take her now and make her sit this out, it could drive a wedge in, if she even listened.
She was disconnected, at risk of detaching from the group, breaking ranks or losing faith and friendship. With our recent interaction, I wasn’t sure I was in a position to bring her back in. She’d pulled her hand away.
“Sir,” I said, and I hated saying it.
“She should participate. She knows Percy better than anyone.”
The old man stared over his desk and across his office to give me an unwavering, cold look. I knew he was weighing odds and considering all the factors.
To trust Sy, or not to trust Sy?
He’d been trying to keep her out of this because of the details I’d shared. Now I was telling him to do the opposite, and I wasn’t in a position to explain.
“Alright,” he said. “I’ll let people know what you’re doing. We have birds going out to other Academies. We’ll ask for them to keep an eye out for anything that looks like this.”
Jamie spoke up, “If it’s Percy, then it’s very possible that the women will meet the same physical descriptions. It’s easier to make more of the same than to make individuals.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Hayle said. “I’m taking you all at your word when you say you can do this.”
I didn’t miss the momentary, pointed look that he gave me, as he said that last bit. The message was clear.
“Keep me up to date,” he said. “And check in with your supervising doctors. Remind them about your appointments. See if they can make the time.”
We turned to go, exiting Hayle’s office.
The upper portion of the Tower had no stairs. The hallways sloped, something I’d always considered to be a nuisance. Stairs could be taken two at a time, going down, while the gentle slope only made walking difficult.
Little white birds had settled on branches that framed the windows, moving and fluttering as we made our way down to the next available floor with a stairwell.
A young woman in a white lab coat hurried past us, head down, clutching books and papers to her chest. She looked at us, almost stopping, eyes wide, then seemed to change her mind, heading up the hall.
I craned my head, looking back, to see if there were any clues.
“What was that about?” Gordon asked. He was looking, too.
“I’ve seen her before,” Lillian said.”
“Her name is Anne,” Jamie said. “She works downstairs.”
“Of course you know that,” Gordon said.
“And in the bowels,” Helen said. “She turns up a lot here and there, because Hayle supervises her.”
I cast another glance upstairs. With anyone and everyone, I now had to think in terms of Percy’s work. Whether she was a danger.
But the others were vouching for her, and, everything else in consideration, it didn’t make sense that there would be clones this deep in the Academy. If things were that bad, we’d already lost.
“She was scared,” I observed.
“Thought it was something like that,” Gordon said. “Going up, only person she could be going to would be Hayle.”
“She works on the tree structure,” Jamie said.
“Ashton’s old project?” I asked, suddenly spooked.
Jamie nodded, silent.
“I didn’t think that was a project which would have emergencies,” I said.
“It’s not,” Jamie said.
“There was one with me, once,” Helen said, smiling. “My first time out of the vat. I was only half as tall as I am now. I opened my eyes and wanted to give someone a hug. They shot me.”
“Charming,” I said.
“The tree structure is different. This would have to be something else,” Gordon said.
Mary remained silent, one hand moving to her side, thumb hooking under the side of her skirt, no doubt to touch one of the knives there. Reminding herself it was there, being prepared and primed for danger.
Lillian reached out with one hand, touching Mary’s. Mary flinched, then let Lillian take her hand.
Walking behind her, I could see muscles in Mary’s shoulders relax.
Jamie elbowed me.
I glanced at him.
His expression blank, he didn’t say or do anything else.
I elbowed him back, and he smiled a little.
Then we rounded another corner, and I could see people clustered outside the door of a lab.
Again, the attitude was spooked. One of them was brushing at his coat with his hands.
In another section of Radham academy, a doctor being very scared about what they had on their coat would have been a reason to start running. Here, it was only very concerning.
“What’s going on?” Gordon asked them.
“Anne didn’t tell you?” the doctor nearest us asked.
“Tell us what?” Gordon asked.
The echoing tramp of footsteps made the doctors turn, backs straightening. I connected the dots in the last possible second, not fast enough to do anything about it.
He rounded the corner at the far end of the hall. As he reached the window, he extended a long arm and rapped the window, startling the birds just outside the window, scattering them to the air. A smile touched his lips.
He was taller than a man should be, and he was beautiful. His overall appearance made me think of the face cards of a deck of playing cards. All of the pieces put together could have and should have made him look inhuman, but they only barely toed the ‘human’ side of the line. Shoulders and upper chest broad, waist narrow, legs lean, features sharp, with long arms and legs.
His blond hair was parted sharply, the majority of it tumbling down one side of his face and down one shoulder, more extending straight back behind him. His clothes were as fine as clothes got, with a decorated jacket in black and gold, the tail of it extending behind him, nearly to the ground.
Despite the heavy clothing, he had alabaster skin, without the slightest shine of sweat. He could have been sixteen or thirty, none of the usual indicators were there, but he carried himself like a sixteen year old might, while logic and what I’d heard of the man told me he was much older. He loomed, slouching just slightly, as if under the weight of the golden spill of hair and the heavy jacket.
My assessment of him was interrupted somewhat, as I was falling to one knee as soon as he appeared.
“Hm,” he made a sound, amused. The voice was deep. Altered, augmented.
I stared only at the ground, kneeling, head down.
Only years of training my poker face kept me from flinching as his fingers touched my head, running slowly and absently through my hair. It was still damp from my trip over to the Tower, a little tangled. I felt stabs of pain as very strong fingers tore past one or two snarls.
The hand disappeared. There was a long pause.
“Stand,” he said. “Let me get a better look at you.”
As one, we stood, straightening.
It was the eyes that got me. They were eyes that made me think of countless people we’d gone after and killed. People who’d been pushed too far, or who’d gone over the edge before we even found them. A little too much in the way of whites around the edges, they didn’t blink enough. Tension did it, adrenaline pumping hard and fast through the veins for too long, muscles too tight in the face. People under a deep, profound, long-term sort of stress and those with mental illnesses often had those eyes.
He didn’t strike me as someone who was under any stress. His movements were too languid.
“The Lambs,” he said, voice quiet and tender, yet still deep enough to reverberate, nearly musical in tone, “I was looking for you.”
We’ve been actively avoiding you, I thought.
The Duke of Francis was accompanied by four doctors. All four stood behind him, waiting for instruction. We were frozen. There was no talking without being asked to speak. No moving without permission to go. From the time he’d been born to now, his world had revolved at his whim. Only his family members would be able to gainsay him or check his conduct. As far as I was aware, the next member of the Crown was on the other side of the Crown States.
Long, strong fingers touched the side of my face, stroking me as if I was a pet.
His index finger slid under my chin, then lifted it, turning my face up, not so I could look at him, but so he could look at me.
Wearing the wrong expression could be dangerous. If I looked like I was frowning or sullen, he might take offense. If I smiled, he might be pleased with me, which could be worse.
“Hm!” he made that amused noise again. His hand dropped away from my face. “Look at you.”
I didn’t know what to do, so I kept my chin at the angle he’d raised it at.
He moved over to Helen. I watched out of the corner of my eye as he stroked her hair, took the collar of her dress in hand and adjusted it, before bending down to tug at her belt, straightening out wrinkles in the fabric. He touched her face, running a thumb over her lips.
“Beautiful,” he said.
The Duke smiled back. “Those doctors that accompany me back there, they’re the best at what they do. They create art.”
He gestured at himself, as if to demonstrate.
“They made me immortal, or close enough to count. They made me beautiful, strong, and quick. They made me dangerous enough to dispatch anyone who might seek to take my life. Yet here you are, and you could pass for a cousin of mine, with the same treatment.”
Helen bowed a little, a coy smile on her face.
My heart pounded in my chest. The Duke’s thumb pushed its way between Helen’s lips, then lifted one up, making her sneer. Looking at her teeth, as one might the proverbial gift horse.
I clenched my hand at my side.
“You look like you want to say something,” he said. “Speak.”
“I was crafted by Professor Ibott, lord,” Helen said, demure.
“Hm!” the Duke made that noise again. It was probably a tic, or he didn’t realize he was doing it. Or maybe he didn’t care. “He’s made noises about wanting to dine with me. I had a glimpse of him and I soured on the idea. But seeing the work he does… hm!”
Of course Ibott wanted to secure a spot in the inner circle of the Crown’s elite doctors. It was the next best thing to being royalty.
To secure him for the Lambs project, Hayle had pricked Ibott’s pride. Helen might well have been made to prove that Ibott had what it took to earn a place in the inner circle, and now things were coming full circle.
Helen was undoubtedly a pawn that Ibott would sacrifice for the sake of his aspirations.
“I’ve been homesick,” the Duke said, as quiet as he was capable of being, with a voice and lungs modified to give him the ability to effectively address crowds. “Having you nearby might be like having family close at hand. You’d be little more than a toy, but wouldn’t that be fun? You could play at being a noble lady.”
“Yes, lord,” Helen said, smiling.
There was no other answer to give. The Duke had his own gravity. Nothing went against it. He’d grown up in those circumstances, and he’d been shaped by them.
I heard footsteps behind me, but I couldn’t turn to look without turning my back to the Duke. Anna?
The Duke straightened. “Professor Hayle.”
“My lord,” Hayle answered.
“I’ve been admiring your Lambs. This one in particular. Do you imagine Professor Ibott would let me keep it?”
“He likely would, lord,” Hayle said.
My blood ran cold.
“But I wouldn’t advise it, lord,” Hayle said.
“Why not?” Vaguely reminiscent of the tone of a toddler who just had a treat snatched away from in front of them.
“She’s a praying mantis, lord. Professor Ibott could explain. She draws targets close and then kills them. Ibott’s work is exemplary, but it would be improper, and there’s the outside chance that it might pose a danger, in strange circumstances.”
“Oh. I don’t want her for that,” the Duke said, cavalier. His hand cupped Helen’s face as he stepped past her, his arm extended behind him, as if to keep hold of a prize he wasn’t about to release. He was moving closer to Hayle, as if challenging. His tone was jovial, “But just in case, my doctors here will remove the danger and render her harmless. Knowing what I do about Professor Ibott, he’ll assist in the process, to curry favor.”
“As you wish, lord,” Hayle said.
I watched as Gordon nudged Mary, who was standing behind Helen.
Mary had a knife in hand.
Having a knife in hand this close to the Duke, of all people, could be a death sentence for her and all the rest of us put together.
Casually enough that it wouldn’t draw attention, Mary extended the knife forward, and pressed the point against the back of Helen’s dress. She pressed with enough force that it penetrated fabric and sank into flesh. A spot of blood welled around the cut.
Helen didn’t move or jump.
“The Lambs won’t suffer unduly for the loss of one?”
“They’ll be less effective, of course, but no, not unduly, lord,” Hayle said.
I knew it was what he had to say, but I went from thinking the best of him to loathing him in the time it took him to finish the sentence.
Mary twisted the knife. Helen didn’t budge a hair.
I couldn’t figure out the point or intent behind the action, if Mary had intended a different result or not, but Mary quickly resumed a normal standing position as the Duke moved, turning.
He still cupped Helen’s face. He looked down at it.
She’d changed her face. Not so much it was definable, but tension here, relaxation there, a fractional shifting of features, a smaller scale version of what she’d done to emulate Melancholy.
The Duke’s expression was haunting, or perhaps haunted. Looking at him, I fully believed he saw through the ruse. That Helen had made herself just a little bit uglier or stranger. He wasn’t a stupid man.
He let her head drop down to its resting position, from where he’d moved it.
She relaxed her features.
He lifted her chin again. She added the strange tension, even less than before.
“Perhaps not,” he finally said. There was a long, tense pause. “Professor Hayle.”
“Are the Lambs at my disposal?”
“Always, lord. They’re preoccupied with a task, but I can reassign them at a moment’s notice.”
“What task are they preoccupied with?” the Duke was all business now, Helen seemingly forgotten.
“A possible cell in the city, lord. Someone the Lambs are intimately familiar with. He’s creating augmented women to infiltrate our defenses. He may be active elsewhere.”
“I haven’t heard of this.”
“I just received the report from the Lambs in my office. You were the next to know, lord.”
The Duke looked down at Hayle, and I wondered how sharp he was. He’d lived a lifetime with people dancing around the truth, trying to convince him to do things without outright saying such. It would make anyone paranoid. Whether it made him an effective paranoid was up in the air.
He turned, stepping back, studying us, evaluating us. There was a coldness in those wide eyes, this time. If he’d liked us before, I didn’t feel like he did anymore.
“Keep them on that task. Have them finish it sooner than later,” he instructed. That said, he swept his coat back and turned to leave.
I didn’t miss hearing what he told one of his doctors. The acoustics in the hallway were too good. “I want every file on the girl, and a meeting with Professor Ibott before the day’s end. Verify-”
And then he was around the corner, out of earshot.
A simple fact check could be a devastating weapon. If Ibott was uncooperative, if anything we said or did or implied was proven to be a lie, the Duke could end us.
A full minute passed before anyone felt safe to move. The moment the tension was broken, the doctors in the hallway with us disappeared into their office.
“You stabbed my butt,” Helen said.
“I wanted to communicate that this was serious,” Mary said. “I wasn’t sure how else to do it. Sometimes you go along with things without thinking them through. I was worried you would go along with him.”
“I like my butt, and now it’s got a hole in it!”
“Another hole,” I said.
“You’re gross,” Lillian told me, before telling Helen, “That’s fixable.”
“I hope so!”
“On your way,” Hayle said. “Stay out of his way. Check in with your doctors.”
We headed down, taking a more leisurely pace, to be sure we didn’t catch up with the Duke and his retinue.
“I like how he knows I have a perfect memory, but he insists on reminding us of things,” Jamie said. “Also, can we not ever meet that man again?”
“Unavoidable, probably,” Gordon said.
“Nice play, Helen,” I said.
“Thank you very much.”
“We can’t afford to get on his bad side,” Gordon said.
“We already are,” I pointed out.
“All the more reason to wrap this up, neat and tidy,” Gordon said.
“I’m not disagreeing,” I said.
We made our way down several flights, taking the long route around the circumference of the building before we reached the top of the stairwell, leading down the rest of the way.
Once we hit the third floor, we began splitting up. Each of us to our individual labs and doctors or teams of doctors.
I found my way to the small room where I so often had my appointments. It doubled as a research area and a storage area for books and records. Really, all I needed were regular doses of the Wyvern formula.
Huey was there. A thug of a man, he was scribbling something down.
“Huey,” I said. His pen scratched on the page as he jolted in surprise.
“Don’t do that,” he said.
“Okay, good,” I said.
I walked away.
Postponed for weeks, with no sign of letting up. All hands were on deck with the war underway, and our teams were preoccupied with other tasks and responsibilities.
The others would take longer. Their doctors weren’t as efficient as Huey was. I went up a floor, instead, and made my way to Anna’s lab.
She was absent, still probably hiding in Hayle’s lab.
The lab was dark and surprisingly cool. It smelled earthy.
The tree structure was growing at one end of the lab. Roots stretched across part of the floor, wood stretched up the wall to the ceiling, and branches extended along the wall and ceiling.
I touched the bulge in the center. It was cold to the touch, but the image it evoked was a warm one, a pregnant woman’s belly, fluid within and within that fluid…
It would have been nice to feel a kick.
A few minutes passed. I told myself I needed to go down and meet the others.
I stayed where I was.
“I remember,” Jamie said, behind me, “Back in the day, I’d find you sleeping on the floor in here.”
“Do you remember? I sometimes lose track of how far back other people’s memories normally reach.”
“I wouldn’t forget,” I said, still smiling. “That tree was dead, back then.”
“Yeah. It was sad, but it wasn’t…” he said.
He didn’t finish the sentence.
Wasn’t a bad thing?
A minute passed. I managed to turn away to go. I reached out for Jamie’s hand before I realized I was doing it, and he took my hand in his, book tucked under his other arm.
“See you, little brother,” I said.