Our approach as a group was somewhat staggered, as Lambs came in ones and twos to kneel before the Duke. Jamie first, then me a few seconds later, then Helen and Lillian as a pair, Gordon and Mary, with Gordon helping Mary ease down to her knees as he knelt himself. Dog didn’t kneel, but there were anatomical issues there. He bowed his head instead.
“Stand,” the Duke said.
“I heard you left as a group. I asked to be notified the moment you were seen returning,” the Duke said. “Dog, Catcher, it is nice to put faces to the names. Faces that aren’t from medical sketches, at least. From the injuries, I assume you found something out? Gordon, speak.”
“Lord, there are at least twelve of the enhanced clones in the city. We found their base of operations with Catcher’s help. We couldn’t run down the clones, but we killed three and captured a different type of clone. Percy’s. They’re in the rear hatch of the carriage. Three rescued children are within the carriage itself.”
The Duke indicated the carriage with a hand. Soldiers and one doctor approached it. “Continue.”
“He’s distributed the clones to several cities or several points in this city, my lord, with his own clones producing further generations. They’re taking a viral approach. Occupying our cities, proliferating within, then spreading.”
The Duke remained very quiet for a moment. Not a single person present dared speak. Many of the people on the road around the Academy campus were keeping their heads down, sharply aware of the Duke’s presence. People a third of the way across the Academy grounds probably sensed the shift in tempo and focus, all rippling from this one location.
“How severe a problem do you believe it is?” the Duke asked.
“At this stage, it might be manageable, my lord. They won’t have spread very far in the last year. They might only be working on the second generation now, but that could mean ten to twenty sites. Individually, they’re dangerous, they have incredible amounts of spatial awareness and tracking ability. They are training themselves in combat, but their ability isn’t high. Not yet. They rely more on their natural ability, their environment, and picking the place and time of their attacks to win.”
“This ability?” The Duke cut in.
“Lord, we think it’s echolocation, derived from the escaped experiment we named ‘Whiskers’.”
“I know the one you’re talking about,” the Duke said.
I was a little bit surprised at that. I was a little more concerned that Gordon hadn’t had the chance to finish speaking.
He watched as people emerged from the carriage. Stitched soldiers carried one corpse each, and two more held the captive. High quality stitched. Elite guard?
My eye passed over Jamie as it turned forward again. He was looking at me.
I felt uncomfortable. It was a very hard uncomfortable to put my finger on and identify. I felt angry more than anything.
Anger was a bad emotion here, so close to the Duke.
The silence lingered as the Duke seemed to take it in. Nobody was permitted to speak without permission, and there was more to say. It felt uncomfortable, having the things left unsaid hanging over our heads.
I could tell how the conversation was going to go. I could play it through in my head, muddy as it was, and I could see several ways it could go poorly. We weren’t used to being around the nobility, and Gordon had made a tactical error. He hadn’t divulged the most critical, dangerous information, and now he wouldn’t get a chance to do it without being rude. Being rude could have repercussions.
“This is effective work,” the Duke said. “I’ll allot you some time to rest and heal before assigning you another job.”
“Thank you, my lord,” Gordon said.
“My lord,” I said, quickly. I spoke at the same time I raised my eyes and saw the ruling body of Radham opening his mouth to speak.
“Sylvester,” he said. His tone had the faintest hint of danger as he said, “You seem eager to speak. Don’t waste our time.”
“Lord Duke, there’s another facet to this that needs mention. They were using Academy resources. Vats, chemicals, uniforms, this carriage, chemicals, and very possibly communication.”
“My lord, it’s only speculation, but they were using birds. They tried to burn the cage and their papers as Dog and Gordon made their approach. I only recovered remains of the cage. There are no guarantees, but-”
I couldn’t meet his eyes, but I was aware of how he was moving and how he stood. He seemed to assert himself, straightening. He began pacing.
Having the Duke pacing before us was nerve-wracking. He was moving his hand, as if to punctuate thoughts he wasn’t sharing with us.
“Your captive,” he said. “The clone of Percy. Will he respond to interrogation?”
“He didn’t for us, my lord,” Gordon said.
It was going out on a limb, to speak when I had the Duke’s attention. Had Gordon simply let me continue to hold the conversation, he faced a heck of a lot less risk. Now we risked sharing it, either as a pair or all of the Lambs together.
“But he can speak? He’s capable of reacting to cues?”
“Yes, my lord,” Gordon said.
“Then there is almost certainly a way,” the Duke said. He turned to one of his doctors, gesturing with one hand. The man departed. The Duke spoke again when the man was only a few steps away. “Dobson?”
“My lord?” The doctor stopped.
“The thought crossed my mind in relation to this interrogation. Professor Briggs managed Radham Academy before my arrival. While you’re making arrangements for the clone, have Professor Briggs detained and rendered to the labs as fodder for testing. It should be made absolutely clear to him that I’m displeased at the number of mistakes that were made under his watch. Give his wife and child a payment to give them time to get their feet under them. Allow him to say his goodbyes.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“You may go.”
The Duke turned his back as his doctor disappeared into Claret Hall. The team at the gates didn’t dare slow the man on his errand.
“I don’t like doing that,” the Duke said. “It makes me uncomfortable. I worry I’ll have to do it several more times today, as I look into this infestation.”
He was still pacing, periodically gesticulating.
My mouth was dry.
“Sylvester,” he said, coming to a complete stop as he whirled on me. His coat flared behind him. His eyes fixed mine, wild with too much white around them. My entire body jolted with the accidental eye contact.
“Sir,” I said. No! No! “I- I mean, my lord.”
Wrong word, sir was. Wrong, very offensive word to use when referring to a noble.
The word seemed to hang in the air.
“Do you know the name of the woman who manages the birds and all incoming and outgoing communication in Radham?”
Memory was Jamie’s strength. It was most definitely not mine.
I could have named Jamie, could have said something, but then the agitated, upset Duke would be focusing on him. Whatever weirdness Jamie had brought up, even if he’d changed the paradigm between us, I wasn’t about to do that to him. No, especially now, I wasn’t willing to.
“I don’t know, my lord.”
“Avis Pardoe,” the Duke said. “She manages the phone bank, and she looks after the birds who transmit more secure messages. She was subtle, to work against us like this.”
“Yes, my lord. I know the person, the name escaped me, I’m sorry,” I said. A little too fast, all together. I might as well have been rambling.
“I last saw her in Claret Hall, right behind me,” the Duke said. He straightened a little. He still gestured, his eyes moving in a way that reminded me of Mary’s, earlier. “Dog, Catcher. You were just in active duty, and you assisted the Lambs. I would not begrudge you if you said you weren’t in fighting form.”
“My lord,” Catcher said. “I am able and willing.”
“For the time being, we’ll dispense of formalities,” the Duke said. “I won’t brook disrespect or disobeyed orders, but there’s no need for titles. Foley, I want available forces to converge here. Cut off escape routes.”
What was he doing?
“I’m not sure I understand,” Gordon said.
“Then I’ll explain what I know. After our last discussion, I had the men at the entrance to Radham Academy questioned about these women you described. Off-duty soldiers have been partaking of the services of some ladies of the evening. They were recognized, and while thoroughly frisked, they thought that a professor or, ahem, a dignitary had arranged for the women to come visit. As of right now, by their recollection, two such women entered Radham and have not yet left. Did you intercept the bird leaving the enemy’s headquarters?”
“No, my lord,” Gordon said. “I’m not sure if there was a bird.”
“Avis Pardoe may have received a warning. If she’s not already running, she’s braced for us to come after her. We’ll enter and move through the building. The other usable weapons of Radham Academy are out of the city or preoccupied. The uninjured Lambs will address this, in addition to Dog and Catcher and every able bodied man I can summon. I’ll lead the capture.”
That spooked me more than anything Avis could bring to bear.
“Do what you do,” the Duke said. “Keep me informed, relay information back to me in as timely a fashion as you can.”
“Yes, my lord,” Gordon said.
“I told you to forget the title,” the Duke said. “It wastes time.”
Gordon nodded. “Catcher, take the North door?”
“There are five non-window exits they could use to escape the building,” Jamie said. “North, West, South, the service door at the side by the garbage haul, the secret door facing the underground labs, and a hatch leading under Claret Hall. You can cover the secret door as well as the North door.”
Hatch? I thought. I wasn’t sure why I thought it to myself instead of asking Jamie.
“What hatch?” Gordon asked.
“Accessible through the wine cellar, which is below the kitchens. They store drinks for visitors. The hatch leads to a drainage tunnel. The tunnel collects rainwater from gutters and the plaza, where it collects in cisterns,” Jamie said. “It’s ankle deep, the top of each cistern has a grate that can be walked on. Maybe ankle deep in water, depending on rainfall, but it was meant as an emergency exit. I don’t know how many people know about it, but it’s in old blueprints.”
“Where does it lead?” Gordon asked.
“The underground labs. But if any part of the dungeon is sealed off, so is the escape tunnel. There are rooms offset to the tunnel, where people can hide, same construction as the labs.”
Claret Hall was the center and headquarters of the Academy. The heart. It was where the Duke situated himself, much of the time, and it was where the administration worked from. Important people who came to Radham came to Claret Hall. It made sense that the place was riddled with options to give those people an extra measure of security.
Catcher looked to the Duke. “With your permission, we’ll do a circuit around the building, see if she’s made a run for it, loop back, and then take up position.”
The Duke nodded.
Catcher and Dog left, each moving in separate directions.
I couldn’t be dumb, not in the sense of being mute. Even if I wasn’t sure how to handle the Jamie situation, I needed to communicate and figure out what was going on.
“Is she watching us?” I asked, looking at the building face.
Jamie responded without looking at me. “Her office isn’t facing us, but anyone can walk down the hall and peer out the window. If she got a bird with a message and she’s looking out for trouble, she might already be planning her escape. The secret door and the hatch are most likely.”
The Duke snapped his fingers, then pointed. The doctors who’d accompanied the Duke had little bags with wheels and handles. He was pointing at one bag.
It reminded me of our signals, but it was different. Our signals were something cooperative, that we’d devised between us as a matter of course, because it seemed only natural. For the Duke, he expected people to do as he bid, and people who spent any length of time around him adopted a way of thinking that involved anticipating and predicting the man every step of the way.
One doctor had opened the bag, withdrawing weapons. A sword, one-handed, and a pistol. Both were overly ornate.
The Duke stood, eyes surveying the building while the doctor strapped the weapons onto his belt.
If this goes wrong, and the man gets assassinated, do we all suffer the same fate Briggs did? Are we deemed utter failures and summarily disposed of?
There were more soldiers approaching. I could see others further along, approaching from a distance to surround the building. They were keeping their distance, picking positions where buildings would obscure the view. Somehow, knowing what the ghosts were capable of, I didn’t believe that Avis was oblivious to any of this.
The Duke only watched, listened, and reached out to stroke Helen’s hair in an absent way.
It was gratuitous force. A hundred armed men, Dog, Catcher, the Lambs and the Duke himself, to catch three people?
This was a man who, given the opportunity, left nothing up to chance.
With every moment that passed, I had more of a bad feeling. I wasn’t feeling sharp enough to know or say if it was because of prey instinct or if it was something else entirely. It could have been lingering feelings from my discussion with Jamie, about how unstable the Lambs felt at this very moment. We threatened to fall to pieces, and going into the fray so soon after Mary got hurt, it might have been a factor in why I felt uncertain.
If it was prey instinct, though, what was I noticing but not processing? What little details were adding up to make me feel concerned? There was no telling what the enemy was doing. There was the fact that the Duke was involved here and he was something of a wild card, but he wasn’t doing much more than petting Helen.
I glanced at Ibott, who had remained nearby, silent, watching, clutching hands together like the toady he was.
Helen seemed oblivious to what was going on, but I knew she wasn’t. It was more that there was a discrete, distinct break between what she thought and felt and what she did. There was a reason she was such an effective actress. For the time being, she was keeping everything locked down and away, and there would be no telling what she needed or wanted.
“Lord, my Helen can stay here,” Ibott said.
My bones felt like cold water had run through them in the wake of that statement.
I saw Gordon turn his head. I knew Gordon well enough to read his expression, to know what he was thinking, that he felt the same way I did.
Well, I’d established myself as someone who spoke out of turn. The Duke had given us permission to say what needed to be said, given that we were going into battle, I might as well use it.
“No,” I said.
Ibott turned to look at me, incredulous. “You’d deny her company to the Lord Duke?”
“One of the bodies we brought in was Helen’s kill. We need her at the front. Mary’s injured, Mary can stay behind,” I said.
“It’s not your decision to make,” Ibott snapped at me.
“It is,” the Duke said.
Ibott paled a little, surprise and fear crossing his expression before he mostly composed himself. He bowed a little, saying, “My lord.”
In straightening, he shot me a glare.
He already hated me. I was surprised that he hated me more, by the looks of things.
My mind was struggling to draw up explanations even as fast as I provided them. “We Lambs push in, spreading out while remaining in contact. Catcher knows the hand signals. We keep eyes on one another, watch each other’s backs. Signal with right hand, relay with left. If you see a signal, relay it. As we extend in, the Duke and Mary can advance, Mary selectively informs the Duke what we’re saying and doing, keeping in mind that the Ghosts can hear us. The Duke, in turn, can give orders to the soldiers and stitched. Soldiers complement what we’re doing. At our signal, Dog and Catcher can move.”
I glanced at Mary, who looked back my way, and there was emotion on her face. She was upset. Galled, to use a clever word for it.
Being left out or being told she was incapable, both struck to the heart of who she was, stinging her at her core.
I hated to leave her with the Duke, but it made the most sense. Of all of us, short of Gordon, she was the one who could deal with the man, impress him, and yet not impress him to the degree that he wanted to take a Lamb for himself.
“Avis knows we’re here. She’s got ghosts with her. If we leave ourselves exposed in any way, they’ll get us like they got Mary. But she’s a smart woman. Has to be, to have that position. I assume the Duke is using this show of force out of concern for any bioweapons or other failsafes she stashed in the event she was caught.”
“It was a consideration,” the Duke said. “I trust your ability to manage it more than I trust the common soldier.”
But we’re still handling it. We’re walking into a building while the Birdwatcher knows there’s trouble incoming. She’s been working against the Academy for a long while, and she’s been fearing this day.
“She’s been at this for a while. Maybe since she joined the Academy. She’s been fearing being caught and having the entirety of the Academy collapse in on her since day one. Every time she’s sent a bird out with a message intended to work against the Academy, she’s been fearing what might happen if it got intercepted, if the wrong person read it. She’s worried if someone would say the wrong word and turn her in. That’s a fear that eats at you and even consumes you.”
“How interesting, to hear how people think,” the Duke said. “I can’t imagine living with fear. I’ve only experienced it a few times in my life.”
“Wariness,” I said. “Having to be on guard, think everything through. You surely experience that when you look at the maps and plot strategy for the war, my lord.”
“I do. But I do not fear anything when I do it,” the Duke said. He observed, “Dog and Catcher have returned.”
“I see them,” I said. “The thing about that fear, is I don’t think she’d be content to sit back and let it wash over her. You can’t be that passive and rise to the position she did. She’d take measures. It would have to be subtle, something that wouldn’t get found, and it would have to be effective. Something that would give her the security that there was a way out at any time.”
I was saying this not just to elaborate on the enemy, but to convince the Duke that this was a bad idea. If he’d be willing to send someone else, or reconsider using the Lambs.
“A bomb would not be likely,” the Duke said. “Poison gas or no, we have the like of Dog and Catcher to identify something like that.”
I nodded. He wasn’t considering going with another option, it seemed.
Dog and Catcher reached us.
“She’s inside,” Catcher said.
The bad feeling was getting worse.
“A final group is getting in position,” the Duke said. “One moment. Catcher, stay near.”
I was painfully aware of Jamie. He wasn’t communicating with me, wasn’t looking my way, wasn’t doing anything.
I’d let him down, I felt let down. It gnawed at me, and I was in a particularly distracted state, without Wyvern flowing through my brain. Normally, I might have turned to my best friend to confide in him and find some sense or peace in the midst of it, but I couldn’t.
Anxious, nervous, I broke away from the group under the pretext of looking at Claret Hall from another angle, or studying the regiment of soldiers off to one side.
I realized, belatedly, that I was making a beeline straight for Catcher. Instincts at work. I didn’t stop.
I ran my fingers through wet hair, pushing it out of my face. It was just damp enough to stay where I put it.
“If you want advice about your Jamie,” Catcher said, “I’m the least qualified person to dispense it. Dog is better qualified, but I don’t think we have enough time to translate.”
He’d heard it all.
I wasn’t sure what to say to that, or how to explain myself, or what I even wanted to communicate.
A full minute passed as I stood there, silent.
I saw the Duke stirring, and realized I was out of time.
“Thanks,” I said, and it wasn’t sarcastic, and I had no idea what I was thanking Catcher for.
“Good luck,” he said.
I turned to go back to the others.
He gave Helen’s head another stroke, then let his hand fall to his side. He gripped the pommel of his one-handed sword. “We capture her alive.”
“Yes, lord,” I said. My response mingled with that of the others.
“Soldiers in first. Lambs, follow alongside, then move as you suggested,” the Duke said.
We were among the rank and file. It wasn’t something that I normally dwelt on, but each of the men we were working with were two to two and a half feet taller than I was. They loomed, all in matching uniforms, all with guns.
This wasn’t familiar ground, and I wasn’t sure I would have liked what we were doing if it was.
Feet tramped on the ground. The Lambs found positions between the rows and columns of stitched soldiers as they divided to enter through the two separate doors.
“I lead,” Gordon said. “Helen, watch my back. Jamie and Sy, you stick together. Lillian, we keep you surrounded by soldiers, advance them forward, then have you escorted up to the new group. Focus on the signals and relaying back to Mary and the Duke. Be ready with your kit in case there’s trouble.”
“Lots of windows,” I observed. “We need knives.”
“I’ve got knives,” Mary said, behind us. Then, in response to a question I didn’t hear, she said, “The ghosts are sensitive to high pitched sound. Blades against glass.”
She started passing the knives up to the rest of us. I took three.
It was disconcerting, having the Duke following, watching our every move, judging. This was a man so powerful that our project continued or faced cancellation at his whim, but we were almost beneath him. We almost didn’t matter. It didn’t help that he was here under the guise of leading us, but we were the ones devising the strategy.
The doors banged as the stitched pushed them open. We marched into the hallway, the rows of rifle-wielding stitched taking up so much space that bystanders were being squeezed out or pushed up against the wall.
The ground floor was shaped like a cross, with a long hallway leading to a crossroad with a desk in the middle. Offices and services were set off to either side of the hallway. Beyond the desk was the north hallway, leading to the door that Dog and Catcher watched. All of it was worked up in dark wood that gleamed with lacquer and resin, with gold trim and deep red woods here and there for accent.
And the people – there were hundreds of students in the space, and as large as Claret Hall was, it made for a jumble. More so when they reacted to the approach of a full regiment with chaos and confusion.
The soldiers went out, checking offices to either side. The hand signals came out from Gordon. I relayed it back. No sign.
“Hear me!” the Duke proclaimed, and his voice boomed down the length of the hall. Before he was even done speaking, people were dropping to their knees. “By order of the Crown, lay on the ground with your arms straight out above your head, and we will know you are no enemy of ours!”
It was as if an invisible wave was crashing into the crowd. There was no question, there was no hesitation. Every person in the crowded hall dropped, and many had already been in the process of kneeling or kneeling already.
Well, that was his contribution, I supposed. We hadn’t had the element of surprise to begin with, and now we didn’t need to worry nearly so much about the people who were lingering.
Helen raised a hand, signaling. Escape. She swept it out to point to people behind us.
I passed it on.
“If you’re within five paces of me or behind me, you evacuate,” the Duke said.
I heard the people shuffling, scrambling to get off the ground and head for the South door.
Where are you, Birdwatcher? I thought.
Upstairs, probably. With whatever weapon or tool she’d devised to quiet her fears and convince herself that she could escape when and if she got caught.
I hated the notion that she might be right. That she really did have an out. Or worse, that she didn’t, and that she was prepared to go out with a bang if her trick didn’t work and we ended up cornering her.
Couldn’t say no to the Duke, couldn’t retreat or take a different tack. His presence behind us was pushing us forward, giving us no choice but to face this, however uncertain I or we might feel. His advance behind us was like a pressure, pushing us forward, into deeper, uncertain waters.
I could feel the tension in my teeth, and I recognized it from before.
I snapped my fingers for the benefit of the others, then signaled. Number.
Helen nodded, then touched an ear. She relayed to Gordon, while I made sure the others behind me knew.
Of course there were more than two. The sensation was already more intense than the seven had been, back when Mary got stabbed.
I listened for the order that wouldn’t come, in response to the chatter I couldn’t hear. My heart sank.
He didn’t order a retreat.
This had suddenly gotten a great deal more difficult.
We know the first card Avis is playing, now. All of their ghosts somehow found a way inside.